An interview with this year’s Curnow Reader: Emma Neale
Emma Neale is a poet, novelist and editor, and this year’s Curnow Reader. Vincent O’Sullivan described Emma as having an “eager, informed, needle-eyed engagement with the contemporary world”. Her 2015 collection of poetry, ‘Tender Machines’ was widely admired, and her latest novel, ‘Billy Bird’, is a moving, insightful and lyrical exploration of parenthood that is both funny and disarmingly frank.
Tell me about your novel-writing process – do you start writing with a notion or do you have your plot mapped out?
The process differs slightly from book to book: sometimes I know the outcome but i don’t know how to arrive there; sometimes I know the starting premise and not what the destination will be. Each time, however, there are years of false turns and misdirections before I get a final draft. I often write an outline after the first few drafts, to see where the main events fall. I often wonder if I were more orderly, and did have a plot outline or use a storyboard technique first, whether the process would be quicker. But I suspect that even if I reformed and became less scatty, the characters would come in and dismantle the initial structure anyway. If they’re realistic enough, the characters put their own music on the stereo, use the wrong glasses for the wine, and start throwing the party their way.
Can you talk about how your latest novel came about?
There were several seeds. I seem to need more than one; maybe it’s like scattering a handful of crumbs on the water to coax up the fish underneath. The first seed was when struggling a bit with getting my eldest child to do homework (they were only 7 at the time), and trying to calm myself down by thinking, ‘Well, maybe it could be worse. Imagine having a child who you couldn’t stop doing their homework! That’d be awful, right?’ That only ended up giving me about 2 lines in the novel, though. The other impulse was reading a collection of poetry by the American poet Alicia Suskin Ostriker, The Old Woman, The Tulip and the Dog – which uses the trio of voices in the title to vacillate between complex angles on all kinds of subjects: fear, spring, war, sex, deer, rape, snow… I wanted to aim that high: to achieve complexity within compression, and write a verse novel about a family, and initially thought I could have many more perspectives. However, I soon realised that I couldn’t do the deeper psychological mining of character, and work out the dynamics between them, without ‘thinking it in prose’. There are still several traces of the verse novel, though; as if the current novel shares a few family features with its ancestor.
How do you go about writing a poem?
A poem usually begins with a musical phrase, or a bit of word play, or an intense visual image, and the first draft will take an hour or two. That is the joy of it: very quickly, I have a complete artefact to refine and refine. The first draft is usually handwritten: somehow that helps me to get the rhythm of the thought or event-slip more closely. The refining and refining can take years, though. I have poems in draft at the moment that I wrote at least 3 years ago, but I’m still not ready to give up on them entirely yet. I rewrite them by hand, I type them up, print them out, read them aloud; sometimes I’ve found that I hear the internal music better if I go back to writing something by hand if it’s started to wither on screen. It’s something to do with a deep body listening.
How do you feel like your novelist and poet identities inform each other?
In the novels generally I have to rein in the sound-hedonist; but the image-lingerer can still inform the prose. Some poems of mine I think do use narrative pace as well as metrical echoes; I think I learnt the sense of timing, pacing, from my early amateur theatre days as well as my voracious reading as a young person. (I read far less now than I want to, simply because parenthood gives me fewer quiet lulls. I used to read so much it was probably a diagnosable obsession.)
You have written a lot about motherhood and have edited an anthology of poems on parenthood – why is this?
Because parenthood is where it all begins. I was very struck by something a social worker said to me in London, once, about all the different countries she’d worked in, and all the different people she’d helped – including people with long term addictions, chronic illness, and people who lived on the streets. She said they’d invariably seen any manner of appalling things; lived through a raft of trauma; were very often as a result embittered and hard – hard often out of necessity, as a self defence. Yet she said the thing that she’d seen reduce every single one of them to tears was when they were asked about their parents. That’s a punch to the guts. Family love is so complex – part of me thinks, well, what other subject is there? Every character has to have a family background, right? Family is the crucible of identity formation.
What other themes do you find yourself returning to in your writing?
Memory; the difficulty in reading people accurately; a fascination with the human-animal divide; child development; love; loss; the environment; sexual politics.
You work with your mother and stepfather on your manuscripts – what is that like?
Total Fiction Services are hard task masters but they have to be. I suppose keeping it in the family means less risk of public humiliation over bad early drafts. I know they genuinely care about whether the work is good or not; at a deeper level than ‘we can make money from this’. I know they are reading the work out of a commitment to the art form, and they understand the vulnerability of any author trying to separate from a draft – I like to think they go even more gently with me when something is crap at first! But one thing they’ve learnt is that my stepfather is definitely more objective about my work than my mother is. She often gets to a point where she realises herself that she just wants it to be good, because I’m her daughter, and she might not be seeing flaws that Chris can. So she’ll pass on the, errrr, 7th draft to him to prevent mollycottonwooling. They don’t read my poetry in draft; hardly anybody does. That seems to be a battle I need to do privately – with the occasional foray into letting my students see a poem I’m stuck on – as that reminds me what it’s like to be in their shoes, and I think it’s important I don’t get too cocky and throwaway with my feedback on their early drafts.
Do you feel like you’re a different writer now that when you first started out?
Yes, I do think I’m different. I have more conviction that the suffering of the early drafts might actually pay off. I’m a bit more adventurous. I’m less devastated by criticism – not because my self-esteem has swollen, or I think I’ve finally got ‘the knack’, but because it is easier to keep the odd supercilious review in perspective when I’ve faced down all kinds of larger tragedies and challenges outside my own career; and also, I think being older now means I’ve had longer to experience how evanescent both the hype and rotten tomatoes are. You learn that there are readers who love your work, and readers who don’t – just the way there are people who find you fascinating, and people who can’t keep the sneer off their faces when they catch sight of the whole package of you. What really matters is the knowledge that the shared acts of reading and writing bring.
Photo by Graham Warman