EMILY THOMAS is one of our amazing panel of judges kindly volunteering their time to support our charity writing competition. Emily has commissioned and edited fiction and non-fiction for teenagers and adults. She started her career at Andre Deutsch Children’s Books and moved to Scholastic, Kingsfisher, Hodder Children’s Books (Hachette), Bonnier’s children’s books trade list Hot Key Books, and Bonnier/Blink as a publisher of narrative adult non-fiction. Emily established and judged the Hot Key Prize for debut writers of middle-grade through to YA and crossover fiction. She has twice been shortlisted for, and in 2015 jointly won, the Branford Boase Prize with author Rosie Rowell, awarded to both editor and author of outstanding fiction. She is the author of five novels.
What writing/poetry projects are you working on at the moment?
I am writing my second novel for adults, with the working title of Abingdon Road. It’s an exploration of complex family lives, secrets and loss. It begins in the 1970s and flips back and forth in time in the life of the central protagonist, Jess, who is haunted by a childhood event. She can’t remember it properly, only that it was ‘bad’ and caused the falling apart of her parents’ marriage. The reader is sent in different directions as regards the truth, and in the end there is a twist. The message is that even the darkest reality and the darkest acts are not borne out of bad or evil people. It contains autobiographical elements of my own childhood, and my own complicated parents. Jess’ parents are products of their generation; emotionally shut down people who act for the best, but with emotionally damaging consequences for their only child. Through her friendship with an older woman, who looked after her as a child, Jess comes to feel more compassionately about herself and her flawed parents.
Who would you invite to a literary dinner party, alive or dead?
Nora Ephron – for her wit, and her refusal to deny her ambition and talent in what was a very male world of journalism and script-writing, and also for her humanity and inspirational career. She had so many stories to tell.
Michelle Obama – for her effervescence, her huge capacity for caring, and the fact that she is not a goody-two-shoes and would be excellent company.
David Sedaris – American Jewish diarist and broadcaster. I love every single one of his books, and his incredible openness about his life and thus the human condition. He manages to be humble and hugely charismatic at the same time.
My mother, who died when I was ten. I never got to know her properly and have so much to ask her and so much to tell her. She was also an incredible cook, and I would want her to help me with making the dinner!
George Michael, because I have been a fan since I was a teenager and because, although he was so talented, he was vulnerable and sensitive and I wish I had had the chance to have a conversation with him.
Can you describe your writing/creative process?
As an editor, I thought I knew it all about how a book should be written. It wasn’t until I wrote my first novel under my own name that I realise that although all writers need to have a vision for their book, poem, play or script, we are all very different in how that comes together. For me, it starts with a scene and a set of characters and a sense of the atmosphere of the book, and at this point I have to tear myself away from writing endless scenes that go nowhere and what I think is my strength (characterisation) and focus hard on my weaker trait which is plot and discipline when it comes to telling a story and moving it on at a pace that will keep readers engaged. I plot out the story arch then write the first draft then go back and edit it and probably edit it again. Often I will end up cutting scenes or even characters that I first thought were essential (though I file them away somewhere for use in another book perhaps). What I have learned most is that flexibility is really important – and keeping the ‘bigger picture’ in mind.
What advice would you give to your younger creative self?
That it will all fall into place one day, and that frustration and lack of confidence are part of the creative process. And to listen to the authentic voice in me and not try and be someone else. Also, to be kinder to myself and recognise my natural talent, not just the things I felt then I was very bad at (and still am bad at, like maths and any of the sciences). I was mildly dyspraxic at school and found learning the conventional way a real struggle. In those days, differently wired brains were not accommodated as they are more now, and those of us who found exams and curriculum learning difficult felt left behind and ‘stupid.’ I would definitely tell myself: one day you will do something you are really proud of and you will realise you have value and a unique place in the world. I would also tell myself that I would grow to love my hair and even my feet (though that is still a work in progress!
How did you get into writing?
I have worked as an editor for a long time – since the late 1980s – and been very lucky to work across all kinds of writing and for all ages. I also realised early on in my career that I was a creative editor and good at thinking up ideas and concepts for books, and often the content, too. When I was working in young adult fiction, I devised a series aimed at traditional non-readers (so not the typical middle-classes) about teenagers just like them, with little hope of further education and alien to the academic world, but incredibly clever and resourceful. I didn’t write the series, but it really got me thinking about writing my own books. I wrote a werewolf trilogy under a pseudonym for the publishers I worked for. I loved doing it, and realised I could, and really wanted to write something close to my heart that felt authentic to me. It took quite a long time to get there but now my crossover novel, Mud, is being published under my own name in July this year and I am thrilled. Sometimes it takes a while but never letting too much time go by without writing at least something is a good rule for writers. Keep trying and it will happen.