Based in Cornwall, Emma Timpany is the author of Fairlight Books’ novella Travelling in the Dark (out 11 July, 2018). She has previously published two short story collections and has recently co-edited Cornish Short Stories: A Collection of Contemporary Cornish Writing. We have have talked to Emma about her writing career, pet peeves, and the trip that inspired her to write Travelling in the Dark.
How did you start writing?
I started writing a regular diary from the age of eleven. It was in those pages that I began experimenting with words. I mainly wrote poetry, as it was my first love, as well as bits of prose. I attended my first creative writing class, a summer school, while I was a student at the University of Otago. After graduating, I continued going to evening classes in London and Cornwall and eventually my first short story was published in 2010. So from the beginning to my first publication was a slow process which gradually unfolded over almost thirty years.
Did you always want to be a writer?
Yes, but for a long time I didn’t think that it was possible. There was so much I didn’t know and I had little time to put into it. When my children started school, I began to have regular time to write and joined a local writers’ group. All my life I’ve loved reading fiction, and I strongly feel it’s important for writers to be readers.
You have experience in editing other people’s work. Do you think this helps you in your own writing?
It’s something I’ve only started doing relatively recently, working as an editor on Cornish Short Stories: A Collection of Contemporary Cornish Writing. I enjoyed it a great deal because it’s very collaborative. The writers I’ve worked with are usually pleased to have close attention paid to their work and are happy to make changes they see as improvements. I know I feel exactly the same way when my own work is sympathetically edited.
The general editing notes I make are always suggestions – there’s no onus on the writer to accept them if they don’t want to – and alongside these I pick up on any typos or unintended errors.
It’s also helped me understand that my own writing heart lies in the creative act rather than in editing others’ work.
How is editing someone else’s work different from editing your own writing?
It’s much easier to edit some-one else’s work because the writing is new, fresh and unfamiliar to me. Even a relatively brief short story of my own of, say, 2,000 words, might go through as many as fifty drafts before it’s finished. By this time, when I read the work I will miss even obvious errors, seeing what I want or expect to be there rather than what actually is there. One challenge as an editor is trying to stay true to the writer’s unique voice and not to impose my own ideas and style too forcefully. I’d sum up my editorial approach as ‘a keen eye and a light touch’.
You’ve previously written short stories. How do short story and novella genres compare to you as a writer?
I’ve been thinking about this a great deal lately and, in fact, have started to feel as though they share a great deal in common.
It’s something to do with their succinctness – they are both intense, concentrated forms which gain power from withholding information and not spelling everything out, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps and absences themselves. In both, short stories and novellas, everything is pared down to its essence and sometimes becomes, almost magically, more than the sum of its parts.
Another trait they share is that both novellas and short stories can be read in one sitting and so it’s possible to hold them in your mind in their entirety.
If you could describe Travelling in the Dark in one word what would it be?
What inspired you to write Travelling in the Dark?
The inspiration came after I travelled home to New Zealand after an absence of seven years with my husband and two young children, a year after the devastating Christchurch earthquake of February 2011. As we went back to lots of places familiar to me, it occurred to me that – while I was flooded with memories of the past – my children had no idea what had happened in those places. So the journey we were making was happening on many different levels at the same time, in the visible present and the potent past.
It also struck me that whatever difficulties we go through as adults, parents of young children have no choice but to keep going and carry out many practical, repetitive and tedious tasks each day whether they feel like it or not. Some might consider this a terribly mundane and unimportant subject to write about, but in this story the love and care that Sarah can continue to give her child in the present day acts as a powerful antidote to both her present and past suffering. Some might even say it’s heroic.
The nature descriptions in Travelling in the Dark are breathtaking. Did you choose New Zealand as a setting for this reason?
My home landscapes of Otago, Southland and Fiordland in southern New Zealand have always been the main inspiration for my writing. It’s such a wild, unique and beautiful place, but it’s also threatening and intimidating. It’s one of those places where the immense power of the natural world dominates and makes human life seem small in comparison.
The places mentioned in your novellas are mostly fictional. Did you base the descriptions on any real places in New Zealand?
Yes, all the fictional places are based on real places but most have been changed in some way, some merged, along with the possible routes Sarah can take. I wanted to do this as I’m aware it’s easy for people to assume that fiction is actually thinly disguised ‘fact’ or ‘the truth.’ I wanted to signal very strongly that these are fictional characters and fictional events occurring in a fictional place.
You describe many different types of scenery in your novella (New Zealand, Greece, etc.). When you are writing theses passages do you just recall the places from your memory or does it help to have a picture of them in front of you?
Interesting question. I write from memory rather than from actual visual images. The odd thing is that I feel as though I can ‘see’ these places just by thinking about them. I think it’s very important for not only memory but imagination to play its part in the creation of fiction and have free rein. Imagination and the creative process are powerfully transformative, changing what once had some basis in reality into new and interesting shapes and patterns. What I’m writing is not factual, and I find it fascinating to see the alterations and versions my imagination makes.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned through your writing?
That writing is extremely hard work, but true freedom – which is incredibly rare in this world – is to be found there. In what other occupation can you become anyone or go anywhere?
The act of creation is powerful and addictive and, when it’s going well, can seem the best feeling in the world. The stakes feel very high to me between success and failure, what I want to achieve and the actual result. I spend most of my time rewriting, polishing, perfecting and cutting anything unnecessary out, whereas what I love best is writing new work.
When I am happy with what I’ve written or, on the rare occasion, a story is gifted into my mind and flows out, as if something other than me is speaking through me, it’s an amazing feeling. It’s like being able to fly. But when things aren’t going well, it can be very bad. Light and dark, yet again, something I always come back to – the brighter the light, the darker its opposite. I try to be patient and realise that silence, frustration and rejection are all part of a writer’s life, even after publication.
What has been the hardest part of Travelling in the Dark to write?
I started this book six years ago and the first draft arrived fluidly and quickly. Since then it’s gone through dozens of drafts and countless transformations. The final rewrite I did – with help from my mentor Clio Gray – was the hardest as it meant rearranging the book (yet again) but I believe these final changes also made it publishable.
In this final stage I had to discard some scenes I was very fond of, and yet some parts of the writing have remained exactly as they were in the first draft. Beneath the surface of this book, I see so many other drafts and variations, rather like the layers of an archaeological dig. In a way, this is rather fitting and similar to the layering of time and memory in the story itself.
Why did you choose Travelling in the Dark as the title of your story?
The title came to me very early on as I wrote the first draft, and never changed. It was inspired by something an intriguing New Zealand writer called Robin Hyde wrote ‘…who travels with his dream travels with a dark torch.’
For me, this really summed up the strange compulsion writers have to find their way to a story or finished piece of work, even to find out what they feel and think, out of thin air. More literally, the story opens with Sarah and her child on an aeroplane flying through the night sky. Another crucial scene in the novel takes place in the darkness as well.
As a metaphor, it’s best left to the reader’s own interpretation.
What do you hope people take away from reading Travelling in the Dark?
I hope that they enjoy reading the story, though I realise it’s quite harrowing in many ways. I hope that it gives people, who have lived through challenging experiences, a sense of not being alone with their difficulties. When I was growing up and trying to understand my own feelings as well as other people’s characters and behaviour, I was helped mostly by books because no-one ever spoke about those things.
We are all imperfect and have faults and flaws; in Sarah’s fight to face up to her past difficulties and help a friend in need, her challenge is to learn not repeat the patterns of the past in her relationship with her child.
In the recent tributes to Stephen Hawking, I was struck that many of them described him as a hero. In Travelling in the Dark I was trying to show, I think, that everyday bravery and kindness in the face of numerous setbacks is kind of an achievement in itself and might even be thought of as a difficult, quiet kind of heroism.
What do you think makes a good novella?
Lashings of olive oil, garlic, cheese and plentiful glasses of cold Macon-Villages…
What does writing mean to you?
It’s been my support and pleasure for thirty-seven years, and I hope that it continues to be so for the rest of my life. Every human being and every life is unique and immensely complex – at its best, writing can capture some of the strangeness and wonder of this odd thing and express what it is to be human.
What inspires your writing?
Landscape, memory, trying to pin down complex feelings and emotions.
Do you have a writing schedule?
My writing time usually occurs between 8am to 3pm on weekdays during term time but is often interrupted for various reasons. Time and good health are gifts which can be lost at any moment. I try to remember that the time I have is limited and precious and to make the most of these hours.
Where do you tend to write?
I write at an old oak desk that used to belong to Great Western Railways in the front room of my home in Cornwall. When I was younger and didn’t have a desk, I’d always sit on my bed in my tiny room and write there, looking out the window at the ever-changing light on the hills of the Otago Peninsula and the harbour (the previous inhabitant of that very bedroom may have been the actor Sam Neill).
Who your favourite author?
Very difficult question to answer. I always come back to Katherine Mansfield’s long short story ‘At the Bay’ (which some might argue is actually a novella).
There are so many books and authors I enjoy and learn from, as the stacks of books dotted around every room of my house will testify. I am frequently accused by my family of having too many books, but I don’t feel that’s possible. For me, having books I like around me feels like being surrounded by friends. Works I’ve enjoyed recently include Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton, Kent Haruf’s Plainsong and Salley Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. I love reading and rereading my favourite books, as I always find something new in them. I enjoy reading biography, memoir, poetry and creative non-fiction as well as fiction.
Do you have a pet peeve when it comes to writing? Something you notice yourself doing or something you pick-up in other’s writing.
I always feel that fictional deaths, especially those of children, must be absolutely necessary and hard earned. In far too many novels horrible things happen to children and young people, especially if they are female. At times, it feels close to a kind of acceptance of the violence directed towards girls and women and cheapens the lives lost daily to domestic abuse.
My own children dying before I do is my greatest fear and so is something I never want to imagine for myself or for any of my characters. That said, far better writers than me have handled this subject with the utmost skill, grace and dignity – one example is found in James Baldwin’s brilliant work Sonny’s Blues, another in Kate Clanchy’s astonishingly accomplished short story The Not-Dead and the Saved.
Do you have a writer’s habit that helps you ‘get in the zone’?
The quieter it is, the easier I find it to work. Usually I get my best work done when it’s just me in the house and my cat is nearby asleep on the sofa.
Do you feel like you writing style has changed over the years?
I think my writing comes from the same place but I can see, looking at old work, how my writing has improved over the years simply from practice. I’ve learned a lot of techniques and got much better at editing my own work. But I still tend to say as little as possible, and to ‘write short’.
I thought I might be able to sustain longer narratives as I became more experienced. It still might happen. I learn most from reading the work of other writers and thinking hmmm…how did they manage to do that?
What’s a piece of advice you can give to aspiring authors?
It sounds very basic but read in your genre. If you want to write contemporary short stories then read every contemporary short story collection you can get your hands on. There will be plenty in your local library and short stories are broadcasted on the radio most days. Try and think about why you like some of the stories more than others. A combination of reading and learning creative writing techniques will improve your work and, most importantly, help you understand when things go wrong. There are a huge number of resources available online now. Keep trying and practicing. As with any skill, it takes time to get better, and practice (everyday, if possible) is at the heart of this.
To find out more about Emma, visit her website.