Quartet Books is publishing all six of award-winning author Sally Emerson’s novels as Rediscovered Classics in a newly designed series for 2017 (Sally Emerson was my guest in March when Fire Child was released).
Today, Sally Emerson is in my hot seat chatting about Separation, the fourth of the six stories reissued. Find out her inspiration, the scene she enjoyed writing the most and much more!
Daughter of a doctor and English teacher (who had worked in Hut 6 at Bletchley Park) who met at Cambridge, Sally Emerson is married and has two children, a journalist and a novelist. She spent three years in Washington DC 1989-1992, the inspiration for Heat and now lives mostly in London.
Since 2003, Sally Emerson has been travelling all over the world for The Sunday Times, writing about the adventures of travel – to the Galapagos, to the gorillas of Rwanda, to the dead craters of Tanzania, and has won various awards for her work.
Sally Emerson’s three recent anthologies of great poetry and some prose are about the three great subjects, birth, love and death: New Life, Be Mine and In Loving Memory. She has also compiled the hugely successful collection of poetry and rhymes for young children, The Nursery Treasury, and it is the dark wit and danger of so many of these rhymes which draws her attention. Jack and Jill may go happily up the hill but as in Emerson novels –note the theme of nursery rhymes in Separation – something bad can be about to happen at any moment. There is nothing bland about nursery rhymes.
Editor and journalist
Sally Emerson was editor of the literary magazine Books and Bookmen. She began her career there as an editorial assistant in a rat-infested basement in London’s Victoria Street. At Oxford she edited Isis and continued her reviewing work and wrote for The Times. She won prizes including a Catherine Pakenham Award, the Vogue Talent Contest and the Radio Times Young Journalist of the Year. After university she was assistant editor of Plays and Players then editor of Books and Bookmen publishing early journalism by such future greats as Ian Hislop and Sebastian Faulks, while writing her first novel Second Sight.
After the success of Second Sight she mostly concentrated on novels and screenplays. She has also written poetry which have appeared in various anthologies, including Richard Adams’s Occasional Poets and Daisy Goodwin’s Poems to keep you Sane.
Connect with Sally Emerson
Welcome back to Jera’s Jamboree!
Please summarise Separation.
The river Thames and two children who live by it, one a baby, are the stars of ‘Separation’, an unusual and dramatic novel about the pain of separation from those we love.
What was the idea/inspiration for your novel?
I wanted to write about the comedy, tragedy and terror of having young children. How we patronise them while it is they who hold the power. The story is intense and fast-moving, of a high-flying mother struggling with the problem of leaving her child, of her husband attracted to the unsettlingly highly educated nanny Sarah, and of the pain that Sarah suffers because she herself is split up from her little girl Alice. As the story gathers pace, it is the children who take centre stage and in particular Alice because, as in fairy tales, she believes everyone should get exactly what they deserve.
All my books start with a central image, and this was no different. The image is of a woman with a baby standing at a window of a beautiful flat looking out at the Thames. It is the fragility not of the baby but the mother which I sensed as she stood there, clasping the baby while outside the brown Thames rushes dangerously by. The novel is in a way an exploration of that image. The characters come afterwards.
Does Separation tackle a social barrier?
It does in a way. What I enjoyed most was bringing the baby and the little girl into the story as major characters. I felt that serious novelists were nervous of writing about babies (I know Ian McEwan wrote ‘Nutshell’ from the point of view of a baby, but a baby in the womb who is very articulate and knowledgeable) because they are considered innately sentimental subjects, and to do with women and therefore of a lower order of merit than subjects appreciated by men. I wanted to capture the heady glory of a baby in a way that was not sentimental and to achieve this I chose a slightly distanced tone to reduce the passion, at first. ‘Beware of babies. Joke about their dirty nappies, disparage their eating habits, laugh at their elderly expressions..…but never underestimate their power. They are the third person in many a bitter love triangle, they are the menders of many broken lives, they blink their blue eyes and the world turn in obedience.’
We think the central drama of life is the love between men and women but this novel questions that; maybe it is the complex and passionate relationships between children and their parents. I loved writing it and wrote it quite fast in Washington DC, with a deadline. As I wrote it I could see the river all the time, like time, putting our human actions in perspective.
Was there anything about your protagonist that surprised you Sally?
As I wrote ‘Separation’ the working mother Amanda, a decent and intelligent woman slowly becomes less mesmerising than the wilder Sarah, the nanny who is lost and desperate without her child Alice. However, by the end the central protagonist has shifted to young Alice who misses her mother desperately and works out her own, devastating, way of getting her back. But there’s another, unusual central figure – the baby Kate, ‘Ravishingly innocent, momentously tiny, she is making her steely mother into her slave, or trying to. Her mother is attempting to fight back. It will be interesting to see who wins, and to judge whether whoever wins really has won.’
What scene did you enjoy writing the most?
The first scene, when we’re introduced jubilantly and comically, yet menacingly to the mother and the baby and the person who has come to look after that baby: ‘This mother loves this baby more than anything, and the love is so intense it is hurting her, in the way that love can hurt even before the lover deliberately hurts you. The curtains bordered with ducks are drawn, enclosing mother and baby. The door-bell rings. The mother jumps. The baby stirs.’ I wrote ‘Separation’ first as a film script, and that helped to give it crispness and speed. I enjoyed keeping the simplicity in the descriptions, like a nursery rhyme with the danger in the undertow. It was a bestseller in the US, under the title ‘Hush Little Baby’.
Do you have a most creative time of day?
Always the night. My brain starts working better as the day goes on and is unfortunately at its best around 12 at night. Fine except normal people get up by 8 in the morning.
Do you have a favourite place to go for inspiration?
I go to write in my local café if I’m writing in the day. Oddly all the bustle helps.
Finally Sally, are there any tips you could share with new writers?
If you are writing a novel, try writing it as a screenplay first of all, to get the plot moving fast. It works wonders.
Thank you for being my guest.
Wishing you success with all your writing projects.
Paperback: 270 pages
Publisher: Quartet Books (22 Jun. 2017)
A compelling and moving novel set in London about the pain of being separated from the children you love.
Amanda is a high-flying management consultant with a loving and eccentric husband. Kate is her new baby and Sarah her mysterious nanny. And Alice is the child who lives by the river on the other side of London and who has recently developed a taste for fairy tales because everyone, in the end, gets exactly what they deserve.
As the novel moves towards its unexpected and shocking finale, the story wittily explores the dilemmas and sexual temptations of new parenthood and the zestful power of apparently vulnerable babies and children.