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Emily Winslow Book and Novel

Emily Winslow - Author

Emily Winslow is an American living in Cambridge, and her books are set here and surrounding areas. She trained as an actress at Carnegie Mellon's elite drama conservatory, which inspired her use of multiple first-person narrators, and her years designing puzzles for magazines inform her playful, complex plot structures. She lives in an award-winning architectural wonder and she and her husband homeschool their two sons.

Author photo © Jonathan Player

Below is a Q&A with this author.

1. What should a reader expect when they pick up The Whole World?
Two American young women, students at Cambridge University, fall in love with England and Cambridge, and with a charming graduate student who then disappears. The story is told from five points of view, including the two women, their crush, an imposing blind professor, and the police detective who tries to make sense of their unfolding story.

2. Did you know from the start that you would write crime? What interests you about the genre?
I love reading crime, so it seemed natural to write it. I love the puzzles in crime stories, and the justice of them, and the emotional heft of characters going on after something awful has happened. Crime stories are, by definition, about the big things: life and death, justice and mercy, chaos and order. Everything matters.

3. We tend to pigeon-hole crime fiction into various “types” – police-procedural, psychological, thriller, mystery etc. Do you think you fit into a particular box, and, if so, which one?
Reviewers have called my books all of those things, sometimes modified by “literary,” which I find flattering. I call my genre “crime” because the central plots involve murder, but I admit that they don't fit the structure that can be implied by that label. I have significant police characters, but their point of view is shared equally by narrators who are witnesses and perpetrators, victims and those who grieve for the victims. I suppose that “psychological suspense” could also be a good term. I love playing with a sense of unease.

4. The novel is set in Cambridge. Do you feel this backdrop is important or could it have been set elsewhere?
Even more than my police detectives, the city is my series character.
I love meeting with all book clubs, but especially local ones. I love when readers recognise not just the physical settings but the character types and situations as being particularly “Cambridge.” I do love the architecture and ambiance and traditions here, but mostly I delight in the people. The city is full of specialists, passionate, disciplined, ambitious and generous people from all over the world, which can be both inspiring and intimidating. That's what I'm trying to capture. As a setting, it's more than just a physical place.

5. In both The Whole World and your next novel, The Start of Everything, the narration alternates between the points of view of different characters – adding an interesting dimension to the novel. What inspired you to choose this narrative structure?
I started with a narrator—Polly—and got to the point where I had to wonder how best to communicate a different character's very important development through her eyes. Would someone tell her about it? Would she witness something, and interpret it? Those are perfectly useful and potentially effective methods of storytelling, but it was early enough in the story that I could do something more drastic: switch into that other character's point of view and allow the reader to experience the situation through the character directly involved. Making that change about a fifth of the way through, symmetry suggested that I make a similar change three further times, dividing the novel equally. It was a delight and a challenge to give each of the five narrators just their one piece to tell, at the right time, connected to all the others but distinct from them, while moving the story continually forward.

6. The policeman Morris Keene plays a central role in both your novels. How would you describe him as a character?

He grew up in Cambridge, and feels overshadowed by his older, more academic brother. He's idealistic, hard on himself, and uses arrogance to cover any insecurities that pop up. In The Whole World, a family wedding triggers his issues. In The Start of Everything, it's an injury. Despite his stresses, he always wants to do the best thing, the most right thing, and struggles to figure out what that is.

7. A common piece of advice for writers is “write what you know”. Do you agree with this advice?
When I tried to start novels set in places I knew too well, I had a hard time. I was too much inside each place and had no perspective. The newness of Cambridge, in contrast, was a huge help.

That said, I wouldn't recommend setting a novel here after just a visit. There's a lot to this city. I couldn't imagine telling these stories without living here and absorbing it.

I think it's like looking at a painting: there's an optimal distance to see the details best. It's good to be intimate with your setting and subject, but not so close that you see dots instead of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

There's an ideal tension between Cambridge being both foreign to me, and being my home.

8. As a debut novelist, what did you (or do you still) find most challenging about writing?
The hardest thing for me is transitioning into my “writing mind.” Once I'm there, the work just flows. Creating, again and again, the conditions for that flow is tricky and time-consuming. Not to suggest that I'm dependent on my muse deigning to show up. Rather, I have a tame muse and have invested in creating the circumstances that call her in on a regular basis.

Of course, I then have to get *out* of writing mode after. I write in the mornings while my husband homeschools the children. At noon, it's my turn to parent, and it's a little odd to come out of the fog of a tragic moment and so quickly throw on a cheerful face for the boys!

9. Are you a very disciplined writer?
I work hard. I grant myself that. Whether I consider myself specifically “disciplined” depends on what stage I'm in. There's blue-sky thinking, figuring out what the next story will be. There's writing the first draft. There's assessing and analysing that draft, and then the strategic problem-solving and rewriting. I feel disciplined when I'm in that second stage, increasing the word count. I'm trying to become more generous to myself, and appreciate the less-tangible progress of the other stages as well.

10. Do you have a particular place where you write your books?
When I started writing The Whole World I bought my first laptop. That enabled me to write wherever the baby couldn't see me. My husband and I share looking after the boys, and, when the younger one was new, any sight of me would ruin the fragile peace of playtime with Daddy. If he saw me, he had to have me.

My laptop and I write in bed, in the living room, in a guest room, or (stereotype alert) in Starbucks. I'm the mum at kids' activities who holes up in a corner to work instead of socialising over tea. My friends are understanding.

11. Before you became a writer you had the interesting job of ‘Puzzle Designer’. And you also trained as an actress. Do you think these experiences help you create complex plots and interesting characters?

I've been reading Games magazine since I was ten years old. Starting to write puzzles for them when I was twenty-four (almost twenty years ago) was a thrill. It was an especial thrill that they gave me so much leeway. I was allowed wide creative freedom, so long as I had an iron skeleton of logic holding it all up. I give myself the same freedoms now, with the same iron skeleton.

Acting is all about taking someone else on, not just in the sense of having empathy and understanding, but by literally putting yourself to stand in their place, in their clothes, in their manner and posture. That mind-expanding intimacy is what draws me to first-person narration. My one-word mandate as a writer is “compassion.”

If you like Emily Winslow you might also like to read books by Helen Fitzgerald, Barbara Vine and Naomi Alderman.

Featured Books, with extracts, by Emily Winslow

The Whole World by Emily Winslow
The Whole World
Emily Winslow
Told thorough five narrators whose personal obsessions limit what each of them sees, The Whole World is an atmospheric and unusual literary thriller. American students Polly and Liv are giddy over the accents and architecture of Cambridge University. They both...
Format: Paperback - Released: 24/06/2013

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