Sensational debut

PUBLISHED: 05:48 16 February 2015

Norwich bestselling author, Emma Healey. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Norwich bestselling author, Emma Healey. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

copyright: Archant 2014

This month Norwich writer Emma Healey finds out whether her first novel has won the prestigious Costa Book Prize – to crown a whirlwind year of rave reviews and bestseller lists, writes Rowan Mantell.

She was plied with tinned peaches as nine publishers competed for her first novel.

And when Elizabeth is Missing was published it became a summer sensation for Norwich writer Emma Healey.

Readers all around the world responded to her book.

“It’s all been incredibly exciting! Making the Sunday Times bestseller list was a highlight, the Costa nomination, obviously, but really, corny as it sounds, getting all the amazing feedback from readers has been the most exciting,” says Emma. “I’ve had tons of letters, emails and tweets from people who’ve felt an emotional connection to the story and the characters.”

Elizabeth is Missing tells the story of Maud, a grandmother whose world is disintegrating around her as dementia takes hold. But the novel is not simply about the ravages of old age; it is two mysteries, one set in Maud’s past and one in the present. As dementia loosens Maud’s grip on the present-day, the need to investigate a childhood tragedy becomes more insistent, and tangled with a modern-day missing friend.

One of the triumphs of the book is to tell these stories entirely from the compelling, confusing, endearing view-point of Maud.

The tinned peaches are piling up in her pantry because she forgets she has bought her favourite treat as soon as she returns from each shopping trip. But after finding an old make-up compact, buried in her friend’s garden it, she gradually unearths a terrible secret.

Since its publication last summer Elizabeth Is Missing has been sold and translated around the world and is to be made into a three-part television drama.

Emma, now 29, had to give up her job as a web administrator at the University of East Anglia to concentrate on her new career as a writer.

She began writing as a child but never thought of it as a career option.

“I told people that I was going to be a litigator. I really had very little idea of what a litigator was, but I had heard the term in Clueless. The dad was a litigator and it seemed like a proper grown-up job!” laughs Emma.

Instead she left school at 16 and went on to art school. She found a job in marketing, but continued writing in secret and was accepted on the prestigious masters degree in creative writing at UEA.

“I didn’t admit to having any aspirations because it was hugely embarrassing,” says Emma. “It’s like saying you want to be a pop star, or astronaut. You’re supposed to grow out of it!

While a student at UEA Emma worked in Norwich’s Waterstones – where she met her boyfriend, another UEA student.

“I never ever said I was writing when I worked there, but I did use to daydream about where on the shelf my book would go!”

What did not crossed her mind was it would be on the best-seller shelving.

Some of the inspiration for the book came from her grandmothers – one severely affected by dementia, the other always ready with stories and anecdotes.

Emma grew up in London but has fallen in love with her adopted home city. “Norwich is where the book really became what it is,” she says. “I didn’t leave London to live until I was 25 and I came here and it was like ‘Oh this is why people don’t live in London!’ Norwich is amazing. It’s busy enough. It’s just hipster enough. You can get good coffee and there are interesting shops but it’s not unbalanced. You don’t feel it’s too studenty or too local. And there are about a million writers in Norwich so it’s not difficult to find other writers to talk to!”

Now Emma is looking forward to travelling the world to talk about her book at international literary festivals – and getting back to Norwich to continue writing her second novel.

And has it a theme she can divulge? A title? “If I knew for certain I would tell you!” says Emma, “So far I seem to be obsessed with water and boats, dead birds, still life paintings, anonymous notes and Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. Will that amount to anything coherent? Only time will tell.”

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