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An Interview with Emilie Pine

Emilie Pine is currently professor of Modern Drama at University College Dublin in Ireland. She is also the Director of the Irish Memory Studies Research Network, former Editor of the Irish University Review and has published widely in the fields of theatre and memory studies—among other achievements.

Emilie’s 2018 creative writing debut Notes to Self earned its spot as a No. 1 nonfiction bestseller. The collection of personal essays is an emotional read, ranging in content from Pine’s childhood to womanhood. Her first fiction novel Ruth & Pen is set to come out May 5th.

*This interview has been edited for clarity and concision*

Hi Emilie! Thank you so much for being with us today.

Thank you for being interested!

Of course! I wanted to start off by saying I binge-read your book Notes to Self… so I have some questions on that, and then hopefully on your upcoming novel if you’d like to share. But my first question just has to do with issue IV’s theme of the New Word Order… This issue’s theme is ‘Strangers’. I’d like to know what first comes to mind when you hear this theme and what would your take on this issue’s theme be?

The thing that immediately occurs to me is that, when I wrote Notes to Self, it was easier for me to imagine strangers reading it than to imagine my friends or my family or people I knew. Because there’s something about—in sociology they call it ‘stranger value’—this idea that you can be more yourself, or you can be more open with strangers than with people who, you know, have some understanding or some reading of you, or who are in your life. So that idea of ‘strangers’, whether it’s as a writer or reader, or as a person, the encounter with a stranger is actually this kind of very free space where you get to be a different version of yourself, and I think that’s really interesting. And the other side of that is what they bring—you don’t know them, so it just brings all my curiosity to the fore, to think about: who are they? What are their stories? And where are they coming from? So, how does that space, that encounter between strangers enable different forms of storytelling?

In your first essay you write about waiting for your father’s response to your piece. I can imagine publishing works that characterise loved ones can be very complicated. How did you navigate this?

Well there’s two methods of publishing memoir, and one is that you ask for permission, in advance, and the second is that you ask for forgiveness, afterwards. I was very clear – and I think this is evident in the book itself—I did a lot of work over the years to repair some of the relationships within my family, and I didn’t want to, just by writing about it, to break those again. One of the things I say now several years on from writing it is that, the person who writes a kind of family based memoir, or even if it’s one single essay, kind of breaks—the non-fiction breaks the fiction. Families are all kind of created around these fictional identities, ideas that we have around family. By telling your version—your side of the story as honestly as you can, you inevitably break that. You create a new version of that story. It’s both a destructive and a creative process. It feels quite philosophical but, effectively—in real terms—that translated into me showing the book in draft form to my parents, my sister and my partner. The four people who are integrally connected to it. And that’s because, we are relational human beings, and my story is inevitably their story. For me, the danger—I didn’t want to get things wrong, either because they were kind of factually inaccurate, or because I was somehow mischaracterizing things that had happened. 

Because it can be emotionally charged as well?

Yeah exactly, and the thing is, my reading of a situation is so subjective, so based on my own priorities. Anyone else in that situation, even when it’s the case of me and my sister who have shared in a childhood—we would still have different readings of our parents’ relationship and our relationship to that. So it was important for me to not make them unhappy through it. But I also decided I had the right to tell anything that was entirely 100% my story. I didn’t necessarily have the right to describe things that had happened in their lives, but I had the right to describe anything that had happened in my life, even if it was a shared experience. I wouldn’t have known that at the start of trying to write, so I think writing itself is the process of discovery. You’re discovering the story, and you’re discovering what boundaries you want to put around the story.

You’re discovering the story, and you’re discovering what boundaries you want to put around the story.

Do you think if you had spoken to them and they didn’t want something to be described at all in your book, you would’ve cut it out? Or maybe just altered it?

You know, I was lucky in that they didn’t ask me to do that [laughs], but in the essay “Speaking / Not Speaking”, which is really about my parents’ relationship and its impact on me and my sister—I knew there were certain things they were really unhappy with, and they’re not in the book. I took them out. And I know people who would react to that differently—you know, ‘you’ve censored yourself’ or whatever, but there’s so much in it that I do say. I think I could still tell my story fully and openly while being mindful of other people’s feelings.

That’s a really good outlook on being an author—it’s something every author struggles with, or every writer. There’s some people you hear say well, ‘an author has no friends’ because they just tell the story as is, and it’s like oh well, I don’t want to have no friends [laughs].

Yeah! Exactly, I mean someone said to me “Go big or go home” and I was like, “well, I quite like going home actually” [laughs]. Also, I think a lot of that derives from this idea of the writer as this ‘enfant terrible’. You know, the author who suffers, and who is in pain, and who—the most authentic thing they can do is get that pain onto the page. I’m sorry, I’m just not interested in that narrative of being a writer. I don’t understand why being a writer can’t be being a nice human being who collaborates and who is embedded within a family. The isolated, you know, ‘trauma girl’ version is not interesting to me.

You speak a lot about reclamation in “Something About Me”, which is very powerful. Reclaiming traumatic events in your life, or reclaiming something painful as somethingyou speak about turning it into something beautiful… Do you tend to think about writing personal narrative and non-fiction in this way, or just in some cases?

I think it can be reclaiming, and in the instance of that essay, that’s a really good example of what I was doing. When I started the essay I was simply writing about a time in my life, and then I had to confront what that involved. That was an act of uncovering and acknowledging and deciding, and reclaiming, but overall I would say as a more general rule, that writing—whether it’s fiction or nonfiction—is about deciding your relationship to the event. So that can be, ‘I’m taking this back into my own life, it can be ‘I am creating a distance between myself and it’… it can be the opposite impulse as well. I think I say in the essay about my dad that writing can be a way of “processing and possessing”. So I almost think ownership is a more powerful metaphor for me. Ownership doesn’t necessarily mean just reclaiming, it’s about a level of control. Of course what’s interesting there is, you can’t actually control life! [laughs] You can’t control the past, you can’t even—I can’t even control my own emotions about that past. I can control what I put on the page, right? I can control the narrative—that in itself is a rewarding paradox.

[…]

I found your essays to be bravely vulnerable and beautifully crafted. It was quite an emotional readin “Something About Me” you recall events as things you have not processed. How do you find writing helps you process, if at all?

As for all of these questions, I have at least two responses… So the first is I really did have to process things I had literally put in a box and shut the lid on, and I had to do that in order to be able to write a good story about it. My ambition for this was not to write something vulnerable, but to write something good. The vulnerability was required of me in order to make it worth anyone else reading, or even for myself to read. And so that was the process for me. 

My ambition for this was not to write something vulnerable, but to write something good.

The flip side, to make it good on the page, for me—and another person will have a different process—I had to allow myself to re-experience some of the emotions. I had to think about what those emotions were and take them back into my body. I can’t tell you how upsetting that was. And how powerful. There were positive dimensions to it, but after having finished writing it, and particularly after it coming out and starting to have conversations—people would come and tell me their experiences as a result, which is an extraordinary thing, but it made it hard for me to disentangle myself from the story. So actually in the time since publishing that, from six months onwards, I had to start saying—in interviews for example, I had to start saying ‘I have a policy, I can’t talk about sexual violence’. It’s there if you want to read about it, it’s in the book, but actually there’s a good reason why we put lids on boxes; so that we can live our lives. I had to put that [lid] back on—to allow the process to have an end as well. I don’t want to live in the process. I think it’s interesting as a way of creating narrative, but there has to be a point in which you draw a line and say ‘That’s it. I’m just going to go back to being a person who doesn’t carry this around with her everyday’. 

Yeah, of course. I just want to go back to what you said earlieryou said you wanted to write it to be something good and not completely focused on your emotions, although you had to sit in them. Did you find editors helpful in this process? I myself find it difficult to write about personal experiences without letting emotions cloud the writing.

I was really lucky, I had really amazing editors, and I feel like I wrote the book largely for them. So Tramp Press is two—was two women it’s now three—but was two women, Lisa Coen and Sarah Davis-Goff. I mean literally, the book wouldn’t exist without them because they commissioned it, but also […] I would send it to them essay by essay, which is not usually how editors work—they like to get an entire manuscript—but they understood this was not a simple manuscript process, and I was really lucky in that. Lisa would literally live text me as she was reading it, and it was just incredibly supportive. The reason they were doing that is partly because they’re good humans, but also because they wanted the work. They believed in the work and they were passionate about this project. We were all really focused on that. 

The other side of it—and I see this myself when I am editing other people’s work or advising other people on their work—is that, you suddenly, at some point post first draft, when you’re on your second or third draft, have to get remarkably callous about the work, and start talking about ‘well this sentence isn’t that good’, and try to forget that this sentence is about some harrowing event that happened in your past, because now we’re talking about language. In a strange way—you know, if you weren’t in a good place, that can be a very alienating moment—but for me I find it very helpful. It helps me to work out where the boundaries of the work are, and to say ‘Oh this is not about me, this is actually about writing’, and I’m being taken seriously as a writer here. And I love that process. 

So Notes to Self was a book of personal essays… as you’re now working on a fiction novel, how do you find your creative process has changed working in this different genre?

I really didn’t want to write about myself anymore [laughs], and it was really important to me—so even in a really basic way I decided I would write in the third person. That small decision was necessary for me to externalise the story I was writing. So the novel, which is called Ruth & Pen, is about two characters—one is called Ruth and one is called Pen. Ruth is 43 and Pen is 16. In some ways I suppose they grow out of some of the experiences I wrote about in Notes to Self, but while they may have an emotional truth to them, they don’t have any biographical truth. I was having fun basically, not being myself on the page. It was amazing! Not having to fact check things, you know, with my family. Just being like, well if I want them to live there, they’re going to live there. Or if I want them to change careers halfway through writing the novel, let them do that! It was very freeing.

It was also terrifying, because I felt like I was stepping into the territory of ‘real writer’ and Notes to Self had been this odd hybrid. Okay it’s personal material, but I’m used to writing essays, we’ve all been trained in school and so on… I’m used to being a nonfiction writer. So, it was a kind of a gentle step into what I think of now as ‘trade publishing’. I’m delighted to be doing this in my forties, and the reason I say that about my age is because I had always wanted to do this. I spent at least two decades of my life not doing the thing I wanted to do, and so I think writing autobiographically kind of gave me the courage to do it, but also showed that all writing is just words on a page, you know? One of the things I did with Ruth & Pen was I started with a complete chapter breakdown. Before I started writing, I knew what every single chapter would be.

So a good outline? That really helped the process?

A good outline. And I had read this—another author had said she had started two novels and she had run out of words by the time she got to 30,000 words. I knew that sense myself. And I thought, right well I’m an academic, I would do this for an academic book. I would have a complete idea of the arguments so that’s what I need to do. I need basically a floor plan of what this novel is going to look like. It was incredibly helpful—and it felt like—is this what real writers do? But it meant, okay so you’re going to write 3,000 words on this and 4,000 words on this… I’m slightly oversimplifying but to have a plan was just very, again, freeing. There are all of these things I think you need to do to get to the page. All of these obstacles you need to clear out or all of these ways in which you need to convince yourself you have permission to do it, or it’s a good idea, or it doesn’t matter that you’re shit. So I called it ‘the shit first draft’, on the basis that I couldn’t get a second, slightly better draft, until I had a shit first draft.

That’s honestly very good advice for anyoneyou just have to write. And then, as long as you have your first draft you can change anything.

Radically. I even took out characters—my agent looked at it and was like [groans]. I took out a ton of detail and, amazingly, it didn’t really break the novel. It’s amazing what you can do. 

I have another question just for nonfictionin “Notes on Intemperance”, you mentioned it’s taken you four years to write the piece to ‘collect your emotions and gain some distance’. Would you say this is a big part of writing creative nonfiction, and for that reason, do you think writing fiction is a faster process in general because you don’t have that, more emotional aspect to it?

Yes and no. I’m going to fall back on an earlier answer and say you need to work out what your relationship is to the subject—whether that’s an event in your real life or a fiction. I know writers who say that a short story took them four years. I was talking to an American writer who said that writing essays for him—he writes creative nonfiction and memoir—just kind of explodes out of him. Whereas, he also writes poetry and that takes a lot longer. I think you need to be ready to tell whatever story it is that you’re going to tell.

Ruth & Pen is about two characters—but I had carried Ruth around in my head for years and years. I would always think about Ruth in those moments before you fall asleep, or moments where you’re on the bus and you’re looking out the window, or I would see someone or something happening and I would think ‘Oh! I could put that in’. For me the unlocking of it was to have not just Ruth but also Pen. Having the second character for me—that moment—it kind of went from there. I think being ready to tell whatever story you’re telling, and also not beating yourself up if you can’t. The well will refill itself, or maybe you’ll come back to it in ten years time and now you’re the right person to write it. 

The well will refill itself, or maybe you’ll come back to it in ten years time and now you’re the right person to write it. 

Yeah. So Ruth and Pen is set to be released this May right?

Yeah. I’m like ahhh! [laughs nervously]

Do you have anything more you’d like to share, or maybe the inspiration behind it? You said you had Ruth in your mind for quite a while.

Yeah so there are two things that unlocked it. The first major one was thinking of Pen, short for Penelope, as the second character, and that she would be a teenager. I liked this idea of them being at different stages of their life. Particularly for Pen being 16, that feeling you have when you’re that age of, your life is ahead of you. Everything is to be discovered. Ruth is in a less good place in her life, and she feels like her life is over. She’s only 43 but she just feels like she’s carrying around a lot of regret. I like the idea of the contrast between those two characters. 

Then—and I can say this to you because you’re also a writer—I basically didn’t know how to do plot because it’s my first time writing fiction. So I was reading David Park’s novel from 2018 called Travelling in a Strange Land which is a beautiful novel, and it happens over the course of one day. I read it—and it’s a very small, singular story—that starts at dawn and ends at night time. I thought, one day. One day. So Ruth & Pen is set on a single day. Everyone thinks that is an homage to Ulysses, or to Mrs Dalloway, and I can’t pretend those novels aren’t in it because I’m a professor of English and I love both of those novels—so there are certainly aspects of that kind of homage. But I would also say that my novel has almost nothing in common with David Park’s text, and yet it’s completely inspired by it, by what he did with that form. I just admired it so much. What I like about it is that it’s small but it’s also huge. It has this simplicity and grace to it—his novel has a kind of trajectory from morning to evening—and I just thought, well, that’s beautiful. That’s beautiful, I want to do that. So yeah, that’s the inspiration.

Do you find there’s a certain element of ‘protection’ in writing fiction? Kind of what we talked about earlierjuxtaposed with your vulnerability in Notes to Selfdo you find yourself less ‘afraid’, as you would say, to publish fiction, or is it just as nerve wracking?

I feel way more nerve-wracked. This is probably again, unexpected, because Notes to Self is based on my life, whereas Ruth & Pen I made up, I made from scratch. So it feels in a strange way much more reflective of who I am than the autobiography. It probably sounds really contradictory, but at least if people didn’t like Notes to Self I was like ‘well that was my life so there’s nothing that I could do to change it’ right? Whereas if people don’t like Ruth & Pen I’m like, dammit. [laughs] That came out of my head, you know? So I do think—I said it kind of jokingly earlier you know about imposter syndrome—I think we are all kind of prey to that, in that sense of ‘here I am, I’ve spent decades training as an academic, and now I’m stepping outside that’. It’s not about risk taking I don’t think, it’s about vulnerability. Here I am trying something else, like I’m saying ‘this bit, this is not enough for me, and I want something else as well’. I think we’re often being discouraged from that. 

That’s really admirable. There’s some people that never take a chance, or never move outside the path they set out for themselves from the beginning. My next question is: how do you deal with themes in your writing? I saw quite a few themes of feminism, interpersonal relationships, Irish memory and culture… work their way into Notes to Self. Will they be reappearing in Ruth & Pen?

Probably. [laughs] And I think probably other people are better at identifying what those themes are, I’m just too close to it. It’s funny, as an academic writer—because I’m writing about other people’s work largely, I very directly address themes. It has to be completely different in creative work, whether it’s nonfiction or fiction. I did it first in “Notes on Intemperance”—large parts of the first draft were ‘my thoughts on alcoholism’ and I can’t tell you how boring they were, and just dead on the page. I really think that—well, there are some people who are very gifted at writing more treatise-style work—for me, it’s always got to be about story. Either I can’t do it or maybe I’m not interested in reading about it when other people do it—but there has to be a story, out of which the themes emerge. 

They just come naturally you mean?

Exactly. As a writer, you can decide what characteristics or what emphasis you want to place in certain ways, but if that story is not engaging, and in fact, if there isn’t a story at all, then you’ve just got a collection of themes, and that’s not enough to engage many readers I think. Except for, as I say, really exceptional writers who do a brilliant job—who don’t need story.

So you have brought up your background a little bit… you have a background in English, Drama, Film, and also research in Irish culture and memory. Does this inform your work a lot? Maybe just in the references you make… you said in Ruth & Pen you reference other texts.

I think in writing Ruth & Pen, it’s funny because I taught intertextuality and now, here I am doing it! And it was the same with Notes to Self. I have an article on other peoples’ memoir and on them processing emotion and narrativizing it and there I was doing it myself! I would also say I spent years teaching plays about vulnerable and marginalised women, and looking at work which showed ways in which women’s voices are silenced by society, and I never made the connection to my own autobiography. Never thought about the fact that I was motivated to do that because of how I felt silenced or how I had experienced violence. 

I think that all of the work we do is personal, whether it is academic or supposedly objective, or it’s memoir or it’s fictional… it always comes back to the person and to the body and to your experience. You see the world from where you’re standing and where you’re standing is an expression of who you are. I would really like to see academic work demystified so that it doesn’t look like it’s some voice from ‘on high’ declaring what the facts are, when actually it’s always an expression of who you are in that particular moment. 

I would like to see that too actually. I thought your bravery in sharing your life experiences truly inspiring in Notes to Self, and I’m sure you’ve inspired more than just me. Is there any advice you would like to give to young writers? Both those seeking to write nonfiction and in the fiction genre.

Yeah I mean—advice is tricky. Because what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. So when I say this it risks sounding flippant but it is: be yourself. We are all inspired to write or create for two reasons I think. One is that maybe we encounter work that really inspires us and we think ‘oh that’s beautiful and I would like to make something beautiful as well’. Or I would like to make something painful, I would like to make something challenging, whatever it is that resonates with you. The second is we have a story we want to tell, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction or poetry or theatre. To own that and to stay with it. Don’t be falsely modest about it or self deprecating, or try to be like anybody else. We are ourselves and that’s our greatest strength. That sounds so vague and probably really unhelpful [laughs] but how about this: be yourself and have a plan. 

Alright [laughs], sounds good. Finally, how did you find the process of getting published and would you recommend going through a smaller publisher for a first publication?

God, I loved working with Tramp Press. It was incredible. Again, I was really lucky with the two people I was working with. That sense of intimacy I think that you get working with a small press, and because they were based in Ireland—that sense of you know, they knew everybody and so for them it was a series of not just networking and publicity opportunities—they were really invested and involved in the whole world of books in Ireland. That and working with book sellers and so on, that was extraordinary. 

The flip side is that larger publishers have a kind of international reach that small publishers don’t have, so it’s not that I would advocate one or the other, but simply to say: find the place that your book belongs. 

The person who is right for the project is the best fit.
Notes to Self emerged because of conversations with Lisa and Sarah, and Ruth & Pen emerged because of conversations with Simon Prosser, my editor. So the person who is right for the project is the best fit. I was extraordinarily lucky. The other thing I would say about working with a small press is I sent them a sample on spec. Out of the blue. Because they’re so small they’re agile enough to pivot and to say ‘okay we want to work with this project’—they didn’t just want the short thing I sent them, they wanted the longer project. It was the most nerve wracking six months of my life as I decided to send it to them and waited for a response from them, but it was a big risk that paid off and I couldn’t have foreseen all of the things that came out of it. So sending and sharing work, I think, can lead to actual publishing opportunities. I didn’t imagine there would be a book out of it. And then there was.

CategoriesIssue Four

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