Copying ‘Lolita’ and Bullshit Writing: An Interview with Emma Garland

Words: PJ Kimber

Featured Image: Credit Christopher Bethell

I have already met Emma Garland. But, this actually made me more nervous to meet her properly, introductions and all. I know her as the features editor at VICE – formerly of Noisey – and someone whose work I have admired for years. We first ‘met’ at the VICE UK 15th Anniversary party. I was a bit pissed and saw it as my way in. I thought if I could meet some people there and get my foot in the industry door, they’d be falling over themselves to commission me. It was, dare I say, the perfect plan (I do dare, indeed!). However, I clumsily wormed my way in to a conversation she was having, mumbled something largely incoherent about really, really liking her “stuff”, and left with my face full of red and covered in egg. It was an inauspicious start, absolutely, but here was my chance to redeem myself. After all, she probably wouldn’t even remember!

She remembers. But, thanks to a mutual passion for Greggs’ vegan sausage rolls and my ability to bury embarrassment deep inside my soul (in a healthy way, duh), the ice is broken. It is comforting to find out that this is Emma’s first public speaking engagement. It was mine too. 

After a relatively ham-fisted phrasing of “How do you find your ‘voice’ when writing?”, the response is affirming and reassuringly logical. “There’s only really one way to do that,” Emma explains, “and that’s just to write and read relentlessly, until you feel like you’re writing without trying to construct a sentence.” This strikes a chord with me, and I speak about how I recently read Validmir Nabokov’s Lolita and loved it. It’s also Emma’s favourite book. I loved it so much that I fancied myself a bit Nabokov-esque. This was clearly bullshit, as I can’t really write like that. “You were trying to copy someone,” Emma adds, encapsulating the problem with taking inspiration too far. 

In regard to finding your voice, she expands, “Along the way you find yourself being influenced by really strong writers. For example,” she continues with a laugh, “there was a time where everyone, by accident, started writing quite a lot like Joel Golby.” I reply, revealingly, “Oh my god, I was one of those people.” Elaborating, she says, “It’s a bit like radiation poisoning. It means you accidentally start using a lot of…” We said the next word together, as if nothing else could possibly be said, “Commas.” Nothing against commas, per se, but, when used inauthentically, they can, somewhat, not belong to you, look.

“If you can make a sentence shorter, do it.” This was a piece of advice I received from music writer Paul Lester in my first year at uni, and it became one of the most effective and applicable nuggets of knowledge I’ve learned (even though it may sometimes seem otherwise; brackets don’t count). I ask if there are any other top tips to bear in mind when writing. Emma shed light on a highly useful technique. “Often, you’ll find if you want to make a point quicker, just look at the first two paragraphs and be like, ‘Do these need to be there?’” (The original draft of this article opened with 2,000 words on my walk up the stairs to meet Emma, but I left them out. Especially since I ended up getting the lift). “One of my editors will hack the first two paragraphs away, almost every single time. I don’t think that’s particularly hard and fast, but generally speaking the first mistake young writers make is prioritising what they think is interesting over what the reader will find important. Most heavy edits will come within the first few paragraphs so when you’re re-writing a piece before filing, that’s a good place to start.”

Fleshing out the point, she says, “A trapping that I definitely still fall in to all the time is like, ‘Is this sentence actually saying anything or do I just like it, aesthetically?’ So you have to be really harsh on yourself. And as someone who’s favourite book is Lolita, I’m an aesthetes when it comes to sentence structure. So if it’s not saying anything, it’s best to lose it.” I then confess to falling hook, line and sinker in that pitfall by constantly putting, “indeed,” at the end of sentences (the eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that in this very article; congrats!). I say that when I do that it is, “Such a load of bollocks.” Emma laughs, sighs, and replies, “…Yeah.” Harsh, but more than fair.

“Write and read, relentlessly,” is a thread that stays taught throughout our chat. The reading part seems especially relevant, as Emma spent five-or-so years working as a librarian at a Welsh music conservatoire before picking up her first writing job at Noisey. After speaking about the seemingly comfy nature of having a staff job, and the terrifying idea of freelancery, Emma makes it clear that one thing should be the case: “Don’t just sit around and wait for someone to commission you. Keep a blog, start a website, write in public. The more you write, the better you’ll get.” I speak to Emma again over email and she says, “If you have an idea, write it now. NOW.” Being published is cool – plus you get paid for it, which is extremely cool – but first and foremost should come the love of the work. “If it’s not fun, and you don’t enjoy it, then I would maybe second guess why you’ve chosen to do it.”

During the interview, we heartily agree over the epicness of the revelation that Lana Del Rey, one of this generation’s greatest songwriters, has a framed ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ poster on her mantle-piece. Emma ends the interview, some 20 minutes after talking about that, in a similarly basic way, saying, “Write, Read, Have a Laugh.”

If it’s good enough for Lana, and good enough for Emma, then it’s good enough for me.

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