Author Interview: E. J. Newman
Abby finds a creative solution to her father’s problems. Ben makes a pact with the Devil for a new Mum. Katie is pursued by unrelenting voices. John just found his colleague’s hand in a strange girl’s lap. Jarvis is falling apart on his wedding day. Rosalind comes face-to-face with her number one fan. And that is just the beginning.
E.J. Newman’s debut anthology is a dark and twisting journey across the urban landscape, mining the rich seam of human frailties with insight and humour. The stories traverse the magical and the mundane, where supernatural beings are indistinguishable from their mortal counterparts in their complexity and complicity.
“Newman is unafraid to explore the darker side of fiction and, by extension, life. The stories are by turns touching and funny and heartwarming. And dark. In places very, very dark. Leave the light on.” DAN POWELL, 2010 Yeovil Literary Prize winner (Short Story)
“Gods, demons and angels inhabit these pages, as much at home as the cheating spouses, spurned lovers and ugly, foul-mouthed orphans. Newman is a powerful emerging voice in dark fiction. I’ll be watching out for more of her stuff. You should too.” ALAN BAXTER , Author of RealmShift and MageSign
Welcome to The Nut Press, Emma, and congratulations on the publication of your very aptly titled collection of short stories, From Dark Places, which is out now. The squirrels and I thoroughly enjoyed reading From Dark Places, and we really savoured it by reading it over the course of about six weeks. It’s an excellent collection of stories and we loved that they deal in the darker aspects of the human condition. Is this what you’re drawn to in fiction, if (hopefully!) not in life?
Thank you, I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed it.
The darker aspects certainly seem to be what I’m drawn to writing! Like everyone, I’ve had bad things happen to me, and a lot of upsetting things happened in my childhood, but my life now is very bright and happy, so thankfully that darkness is staying in the fiction!
As for what I’m drawn to reading, yes, I like dark themes, but I like lots of different genres and themes, not necessarily dark. The only genre I don’t read regularly is romance, but if someone recommended a romance novel to me I would give it a go. I would probably be disappointed if it was all hearts and flowers though. I’m more a speculative fiction kind of lass.
One of the aspects that I particularly loved about your stories in From Dark Places was that I was never sure right up until the end whether they would take a sinister or macabre turn or end on a lighter and more humorous note. Is this something you know or decide starting out or do the stories tend to develop in their own way? Has a story ever surprised you with the turns that it’s taken?
Sometimes I know, sometimes I don’t. I wrote a flash for my blog a couple of weeks ago and thought I knew the ending but it twisted off in another direction which, thankfully, I liked more. (It was Ink, in case you are curious.) Usually I do know the shape of the story, and it’s the little details that surprise me, but yes, occasionally I am just as surprised. And I love that. It keeps it exciting for me.
You wrote many of the stories in From Dark Places as a response to a prompt sent to you for a short story club you set up through your blog. Can you tell us more about how this came about and what gave you the idea to ask blog readers for story prompts?
It was more a series of little realisations rather than having an idea. The first was that I prefer to write short stories to a prompt rather than in a vacuum. If I depended on flashes of inspiration, it would have taken a lot longer to write an anthology’s worth of stories! So I realised I needed to find a way to get lots of prompts to choose from.
At the same time I was mulling this over, I saw various marketing exercises by people in very different industries using newsletters to keep in touch with people. I saw that the same mechanism could be used to run a club and grow a community of people who like my work and want to be involved in the creation of new stories. I also wanted to find a way to get my stories to people without having to put them all in the public domain, in case I wanted to use any for competition entries, or later publication. I also saw it as a way of giving an incentive; help me to write a story with your great prompts, and then read the resulting story for free as a thank you.
The club now has just shy of 300 hundred members.
Have you ever had a prompt that you couldn’t work with or you weren’t happy with the resulting story?
I’ve never found that with competition entries that require a story in response to a theme. And as for my Short Story Club, well, I choose the winning prompt, so the ones that don’t resonate with me don’t get picked.
Saying that, some stories are easier to excavate than others. For example, The Unwoven Heart took much longer to get right than stories usually do for me. And even now it’s a strange one, it’s very different to my usual style and one that surprises me every time I read it. I think it came from a very deep, very painful place inside me.
The squirrels think that teddy bears and other too-cute animals have had way too many stories written about them and would like you to write a short story about squirrels. What do they need to do to take part in your Short Story Club and get their wish?
Well, the first step is to join the club. That means that they get the stories delivered to their inbox after the person who submitted the winning prompt has read it. Also, they’ll get a story straight away when they sign up.
As for getting a story about squirrels… well, they need to think of a prompt that will make me want to discover something. For example, the story called The Victim was inspired by a prompt talking about a girl sitting with a severed hand in her lap. How did it get there? Whose hand is it? That’s what makes a prompt turn into a story for me.
Are there stories, characters or themes in From Dark Places which you’d like to revisit or explore in more depth in a longer piece of fiction, perhaps even a novel?
Yes, definitely. There’s a character that pops up twice in the anthology; the Katie in From Dark Places (the story the anthology takes its name from) and the Katie in Seeing Him Again are the same woman, just at different times in her life. There’s a book there, just waiting to be written. But I need to finish the 20 Years Later trilogy first, and then write the Split Worlds trilogy and a flash I wrote on the blog a little while ago might well be a book too. (That’s Control if you want to read it.)
Not enough hours in the day I tell you.
You work as a professional audio book narrator and have narrated the audio version of From Dark Places. How much of a different experience do you think it is being a listener as opposed to a reader of a story and what can the reader and listener take away from each experience respectively? Do you view your stories differently when you read them aloud? Do you do so while in the process of writing them?
Wow, there’s a lot to talk about here! Firstly, the difference between being a reader and a listener… well, when you read a story, it’s in your own voice, with its own rhythms, accent etc. You bring only yourself to the story, so there are two forces interacting. When you listen to a story, that dynamic changes completely. You hear a different voice, one with differing rhythms, and one which will find other things to draw out of the text. They make characters sound different, the voice artist brings themselves into it as they interpret the story too. So there are three forces at work.
I also think that in listening to a story, it’s easier to miss tiny details. It depends on how fast you can process auditory information – I process speech more slowly than I read. I can devour a book in hours but can’t listen for that long, so the experience of listening to a novel is different again.
As for my own stories, reading aloud is a critical part of my process. I read every first draft aloud to my husband. I get feedback from him, but I do that more to feel the story, like a carpenter running hands over wood. Reading aloud allows me to feel where the rough bits are, and then sand them down in the second draft. It’s also critical for dialogue. If it doesn’t feel natural when reading aloud, it isn’t going to sound natural to a reader.
You’ve also got the first novel in a YA trilogy, 20 Years Later, coming out in July. Would you like to tell us some more about it? Did it stem from a story prompt and, if not, where did you get the idea/inspiration for it?
It didn’t come from a prompt, that much I can tell you. There’s a long and rambling tale behind the creation of 20 Years Later, one I think I’d prefer to save for interviews focused on the book, is that okay? – It’ll be a good excuse to have you back on the blog!
20 Years Later is set in London twenty years after almost everyone died. Gangs, blood oaths and loyalty test three teenagers searching for a kidnapped sister, unaware that as they unravel the mystery of her whereabouts, they are uncovering London’s darkest secret.
It’s about loyalty, friendship in adversity, the struggle to survive and stay true to the things and people that are important, and unlike a lot of YA out there at the moment, the relationships in the book don’t revolve around romance. Here is the blurb my publisher wrote:
LONDON, 2012: It arrives and with that the world is changed into an unending graveyard littered with the bones, wreckage, and memories of a dead past, gone forever.
LONDON, 2032: Twenty years later, out of the ashes, a new world begins to rise, a place ruled by both loyalty and fear, and where the quest to be the first to regain lost knowledge is an ongoing battle for power. A place where laws are made and enforced by roving gangs—the Bloomsbury Boys, the Gardners, the Red Lady’s Gang—who rule the streets and will do anything to protect their own.
THE FOUR: Zane, Titus, Erin, Eve. Living in this new world, they discover that they have abilities never before seen. And little do they know that as they search post-apocalyptic London for Titus’ kidnapped sister that they’ll uncover the secret of It, and bring about a reckoning with the forces that almost destroyed all of humanity.
You originally emailed stories to blog subscribers before self-publishing From Dark Places as an ebook of 11 stories. Now this latest edition of the collection is being published by eMergent Publishing in both digital and traditional formats. Together with the audiobook, you seem to be fully embracing all available formats to get your work to the reading (and listening) public. Is this something that interests and excites you as an author or is it simply something that’s necessary in today’s market?
Finding new ways to engage with readers, and new ways to enable people to find and hopefully enjoy my writing is something that genuinely excites me. Even now I am cooking up a new way to connect with readers that I will hopefully trial in June.
I also think it’s necessary, unless you are one of the fortunate few who are discovered, fought over in a huge publishing deal resulting in a massive advance and huge publicity to launch your career. There are thousands of books being published every year, so I think we authors have to work hard to seek out the people who like our work.
I can’t stand it when authors just tweet links or constantly ask or even tell people to buy their books without giving anything first. That’s something I try hard to do – I give people lots of opportunities to read my work and get to know me online before they have to part with any money. Finding new ways to excite people is critical to building a career as a writer in today’s market.
Describe your ideal writing day and place.
All I need is mental space to daydream. If I have a lot of client work, I find it hard to give myself permission to be in my imaginary worlds, and it takes time to get back into the right space when I do carve out a chunk of time.
My perfect day would be a combination of walking, brainstorming and chatting with my husband about the current project and then having hours and hours to really immerse myself in writing. In reality, this kind of day happens once a month if I am very lucky.
Now tell us what a ‘real’ or ‘typical’ writing day is like for you.
They vary a huge amount, depending on shifting priorities for client work and now promotion. I go through phases of writing 1000 words a day first thing in the morning, but the trouble with that is that once I’m there, I never want to leave. It’s wonderful, but also not conducive towards earning money to pay the bills – I am the main breadwinner in the family so I have to be very careful not to just disappear into post-apocalyptic London for days on end.
When you’re writing from a story prompt, do you prefer one with a character, a place or a plot idea & how much detail do you need?
The only thing I need is a question. Not necessarily an explicit one. Let me give you an example; one prompt that created the story The Need to Create (which is in From Dark Places) was “… but the recipe had been very specific. 67 minutes…”
This grabbed me by the throat when I read it. What is it a recipe for? And why 67 minutes exactly? Answering those questions gave birth to the story, without any mention of a character or place.
Does each story in From Dark Places have its own soundtrack that you listened to while writing it?
I’m afraid not! I associate a particular album with my novel 20 Years Later (Hail to the Thief by Radiohead) but not the short stories. If you gave me enough time, I’d probably find a song for each one!
Can you read other fiction while you’re writing your own or not?
I can now. When I was writing the first draft of 20 Years Later years ago, and effectively finding this oft discussed “writing voice” for myself, I had to stop reading for a while as the different styles were creeping into my writing.
Now I am comfortable in my own style, I do read whilst writing, and I feel it’s important for me to do so. I read widely and as much as time allows, as I believe it’s an important part of this writing life. All the time I am reading, I’m analysing what I feel works and what doesn’t, and learning about different techniques, unless the book is so fantastic I just get swept along in the story. But it has to be a really, really fantastic book to do that these days.
What book have you read recently that you’d recommend?
Ah, it depends on who I was recommending it to! Recently I have read The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (loved it), Soulless by Gail Carriger (loved that too) and Room by Emma Donoghue (well written but traumatic to read).
Finally, if you were to give us a story prompt, what would it be, and why?
Now this is exactly the reason why I ask other people for prompts, I am rubbish at coming up with them! Actually I would give this:
“The clock stopped at exactly the wrong time.”
Why? Because it was one of my favourite prompts, and led to one of the stories in From Dark Places called Everything in its Place that was my editor’s favourite. I’d love to see what other people came up with from the same prompt…
That’s a fantastic prompt. I think I’ll give it a go and see what I can come up with… Anyone else up for writing a story for that prompt?
Thanks very much for visiting today and answering our questions, Emma. All the best of luck with From Dark Places and your forthcoming YA novel, 20 Years Later!
Thank you for having me! Shall I put the kettle on? – That’d be lovely, thanks. The squirrels were meant to do that but they get so easily distracted…
Emma drinks too much tea, has too many ideas and writes too many stories. You can find out more about her debut novel ’20 Years Later’ here. She blogs and gets up to all kinds of writing mischief at http://www.enewman.co.uk.
From Dark Places is available in print and e-book book formats. You can buy a signed copy from her Author Website and if you like dark short stories, join Em’s Short Story Club to get an original short story for free in your inbox every month.