British author Emma Healey may be only 29 years old, but she has created a poignant portrait of a woman with dementia in her luminous debut novel, which contains a double mystery.
Was there a specific inspiration for the character of Maud?
Although my father’s mother, Nancy, has dementia and her experiences gave me ideas for some of the scenes in the book, it was my mother’s mother, Vera, who most influenced the character of Maud. Vera died in 2008, before I’d gotten very far into writing Elizabeth Is Missing, but her voice is very like Maud’s. In fact my mother recently rediscovered a tape recording of Vera, telling stories about her childhood, and I was surprised at how alike the two voices are: both slightly jokey, sometimes irritable, curious about people and full of detail.
You are in your 20s—how did you get yourself into the mindset of a pensioner with dementia?
I’m not sure I know, but that process was certainly the interest the book held for me. Writing as Maud was incredibly freeing, as I knew readers wouldn’t immediately assume her thoughts were mine or that her life was a thinly veiled version of my own.
Similarly, you obviously weren’t alive in the 1940s! How did you research that part of the book?
Part of that was down to the stories from Vera, which I’d written down during her lifetime, but I also read a lot of postwar British fiction, as well as nonfiction, published diaries and old newspapers. I watched old films (both feature films and Pathé newsreels) and spoke to anyone I knew who could remember that time.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that you were courted by publishers who wanted this novel. How did that feel?
It was very strange indeed, overwhelming but brilliant. Like most new writers, I could only hope that one day one publisher might agree to publish one of my books; I couldn’t imagine several publishers all wanting to buy the first book I’d written. It was very difficult to decide on which publisher to go with— they were all lovely and well-respected and all had great ideas. In the end, I went with the publisher whose vision for the book most nearly matched my own.
Many authors are active on social media, but your stop-motion book videos on Vine are so unique! How does that creative outlet compare to writing?
Thank you! My UK publishers told me about Vine, and as soon as they described the app I was keen to try it out.
They are quite different. Writing is the thing that pervades my whole day—I’m always wondering how I might describe something or improve my understanding, I’m constantly trying to remember an eavesdropped conversation or an idea for a story. Whereas the Vines are spur-of-the-moment and just for fun. They are wonderfully refreshing to make in that respect—taking a matter of hours rather than years.
What are you working on next?
While I was writing Elizabeth Is Missing, and struggling with the intricacies of the plot, I told myself the next book would be really simple and linear and I’d have it all worked out before I set down a single word. Now that I’m trying to begin the second book, I’ve found I have no facility for that, so I already have a very complicated novel plan. I’m still experimenting with voice at the moment, but I’m also, once again, exploring themes around memory and how the past and present interlink.
Author photo credit Martin Figura.
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