Alumni Spotlight: Emma Hooper

Fewer Flying Dolphins

Photo by Martin Topkins

Photo by Martin Topkins

Emma Hooper, the best-selling first-time novelist of Etta and Otto and Russell and James (E&O&R&J), embodies the whimsy of her plots and characters. When we meet over Skype for this interview (as Hooper resides in Bath, England), she sits cross-legged in her neighbours’ home, her body framed in a compact hallway. She explains that the Internet in her home is down, so she had to rush over to use her neighbours’ after mowing the lawn. Hooper fusses over sweat and grass clippings in her dark hair (accented by a strip of grey), but she looks as put together and effervescent as in her author photo.

Hooper can’t recall a specific moment when she decided she wanted to write, “It was just a thing you do. When you’re a kid and you’re drawing, no one’s like, ‘Oh, why do you draw, Timmy?’” Growing up with a mother who worked as a librarian, Hooper remembers loads of books piled around the house and that she was always reading. On top of her writing, Hooper has other outlets for her creativity, such as playing viola, violin, and other instruments for her string quartet, The Stringbeans, and her solo project, Waitress for the Bees. “I like to think that everybody has some sort of instinct to create at some level. And some people knit and some people play electric guitar and some people kind of tinker with cars—there’s lots of outlets for that.”

Hooper finds it easier to write music than she does stories, “writing’s not ridiculously hard or anything, but it takes more work because words are so specific,” she says. “They mean exactly what they mean. Whereas with music, there’s a lot more fluidity of meaning and you can play around with it a bit more.” Taking a break from one also helps her work on the other;  she mentions that if she ever feels backed into a corner while writing, she leaves it to play the piano. “It’s a nice way to unclog whatever is the problem,” she explains. “Whether it’s for music or writing, they’re like two different languages. If I don’t know the word in this language, I can go use this other one.”

Another trick she has for inspiring her writing is flipping open her copy of Alessandro Baricco’s novel Ocean Sea, which she keeps on her desk. “I open it to a random page and read two or three sentences and that’ll get me kind of in the right tone, the tone of being really careful about word choice,” she explains. “I take it in really small chunks; it’s like really dark chocolate.”

In her writing, Hooper says she likes to add in whimsy and playfulness, and make her characters be good. “I find in literature, often but not always, you get sort of a focus on darkness, which exists and is fine and adds tension,” she says, “but I can get a little bit frustrated by reading about all of these people who are empty and horrible and sad all the time. Even though a lot of those books are great books, I think that actually in real life, people are mostly good. People are mostly trying to do and be the best they can.”

E&O&R&J is a complete mould of her fantastical style. In the novel, Etta, an eighty-three-year-old woman with Alzheimer’s, decides she wants to see the ocean, so she leaves her Saskatchewan home and starts walking east, and soon meets a talking coyote named James. The novel has been incredibly well received—it was a nominee for the First Novel Award, but perhaps most impressively it only took  twelve hours for Penguin Canada to offer her a contract. “People in publishing are crazy; I don’t know how they read it so fast—or skim read it. Four people skim read it in those twelve hours. The first person did and was like, ‘Wow, I really like this,’ so she fired it off to everyone else.” She then received a hearty advance in exchange for not shopping the manuscript around to any other Canadian publishers. When I ask her if she thought about holding out, she responds, “To be honest, I’d been trying to sell my other book—it had been like two, two and a half years of just trying to get someone to pay attention—and so...they could have offered me $20 and I would have been like, ‘Wahoo!’”

E&O&R&J is actually the third novel that Hooper has written. She says of the whole experience, “Writers just have to be prepared to be both really humble—because you’re going to get loads of rejections—and be really self-centred the whole time where you think it’s really worth you writing through all of that.” She doesn’t regret writing the first two novels though, as they helped teach her how to write one. “Some people in my [Master’s] course and some people in general write amazing first novels, but the vast majority write a first novel to learn how to write a novel. And they turn around and look at it and go, well, that’s how it’s done and this is embarrassing. I’m going to throw it away and start again for real.”

Whether it’s a first novel, a third one, or just a short story, Hooper says it’s important to trust yourself and not let the editor and the artist interact. “When you’re working, especially on your own like with solo music or writing, you have to be both things—both the person who’s creating and the person who looks at what’s been created and says, ‘Um, that’s ridiculous. Maybe you should have fewer flying dolphins.’” It’s better, she says, to follow your imagination down whatever crazy path it wants to go—no matter how soppy or happy—and then review it later in your editor role. She says to develop that role, writing classes or groups are very useful. “They teach you, more than how to be that artist person, how to be that editor person because of that whole workshopping process where you bring in your work and everybody critiques it. The first time that happens, it’s like someone punching you in the face, and then you get more and more used to it...and by the time you finish, you step away and you don’t need those people anymore. You’ve sort of learnt how to reflect on your own work and analyze it and make it as good as it can be.”

Most importantly, Hooper recommends writers have friends who are writers, but don’t let yourself be competitive. “It can be easy when it’s such a difficult marketplace to just kind of resent other people’s successes and publications, but writing’s a lonely craft and you definitely want to have other novelists or writer friends to kind of connect with sometimes,” she says. “Don’t live alone in your garret.”

— Matthew Stepanic