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Interview with Emma Healey: Winner of the Costa First Novel Award

12/01/2015 16:47 GMT | Updated 13/03/2015 09:59 GMT

Emma Healey has had a roller coaster six months: her debut novel, Elizabeth Is Missing, which sold for a six-figure advance, was published last summer to critical acclaim. The paperback was selected this month for the much-coveted Richard and Judy Book Club. And last week the twenty-nine year old writer won the Costa First Novel award and is now up against the likes of Ali Smith and Kate Saunders for the Costa Book of the Year Prize.

Speaking to Healey just days after the Costa announcement, I suggest that the events of the past week are pretty much akin to winning the literary lottery. She laughs:

I feel like winning the lottery kind of works for the whole process. Even getting a book published feels like winning the lottery so I don't know what this would be. It's absolutely amazing.

Healey's novel tells the story eighty-two year old Maud, suffering from dementia and yet compelled to solve the mystery of her sister's disappearance nearly sixty years earlier. It's a bold choice of heroine for a novel, not least one written by someone in their mid-twenties, but she's a character Healey pulls off with authenticity. But Healey did, she admits, suffer from many moments of self-doubt in the writing of Maud:

I was really worried about being twenty-three and trying to write from the point of view of someone in her eighties. I really thought that was stupid, I really thought I must be an idiot if I think I can do this. I thought that for a first novel surely people are supposed to write about their own lives. But I suppose her voice must have been quite strong in my head even that early because I couldn't really find a voice I liked as much. And so that's why I ended up carrying on.

The novel is, in a way, a homage to Healey's grandmothers. It was her paternal grandmother whose early signs of dementia in 2007 proved to be one of the main catalysts for Maud's appearance in Healey's imagination. But it was conversations with her maternal grandmother, who died in 2008 and to whom Healey was incredibly close, which gave her the idea for the historical strand of the novel, and the confidence to write it:

Just before she [my grandmother] died I had written down all the stories I could remember about her early life. She was a really good storyteller and I wanted to prove to her that I'd listened to them.

As such, getting the book "as good as I could get it" became almost obsessive for Healey. The novel took her five years to write and even when friends were telling her the manuscript was ready to send to agents, Healey continued to revise it:

I was worried that I would not do the idea justice. It was important to me that if I was going to do it, it would be as real as it could be.

When Healey finally felt that the novel was ready to send out, what followed was the stuff of writers' dreams: being snapped up by one of the country's biggest literary agencies and a nine-publisher auction for her novel.

It's easy when you read the headlines about Healey to assume that her road to publishing success has been plain sailing. But at fifteen, on the cusp of taking her GSCEs, Healey was hit by a crippling period of depression:

I basically just had a breakdown, was very depressed, suicidal.

It's a period in her life she's only recently begun to speak about publicly and yet one she describes with candour. Following various "hideous" interventions by GPs and social workers, Healey was taken to a mental health unit for admission. The duty psychiatrist refused to section a fifteen year old girl, suggesting the episode had been triggered by exam anxiety, and sent Healey home with the recommendation that she take some time out. Which is exactly what she did:

I just kind of dropped out of everything. I even stopped seeing friends and just had this year where I did pretty much nothing except worked on a portfolio for art college because I felt like that was the only lifeline, and wrote forty thousand words of a terrible Mills and Boon because I thought if I could write a novel and really become a novelist then I would be able to be in a room on my own and not speak to anyone again. And that kind of saved my life, actually. I still feel Mills and Boon kind of saved my life.

At seventeen, Healey won a place at Central St Martins, and a degree in bookbinding followed. It was completing her degree that was, she now feels, the moment she started to feel better:

Just knowing that part of my life where I had to be in academia of any kind - even art college - was pretty much over. I think that being in a classroom setting, there's just a switch in my brain that is like 'This is not where you want to be. Get out. Get out. Get out.'

Healey may not like being in a classroom but she does - as she refers to numerous times during our conversation - mostly want to be in a room by herself. I suggest that in the creation of Maud - a character so far removed from Healey's own experience - there was perhaps an additional layer of escapism in writing the novel:

I do think I'm trying to get away from myself more than anything. If I try and write something too close to me I just stop. It feels very self-indulgent, it feels embarrassing, I just cannot do it. The idea that I might depict myself accidentally is something that really makes me feel really squirmy.

While Healey might not like the idea of depicting herself in her novels, writing is of course an intensely personal activity and I wonder how she feels about her work being out in the world and having to contend with the public's response to it, whether positive or negative:

Yeah, it is a weird thing. I mean, why the hell would anyone put themselves out there like that? I really don't know. I suppose it's compulsion. Most writers you meet can't not write.

I guess that's what's weird about writing: it's like backing off and pushing something towards someone at the same time.

In talking to Healey, it becomes clear that it's not just the process of writing that's been cathartic for her; she tells me that one of the other revelations since publication has been the discovery of her aptitude for public speaking:

I've always hated public speaking or being looked at - I'm really not very keen on having a lot of attention - and then to be in a room having a hundred people looking at you, waiting for you to speak, I thought would be my worst nightmare and yet actually it's been okay. I've survived.

Given the enthusiasm with which she goes on to describe meeting readers and answering Q&As at book festivals, I suggest she might actually have rather enjoyed it:

Yeah, I kind of have, actually. It's been wonderful.

There's a modesty to Healey that's both endearing and refreshing. It's only when, during our conversation, some flowers arrive for her from a television production company that she reveals the TV rights to Elizabeth is Missing have been snapped up and scripts are already being written. And she neglects to mention - until I ask her - that her novel is at number three in this week's Sunday Times bestseller list. Since self-promotion is clearly not her comfort zone, I wonder how winning the Costa First Novel award has affected her.

I think in a strange way winning the first novel [award] was almost like a relief. People ask how your novel's going and I'm not very good at talking myself up. So if you can say, Oh well I won the Costa First Novel Award, that's not me telling someone that it's going well, that's me telling them a fact and then I can just not say anything else. It's a concrete thing - here's a thing I can hold on to, here's a justification of me saying I'm pleased to be doing this job.

I suggest to Healey that it sounds like winning the Costa award has almost legitimised her as a writer:

That's exactly it! Now I don't feel quite so embarrassed when people say, What do you do for a living? I feel more like I can say I'm a writer now than I could last month.

Whatever happens when the Costa Book of the Year is announced on January 27th, one suspects Healey will be able to tell people she's a writer for many years to come.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey is out now in paperback, £7.99

To find out the full list of Costa Book Award winners visit: www.costa.co.uk/costa-book-awards