Emily El­gar an­swers ques­tions on her new book

A com­pelling sto­ry­line that en­twines three char­ac­ters is at the heart of this psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller

Cotswold Life - - CONTENTS -

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

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