WRITING FEATURE Emma Carroll in conversation with Lucy van Smit

Lucy van Smit caught up with the multi-awarding author Emma Carroll at her recent launch at Waterstones Piccadilly – by our count – Emma’s 9th book since she left the Bath Spa MA.

LUCY VAN SMIT Emma, I am mesmerised by prolific authors – many writers struggle to know what they want to say … that doesn’t seem to be an issue for ‘The Queen of Historical Fiction’ – a major theme recurs in your writing, ‘the resilience, resourcefulness and inventiveness of children when their lives fall to pieces’. As an ex-secondary schoolteacher, why do you write about this for middle grade?

EMMA CARROLL Why thank you, Lucy. I’ve had many an embarrassed snort over that tag-line! I think writing historical fiction allows you to tap in to more ideas. An intriguing bit of real history – a mystery, a war, a discovery – things like this often form the starting point of a story for me. When I started writing it was my 12-year-old self who stepped onto the page. I love the way middle grade characters are on that cusp of self-discovery. That tension between childhood and growing up is so dynamic.

LUCY You are the most prolific author I know; what drives you?

EMMA Gosh, am I? I feel as if I’m doing what every other writer does – write, panic, eat too many biscuits. Of course, I absolutely LOVE writing. I think it’s the most ‘me’ thing I’ve ever done. Every day I still feel incredibly lucky to be doing this. Generally speaking, I’m not massively ambitious in life, but find I am when it comes to writing – I push myself. On a practical level, I’ve never had an advance big enough to live off. So, the prolific writing is in part fuelled by the need to make a living. The upside of smaller advances is that all my books have earned out and I now get quite decent royalty payments. I’m also the sole earner in our household, currently.

LUCY I love Kyle Cease’s infographic on creativity.

Do writers fail because they stop too soon, restart the next day; but stay stuck at the same spot, under the two hours where their fear is bigger than their creative flow? Does your prolific output make writing easier? Do you trust your instincts more than when you started?

EMMA Interesting ... from an early age I wanted to be a writer, but fear was definitely the bigger part of it, and so my creative dreams stayed as that – day dreams.

After being diagnosed with breast cancer aged 34, my life took a dramatic turn. I couldn’t have a family. I no longer wanted to do my very stressful job (I was a Head of English at this point) and I knew all about fear – only now I wasn’t going to let it hold me back, especially as there was a very strong chance I wouldn’t be around to see my 40th birthday.

So, when I did start writing, it felt like coming home, like something I was now finally ‘ready’ to do. For me, every first draft is really hard work. That doesn’t get much easier over time. What does, is knowing where the essence of the story is and how you want to intrigue and hook your readers. I’ve been lucky to work with great editors who’ve always helped me believe in myself and find the very best in my stories. I’ve put huge amounts of trust in those editors.

LUCY In Sky Chasers, your pickpocket, Magpie, is one of my favourite characters. Yet on the SCBWI retreat you mentioned to me that the first draft for Chicken House Books was ‘bad. A struggle.’ How did you turn that draft around so successfully?

EMMA Two words – Rachel Leyshon! She’s a brilliant editor – as you know. Though she works differently to my Faber editors, we finished with a book we’re both proud of. She’s such a star.

LUCY Emma, can you tell us a bit about your writing process? Are you a Stephen King who starts with a situation, ‘what if ...?’ Or do you start with character? Your stories are full of adventure and plot twists, do you outline before you start?

EMMA Oooh, a bit of both, I think. I tend to have a scenario or two in mind, then start thinking of ways those scenarios might link together/develop into a more wide-ranging story. I usually have an idea of the ending, and sometimes even the final line before I write it. But I’m not a huge planner, especially not in the first draft stage. I tend to plan more when I’m tightening things up.

LUCY I’m fascinated by how your brain contains all the worlds and voices of your characters. Do you banish them before you develop a new book? Is your mind stewing with voices? Or decluttered regularly?

EMMA I have a little breather between books, so that’s time for reading, researching etc, and then tentatively I start to write in my new character’s voice. I tend to get to know them as I write.

LUCY You have wonderful, supportive publishers, what’s next from Emma Carroll?

EMMA Faber are wonderful. They have been supportive right from the start, helping me build a career that has developed steadily and realistically. I have so much to thank them for – from the publisher and editors and publicity/marketing folk to the sales teams – they are all brilliant people who really care for their authors.

So, I’m delighted to say there will be more MG. The story I’m currently working on features tidal waves and witchcraft and publishes in Autumn 2019.

I’m also contracted to write a series for younger readers called 'Mudlarkers', which follows the adventures of a group of Victorian mudlarks on the Thames.

And finally ... I’m also trying my hand at an adult novel, because I really, really want to see if I can do it. I’m only a few thousand words in, but writing something out of my comfort zone has definitely livened me up creatively. I’m buzzing. I’ve even had sleepless nights over it already!

LUCY Thank you Emma Carroll, an inspiration to us all.

*All images provided by Lucy van Smit and Emma Carroll

Emma Carroll’s most recent book When We Were Warriors is out now.

Lucy van Smit is a former TV producer and screenwriter, and award-winning author of The Hurting, a YA Nordic Noir love story, which is a lead title for her German publishers, Carlsen, this month.

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