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Sally Emerson: ‘For female writers, houses are about the atmosphere’

PUBLISHED: 08:00 29 March 2017

Sally Emerson

Sally Emerson

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It was a dilapidated house in Baalbec Road, Highbury Fields that inspired Sally Emerson’s novel Fire Child

It was a dilapidated house in Baalbec Road, Highbury Fields that inspired Sally Emerson’s novel Fire Child.

The author was pregnant with her second child and living nearby in Staverton Road when she went to see an old boarding house for sale.

“It was one of the few not yet gentrified,” she says.

“There was a plump landlady and we went from room to room. Each person was alone with a Baby Belling, I was struck by the strangeness of these people in their isolation, and when I imagined someone destroying people by fires I imagined him living there.”

Written 30 years ago, Emerson’s novel is being re-issued by Quartet along withe five others.

Re-reading books she wrote several decades ago has been like time travelling, says the Belsize Park author.

“It was an emotional journey,” she says.

“Usually when you look back you overlay things with whatever’s happened since. It’s difficult to get the clarity of the memory. But with the books it’s all there in detail, what you were thinking, feeling and absorbing at the time. That’s what you try to achieve in novels; to capture the sense of that person there in that place in that time. It’s as if I’ve got my whole life back, it’s so moving.”

Emerson was “particularly pleased” with her third novel Fire Child, a bestseller which unfurls through diary entries between a dangerous young firestarter and a girl who can seduce men with her smile. It’s twisted disturbing themes of good and evil have echoes of Gone Girl and modern day blogs.

“I was thrilled. It seemed more contemporary now than when it was published. The darkness, the diary entries, the anti-heroine with her cool, calculating seductions of men – she’s not me but she’s definitely my alter ego - it has a freshness and black humour that’s very much of the age I was when I wrote it.”

If Fire Child was inspired by the Baalbec Road property, Emerson says all her books have a house at their centre.

One in Vincent Square, Westminster produced her debut novel Second Sight, while another in Washington DC where she lived when husband Peter Stothard was US editor of The Times, was the setting for 1998’s Heat, a menacing tale of obsession, stalking and distorted memories.

“I didn’t know it but there had been two suicides in the house, it had an interesting atmosphere.

An old lady phoned me to say the ghost of her husband was in the house. I asked was he a nice man? She said ‘yes’ and I said it’s lovely that he is here.”

She adds: “Houses are often written about. Rebecca and Gone With the Wind came out of houses. With male writers they stand for things like Howards End or Brideshead Revisited but for female writers it’s about the atmosphere.”

Tired of living in “alternative realities” Emerson decided to inhabit the real world for a time and took up travel writing and editing poetry anthologies. But after a break from novels she’s now “playing about” with a book set in the Eton Avenue house where she’s lived for 20 years.

“Going back to these books is like recovering different parts of my life,” she adds.

“None of the characters seemed like strangers, they were still all part of me. I am almost more of a stranger to myself

now because I’ve known them longer. As life goes on you change in all sorts of ways but every time it’s new and rather surprising.

As a writer you always believe you’ll be better but that’s not always true.”

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