How Novels Change

July 21, 2017 | By | Reply More

I thought my first novel was about a young girl who lives in a world of her imagination but I was wrong. When writing it I enjoyed the matter of fact way Jennifer Hamilton spoke to the poet Shelley and to Aphra Behn, the outrageous Restoration playwright who is said to be the first woman to make a living from her pen. After all, as a child, your teddies talk, your dolls talk, your imagination is as real as anything else.

Jennifer Hamilton is fifteen and making the transition from childhood to adulthood. She doesn’t want to leave the freedoms of childhood behind, where you can be anyone, imagine anything, and in front of you is only potential. ‘Her image of Shelley was not that of the gentle, persecuted angel presented by enamoured biographers such as Trelawny. She saw in Shelley something crueller, more vital.’

But when I reread ‘Second Sight’ recently (it is being reissued by Quartet) I realised it is much more about being an introvert in a world of extroverts. The first lines are about her extrovert mother: ‘Sometimes wondered that her mother could bear to go to sleep and part from her own company. She appeared to enjoy it so much. She was not alone in this. Everyone seemed to like her.’

Jennifer, however, ‘found it hard to enjoy herself. It was as though she knew she couldn’t do so as much as her mother and therefore wasn’t going to try. Instead she buried herself in her work.’ ‘Second Sight’ is certainly in some measure an exploration of my personality, autobiographical in that sense like many first novels but I did not realise it at that time. It would have been a useful guide to my way of thinking if I had had the sense of distance to realise it. It would have stopped me going on group holidays and finding myself hiding in libraries.

I used to suppose that most writers were introverts. How could you otherwise stand sitting for days alone staring into a computer? But then think of Dickens, Thackeray, so many great figures who bestrode their worlds like colossii, journalists, polemicists, actors, troublemakers. And Shakespeare, what would be have been like? Would he have sat quietly, taking everything in, then gone to a silent corner and rid himself of the people and the thoughts and the emotions by pouring them into his incandescent plays?

Is that maybe what writers do, divest themselves of the build- up of feeling and sensory overload which is distressing them. It feels like that sometimes. As Borges wrote in his great short essay about Shakespeare ‘Everything and Nothing’:  ‘The story goes that shortly before or after his death, when he found himself in the presence of God, he said: “I who have been so many men in vain want to be one man only, myself.”

The voice of God answered him out of a whirlwind: “Neither am I what I am. I dreamed the world the way you dreamt your plays, dear Shakespeare. You are one of the shapes of my dreams: like me, you are everything and nothing.” Certainly the introvert feels he or she is everything and nothing while a flamboyant, promiscuous character like the mother in ‘Second Sight’ (nothing like my dear mother) is a very precise and firmly drawn personality and knows it. It’s why people like her. They know who they are talking to.

But maybe it isn’t surprising I didn’t quite know what the novel was about.

We write sometimes to discover what a book is about. It takes us by the hand and leads us through it.  And when we’re writing we don’t the perspective of a stranger, we are too close to it.

I knew I loved Jennifer, her occasional prissiness, her passions, her innocence but above all her imagination and her courage. I was involved in her story, how her exciting imaginative world is threatened by the arrival of her mother’s handsome young lover. She finds herself seeing him as Shelley, idealizing him, when he is not at all like Shelley. She finds herself having a whole range of new emotions which she is alarmed by when he pays her attention. Her lurch into the real world is painful for her.

But of course writers never quite have to leave the play world of childhood. We are still telling stories. And of course many a first novel is about an introvert in an extrovert world, think of James Joyce’s ‘Portrait of the Artist’. It is because of the sense of puzzlement and overload that many writers write so it is scarcely surprising.

‘Separation’ is out at the same time as ‘Second Sight’. This too is not the book I remember. I was interested to note how the central protagonist began as the high-flying mother who has to leave her baby, then the focus moved to the highly-educated, strange woman who comes to help her until the real heroine of the novel became clear, the child who lives down the river and loves fairy tales. She takes control of the story because she knows, as in fairy-tales, people should get exactly what they deserve.

I liked the fluidity of it, like the river by which all the main characters live, and the way increasingly the patronized children, the apparently powerless children, turn out to have all the power. Again, it is a girl with imagination who runs the show, who turns her imaginative thoughts into reality, in this case to devastating effect. I hadn’t seen this similarity to ‘Second Sight’ when I wrote ‘Separation’.

But when I began ‘Separation’ – and this was well before ‘The Hand that Rocks the Cradle’ – it was going to be about the stresses of new parents and the fear of the intruder, the person who comes to look after your child. But the novels run away with themselves, have their own agenda, and tease the poor author as they dance by themselves. And sometimes they keep dancing, sitting in their bookshelves, changing over the years.

Curious that the novels I have written belong to me, and yet don’t at all. They seemed almost to have changed while I haven’t been looking at them, found more substance, and linked themselves together with themes. But of course time does that. And in some ways all my six novels began with that confused young London girl Jennifer Hamilton, dislocated from normality after the death of her best friend, who tries to keep hold of her imagination. The quiet girl in a noisy world.

Sally Emerson is the award-winning authors of novels including Heat, Separation and Second Sight and an anthologist of poetry and prose. She lives in London. Her website is


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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, On Writing

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