Words by Fiona McGowan
Young Adult author, Emily Barr, talks risk, reward and the state of the world.
We’re sitting, appropriately enough, drinking coffee in Waterstones in Truro. Emily Barr, one of Penguin’s top Young Adult (YA) authors, has had something of a renaissance since she first penned a complex thriller about a teenage girl with a brain disorder that affects her memory. The One Memory of Flora Banks was written on a wing and a prayer back in 2015, when Emily decided to go off-piste from both her regular style of writing and from her publisher, Headline. She took a gamble and it paid off – magnificently, as it happened.
Having written 12 adult novels, by 2015 Emily was an established author in the genre of psychological dramas with a bit of romance thrown in. But when she was asked to write a sequel to her last novel – about a woman having an affair with a man she meets on the sleeper train, travelling from Penzance to London every week – Emily baulked. She wanted to write a story based in Svalbard in the Arctic Circle, with a young female protagonist from Penzance. Emily was so determined to follow this storyline that she walked away from her publisher. As a single mother of three children, it was a huge risk, and she struggled: “It led to the most massive financial pressure – I was teaching creative writing courses and doing lots of other things to pay the bills.” Emily’s agent at Curtis Brown advised her to re-calibrate the novel as a YA story. “I was writing it and re-writing it and editing it and trying to get every word right for about a year,” Emily remembers. “My finances were completely falling apart. My credit cards were going up and up, and the zero percent deals were ending and it was just overwhelmingly terrifying, financially. I was completely shielding the children from it so they didn’t really realise, but we were absolutely teetering on the brink.”
This crisis point must seem like ancient history to Emily today. Her agent started a bidding war between Harper Collins, Bloomsbury and Penguin and finally got a six-figure book deal with Penguin – selling into 15 languages pre-publication. Emily could not have been more relieved. Since that frenetic time, she has written three more YA novels, married her partner Craig Green, and the family has moved together into the heart of Truro. While her life has become infinitely more secure over the last five years, however, the wider environment is becoming more insecure. Emily is passionate about what is happening in the world around her, and although she loves to escape into her novels, the impact is still striking deep into her core. While she is not able to talk in any detail about her fourth YA novel, she can say that it relates to her response to the climate crisis facing us all: “I can definitely say that my next YA book is a sort of countdown to the apocalypse.”
Emily began her career as a journalist for the Guardian, where she started off doing a work experience job, progressed to working as a columnist and ended up writing a fictional chick-lit style diary for the sports section. Looking back, she recognises: “I never followed up opportunities to get claimed as a news journalist, and I was always wanting to write a novel.” In the spur of a moment, she suggested to the travel editor that she would go backpacking for a year and write a column while she was at it. The column was sponsored by a travel agent and her only commitment was to write a piece every two weeks. It was 1999, and long before the social media revolution, so Emily’s regular updates from her travels were relatively groundbreaking. She began to write a novel ‘on bits of paper’ and on her return exactly 12 months later, she had already found herself an agent: “It was a different era back then.” While she was away, she emailed an old Guardian colleague, and said: “Oh, you know your friend, the agent, can you give me his email address?”
Emily knows that she was very lucky to have found an agent (she is still with Curtis Brown today) and to get an advance. “I got my first book deal having written six chapters and a synopsis, which just wouldn’t happen any more,” she admits. “Publishers want the book to be finished before they commit to it now.” Her first novel, a suspense thriller called Backpack, came out in 2001, five years after Alex Garland’s The Beach became a bestseller and carved out a ‘backpacker thriller’ niche on the shelves of Waterstones et al. Emily’s writing career took off, and she went on to write 12 novels for Headline. On the side, she ran numerous writing workshops and for a time, joined forces with her partner Craig to run a creative writing school.
Because of her background in journalism, she says, Emily prefers working to a deadline, offering dates to her publisher which sometimes create stress in her life… not least when planning to complete a novel by the last day of this summer holidays (she just got the manuscript sent in on 31st August). Then it’s a process of edits and re-writes, which again has to be done to a deadline. Emily and Craig are currently writing a children’s book together, and at the same time, she is writing an adult book – a dystopian sci-fi thriller. “In the current political situation,” she explains, “I find everything that I’m writing is turning really apocalyptic.”
Emily’s YA novels explore the shifting identity from child to adult in the context of high drama and psychological tension. “You’re going from one state, of being looked after, to the other state of being responsible. Working out who you’re going to be when you become that adult. Shaking off the people looking after you and taking more and more of your own way of dealing with the world.” Having teenage children herself has given her inspiration as she watches the “immense amount of unfurling” and brings back vivid memories of awkwardness as a teenager. Travel remains a central part of Emily’s novels: the last three have been set in Norway, Rio de Janeiro and India, adding a spicy backdrop to the teenage dramas. The most recent YA novel, The Girl Who Came Out of the Woods centres around a commune set up by idealistic backpackers in the 90s – the era when Emily herself was travelling the world. The commune has separated itself from the world for decades, but a crisis causes the community to become sick and one of the teenage daughters has to leave to get help. The coming-of-age experience is intensified as the protagonist has been so removed from the modern world: “It’s a kind of exaggerated story of finding who you are. And she has to deal with social media and she hasn’t even seen electricity before. It was really fun to write...”
Emily herself seems to have been reaching a different coming of age. As a mother of teenage children, her talents as a writer seem to have developed a deeper purpose. “It’s impossible not to be affected by the world around us,” she says, with passion. “You can go to the demos or whatever, but all you can really do is use your voice. The state of our world today is the only thing I want to write about.”