Emma is the author of the multi-award-winning Caleb Zelic series. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, RESURRECTION BAY, won the 2016 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction, as well as an unprecedented three Davitt Awards: Best Adult Novel, Best Debut, and Readers’ Choice. Resurrection Bay was iBooks Australia’s Crime Novel of the Year in 2015. Emma studied Australian sign language (Auslan) in order to research the character of Caleb Zelic in RESURRECTION BAY. The second novel in the Caleb Zelic series, AND FIRE CAME DOWN, is out now. Also a classically trained clarinettist, Emma’s musical career has ranged from performing with José Carreras and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, to busking in the London Underground. She lives in Melbourne and divides her time between writing, performing, and teaching.
I first got to know Emma through Twitter. When she visited Perth last year we took a long walk along Derbal Yaragan aka the Swan River and had a wonderful conversation about writing, and how some books take a long time to write and won’t be rushed, and how easy it is to fall into comparing yourself to other writers, but also, how pointless, because each writer has a different path. Here’s Emma on hers:
Parents and Language
My parents instilled in me a love of learning and reading, possibly because their own education was so hard won: they both left school young, only finishing high school, and then uni, when they were adults with a young family. When I was twelve, my father quit his job to become an actor. I often helped him learn his lines, the two of us going for long walks while we repeated the dialogue over and over. I think those years of feeling the rhythms of spoken language had a huge impact on my writing. I still read all my work aloud, often walking around the room while I do it.
I grew up on the outskirts of Melbourne, in a half-built suburb in scrubby bushland. Television was strictly rationed so my brother, sister and I spent a lot of our time exploring the bush and building sites, pretending we were travellers from distant lands. When it rained, we moved inside to read. Money was limited and we lived a long way from the library, so once I ran out of books I wrote my own stories. I wrote everything from illustrated stories to plays, but it never really occurred to me that I could be an author. Authors were American or British, usually male, and far, far smarter than me.
A weird Name And Weirder Sandwiches
At school, I was one of a small handful of kids with a non-Anglo background. While everyone else was tucking into their white bread jam sandwiches, I had homemade slabs of wholemeal packed with leftover stew. Much to the amusement of my peers. The message that my family was strange was sometimes subtle, but always clear, particularly when people found out that my Croatian grandparents didn’t speak English. It’s probably not surprising that I’ve been writing about outsiders ever since.
I began playing the clarinet when I was twelve and went on to study at the Victorian College of the Arts and the Rotterdam Conservatorium in the Netherlands, then pursued a career as a classical clarinettist. Being a musician taught me about the importance of practice. Practice is a simple equation: you begin by being shit at something, then get less shit when you work at it. It’s comforting to remind myself of this whenever I have a bad writing patch. Music also taught me a lot about the craft of writing. Classical music and writing have many things in common, including the importance of structure and rhythm, dynamics and tone.
I loved being a musician, but by the time I reached thirty I knew I was missing something. I felt a little hollow, as though I’d left something behind. It took me a while to realise that it was because I’d stopped writing. So I decided to write a book. It took me a year, but I finished a rough first draft and was completely addicted. I wrote another full length manuscript, then turned my hand to short stories. That was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Not only did it teach me how to tighten my writing, but I went on to win a couple of short story competitions: the Thunderbolt Prize and the Ned Kelly Award. Winning those awards really gave me the boost I needed to keep writing.
The Right Help At The Right Time
Around seven years ago I began working on Resurrection Bay, a contemporary crime novel featuring a deaf protagonist. I loved writing Resurrection Bay. It felt as though everything I’d written so far had been working towards it. But I had a problem: I needed constructive criticism, but I didn’t know anyone in the writing world and couldn’t afford to study or pay for mentoring. Then, halfway through my final draft, I came across the wonderful WoMentoring Project, a volunteer program that offers free mentoring to women writers. I applied to writer and editor Janette Currie and, to my lasting gratitude, she accepted me. Having someone look at my work with a clear and dispassionate eye was confronting, but illuminating. Janette told me where the story wasn’t working, then gave me the tools to figure out why. I’m now a volunteer mentor with WoMentoring.
Soon after working with Janette, the commissioning editor from Echo Publishing contacted me to ask what I was working on after my short story wins. Seven months later Echo published Resurrection Bay. Its sequel, And Fire Came Down, has just been published.