Part audacious cultural chronicler, part curious introvert; however you engage author Emma Jane Unsworth she is 100% a woman who found her voice as a contemporary feminist writer. Unsworth’s second novel, Animals – an exhilarating fly by night account of female friendship roller discoing toward an existential cliff-edge – caught the wave of a potent, powerful and much-needed narrative on female empowerment. And it’s soon to become a movie.
Much like her whip smart characters, Unsworth is an avid collector of stories and mementoes that transport her to place and people and offcuts of conversation. The seafront apartment she shares with her husband and young son, situated along the invisible line that separates Brighton and Hove, is a living manifesto of Unsworth’s magpie eye for observation and shrewd use of sentiment.
Wilma: One of the first times we properly set the world to rights, it was for an interview for your first book, Hungry, the Stars and Everything. When you think back to the writer and person you were then, can you relate to her?
Emma Jane Unsworth: God, that was so long ago! I still remember your flat, so serene and stylish with huge windows, and the way you pulled a half-drunk bottle of red out of the cupboard and didn’t have a stopper in it and I thought, Ah that’s the way to keep red wine. You struck me as a woman who knew how to keep red wine.
Wilma: That was definitely the old me.
EJU: I think the writer I am now is very different. I don’t try and show off as much and I’m better at plotting. I have never been a gentle or a subtle writer but I think these days I’m downright brassy.
Wilma: I think that bold streak has always been there. For example, when you wrote Hungry… you referenced Patricia Dunker in “you write your first novel with the desperation of the damned”. Did you feel less pressure writing Animals and worry less about upsetting people?
EJU: I still feel pretty desperate and pretty damned, but I suppose now I’ve come to accept those things as part of my process, rather than try and change them. The way I work works for me, even if it doesn’t always feel good. It’s not meant to. I worried that my parents would worry about all the drugs in Animals. I worried that people I fancied would think the sex in Animals was the kind of sex I liked. But you’ve got to let all that shit go and tell the story you need to tell, uncensored.
I interviewed a brilliant artist last year called Claire Lambe who told me that self-loathing was a necessary part of her artistic process. Isn’t that incredible?
"I worried that my parents would worry about all the drugs in Animals"
Wilma: I imagine it takes a lot of practice to gain a sense of pleasure and purpose from self-loathing.
EJU: Don’t get me wrong, I’m always fucking terrified whenever I write anything – even a tweet – about how it’s going to go down and what people will think, but that second-guessing is also what makes me curious and insightful in the first place. How else would I write characters without always trying to catch the thoughts of strangers, and rattling through the middle?
Wilma: Amen to that. As well as creating strong female characters, they’re often roaring fun, and a bit filthy. Are you drawn to particular characters – in life and work?
EJU: Oh yeah. I’m a sucker for a smart mouth. If someone’s witty, they’ve got my attention. I am drawn to brash people who seemingly don’t give a shit, because that’s the opposite of me. I created the character Tyler out of that fascination in Animals, and in the new novel there’s a character called Carmen who’s a lot like that, too. Unapologetic. Someone – a crime novelist – once told me that they thought fiction was “an opportunity to take revenge on life”. I wouldn’t want to be her relative! But isn’t that interesting? I see it more as a chance to live out other possibilities.
Wilma: Animals really caught a wave of a necessary, rising female voice in culture. Do you want your work to be viewed as feminist writing?
EJU: Yes. 100%. We have a fight on our hands. Have you seen what’s in the Whitehouse? The whole #MeToo campaign 100 years after some women got the vote – I think that speaks volumes. There’s a lot of progress but we have a long way to go, too. Anyone who thinks that feminism doesn’t have work left to do is severely under-educated about the realities of the world. I would like to think that my work channels my rage about things, even if it often comes out via humour.
Wilma: Do you feel with each book you’re shedding a new skin? With Hungry, it was at your desk in Manchester. With Animals, a room in Dalston. And now you’re living in Brighton…
EJU: Now I’m shedding the skin of the land and becoming the selkie I always was! I suppose I do feel as though each book encapsulates a period of my life. A five-year period, usually. The emotional and intellectual explorations within it are all mine, and I’ve pushed them away from me, towards the reader, through various fictional devices. I’ve heard it called auto-fiction, which is a wacky new term but there isn’t a better one. I know more about myself when I finish a book. I’ve written my deepest feelings before I consciously knew them. My subconscious was way ahead of me, down the road, looking back, tapping its watch. Saying: Ah! Glad you could join us…
Wilma: And now the subconscious and knowing Emma can watch Animals together on the big screen!
EJU: It’s beyond surreal! It’s like it has a whole other, new life now. The heart of the story is still the same, but it’s grown a slightly different way to make it work as a movie. Don’t get me wrong – it’s been hard work to get it to this stage. We have almost killed ourselves getting it to this stage. Me, the producer Sarah Brocklehurst and the director Sophie Hyde have worked tirelessly. But passion has seen it through. I think that’s the only way with indie films – certainly indie films about women. I’m excited to see what the director and actors do with the script next. We started shooting in March and I’ve got a cameo – as a weird partygirl. I think it’s a part I can do well.
Wilma: Now there’s a role you were born to play. Did you gorge on film and TV as part of your research in writing the screenplay?
EJU: I’ve been watching Bette Davis in movies for inspiration on how to be more kickass and less of a people-pleaser. I wrote a piece for The Guardian about it. I loved Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and The Anniversary. She was a fabulous, rock-solid dame, but wasn’t on my radar (apart from that Kim Carnes song) until the TV series Feud. I’ve been obsessed with her since. What else? Bridesmaids, Withnail & I, Fleabag, Young Adult. I read a lot of great books on screenwriting, and it took many, many drafts to get it right. I also read a lot of actual screenplays, because they showed me how to do it! As in, get it on the page. If you watch a film and read the screenplay at the same time it’s really enlightening and surprising, how it’s all conveyed. There is a formula. That doesn’t mean you can’t play with it and experiment, but you have to know the formula first.
"Anyone who thinks that feminism doesn’t have work left to do is severely under-educated about the realities of the world."
Wilma: A big part of your work – and indeed, your personality – is finding space for solitude. How do you balance this now that you and your husband are parents?
EJU: [Laughs] This is an ongoing problem. I mean, an ongoing negotiation. The balance is usually off somehow. We’re only a year in, so I hope we’ll get better at it. My husband and I barter on a daily basis. We are ruthless about our creative time [he is a writer and cartoonist]. The baby’s needs come first, but after that we let the flat run to ruin if it means getting more time to do our work. We work in the evenings after he’s gone to bed. We work during his naps at the weekend. We don’t have family around so we have to grab the time when we can, so things take longer, but they still get made.
It’s not like it used to be when I was able to take off for weeks on end to the Highlands to finish a novel. But that’s the deal, and I always knew it was. I get to hang out with this marvellous little person, which is an adventure in itself. My motorhome and whisky days will come again, when he’s a bit bigger. It’s not like I’ve abandoned them or become this whole different person.
Wilma: Is there a particular place that makes you feel nostalgic?
EJU: My dad played a Ralph McTell album to me the other day in his car when I was up north visiting. We’d gone to collect a takeaway. Listening to music in my dad’s car is how I spent a lot of my childhood weekends, driving to and from parks and to places around the M60 ring road. He got me into Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Paul Simon. We’d discuss the lyrics and talk about how the albums worked. We’d go around the block rather than cut a good song short. I get really nostalgic about it. Those simple weekend adventures. I look forward to having them with my boy.
Wilma: The having it all mindset and the pressure that comes with it, seems disproportionately skewed towards women, especially in parenthood. Is it something you struggle with like the rest of us?
EJU: It’s a golden myth that women can ‘have it all’ and we’re sold this myth and meant to feel grateful for it – emancipated even. But it’s a poisoned chalice. Because talk about pressure! Our culture simply isn’t set up for us to have it all. There isn’t the support. There isn’t the money. What there is, is a whole lot of guilt-tripping and competitiveness. Women have to try and keep their careers going whilst also breastfeeding, not sleeping, carting around a colossal emotional mental load, dealing with hormones, recovering from childbirth, managing anxiety, and pretending she’s some kind of swan with everything looking calm (and hot! Lose that baby weight, etc.!) above the surface. No one can have it all under those conditions. If you try, you are probably going to break yourself in some way. I know I did.
Wilma: You break and reassemble.
EJU: Giving birth to, and raising a small child, has been overwhelming. Nothing could have prepared me for it. It has been seismic. But I am realigning. I will always have a wild part inside of me and nothing will change that.
Animals and beyond
Animals the movie is currently in production, directed by Sophie Hyde and starring Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat. Emma is working on her third novel and memoir. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @emjaneunsworth