In that short opening statement, I was gripped. I had to know who Etta and Otto were and why Etta wanted to walk to the water. I guess in a way, the thought of going on an adventure like Etta was embarking on appealed to me and I wanted to go along. As I delved further into the story, I wanted to know everything about these people and their lives, and Emma Hooper's debut novel expertly intertwines stories and lives for the main characters mentioned in the title. I recently saw Emma Hooper discuss her novel at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and was thrilled when Penguin Books gave me the opportunity to grill Emma about the book and her writing process.....
They say “A change is as good as a rest” and I found this to be immensely true while writing this book; being able to swap between times and voices ensured that whenever I hit a wall with a certain person or plot, instead of having to quit for the day and go for a run or a bowl of cereal, I could switch perspectives or time frames for a renewed sense of energy and excitement. The hope was that it would work the same way for readers… .
The challenge was not getting lost or tangled up in my own storylines. There were certainly times when (like Etta…) I had to stop and think, ‘wait… who’s thinking this? Where are we? Who are we…?!’
You grew up in Alberta, relatively close to the fictional home of Etta, Otto, and Russell. How did the geography of Canada inspire your writing? Did you draw from personal experience when mapping out travel in the novel?
My mother’s family is from rural Saskatchewan (to be honest, the vast majority of Saskatchewan is rural…), and I spent many, many childhood vacations there, out walking in the wheat and sun (and mosquitoes). It’s a landscape unlike any other I have encountered, with a dry emptiness that is so vast and striking. Even though it’s not where I spent most of my time growing up, when I’m nostalgic for home it’s for these sorts of open spaces, that kind of dry air.
I have never walked across Canada from that point, but I have taken the train all the way from Alberta through Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick to the water, observing the drastic changes in landscape as well as the just plain massive hugeness of this place that all counts as “home”.
You tightly intertwine the lives of Etta, Otto, and Russell from childhood, but James shares a relationship only with Etta. At what point did you realize that a talking coyote would be Etta’s guide during her journey?
I tend not to plan ahead very much in my writing, so I found out about James at just about the same time as Etta did; I like letting my imagination take over in a sort of cruise-control in that way, asking myself as I write, ‘so, what happens now?’ ‘oh, she meets a coyote.’ ‘And then?’ ‘He licks her feet.’ ‘and then?’ ‘he talks.’ ‘and then…?’ etc. Writing a novel for me is just really asking ‘and then?’ over and over again and trying not to question or doubt my own crazy answers.
Folklore and magic realism feature prominently in the novel. How do you feel these traditions have influenced you as a writer? What authors have inspired you most?
My imagination runs away with me a fair amount in ‘normal’ life… the other day I saw some metal piping hanging from a window and I thought: those look like robot arms… like robot arms hung like carcasses at a butcher’s … like we eat robots like we do animals… hmm… and then I’m off, imagining what that world would be like, getting to invent and, at least temporarily, inhabit it. A whole other world! It’s very exciting. I love the idea that you can imagine anything, anything, you want and then work backwards to make it work within a comprehendable universe.
I also had a moment recently where I saw some garbage bags by the side of the road that looked like sea lions. I knew they weren’t, actually, but, it got me imagining a world where we’d put sea lions out at the side of the road every week. Why? Why not? This is one of my very favourite parts of being a writer.
I’ve been inspired by many authors in many different ways. Reading Dave Eggers in university opened my eyes to the idea that narrative-form could be playful and non-linear, and that comedy and tragedy could work off each other within the same work. Marquez made the magical mundane in a really beautiful way while Borges was the first to show me how prose could reflect back on itself in structural spirals. Right now I’m very fond of Karen Russell and the half-real half-imagined universes her writing occupies… .
How would you best describe your process? Do you keep a single space dedicated to writing or do you move around? What time of day do you find yourself most productive?
I try to have a dedicated space. I have a great little loft with an lovely old desk and a rug with owls on it and a hand-made-by-a-child pencil-jar; however I almost never use it. I do a lot of my best writing in little bits and pieces between other things. On trains to London or in scrappy notebooks in the middle of walks or in dim, sticky bars during band sound-checks. When I do work at home, it’s most often on the floor… I really like curling up on rugs with my laptop for some reason. Maybe because I had cats as a kid?
I do, also, like café writing. There was a period of time when every week, my friend Simon and I would agree to meet at a new, different café in Bath, and sit at different tables and not speak to each other. The idea was that the peer pressure of having the other person there writing/working would spur us on. And it worked (for me at least…). We would agree on a stop-time, and, once that rolled around, we’d quit working, go sit at the same table, and allow ourselves to socialize a bit. At this point we’d also give that particular café ratings according to things like level of noise, tastiness of hot chocolate (which is what I usually ordered), availability of gluten-free snacks (which is what Simon usually ordered), etc. We put it all into a giant spreadsheet we still have somewhere… . It’s worth noting that this is something I kept up when I moved to London for a year and was working on the book’s edits. In this case it was my friend Jason I’d meet, fortnightly, and we’d share one silent table instead of two (London cafés are more crowded), but the overall formula was the same. And we’ve got a spreadsheet of café ratings for London too… .
As for time of day, any but the middle, really. Morning and night are great. During the middle of the day I’m too distracted and just want to run around or nap… . (Usually I’m meant to be giving a lecture or playing a rehearsal or something like that though, sadly.)
You are an accomplished musician and educator who wears a lot of hats. How has your formal training in music influenced your writing? How has your prose influenced your songwriting?
Well, I do hold unreasonably high standards for lyrics… I have song-writer friends who are afraid to show me theirs for fear of harsh criticism… (Though actually they’re all amazing, my song-writer friends. Check out Cajita, for example… beautiful. With great lyrics.)
Rhythm is a big part of my writing. I’ll often go back and change phrases because they have too many or not enough syllables, or the emphasis falling in the wrong place, regardless of the actual meaning of the words. The rhythm of prose can pull you in and along just like it can in music. This is something people acknowledge in poetry, I think, but that gets less attention in prose. However, I think it’s equally important in the latter, maybe even more so, for me, since long chunks of writing need that rhythm to keep pulling you along and through, both as writer and reader. This explains, among other things, my love of repetition…
Each character responds differently to Etta’s choice to walk halfway across the country, and she is received with everything from humility and anger to hope and sensationalist conjecture. What do you want readers to take away most from her bold decision?
In the words of my Etta, I would love for them to, “go do whatever, wherever. Go do it alone, and now, because you want to and you’re allowed to and you can.” This could be writing a book or starting a astronomy degree or cutting your own hair or learning Mandarin or any other thing they’ve always wanted to do.
(click here to see it) asking Emma Hooper about the inspiration behind her novel.
Check out my Facebook and Twitter profiles for your chance to WIN a copy of Etta and Otto and Russell and James (UK & Ireland addresses only)