Interview with Emma Chapman

Emma Chapman’s debut novel How To Be A Good Wife will be published on 3rd January 2013 by Picador, and is already creating a lot of ‘buzz’ and excitement. I reviewed the novel earlier in the week and now here is my interview with Emma. Enjoy!

2012 proof cover

Firstly, congratulations on the book, it really is excellent! You have said that a documentary about post-traumatic stress disorder inspired How To Be A Good Wife – has psychology always been an interest of yours? Did you have to do much research to create Marta’s state of mind?

Emma Chapman: I have always been interested in what makes people who they are: where the line between genetics and environment lies.  After watching the initial documentary, I did a great deal of research into Post Traumatic Stress and a number of other more controversial disorders related to early trauma.  I was particularly fascinated that it seemed possible to repress memories subconsciously as a coping mechanism: to be unaware of things that had occurred in your own past.  I think everyone does this to an extent, but I wanted to envisage a character where this was taken to the extreme.  It was also important to me that the character was not totally reliable: to raise the question of whether we can ever truly trust the complexities of our own minds.

What else inspired you? Were there any writers, books, or films that you were thinking about when writing the book?

So many.  For clean writing style, and an unreliable narrator undergoing psychological stresses, I have always admired “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath. There is quite a canon of literature exploring themes of female psychological instability which can also be read as a reaction against submissiveness to men: “The Yellow Wallpaper” (Charlotte Perkins Gilman) and “The Awakening” (Kate Chopin) to name just two.

On a less literary note, while I was writing, I also watched the film ‘What Lies Beneath’, which until the rather too supernatural ending, questions whether to believe husband or wife, and has plenty of suspenseful moments.

The novel is very intense and vivid – was writing it an immersive experience, especially since it’s in the first person?

It was incredibly immersive: I actually found myself thinking like Marta in my everyday life, which as you can imagine was an unsettling experience!  I felt so close to her, so much inside her head, that it became quite claustrophobic.

I also had a horrible feeling of inevitability about Marta: that her ending was not going to be a happy one, and it took me a long time to reconcile myself to that.  Having put her in such a terrible situation, it was difficult to find a way out without removing the ambiguity surrounding what actually happened, which for me was crucial to the book.

I found the focus on time really fascinating, as Marta always seems to be checking her watch, and the clock in the strange room seems to stand out in her ‘visions’; she is also deprived of the knowing the time towards the end of the novel and finds this very frustrating. This obsession with time suggests a lack of and a need for control that has been taken away from her – was this the intention?

Yes. There are so many things in Marta’s life in the present, and in the room, which are out of her control.  Time and cleanliness therefore become very important to her, continuing into her married life.  I wanted to use these themes to show how although Marta progresses through different environments (the room, the house, the psychiatric facilities), her lack of control remains.  Her life is always in the hands of other people. The ending, for me, was the only way for her to take back that control.

 Did you consider gender roles when writing? For instance, with issues of control and dominance, as well as the image of the woman as a victim, and female ‘hysteria’?

Yes. As I have mentioned, many twentieth-century books that explore this theme influenced me.  I was brought up in a family where it was never even suggested that I couldn’t do the same things as my brother: it didn’t even cross my mind.  Through school and university, I began exploring the conventions of the past and how they held women in a very specific role that is not only limiting but also damaging.  If we are left with only the home, although in many respects we can find it fulfilling, is it enough?  Freud’s work on ‘hysteria’, and books like “The Feminine Mystique”, which explores the dissatisfaction of women in the 1950s, demonstrate that perhaps these archaic women’s roles result in psychological problems for women.  A bad marriage can still result in a limiting of a woman’s potential, and I suppose the book is an exploration of that.

How did the Creative Writing MA at Royal Holloway help you to write the novel?

It was invaluable.  It forced me to show my work to like-minded people when I had never done that before.  It gave me the time to focus on the novel, and to take it seriously.  It gave me a good headstart.  Also, it taught me that writing is a skill like any other: something you can improve on.

What are you planning for you next novel?

My second novel is about a war photographer during the Vietnam War.  It explores the role of the observer in a conflict zone: asking whether you can ever stay on the outside of such situations without intervening, and if it has a future impact on your mind and your home life.

I recently returned from a three-month research trip where I was also teaching English.  I set up a teaching volunteer scheme on my return, which you can read more about here

Emma Chapman. Photo credit: Claire Weir


Many thanks to Emma Chapman and Emma Bravo at Picador for this interview. How To Be A Good Wife is published by Picador on 3rd January 2013.

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