I first heard about Miranda Emmerson’s debut novel, Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars, when I was invited to the Big Book Bonanza last September. Miranda was one of the invited speakers and she and the book completely won me over. And that first impression was well deserved, as when I read the novel earlier this year I absolutely adored it. (Full review) It was a wonderful read, with great atmosphere, winning characters and a great plot. (I really wanted to ask Miranda some questions after I finished it and I was thrilled that she agreed to be interviewed for an Author Query. I hope you enjoy the resulting interview and that you’ll check out Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars.
Let’s start with the basics. Who is Miranda Emmerson?
Well, I’m someone who always wanted to be a writer and started when I was ten years old. Honestly, I would write whether or not I was paid to do it. Writing is my joy and my therapy and my way of having a conversation with the world. I did lots of other jobs in my twenties to pay the bills (secretary, receptionist, shop work, writing audio magazines for people with a learning disability) but I think that’s actually a good thing for a writer. If you’ve lived life then you have something to write about. I grew up in London but right now I’m living in south Wales with my young family and when I’m not writing novels I’m working on my doctoral thesis about the history of adaptation on BBC radio.
How would you introduce people to Anna Treadway?
Anna is a young woman who is ostensibly in control of her life. She works as a dresser in a West End theatre, she’s very well read, she doesn’t smoke, she doesn’t do drugs and she doesn’t date. As the story goes on we begin to realise that Anna feels she has to exert so much control over her own life because there’s so much human messiness in her past. Messiness which she’s running away from.
Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars essentially contains three stories, and more than one mystery. Anna, Iolanthe, and Barnaby each have their own story arc, though they all interweave in unexpected ways. Did you have all of them in mind when you started writing the novel, or did they insert themselves into the narrative as you went?
The whole of the book came into my head in a great rush – over the space of about 30 minutes one evening as I sat with my child who was at home with a fever. Anna, Iolanthe, Aloysius, Barnaby Orla and Ottmar were probably the main characters at that point. I knew that Anna and Iolanthe were central to my mystery, but I also knew that this was going to be a book about moving country and I wanted to have parallel stories playing out as the book went along. By the time I started writing pretty much all the characters existed and I’d have been scared to invite anymore in. The book as it existed in my head was already teeming with this plethora of voices.
The novel touches upon themes that are incredibly current — race, reproductive rights, immigrants — yet it is set in 1965. Why did you choose this era?
I wrote the novel in the winter of 2014/15 and it was the run up to the last general election in the UK. I was very aware of the amount of anti-immigrant rhetoric which was coming out of nearly all the political parties. There was a lot of highly emotive language and story-telling around the idea of some mythical all-white, homogenous England which people seem to think existed 50 or 60 years ago. And as the descendant of immigrants who knew a bit about the centuries-long history of immigration to the UK I just thought: “Right! Here we go. If the crazy politicians think 1965 was some white, Christian blank slate why don’t I write about the London that my parents were teenagers in. A London of extreme diversity – filled with lots of the same problems that we’re dealing with now. And let’s think about which things have got better and which things haven’t.”
What was the research for the book like? Did you listen to a lot of the music Anna would have heard in the clubs? Did you read a lot of history books?
Music is a huge part of it. I dug up lots of early ska and played it constantly. I listened to the jazz that was coming out that year as well as some of the pop. I watched television from 1965, films from 1965, little Pathe newsreel pieces about London and the clubs. I read and listened to lots of taped testimony of people working in that music scene and in theatre and what life was like as a black man or woman in 1960s London. I read a bit of history but I’m wary of the way in which historians tidy things up and try to give us a smooth narrative. I prefer primary evidence such as interviews and diaries to gain a real diversity of views.
The narrative is suffused with a deep affection for London and the West End. What is your connection to these places?
Well my parents are actors and I grew up in theatres – quite literally. Sometimes when both my parents were working the backstage crew would become my child minders. So I sat and passed a lot of time with costume people and dressers. Hence Anna’s profession. The Galaxy theatre in the book is based on the Phoenix theatre on the Charing Cross Road which my great grandfather Victor Luxemburg built with Sidney Bernstein in the late 1920s. My maternal great grandparents – being Jewish – had come over to the UK at the time of the pogroms and they’d worked their way up from factory jobs and sewing machine salesmen to property developers who built theatres and (much to my great grandmother’s shame) strip clubs in Soho. So I have an intimate relationship with that world.
What’s next for you? Any appearances planned?
I’ve done a couple of literary festivals now – Oxford and Stratford-upon-Avon – which is lovely and makes you feel like a ‘real’ author. I think sometimes it’s hard to believe that the thing you’ve done for pleasure for so long, writing stories in the privacy of your room in the evenings, has translated into a physical book which people are reading in large numbers. The paperback will come out in the UK this summer so I’m doing some appearances for that as well. I always appreciate the opportunity to leave my study for a bit and chat away.
Is there something else you’re passionate about other than writing and books?
Politics, probably. I grew up in a very politically active family and I’ve never understood the idea that politics is boring. Democracy is deeply imperfect but it’s a major organ of the countries we live in. We need it to work and we need to engage with it – in all its startling imperfection – otherwise we consign ourselves to a world run purely in the interests of a tiny, tiny elite. I also believe that the personal is political (a great rallying cry of late sixties feminism) and I believe that in telling stories we bring that to life. People need to make connections between the daily stresses of their own existence and wider political and cultural trends. This society didn’t spring from nature. We made it. And where bits of it don’t work, where they hurt us, we can remake it. That’s such an important thing to remember.
As a book reviewer, I’m all about the book enabling; I can’t help but want to make people read all the good books out there. But I can always use help. What are your top recommendations of books we should look out for in the coming months?
Oh, my goodness – that’s hard. There are some lovely books coming out of 4th Estate this year (and, yes, they do publish me but I loved them as a publisher for many years before I was lucky enough to join them as an author). There’s Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 about a missing girl and a community assimilating her disappearance – which is beautifully, delicately and thoughtfully written. Also Hadley Freeman’s Life Moves Pretty Fast – about her love of 1980s movies and what they tell us about our countries over the past forty years. That one’s a great holiday read, very moreish and funny and sneakily profound.
Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?
This is an ongoing war between my husband and myself! When we moved house we decided to make the main bedroom a library so we could fit all our books into one room. But my husband loves to have completely random shelves so you can browse and pretend you’re in a second-hand bookshop. This drives me completely nuts. I use the library as reference for my novels and my thesis and I can never find anything. So I am very, very slowly re-organising the shelves into genres and once I’ve done this I may start to alphabetize within genre. I’ve been sneakily arranging shelves here and there for two years and he hasn’t noticed yet!
Bio: Miranda Emmerson is a playwright and author living in Wales. She has written numerous drama adaptations for BBC Radio 4 as well as highly-acclaimed original dramas. Miss Treadway & The Field of Stars is her first novel.