‘I’m proud to be a feminist.’ Emma Jane Unsworth at Off the Shelf Festival, Sheffield

It’s a rainy autumnal evening when I arrive at Sheffield Central Library. Upstairs in a room lined with cases of leather-bound books, a small stage is set. Emma Jane Unsworth is here to talk about her latest novel Animals.

The event begins with Unsworth reading from early in the novel. She chooses a section where Tyler has been visiting dating strikes drunk, resulting in her committing cyber suicide and we learn about Laura at school, always top or second in English.

This is followed by an interview.

Unsworth is asked whether Animals is a novel about drinking. She says there’s a lot of drinking and drugs in the novel, often to excess. She wanted to show the ups and downs, the joys of going out with your best friend but also the hangovers and the existential crises.

This is followed by a question about ‘settling down’, which the interview suggested doesn’t happen in the book. Unsworth says she hopes she shows a breadth of possibilities. She wanted there to be joy in the excess but also to show that there’s a pressure that comes with doing the same thing over and over. It reaches a point where there’s no freedom in it any more for Laura. From a political view, she wanted to explore how women are expected to do certain things with their bodies at certain times. Society dictates that a woman should prepare her body for pregnancy.

The interviewer asks if she thinks there is a pressure to grow up. Unsworth says she noticed it within her own group of friends in their late twenties as people began to marry and have babies. Those who did neither of these felt they were being left behind, as though they were failing. Women should have choices but they are false choices if they’re made by fear. She questioned why you might feel that life would have less value if you didn’t marry/have children and did you reach a point in your life when you have to change completely? At this point, the voice of the two women – Laura and Tyler – started to become real in her head and she wanted to turn it into a narrative, a comedy about a duo and their escapades. ‘I don’t understand what it means to grow up! I wanted to fight that!’ she says.

Was Animals good fun to write? The nights out were but some of them made her feel queasy! She talks about the joy of going out with girlfriends, the way that you feel free to talk more. She says one of her favourite scenarios is a pub table, a bottle of wine and her best mate; she’s sorted so much out that way! She also wanted to document Manchester; it was an act of preservation.

The interviewer comments on how good it is to read an urban novel not set in London. Unsworth says she couldn’t imagine it being set anywhere else. She enjoyed doing the little booze tours in the book and the wanderings at strange times. She’s seen the buildings in Manchester grow, change, move and shift in her time there, it’s deeply ingrained in her imagination.

The interviewer asked for questions from the audience.

The first is about the title of the novel. Unsworth says it comes from the Frank O’Hara poem but it wasn’t her idea. She wanted to call it The Rogue because it’s rarely applied to women and she wanted to nod towards the Picaresque, a genre rarely applied to women. Everyone hated it but she dug her heels in until Francis Bickmore, her editor, sent her the O’Hara poem. She quotes the first stanza:

Have you forgotten what we were like then
when we were still first rate
and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth

She changed her mind then as she felt the poem referred to Tyler and Laura’s glory days, days that did so much for both of them. She goes on to talk about how, although comparisons have been drawn with Withnail & I, she was wary of slotting female characters into a male blueprint. That’s neither original nor progressive. She wanted them to be dirtier and grimier than Ab Fab and with a different tone to Withnail & I.

Somebody else asks about her protagonists being highly educated but lacking stimulation and fulfilment. Unsworth says she wanted a backdrop of real, modern day Britain so the Olympics, Mars Rover, Higgs Boson and the recession are all there. Manchester was grim, shops were shutting, people couldn’t get jobs doing what they wanted so ended up in telesales and coffee shops, feeling lucky to get those. She wanted her characters to be pretentious, not too sympathetic. They ponce around town quoting Yates and drinking which is just the way the voices came out. (Unsworth says it sounds awful when writers say that!) She expands on that saying the voices arrived when she was two drafts into a completely different novel. She thought they were interesting so began writing it into her phone. When she transferred it to a computer, she discovered she had 16,000 words. She’d never written so excitedly nor so fast!

What does she think of the Booker Prize and why do comedic books rarely win, are they difficult to write? She knew that’s what she wanted to write and she’s got braver with the humour as she’s written more. She says she ‘wussed out’ with her first novel Hungry, the Stars and Everything because she was worried what her boss might think of her, what her nan was going to think, so she removed some of the sex scenes. Her family are proud of Animals though because it’s fiction! She says she thinks there’s a presumption that if something’s funny it can’t be taken seriously but she feel passionate/less low and more connected to the characters if they’re humourous.

Someone asks about Laura being a writer and the book she’s writing about a priest who falls in love with a talking pig. Unsworth says it’s her being silly, taking the mickey out of the magical realism in Hungry the Stars and Everything. She wrote it down, showed it a friend and they liked it. She expected an editor to say something but they didn’t so it’s still in there!

Do you see a lot of yourself in Tyler? There’s something appealing about her, she’s tough/solid and ‘ain’t changing for anyone’, but there’s no room for growth then. Unsworth says she’s loads to learn and loads to do and isn’t ready to stop changing/growing or being sympathetic.

Has she always wanted to be a writer? She reveals that she used to write Valentine’s poems for her friends at school and charge them a pound! She went on to be a journalist but went part-time to write her first novel. She also reveals that the first draft of her third novel is finished.

Did you feel like a proper grown-up when the first book came out? She said it’s strange when it’s an object. She was scared but once it was out felt excited and emboldened.

Is there a difference between publishing as a journalist and publishing a novel? Unsworth says she still worried when she was writing journalism but not a lot went online at that time so it still felt small scale. It’s a big thing to write a book people might keep. It’s also risky because it’s your own ideas while articles are often written for commissions or to spec. It’s liberating and terrifying writing a novel but, she says, she’s writing to be read and to share things.

Someone else asks about Tyler as a female anti-hero. Unsworth says she couldn’t have written anything else. She’s never tried writing from a male point-of-view but neither was it a conscious choice to write about women behaving badly or in a way that is perceived to be bad but that was what created the narrative tension, along with societal pressures. She says she became braver as the writing went on, especially in redrafts. She started to think about extremities and the limits and depths of what these two women could bear mentally. She wanted to make it a farce and she’s glad she did.

How’s the film going? (Animals was optioned as a film by producer Sarah Brocklehurst in April.) I have to know where the scene’s going before I can get a word down, she says. Every single scene is plotted out. But she loves writing dialogue and is under no illusion as to the length of the process or the amount of collaboration that will come later.

What do you think about the apparent desire for likeable characters in books and have you had any comments about how unlikeable your characters are? Unsworth says she thinks this is more of a problem for women writers, that people conflate them with their characters. She talks about Alicia Nutting, writer of Tampa and how many interviews she read where the interviewer begins by expressing surprise at how nice Nutting is, as though a woman can’t write an unlikeable character who isn’t herself. She says she agrees with the idea that characters need to be believable in context and refers to Claire Messud’s comments to Publishers Weekly following the publication of The Woman Upstairs.

The penultimate question is how Unsworth feels about being part of a movement. She talks about how lucky she is to have caught the wave and be part of a pioneering group challenging conventions. She mentions the television programme Girls, the film Bridesmaids and fellow writers Annaliese Mackintosh and Zoe Pilger. However, she says, ‘The second something’s a trend, it’s a trap’; she has an appetite and interest for characters that go against the grain and she wants to keep exploring what makes these women bad. She doesn’t want to become complacent and stop questioning. She makes clear, ‘I’m proud to be a feminist. It’s an honour to be connected with those writers.’ She thinks it’s brilliant feminism is being talked about but we need to interrogate it too.

The final question is women without children being undervalued in society. Unsworth says there’s a moral value attached to being a parent or getting married despite no one suddenly graduating to a new level of compassion. There’s a feeling in society that if you lose a baby, you’ve failed; it’s why you can’t say you’re pregnant for three months in case you miscarry because shame comes with that loss. She says that life isn’t a series of checkpoints to tick off and by choosing not to marry or have children, you’re just going on another path. It should be a choice and not one made out of fear or pity. She dislikes society’s view that women in their 40s and 50s who go out drinking are described as ‘such a tragedy’ or ‘not quite right’. Humans justify their position by dismissing the alternative which just reduces the possibilities for everyone.

The event ends almost where it began, thinking about women drinking and behaving in a way that society doesn’t like. Unsworth is an interesting and entertaining speaker; she’s clearly passionate about fighting for a different space for women and doing so through fiction that’s both smart and humourous. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with for book number three.

0 thoughts on “‘I’m proud to be a feminist.’ Emma Jane Unsworth at Off the Shelf Festival, Sheffield

  1. This is a book I’ve almost read more than once. Still not sure if it’s for me though – I don’t really see drinking as an act of political rebellion! (I’m sure it’s about more than that).
    I loved the quote ‘The second something’s a trend, it’s a trap’ – one many writers could do with bearing in mind!
    Thanks for writing this – it’s great to read about events you can’t get to.

    • Thanks for reading it! As I understood it, what Unsworth meant by that was women are expected to behave in a certain way, particularly when they reach their late 20s/early 30s. There’s a lot of pressure to procreate – I know, I lost count of the number of times I was asked whether I wanted children, told I’d change my mind when I said no, and looked at pityingly because I was single for years. Yes, it was bloody terrible having a career, being able to afford to live on my own (even in London), and do what I liked. Awful it was! That pressure’s created by society and ultimately it’s political/driven by the patriarchy because a pregnant woman can be kept in her place – this isn’t new thinking, Greer was talking about it in the 60s, but it still prevails. Unsworth uses the novel to explore the other choices that women have and what happens if you take them. I found it very powerful but then I’m its perfect audience.

  2. As you say, these issues have never gone away. Good (particularly for young people) that they seem to be returning to mainstream discussion. Also good that there seem to be a new generation of young, talented female writers out there. Leaning towards reading it now!