Emma Stonex - Writing What You Don't Know

Jan 24, 2021
emma stonex

Emma Stonex is the author of several books written under a pseudonym. Before becoming a writer, she worked as an editor at a major publishing house. The Lamplighters is her debut novel under her own name. It's the eagerly-awaited 'super-lead' title for Picador, published this Spring.

Emma will be our guest author for a live session for members in March.

From the Desk of Emma Stonex

I wrote nine novels before the one I knew nothing about. There aren’t any lighthouse keepers in my family, I haven’t (thank goodness) mourned a missing person, I don’t even live by the sea. The Lamplighters isn’t based on my experience on any direct level, and yet strangely it’s the only story to date I’ve felt an urgent need to tell. The advice is to write what you know, but I’m not sure I agree. Writers are curious. If this isn’t a job about occupying new worlds, what is?

A writer’s trade is her imagination.

She has a responsibility to learn about other people and other lives and convey to the reader in an entertaining fashion what she has learned. She must inhabit fresh perspectives, and in doing so challenge her own. A novel isn’t meant to be a sermon delivered from standing; it’s a machine of moving parts working symbiotically with its readers, both parties engaged in exploring and understanding unfamiliar territory.

Of course, an author puts herself into it. I’ve never kept a lighthouse in the middle of the sea, but I do enjoy being on my own; like many writers I’m introspective; and I feel an affinity with the ocean and the wild splendour of nature. These are things I gave Arthur, the Principal Keeper of the Maiden Rock, as a character who prefers solitude; then I had only to imagine taking those qualities to the extreme. In today’s changed world, we’re all acquainted with the concept of quarantine, but when I began writing in 2018 it felt a welcome escape from the chaos of a hyper-connected society. There are bits of me all through the novel, from Bill’s memories of scattering ashes in West Bay to Vince’s taste in poetry and music, but the lighthouse world was altogether new. I wanted to get it right, for it to feel less romantic than authentic, and for, if I were lucky enough, an ex-lighthouse-keeper or his relative to read it and think, yes, it did feel a bit like that.

For years, while I was writing other stories, the lantern shone at the back of my mind. I read everything I could about lighthouses, from technical manuals to memoirs and histories, from interviews with keepers to accounts of the Stevenson engineers. It didn’t feel like research with a capital R: it was a pleasure, a sly indulgence aside from the book I was supposed to be writing, the muse I’d heard other writers talk about but had never experienced myself. I remember staying in a Cornish cottage with a friend when the story was only a seed. We were besieged by sea mists. I stayed in bed all day reading about life on a tower lighthouse, feeling, as I looked out my bedroom window and saw nothing but eerie coils of grey, that I might be on one.

Where does this passion come from? More than passion, in this case: obsession. I steadied my ship against many storms and much heartache on the passage to The Lamplighters being published, but I am sure that if I hadn’t completed this book, it would have refused to be forgotten about; it would have driven me mad before accepting such a fate. I was learning about a world distant to my own, but at the same time it felt uncannily close to my heart. Why? The lighthouses called me to write about them because they were calling to something inside me. Is it as prosaic as an interest that grows relative to the time you put into it, or is it more mysterious than that? 

Ever since I was little, I’ve been fascinated by lighthouses. Land lights carry the charm and beauty of seaside holidays, conjuring memories of crab nets and brown seaweed coiled round the ankles. But the sea stations captivated me most. Miles from shore, their ghostliness lies beyond their abandonment (the last light to be automated in the UK was in 1996) – it’s in their lonely situation, the vast expanse of water from which they audaciously climb, the melancholy longing they seem to emit like a lost soul looking for others of her kind. It’s this searching that’s so powerful, I think. The light beam illuminates for ships at sea, but it also reaches for an unnamed thing; it seeks connection through the darkest night and across the greatest distance. For an author, there are surely few constructions as symbolically rich as this, especially in the midst of a pandemic.

I can trace my love of the sea back to the staircase window at my grandmother’s house on the Isle of Wight. My granddad was a merchant seaman who was away from home for long stretches at a time. Did I ingest at a young age the idea of a woman competing with the indifferent ocean? Was it the distant view of Fawley power station on the mainland that stirred the beginnings of the Maiden Rock? Is this where the sea first spoke to me? Maybe. Or maybe it was none of those things, just a theme that piqued my interest and the more I found out about it, the more I wanted to know. The scope and variety of literature lies in these weird creative summonses, against whose persuasiveness authors are powerless to resist. In The Lamplighters, Helen poses the question, ‘Why does anyone write about anything?’ I’m still trying to answer that, and when people say quite rightly that writing is a lifelong apprenticeship, perhaps this is what they mean.

I try to tread as quietly as I can in my books. I prefer not to be seen. Writing is a chance to let other people, lives and ideas emerge, with the author telling these things as honestly as she can. Nevertheless, all art is necessarily self-portraiture, and in writing about three lighthouse keepers in the 1970s – in writing about something I didn’t know at all – I ended up reaching a deeper place of recognition and acceptance in myself; I ended up writing my way home.

 

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