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Sally Emerson Relives Her Life

21st March 2017 - Sally Emerson

 

Reliving My Life

 

Picture of Sally EmersonSally Emerson has been a novelist and journalist for more than thirty years. She has written for the Guardian, the Sunday Times and the Washington Post. The novels Fire Child and Heat shocked when they were first published in 1987 and 1998…. ‘The sexual politics run from the extravagant to the outrageous,’ said one reviewer. Are they still shocking? They certainly are, says their author Sally Emerson, six of whose novels are being republished this year.

 

 

 

 

 

Fire Child coverI had a phone call. Quartet wanted to publish all six of my novels as Rediscovered Classics. I read them again and time travelled through my life. At once I was back in Vincent Square in Westminster, the setting of my first novel Second Sight. The literary and thoughtful girl in love with Shelley is very much the person I was, in the house where I used to live (although thankfully I never discovered my dear mother having sex on the kitchen table).

Soon comes the rage of Fire Child set by Highbury Fields in London where I also used to live. Its cool and detached heroine seduces men from the age of 12. They patronise her, as I was patronised as a pretty young girl, and they boast, but in the end it is she who gains all the power, not them. Tessa Armstrong is my alter ego, the me who escaped the shackles of respectability. The dishevelled boarding house where Tessa’s lover lives is one I visited when I looked for a house to buy. It is all my life, but variations on my life – autobiographical in the details of feelings and smells, with the settings and houses even more urgent than I remembered, almost as though the houses I had lived in had made the stories up.

The novel Heat, described as a ‘classic tale of obsession in a claustrophobic city’, centres round our old house in Washington DC. Washington is a strange place, of dreams, built on a swamp, seeming so respectable with its fine white monuments but actually anything but. It is a city on the edge, far more so than old London that is strong and settled and very able to withstand anything as it always has. The house felt very vulnerable and the plot arose out of that.

While living there I found an old rusty sword in the back of the ‘crawl space’ or attic cupboard lined with sandalwood to keep out the moths and discovered the tale of the two male members of the family who lived there and had committed suicide, shooting themselves in the head. (No wonder we managed to buy it cheaply). Outside insects beat against the windows, racoons scuttled over the lawns and the humidity drenched us. I received a letter from a boyfriend who said I’d been the love of his life, when I knew I hadn’t. I read it up in the attic, which was always too hot, with growing disbelief and recall the black looping writing against the white paper. It was a fantasy of his and from that came the idea of Heat’s heroine, unsettled because she can’t get pregnant again, fearing her old boyfriend had come to take her back.

Reading my six novels is not like reading an autobiography but they do cover the ground of a lifetime, from growing up, to savage lust, to love affairs, babies, fear for them, and then a sense of love as part of a bigger picture. But I am as much the young girl troubled by her mother’s sexuality in Second Sight, as the mother in Separation afraid for her child. It is all still in me, in the way that we all contain all our past selves like Russian dolls, one inside the other.

While my novels time-travel me back and I burst into rooms where my heroine sits looking out of a window or draws a moth or seduces an older man with chilling innocence, everyone has moments when the outer dolls get shed and you’re back where you were. A photograph takes you back, an old friend, something you eat, or you walk along a childhood street and suddenly you’re a girl or boy in untidy school uniform. You are still that person, as well as the person you are now.

Did the novels improve in quality over the twenty-year period they were published? Do we ourselves improve as we pass through our lives? Yes and no. There’s a polish and command in the later books, a perspective, but a novel like Fire Child published in 1987 demands attention. It wants to write something that hasn’t been written before. It wants to tell you of a girl who can make any man love her because of her smile, and it tells you of how the young girl coolly seduces and destroys the older men who preen themselves before her. But I tried hard not to make it too erotic. It was about something cooler and stronger and more powerful than that, and it is her detachment, her lack of emotion in her diary entries, which shocks.

This raging book was written after I had had my first and very beloved child. She was gentle and spirited and loving but the novel I wrote in spare moments was anything but. It was as if the experience of having this extraordinary child had unleashed my creativity, connected me up to the moon and the devil as never before (she is a novelist herself now, Anna Stothard). I was never quite as angry again.

But Fire Child’s heroine Tessa is still my dark friend, as dear to me as the sweetest of my acquaintances, because it isn’t just the good people who make up the texture and the clamour of our lives but the bad people too, and our own dark sides – the people like Tessa and her lover Martin who dance on the edge of time and make hay with the devil.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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