Emma Forrest: ‘I have a shelf just of the books my exes gave me’ | Fiction

Emma Forrest is an acclaimed novelist, screenwriter and director. Born in London in 1976, she got her first break in journalism aged 15 and has since written three novels, Namedropper, Thin Skin and Cherries in the Snow, as well as a memoir, Your Voice in My Head. Her screenplays include Liars (A-E), Know Your Rights and Love Minus Zero. Her directorial debut, Untogether, premiered at the Tribeca film festival in 2018 and was released in the UK in July this year. Her new novel, Royals, is a love story that explores the power of art and the pull of family ties.

What inspired you to write your new book?
There was a different novel I’d been working on for about eight years. In the middle of that, when I was still living in LA [she lives in London now], this book started coming to me in dreams. I’ve had ideas in dreams before, but this was coming in consecutive dreams. I also had a useful pressure – my husband [the actor Ben Mendelsohn] and I were separating. I’d agreed to be packed and out of the house by a certain date and I didn’t even know where I was going to end up living. The house we shared had a little laundry room which turned into my office and I wrote feverishly, over three months. I wanted to write something loving, optimistic and hopeful. With the characters, I took a young gay guy and an heiress and gave them all the love that I didn’t know what to do with.

The family dynamics in Royals are fascinating…
While I was writing it my grandma was dying. For her whole life she had affected an accent like the Queen or Sybil Fawlty, but towards the end she reverted to her real accent, which was strong Yiddish. She is very present in the characters of the aunties. In the past year, the art that I’ve loved the most has also been about second-generation immigrants and relationships. I really love [Ocean Vuong’s] On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – but I don’t love it any more or less than I love the sitcom Stath Lets Flats; they both address the child’s assimilation compared with the parents’ and they both play with language in a way that someone who has grown up just speaking English doesn’t get – there’s a precision to the language.

The book explores the power of art. Has it been an influence on you?
Three female artists are the biggest influence. My dad took me to see Tracey Emin’s My Bed when I was 12, and I think that’s such a pivotal age. In my early 30s I saw a Kara Walker exhibition in LA with a framed letter to a previous lover. I was alone and had to sit down and gather myself as it was so overwhelming. Finally, Sophie Calle did that unbelievable Take Care of Yourself exhibition, based on the break-up letter from her lover. I’ve sat in front of all these works and cried my heart out.

What is your writing process?
I’m not embarrassed to say that I do transcendental meditation, which helps my ideas. In my 20s I was blocked. I couldn’t do the one thing I was good at, and that became part of a downward spiral. There’s a Rainer Maria Rilke quote: “The work of the eyes is done. Go now and do the heart-work on the images imprisoned within you.” I couldn’t live any more with all the images inside me. A huge part of my life throughout my 20s and early 30s was suicidal ideation – it took a lot of my creativity. When I had my daughter, those ideations stopped. In their vacuum, thank the universe, came writing. I’m so grateful for everything that has helped me be able to sit still and work. I feel like I only figure things out by writing it down.

During my marriage to Ben, he supported the household. I had never had the ability not to live in terror of how to pay the rent. It strikes me as unfortunate that my writing was elevated by not having to live in terror of my finances. That was such a huge gift – it’s awful to write under that anxiety.

What are your favourite books?
The same way people have day and night creams, I have day and night books. I read Rachel Cusk’s trilogy at night because it’s so calm and detached. I felt it reset my circadian rhythms. Then there are books that are so alarming you can’t read them at night, such as Deborah Levy’s. One book I was reading alone at night, no longer part of a married couple, with my daughter in the next room, was Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood, and I would laugh so hard I was afraid I was becoming deranged, so I switched it to a day book. I also absolutely love Cash Carraway’s memoir, Skint Estate.

I landed back in England aged 40, having kind of been a child prodigy, and it was a comfort and inspiration to find that all my favourite novels were by middle-aged women who were achieving things and taking their writing to the next level.

What books are currently on your bedside table?
I just read Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth, which I loved. When I read Fleishman Is in Trouble [by Taffy Brodesser-Akner] I felt relief that people were right that it was so good. I’m actually in a book club and got them to read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. I also love Muriel Spark, my north star, and often reread her books.

How do you stack your books?
There’s a quote from Robert Montgomery: “The people you love become ghosts inside of you.” I feel like the books we love do too. I have a shelf just of the books my exes gave me. I have many books about Māori mythology on that shelf. Books have an energetic power – you can hold them in your hand and know that there’s power.

Royals by Emma Forrest is published by Bloomsbury (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org

Source: The Guardian

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