Interviews – A few weeks ago I read and then wrote a review of the mystery “Death in Paris”. After I posted my review I contacted the author, Emilia Bernhard, and arranged to interview her.
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Myself: When did you first realize that you wanted to become a writer?
Bernhard: I don’t think I did realize, really. I always wrote, and at an early age, I was told I was good. Except for about five years when I had the worst and most painful writer’s block imaginable, I don’t think a day went by without my doing some form of writing — I kept a journal, I wrote letters and e-mails, I wrote essays for school and articles after I became a graduate student. And even today I write at least something every day; it would feel odd not to. So I think I was always a writer.
Myself: What is the first piece that you remember writing?
Bernhard: A composition while I was in detention in sixth grade (age 11)!
Myself: What is your academic and work background?
Bernhard: I have a Ph.D., and I work as a lecturer (professor, for Americans) in 19th-century British literature at the University of Exeter, in the UK.
Myself: Do you live there in Exeter?
Myself: Do you think that living there has affected your writing?
Bernhard: No. I scarcely even look out a window when I write, except when I stare at nothing while thinking! Lots of good cafes to sit in and revise, though.
Myself: How do you relax? What are your hobbies?
Bernhard: Well, my top hobby is reading. I also love to dance (ballet and tango), and I’m starting to get back into taking ballet lessons after a long gap. And I love going to the cinema or watching films at home. Oh, and I walk twenty-five miles a week, but that’s not a hobby: I do it to lose weight.
Myself: What else would you like to share about yourself?
Bernhard: That I’m cute as a button and don’t suffer fools gladly.
Myself: What’s the earliest book you remember reading for yourself?
Bernhard: “The Story of Ferdinand“, by Munro Leaf. I still love it.
Myself: Did you read much growing up?
Bernhard: I did nothing but!
Myself: What book that you read as a child stands out in your memory?
Bernhard: Hands down the answer here is “Jane Eyre”. I found it on a shelf in my classroom when I was 12 years old. I remember the cover vividly: it was purple, and in the center was a photo of a young woman holding a candle. I think it might have been abridged, because there’s a whole bit in the novel where she lives with some religious cousins, and I don’t remember that being in what I read; I was quite surprised to come across it when I re-read the novel as a young adult. I loved the book. I loved Jane — I was bullied, and I admired her quiet stoicism — and I was much struck by Mrs. Rochester. I still love it as an adult: I think “Reader, I married him,” is one of the most perfect sentences in fiction. And I still think the bit where she lives with the religious cousins could be left out!
Myself: What have you read recently?
Bernhard: Two biographies of Peter Sellers, both of which I put down before finishing — Peter Sellers seems to attract biographers who wish to inject antic wit into their biographies, and that didn’t work for me. Before that, “The Position”, by Meg Wolitzer, and her “The Wife”, which I loved, loved, loved; a biography of the Duchess of Windsor; and a book called “I Was Anastasia” that I picked up at random in the library. I read fast — I average a book in about three days — so I tend to read pretty widely.
Myself: What is your favorite genre? book? character? author?
Bernhard: Hmm…I guess I would say “intellectual novel” is my favorite genre if that’s a genre. I like best books in which there is subtext, and/or books that are well written.
I don’t really have a favorite character or author, because my job means I’ve read and taken to my heart so many characters and authors. I’m awfully fond of “David Copperfield”, book and character, and of “Great Expectations”. But a book I’ve turned to again and again when I need a comfort read is Maeve Binchy’s “Light a Penny Candle”. It was her first book, and it’s surprisingly good.
Myself: Where is your favorite place to read?
Bernhard: On my sofa or in bed.
Myself: Do you prefer paper or eBooks? Do you listen to audiobooks?
Bernhard: I absolutely prefer paper to any other format. Every time I open a book, even if I’m just idly looking at it, the first thing I do is smell it. You can’t do that with an e-reader, or with audiobooks! I love the different smells and feels of different papers, so paper reading is the one for me. I do listen to audiobooks, usually when I’m doing something that requires my hands, and I have read eBooks — but my issue with them is that I’ve already forked out for the Kindle, so I’m not going to fork out again for books to read on it — so the Kindle is just for books that are free to download.
Myself: What books do you recommend to others? Give as gifts?
Bernhard: I give “Jane Eyre” to every twelve- or thirteen-year-old girl I know well enough to give a gift to, and I’ve been recommending “The Wife” all over the place. Aside from that, I tend to try to suit the recommendation to the person. Tell me what you’re like, and I’ll tell you what you might like…
Myself: Why do you write?
Bernhard: For me, that’s like asking, Why is hair? I just do.
Myself: What makes you sit down and want to share your stories?
Bernhard: I’m still not really sure I do! My best friend pressured me to submit a novel to agents, and that’s the only reason I got this book published. Sometimes I think there’s nothing wrong with just writing for the pleasure of it, but then sometimes I think there’s no point in writing without an audience reading.
Myself: Is there anyone who has influenced your writing?
Bernhard: My father, without a doubt. He read everything I wrote until I finished my first academic book, and without him, I wouldn’t be the writer I am. Then there’s a whole host of writers I’ve read and admired: they all sit around in my head and occasionally inspire a joke or the structure of a sentence or scene.
Myself: How did you pick the genres for your stories?
Bernhard: It’s just whatever feels right. Although they seem always to include a murder, and that’s been true since I was in college thirty years ago.
Myself: Where do your story ideas come from?
Bernhard: Well, the idea for this novel, “Death in Paris”, came because I wanted to have someone drown in his soup. I thought the “died in his sleep/soup” confusion was very funny (sadly, I still do), and so I built from that line; I made up a story that would connect to that line. The idea for the mystery itself came from a very old murder that’s always seemed odd to me.
More generally, I would have to say I don’t know where my ideas come from. Sometimes I’ll just have a set-up (“two brothers”) that pops into my head, or there’ll be an idea (“jealousy”) and I build a story around it.
I don’t believe in inspiration as an outside force that descends, but I do believe we have a lot of things roiling around in our subconscious-es and unconscious-es, and sometimes something randomly comes bobbing to the top, entering the conscious mind — I’d call that inspiration, and I think it’s where my ideas come from.
Myself: Where do you do your writing? Why there?
Bernhard: I write on a desk I bought from Ikea that is essentially a long piece of wood laid across two trestles. I have desk daydreams; I fantasize about a desk that’s as long as an upended door — maybe even longer! — with a center drawer for my pencils and some paper and a pale wood smooth surface. I’m pretty sure that’s my ideal desk because it suggests a kind of blank emptiness, which I find intensely soothing but very rarely encounter in my home. Oh, and I turn the desk either so it faces a window or so it’s at right angles to it because I love natural light and like to glance out the window at the sky while I’m writing.
Myself: What is your schedule like when you are writing?
Bernhard: Well, because I have another job that’s very intensive in fall, winter, and spring, I generally write my first drafts in the summer. Academics are working all the time, but in the summer the work we’re expected to do is research and writing. So I fit writing my initial drafts around the academic writing I do in the summer. Because I can do the revisions in little chunks, I do it during the school year, for between an hour and two hours a day.
Myself: As a part-time writer how do you fit writing into your daily schedule?
Bernhard: Well, I have no family. As Joan Baez said, “I am made to live alone.” And I realized early on that I don’t have the temperament to be a mother, so I’m not one. This makes it much easier to write, but of course, I still have a job. So I set myself a low goal, 1,000 words a day, and I try to stick to it even on work days. I’m most awake in the evening and at night, so I’ll usually do the 1,000 words then. Some days it takes an hour; some days it takes much time and hair-pulling. And some days I don’t make it, which is fine. But I do write at least one paragraph a day.
Myself: About how long does it take you to complete the first draft? How long do your revisions take?
Bernhard: First draft – six weeks to five months. Revisions take much, much longer — up to three or four years. And it’s still never perfect.
Myself: How much research do you put into a novel?
Bernhard: An ENORMOUS amount. I look up everything I don’t know. For my first mystery, I read up on French law, the structure of the French police, and even the architectural history of Paris. And I use Google Maps obsessively. Walking the streets via Google Satellite is hugely useful to me.
Myself: What tools (software?) do you use in your writing?
Bernhard: Just a Macbook and a pencil, a red pen, and paper.
Myself: What are the hardest and easiest things about writing?
Bernhard: The hardest thing about writing is writing the first draft and trying to remember, while doing so, that the awful and inadequate glop you are producing will NOT be the finished product — trying to remember that this is how first drafts always are, and they always get better.
The easiest thing about writing is not doing it! Someone once said that the only thing writers like better than writing is finding ways to avoid writing, and that’s 100% true in my case. There’s always something to tidy, or organize, or watch on TV, or laundry to do or a cup of tea to make, that can delay sitting down to write. I don’t think this is out of fear of the blank page; I think in my case it’s out of fear of the hard work. Almost anything seems smaller than the production of good writing does.
Myself: What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Bernhard: You don’t need to be published to be a writer; look at Emily Dickinson.
You shouldn’t look to other people to validate your writing, but you must be the harshest critic to yourself that you can be, no matter how good you think you are: always question all your judgments and every word (except maybe the prepositions).
Don’t wait for inspiration. Write every day, even if it’s just a little bit because writing is a job like any other: the more you do it, the better you get.
First drafts are horrible, and the experience of writing them is horrible. The revision is where you make it good. My father always said, “The first time, you don’t have to get it right; you just have to get it down.”
About 80 to 90% of what you write in your early drafts will be bad. If you write one good sentence in the early days, you’re winning.
Don’t put anything in a story or novel that isn’t in the service of that story or novel, unless you’re just writing for yourself (which is fine; see my first piece of advice).
Cut cut cut cut cut cut cut.
Revel in the pleasure of writing. In those rare moments when you feel like it’s all going perfectly, enjoy it! Enjoy, too, the extraordinary fun of being able to create a complete world, with complete people performing actions. And enjoy making your writing better. Never underestimate the power of the right revision.
Never stop writing to make mayonnaise or open a bottle of wine. Robert Louis Stevenson stopped in the middle of a sentence in order either to make mayonnaise for his lunch or (depending on the story) to open a bottle of wine for his lunch. He had a brain hemorrhage and died while doing that, and he never finished the sentence. Or the book it was in.
Myself: What novels/works have you published?
Bernhard: A mystery, “Death in Paris”, and a scholarly book about Lord Byron’s philosophy of knowledge, “The Development of Byron’s Philosophy of Knowledge: Certain in Uncertainty”. Also a number of academic articles.
Myself: What are you currently working on?
Bernhard: I’m working on my second mystery, tentatively titled “The Books of the Dead”.
Myself: What else would you like to share?
Bernhard: Three things come to mind:
- Donald Trump is a dangerous idiot who is peddling a fantasy of power to people who feel powerless. Please don’t vote Republican now.
- Age can bring a depth of understanding and feeling that is to be welcomed. Youth is often over-rated.
- The voices of the seemingly ordinary and uninteresting are fascinating and deserve to be written and heard — the complexity and bravery of a life occur inside, not necessarily in large actions and demonstrations.
Myself: How should your fans follow you or get in touch?
Bernhard: I have a Facebook author page: Emilia Bernhard Author Page. I’m also on Twitter: my name is @1LaMew. They can follow me on Instagram at emilia_bernhard. Or they can contact me via the University of Exeter.