Romantic and restless and a little world-weary: Emma Jane Unsworth and Rachel B. Glaser In Conversation
Emma Jane Unsworth and Rachel B. Glaser discuss their writing, self-censorship, Word’s discontinued AutoSummary function and the risk of editing forever.
Rachel B. Glaser:
Hi Emma! I loved Animals! Great writing! One of my favorite aspects of the book is the way the reader is placed within Laura. The reader witnesses little moments Laura has with her mind and body. Some of the body moments aren’t sexual, but they are intimate. They are the little moments we have all day long, rubbing our eyes, fixing our underwear. There is one moment where Laura puts her hands down her pants, but not to touch herself in a sexual way, just to hold herself. That moment stuck with me for its realism. In your other writing do you get this close to your main characters? Or does Animals go further into the experience of having a body than your other work?
Emma Jane Unsworth:
Thank you! I’m glad you liked that part. I seem to write about bodies a lot. With Laura I definitely felt like I was writing from the inside out. I did try and inhabit her in that way; I wanted the reader to be as close as possible to her. I was interested in the ways she could enjoy/escape her physicality – from the little ways like on her own in bed, to the big grand ways like sex and raves. I like writing about when bodies hijack minds, intoxication, sensory overload – I find the words around those topics exciting and dangerous. Why should all the lovely visceral stuff be reserved for thriller writers? Also, I think women inhabit their bodies differently because there’s a sense of public ownership. So the private moments for Laura with her body really count. And something like just holding yourself can feel radical in its realism – I remember feeling weirdly scared writing that, but then thought fuck it, that’s what she’d do, it’s going in.
One thing I hugely admired about Paulina & Fran was the perfect distance you kept from the girls, which allowed for so much brilliant satire. How hard was it to achieve that? Have you managed to avoid the ‘how autobiographical is it’ question?
Most of my short stories are written in third person, so I often play with creating distance between the reader and the characters. I like allowing the narration to have its own personality. I found it interesting for Paulina to disparage other characters, and then have the narration disparage Paulina.
When people ask how autobiographical my book is, I tend to give different answers every time, because it isn’t a question with a true answer. If I write something I’ve never lived, bits of truth and details attach to it, and if I write something I have lived, the same thing happens with bits of fiction. Fiction is like those amazing robots that build other robots. You can write a random sentence about two characters you’ve never met, and if you keep fiddling with it, these two characters might build lives for themselves. They might keep you up at night, they might keep you company on the train, they might take over your life for a few years!
Another thing I admired about Paulina and Fran was that it felt like a fearless book. Would you agree?
I’m glad it felt that way to you! I wanted the sentences to be fearless, even if the characters were cowering in fear. I find early drafts of fiction are often filled with doubt and little excuses, mild words explaining things to the writer, and over time the writer must set the draft ablaze(!), ridding the paragraphs of the meaningless, and making room for the bold parts of the story that refuse to be edited out.
Let’s talk about the mice in jumpers.
The mice in costumes is stolen from life! I’ve attached a photo of them! My friend had caught baby mice in the studio, I had these puppet gloves, and we did release them into the wild!
How was Animals born?
It came from the two main characters – Laura and Tyler. I just started writing a conversation between two hung-over women and it grew from there. The first urge was to create a comedy duo who were wisecracking and romantic and restless and a little world-weary. I was thinking a lot of Don Quixote. But with more wine.
Was your writing and editing process similar to that of your first novel?
I tend to bash, and thrash, and wail, and drink – whatever it takes to get a first draft down quickly – and then redraft like hell (the bit I actually enjoy) until they prise the manuscript from my cold, dead fingers. Then I edit FOREVER – and by that I mean I change bits every time I read it out because I’m despicably vain. There’s a great line in Hallucinating Foucalt by Patricia Duncker that goes: ‘You write your first novel with the desperation of the damned.’ I feel like I did. But then, I wrote my second novel with the desperation of the damned, too. And the third one’s going that way. So maybe I’m just desperate. Or damned. Oh well.
How about your two girls, where did they spring from?
I was just fooling around in a Word document one night. My ex-boyfriend was hanging out with his ex-girlfriend and I felt left out of (but still stuck in) a decade-old love triangle. I was alone with a blank screen so wrote some lines and then used AutoSummary (a discontinued Microsoft Word feature that badly summarized your writing for you). This one page of playing around had more plot than many of my other one-page experiments and I began to add onto it. It was months before I set the story in art school. I think about that night often – how I had no idea how many hours and years I’d spend with these young women who I named impulsively. This book has flown me to Ireland and put me in touch with James Franco, but that first night was just me trying to entertain myself.
Have you ever censored yourself as a writer? Wussed out? (I have. I took all the sex scenes out my first novel at the eleventh hour because I was worried what my dad/old boss/any old chump on the street might think. ALWAYS regretted it.)
I try very hard not to. I tell myself that my family can always skim over parts that make them uncomfortable. I remind myself that often the strangest lines are the most exciting. Reading is so vicarious, so I try to leave in the sex and the embarrassment and the vanity! Sometimes it can feel exposing, but I like believing the characters have their own wills, that they rebel against a writer’s qualms.
I found the ending of Animals surprising! It wasn’t one I had considered for Laura, but I liked it. Was this the ending you had always imagined? Or did you try other ones out?
The original ending was very different because I had to write an ending of some kind to know what the right one was. I tend to work out the structure as I’m going along because otherwise it’s too much like join-the-dots or, as Margaret Atwood says, ‘paint-by-numbers’. I write chronologically, intensively, and to the wire – so by the end of each draft I’ve usually not had a break for a long time and I’m tired and my psychic talents are waning. I’ve lost the characters a little, the channel is fuzzy. I need to eat sage or bathe in saltwater or whatever it is that psychics do to recharge. Luckily with Animals, Francis Bickmore and Jo Dingley at Canongate were there to show me the light and guide me back on track. Which is what great editors do. I hate writing endings but I love writing final lines. Every last line feels like a tombstone. You want it to be good. No one wants a crap tombstone, right?