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Sunday 18th of November 2018
Laura Tabor 1301 4th of January 2013 by editor 11th of January 2013
Emma Chapman
Playing on the mind

After a scramble for publishing rights, 26-year-old Emma Chapman’s debut novel How to Be a Good Wife is released this month. She tells Laura Tabor how the book takes readers into the claustrophobic mind of a woman living a mundane life while coping with spectres from the past

The opening scene of How to Be a Good Wife takes place in a pretty, clean kitchen which, like the house itself, seems so ordinary, so sanitised. It is only from the point of view of Marta, a wife and mother, that we start seeing that something may not only be imperfect, but deeply and utterly wrong in this home. What, however, is wrong? Reading the whole novel leads to answers, but even then questions may be left intriguingly open.
    Emma Chapman is a 26-year-old author and this is her first book; she wrote the story, inspired by a documentary on Post Traumatic Shock syndrome, whilst taking a Creative Writing Master’s programme at Royal Holloway College, University of London. “After seeing the documentary, I did a lot of research into Post Traumatic Shock syndrome, especially how people’s memories would come back and over what period of time that would happen. I discovered information about how severe trauma early in life can cause people to completely repress memories and then later recall them. That’s when the book really started to take form,” says Chapman.


Voice and place
The character of Marta, whose sanity comes into question within the early pages of the novel, is complex and strangely winsome. She’s an individual who you simultaneously want to yell at and comfort, depending on her current actions. Though she is an older woman, Chapman didn’t find it especially difficult to write from her perspective. “Once I discovered Marta’s voice the book really took shape; it took a long time for the actual plot to solidify itself, but I was interested in relationships that change over a long period of time, like marriage relationships,” she explains. “I think Marta’s character and her voice really drove the whole book.”
    Marta’s foil, her husband Hector, provides another bundle of surprises and the complexity of their quiet life together becomes more baffling as the conflict ratchets up throughout the story. At no point does the reader sit around idling, waiting for something to happen; the intrigue is continuous. All of this takes place in a rural, frigid area that, because of the mention of fjords, seems to match with Norway. “When I left university I did a lot of travelling around Norway and Sweden,” Chapman confirms, shedding light on the inspiration for the location. “I was just blown away by the scale of everything: huge mountains, fjords where you never knew how deep the water was. I just knew that those settings would really suit the feel of the book.”


Mind reading
In addition to family relationships, the themes of misdiagnosis and societal reactions to mental illness become important in the book, as the characters struggle with aspects of physical and mental realities that don’t correspond. “I think a really important thing to me was that it was ambiguous,” states Chapman. “I did some research into people being misdiagnosed; the psychologist will diagnose them based on symptoms they display and they might not be given the right medication or things like that. I wanted to raise those issues.”
    Like all authors, she gained insight from other books while in the process of developing How to Be a Good Wife. “Throughout the novel, Sylvia Plath [was an influence] because of how she deals with mental illness and unreliable narrators in The Bell Jar. Lots of literature about female instability and mental illness from the early 20th century, like Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, were instrumental too.”


How to progress   
Chapman has a group of eight fellow writers with whom she worked extensively in the early phases of writing the book, though they now work together less as she currently resides in Australia. She has been spending time on the marketing stage of How to Be a Good Wife, but is also turning her attention to a new project.
    “It’s about the experiences of a war photographer who goes to the Vietnam War, how they affect his relationships at home, and the rest of his life,” Chapman explains. “It has similar themes [to How to Be a Good Wife], about how an event in someone’s life can change them as a person, and whether you can ever experience something traumatic, something that affects you, and still be the same person afterwards.”
    Chapman’s advice to budding writers stresses getting involved in the publication realm and getting to know people who you want to see your manuscript, especially agents who can help in the process. “A lot of it has to do with luck,” she comments as the interview draws to a close, “but you can make your own luck in a lot of ways.”

How to Be a Good Wife, published by Picador, is available now.

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