With her debut novel being described as the ‘Thelma & Louise for a new generation’ Australia-raised and now England-based author Emma Styles tells us exactly how it feels to have No Country For Girls so highly praised.
You can read my review HERE!
It’s been amazing to get the reviews we have for the book, both from bloggers and the press. I had a press reviewer tell me it was one of her reads of the year. I’ve had quite a few messages like that.
It’s scary, putting a book out into the world and not knowing how it’ll be received. A non-writer friend told me it must be like ‘putting your heart out there.’ I’m very invested in these characters so it feels a lot like that.
What got you into writing and how did studying for your MA at the University of East Anglia help hone your style?
I’ve always enjoyed writing and I remember thinking, aged 12, ‘When I’m old I’ll be a writer.’ At that age you think anyone over 16 is old! But I didn’t start my first novel until I was 40.
I got an agent very quickly with my first book, a YA mystery set on a cattle station in Western Australia. That book deal didn’t materialise and I spent years after that writing novels and not submitting them to anyone. I gave myself permission on the crime fiction MA course to let rip and try something new. It was an encouraging environment and really stretched me, which was exactly what I needed.
You were raised in Australia and No Country For Girls is set in the Outback. I’m guessing experience has had an impact on your writing?
The West Australian landscape has had, and continues to have, a huge effect on me. I’m grateful to have grown up surrounded by so much space and light.
We arrived in Western Australia as a family in the 70s and started road-tripping north the following year. Even though we lived down south in the city, those road trips really formed me. I loved the straight highway, the desert landscape and the unpredictable wildlife. I kept up my love of road trips as an adult, once crossing Australia with two friends in a vehicle that was not at all suitable for the drive, but we made it.
You were recently at Theakston’s International Crime Writing Festival, Harrogate. How was that as an experience?
That weekend was one of the best experiences of my life. This might sound over the top but when you’ve been striving so hard and so long for something, and you get the kind of recognition that being picked by Val McDermid for New Blood panel for debut authors gives you, it’s huge.
I’d never spoken in front of an audience of that size and I didn’t know how it would go, but we couldn’t have asked for a better crowd and I loved talking about the book. I felt thoroughly welcomed by the crime writing community too, which was awesome. They’re a friendly bunch of people.
Charlie, Nao and Geena are pretty much diametrically opposed characters with regard to personality. How did you go about forming them to become so three-dimensional, yet so individually drawn?
Charlie and Nao appeared pretty well fully formed during a writing exercise, so the early stages of writing them were easy. I’d never had such an immediate experience of character before. I knew right away they were opposites and I had fun playing with that.
It got harder, but more satisfying, as I drilled down into their motivations, especially Nao’s. Geena came later, once I knew I needed her point of view for the plot. It can take me months to figure out what my characters want, and I used to think I was doing something wrong because of that. But a lot of the feedback I’ve had has been about how original these characters are. I think that’s because I let events in the story reveal the characters to me as I write, which in turn tells me what needs to happen next in the plot.
Thelma & Louise has been one comparison. Assuming you have seen the movie, that must be a big deal?
It’s been incredible, because I loved that movie with a passion when it came out. I’d never seen women in roles like that before. Thelma & Louise was a big influence on the novel but it was still a surprise when the publisher used that comparison when they first announced the book and in all the marketing and publicity. At times I worried the bookwouldn’t stand up to comparison with such an iconic movie, but I don’t feel like that now.
You say in your biography, ‘always has a bag packed’. Has travel been a big part of your life? What’s your most memorable jaunt experience?
Travel has been a huge part of my life. The first flight I took as a kid was long haul from London to Perth when we moved out to Australia, so I got the travel bug young. I’ve often thought of myself as someone who loves the journey more than the destination, but that depends on where I’m going.
One of my most memorable road trips was driving from Vancouver to the Rocky Mountains with my brother. We’d never road-tripped together as adults before that trip and we were driving through landscapes and winter weather so different to what we were used to in Australia. It was an unforgettable drive, both in terms of scenery and the characters we met on the road.
How have Covid and the lockdowns impacted your writing?
I did a research trip home to Western Australia early in 2019, but after that, I couldn’t get back there at all until after we’d finished edits on the book. I did a lot of roaming Google Street View, and asked my Australian friends and family for their sensory impressions as they did the road trips I couldn’t.
At the same time, I think the lockdowns suited me for writing. And the fact I was missing Australia helped me conjure the landscape in my mind.
Aunty is a key, yet somewhat peripheral, character. I love her silent strength. Is she based on somebody you know?
Nao, Charlie and Geena all have bits of women I’ve known in the past but Aunty doesn’t as far as I know. And she is key as you say. I can picture her clearly and I love what you say about her strength because I knew that about her as soon as I started writing her. I’ve known many strong women in my life and there’s likely more of them in Aunty than I realise.
In true Desert Island Discs style, what book, luxury and song would you like with you on an island paradise and why?
One of my all-time favourite reads is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro but I wouldn’t take that as it’s too devastating to be my only book on a desert island. I’d take something that would make me laugh, probably the first of ArmisteadMaupin’s Tales of the City books. Or all of them in one volume. I loved those books and the world he created in them
To The Siren by This Mortal Coil is my favourite music track of all time and I’d take that. I love the scene accompanied by this song in the Peter Jackson movie of The Lovely Bones.
What comes to mind as a luxury item is a really good sunscreen! Probably more of an essential desert island item.
There is currently an adaptation of Michael Robotham’s The Secret She Keeps playing on TV. Who would you like to see play Charlie, Nao, Warren and Geena?
I can see Eliza Scanlen playing Charlie, a young Nakkiah Lui playing Nao, and a young Lana Del Rey playing Geena.
I have two possible second novels in progress, but the one I’m drawn to most right now is a serial killer thriller, again with two young women protagonists. It’s strongly influenced by the Claremont serial killer case in the mid-90s that haunted the neighbourhood where I and my sisters had grown up.
No Country For Girls by Emma Styles is available now. Read my review HERE and click on the cover images to order.