Emily Elgar answers questions on her new book
A compelling storyline that entwines three characters is at the heart of this psychological thriller
Emily Elgar’s debut novel, If You Knew Her, is a twist of narrative strands that explore the stories of the pregnant victim of a hit-andrun incident; the nurse who is treating her; and Frank, a fellow patient with locked-in syndrome. Together, they weave a story patterned by mystery and suspense.
A graduate in social anthropology, Emily grew up in Painswick, in an old mill house where the surrounding hills and dales gave her a ‘free-range’ childhood of privilege and freedom. But in her working life, she has explored other lives: as a researcher and counsellor, she has shared experiences with people living on one of Europe’s most notorious council estates, as well as with male, female and transgender sex workers during her time at the Terrence Higgins Trust.
Married to James Linard, she now lives in Lewes, but returns to her Gloucestershire home – where her parents still live – whenever she can.
Tell us about your book…
It’s a ‘psychological suspense’ novel, with a central character called Cassie - the victim of a hit-and-run – who is pregnant and in a deep coma. Her strand of the narrative concerns how she got into this situation, and the people who have led her to this point. Cassie’s story is also told through the view-point of Frank – my favourite character! He has locked-in syndrome, and is the perfect fly-on-the-wall. He sees everything that happens to Cassie – including unwanted visitors to the neurological ward where they are both being treated – but he’s unable to share that information.
And then there’s Alice, a nurse going through her own struggles.
As the author, I want readers to feel emotionally connected with Alice’s drama; but also constantly to have this background of what happened to Cassie. Who did this awful thing to her?
Where did the inspiration come from?
Some years ago now, I listened to a Radio 4 ethics programme where the discussion was around the real-life case of a woman in a coma, who was found to be pregnant. Sadly, it looked as if she was going to die; so the big question was whether the duty of care was to the unborn child or to this woman. It really captured my imagination: there was something about feminist issues of possession of the female body; but also the fact that all these decisions were having to be made without her participation. That idea percolated away with me for a few years until a holiday in France, when I had a boozy, fun supper with friends. I woke up at 3am the next day with an absolute charge in me to write what is now the preface for my novel. Clearly, if you want to get creative, turn to booze!
Who would enjoy your book?
I hope everyone and anyone. I’m naturally interested in issues relating to women so I suppose it would particularly appeal to women; but I had the most lovely email from a very bloke-ish builder who said the novel had really opened his eyes to female issues!
To what extent did the Cotswolds influence your writing?
Growing up in Painswick felt very special. I think even at the time we knew we were very lucky to be bouncing around on ponies at the weekends, with space just to roam. We had a free-range childhood, and that has influenced the kind of writer I am. When I need inspiration, I don’t sit at my computer; I get out and go for great long rambles. I’d love one day to write a Victorian bodice-ripper set in Gloucestershire!
Tell us more about your background?
Although I’ve always adored writing, in the past it was purely for my own pleasure – apart from some travel-writing I did in
2007, in Southern Africa, for the Greenwood Guides, which was great fun. (I thought I’d found my metier but, after nine months, the credit crunch hit and travel-writers became surplus to requirements!)
I’ve also worked as a researcher for a film-maker – one project that sticks in my mind was documenting the lives of people on the Aylesbury council estate: the second biggest in Europe until it was torn down.
At the same time as all this, I was doing a counselling course, which led to a job with the Terrence Higgins Trust, working with male, female and transgender sex workers.
I’m aware of how schizophrenic my CV sounds! But it’s also interesting, as an author, to reflect back on the variety of jobs I’ve had, and the range of people I’ve met. They are all people who, at least for a time, have welcomed me into their lives not to talk about the weather or what they had for breakfast, but – in the case of sex workers – to tell me about the violent client they had the night before. Or, on the Aylesbury estate, how many people were really living in their flat. There’s something wonderful about meeting another person in a very honest way, without judgement on either side. One of my biggest challenges was being seen as a ‘privileged white woman’; which is fair enough, because that’s what I am. But my personal hurdle was to show that I’m also somebody fallible, who has had their own stuff happen to them in similar ways.
The people I’ve met have been my inspiration – they’ve taught me about having the courage to do something I really wanted to do. Writing a book always seemed so audacious.
Where and how do you write?
I work from a little studio in Lewes called Wild Folk – it’s a co-working space; very arty and creative. I find the shared concentration really helpful. Sometimes, though, I’ll wake at three in the morning, get up, and work until lunch. I love that time – the quietness; it’s almost like a pause. You can’t call anyone or do any of the other life admin that needs to be done.
How easy was it to get published?
I did a course at Faber Academy on how to write a novel, which really focused me and opened up opportunities. We each had to submit 6,000 words, twice, over the course of six months. The first time, I was panned by my peers: a real bloodbath! You have to sit there and listen to their constructive feedback and not say anything. It was really painful.
Then I wrote the preface for If You Knew Her at three in the morning, after that boozy night, and the feedback was fantastic, which gave me a bit more confidence. At the end of the course, they invite agents to come along – which I had totally forgotten about. I hadn’t even booked the time off work, so it was a bit of a mad scramble. But I turned up, did my reading, and seven agents contacted me! I wrote the rest of the novel with the support of my brilliant agent, Nelle Andrew at Peters Fraser and Dunlop. I shudder when I think about the first draft; but I’m very aware that I’m so green. There’s much for me to learn: to be able to write a book with the guidance of professionals is invaluable.
Cotswold born author Emily Elgar
• If You Knew Her, by Emily Elgar, is published in paperback by Sphere, price £7.99