Emma Jane Unsworth’s debut novel Hungry, The Stars And Everything has been garnering some impressive reviews since hitting the shelves last week. Sarah-Clare Conlon interviews the first author to be published by new Manchester independent, the Hidden Gem Press.
Sarah-Clare Conlon: From the dust sheet, I notice that the novel seems to be getting pitched in the chick lit market, but I think it’s too dark and alternative for such classification. What was the readership you had in mind when writing it?
Emma Jane Unsworth: I’m so glad you think that it’s dark and alternative – those are words that appeal to me when I’m looking to buy fiction, so that’s definitely the kind of thing I want to write. But I didn’t have a readership as such in mind when I was writing it: I write to please myself, which is where it gets tricky I suppose – because what pleases me most doesn’t fall neatly within any genre or category – it’s somewhere between literary and commercial, with a good dash of darkness, magic realism and romantic comedy. As a journalist I spent years writing about specific things for a specific audience, depending on the publication, and my fiction has been and always will be the one place where my imagination can have free rein – and I’m determined to keep it that way.
SCC: The back cover blurb freely admits to “unexplained dark fantasies” and I didn’t feel the devil imagery was explored fully – why is that? Can you help me understand the significance of these episodes, and how come Helen doesn’t see the devil when she’s at her most devilish (when leaving Pete to go to France)?
EJU: For me, Helen’s devil is a comedy character as much as anything – because he’s absolutely the worst person imaginable that you could fall in love with, apart from perhaps David Cameron. Helen’s devil represents her desire to rebel and her susceptibility to temptation. Her visions of him are metaphors for many things – many big taboos around young women and what they should and shouldn’t be doing – masturbation, binge-drinking, fantasy matricide… She only sees him when she needs to feel these things, which is why he doesn’t appear consistently throughout the book time-wise. But if you look at where she’s at emotionally at any given point, his presence or absence makes sense, I think. I wanted to leave it ambiguous as to whether he was “real” or a figment of her imagination – I don’t believe in the devil by the way – and I don’t think it matters whether Helen’s devil is real or not, because the important thing is how he makes her feel. Have you seen the film Pan’s Labyrinth? Spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t – but I was so disappointed at the end of that film when you suddenly see the little girl talking to herself even though she believes her “monster” is standing right in front of her. I didn’t need that answer, didn’t want it. The fact that she saw him told me everything I needed to know.
SCC: Does the restaurant in the book, Bethel, have a Manchester equivalent in real life, and are these Michelin places all they’re cracked up to be? Is the Biblical name significant given the chef/devil insinuation?
EJU: Bethel doesn’t have a real-life equivalent, but I got the name when a few friends of mine were setting up a restaurant a few years ago – now Aumbry in Prestwich – and were deciding on a name. Bethel was one of the possibilities on their list because the restaurant is on Church Lane – and because of what I was writing, it immediately appealed to me. When I knew they weren’t going to use it I asked them whether they’d mind me using it in the book. Bethel is where Jacob sees his ladder in the Bible story – I thought it was an apt name since it represents a place of hope and escape.
But here’s my big confession: I’ve never eaten in a Michelin-starred restaurant. I’d like to but I just haven’t got round to it yet. I’ve eaten in lots of nice places and I enjoy the formality, ceremony and ritual of restaurants – choosing what you want, doing something as weirdly intimate (eating) in a public place, having the mystery unfold before you. But this is why I’m not a true food critic: I have no real interest in knowing how everything’s been put together. I like the mystery. I don’t want to see the pulleys and wires. I’m not one of those people who sits there teasing apart their meal with their fork to appraise the techniques. I eat and enjoy it. Unless it’s inedible. But it has to be really inedible – like burnt or poisonous or rotten – for me to send it back.
SCC: The food and hunger theme is obviously pervasive, and Helen and her mother both have a tricksy relationship with their bodies, with Helen painfully thin at the point she leaves Luke and Pete described as a feeder. Can you explain her love-hate relationship with food? And can you explain why as a reviewer she ends up enjoying food and drink to almost a sexual level, yet when she was with the love of her life she wasted away?
EJU: Helen doesn’t have strong feelings about food when she’s growing up because it isn’t a big part of family life. Even living with a chef and appraising food for a living, she doesn’t find it has much of an effect on her emotionally. It’s only during the time she is with a man who drinks too much, when she is drinking too much, that she starts thinking about how little food she is consuming – although even then, she doesn’t think too hard. I wanted the meal in Bethel to blow her away – I wanted her to have a sensory experience that overrode her logical and rational side, that she would have to surrender to. For this reason, she couldn’t have had deep feelings either way towards food before this revelation. But the theme is an interesting one for me. I know so many women who have a love-hate relationship with food. It has nothing to do with intelligence or vanity, it’s about control.
SCC: Does art reflect life? Is Helen the reviewer actually Emma the reviewer, and is Keith a parody of a certain well-known local web publisher?
EJU: No, no and no. Sure I’ve been a food reviewer, and I went to grammar school, and I’ve had my heart broken – but not in the ways Helen has in the book. I had happy times at school as well as miserable times – like most people, I imagine – whereas Helen doesn’t have any happy times because I needed her to be isolated everywhere she turned while she was looking for something. In the same way, I’ve worked with many male editors over the years and I consider them all friends now. I suppose with Keith’s extreme bombast – and sleaziness – in a way I was making a point about sexism in the media, but it’s not a straightforward one because it’s through Helen’s eyes and she’s on a self-destruct mission, and sees Keith’s company as one of the ways she can facilitate that. Generally speaking, I wouldn’t try and parody anyone from real life in my fiction – where’s the fun in that? If I wanted to capture real people then I’d be a portrait painter, not a novelist.
There are details and one-liners I’ve nicked at certain points but I like to think what I write is a combination of experience and imagination. Of course, there are grey areas. I follow the arguments that you never truly “invent” anything, because you can’t think of something you haven’t seen or heard of. But you can change the combinations of what you’ve seen and heard and felt. I think writing fiction is an act of translation. You have the things you’ve felt, and the scraps you’ve stolen, and the ideas you want to convey, and if you put all of those things together in an original but coherent way that transports the reader from one point to another, then it’s successful. I’m still very much learning how to do all that, but I’m enjoying the learning.
SCC: The structure of HTSAE is very specific. What gave you the idea to base each chapter on the different courses of a tasting menu? Linked in with that: are tasting menus a bit “du jour” and might this be in danger of dating the book for future readers?
EJU: I’m really into structure – partly because I find it very satisfying when the structure of something complements the subject matter – but also because I feel as though it gives me momentum as a writer. I had fun making up the courses and I suppose there’s gentle mockery of some of the ridiculous things you see on menus sometimes in there. I didn’t write it worrying about fashions, and I’d hope it would stay interesting as a story even when tasting menus are out of vogue. I think lots of people will be able to relate to what Helen goes through – heartbreak, rebound, breaking away – even when humanoids have evolved beyond the need to eat food and can just plug themselves into a solar panel to recharge their cells. Hopefully people will still be falling in and out of love, or there’s really no hope for us.
SCC: There are a lot of literary references, both explicit and implicit, and the narrative and language used reflects a certain level of bookishness. I guess you’re a bit of a fan of Charlotte Brontë, but I also drew parallels with contemporary Manchester author Gwendoline Riley. Who are your literary influences?
EJU: Haha – yes, the Brontës are big ones for me. I like their wild hearts and gothic tendencies. Contemporary writers… I love Hilary Mantel, Sarah Hall and Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, and I’ve just finished a book called Mr Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt, about Churchill’s depression, which is magnificent. I’m also very lucky to be in a fiction workshop group with some of my favourite Manchester writers including Jenn Ashworth, Tom Fletcher and Zoe Lambert. We meet every three weeks and workshop each other’s new writing, and I find their criticism – and their company – hugely helpful and inspiring.
SCC: What’s the connection between the character of the protagonist and the Jane Eyre character of the same name?
EJU: I really like the name is the main thing – there’s not much the two characters have in common otherwise. I think also the name itself evokes certain themes of Jane Eyre that I was keen to explore, and “Burns” has obvious implications of damnation, which worked with my character. Finally, I suppose there was a part of me that always wished I could give Charlotte Brontë’s Helen Burns the chance of a different, longer life. So this was it!
SCC: Explain the science behind the plot – where did this interest in astronomy and physics come from?
EJU: I blame my dad – he’s a naturalist and an amateur astronomer and when I was little he taught me the names of the constellations and the trees, that kind of thing. Since then, I’ve become more and more interested in physics in general – even though I was pushed to be arty at school, because that’s what happens. It’s one of my main bugbears, actually. It’s as though you’re not allowed to be good at both. And then a whole load of nonsense comes along with that – you hear things like, “I’m terrible with numbers”, as though that instantly makes you better with words. I always loved science and arts equally and I plan to go back to uni at some point and study for a science degree. Science shapes our understanding of the world – and what could be more inspiring than what’s at the limits of human understanding?
SCC: How have you found the experience of being published through a totally new and independent press?
EJU: It’s been great – Sherry and Brian have been so committed and focused. And it’s nice being able to trot down the road to your publisher’s!
SCC: How did you get to this point of publishing your first novel: I know you write as a freelance journalist but what about creative writing? And what’s next for you in the writing sphere?
EJU: I did an MA in Novel Writing at Manchester Uni and I wrote short stories for years but it was only when I gave up my full-time job and went freelance that I was able to knuckle down and get a novel finished. I know a lot of novelists manage to do it around a 9-5 but I just couldn’t. I’m going to be spending this summer editing the first draft of my second novel. The plan is to write a book a year now until I die. I’ve got ideas for the next three.
SCC: The book is dedicated to your partner, the musician Guy Garvey. How will Guy take it if you end up more famous than him? (That’s silly: you don’t really have to answer it!)
EJU: He secretly wants it. He’d love to be a kept man. The lazy bastard.