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Publishers battle for rights to student's debut novel

Posted on 09/12/2011
Emma Chapman

When a Royal Holloway alumna was penning her debut novel during her Creative Writing course, she could not have dreamed that it would lead to publishers scrabbling for the rights. But that is what happened to 26-year-old Emma Chapman.

Leading publisher Picador has secured the rights to How To Be A Good Wife – a tale of marriage and memory ­ in a pre-empt deal, leaving Emma shell-shocked and delighted in equal measure.

“Until a few weeks ago, I still wasn't sure that all the hard work and time I had put into the novel would pay off,” she reveals. “The thought that after three years of work I might be sent back to the drawing board with a blank sheet of paper was pretty terrifying.” 

Emma wrote the novel during her year-long course at Royal Holloway, University of London from 2008-2009 while juggling the commitments of the full-time course and working part time for Toby Eady Associates Literary Agency – the agency that would later represent Emma.

She said: “The course was recommended to me by my creative writing tutor at Edinburgh University, where I studied English Literature. I was drawn to the course as it was one of the best in the country, tutored by Sir Andrew Motion. It was invaluable for my career: it made me show my writing to an audience, to recognise the flaws as well as the merits, and gave me the time and space to get going with my novel.”

The novel tells the story of Hector and Marta, who have been married a long time - so long that Marta finds it difficult to remember her life before him. Marta has done everything she can to be a good wife, and Hector has always taken care of her. But when Hector comes home with a secret, their careful domestic life begins to unravel, and Marta begins to see things, or perhaps remember them. In the darkness, there is a blonde girl who only Marta can see, and she is trying to tell her something. 

Emma explains that the inspiration for How To Be A Good Wife came from a documentary about Post Traumatic Shock syndrome. “I was fascinated by possibility of repressing a memory, only to have it resurface many years later,” she said. “It is amazing what the mind can do to survive certain traumatic situations.  This is where the idea for the book came from, though it changed dramatically throughout the writing process.”

Emma admits that she still has to remind herself that her book is going to be published.

“For me the process of securing an agent was fairly quick. I sent my book to the agency I had worked for and they took me on as an author. I worked on the novel with Jamie Coleman and Samar Hamman at the agency for a further year and a half before we pitched the book to fourteen UK publishers.  Picador offered a pre-empt for the book which we accepted as I was excited to work with such a great publisher and editor Francesca Main.  When we accepted the Picador offer, there were several other publishers still interested in the book.”

Offering advice to other young authors, Emma said: “The advice I would give would be to keep going, to keep hope, to work hard, and to give your book the best chance of getting noticed.  You can write a brilliant book, but if the right people don't see it, it ultimately won't lead anywhere.  If you want to make writing your career, you have to focus on what will increase the chances of making that happen. 

How To Be A Good Wife is due to be published by Picador in Spring 2013.


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