Author Talk: February 13, 2014
Emylia Hall's debut novel, THE BOOK OF SUMMERS, was a Richard and Judy book club pick in 2012 and was translated into eight languages. Now she returns with her highly anticipated second book, THE SWISS AFFAIR. In it, Hadley Dunn decides to shake up her predictable life by spending her second year of college abroad in the glamorous Swiss city of Lausanne. But when tragedy strikes, a guilt-ridden Hadley resolves to find the truth about what really happened that night. In this interview, Hall talks about her own time abroad in Lausanne and how her “golden year” there (loosely!) influenced THE SWISS AFFAIR. She also reveals her fascination with the way people behave on vacation, why she keeps revisiting the theme of identity, and what she wants readers to take away from her fiction.
Question: THE SWISS AFFAIR is the story of a young woman’s coming of age and journey of self-discovery during a year abroad. What was your inspiration for Hadley’s story, and how, if at all, do you relate to her?
Emylia Hall: Like Hadley, I spent my second year of university in Lausanne, Switzerland, and it was this experience that provided the initial inspiration for the novel. It really was a golden year. My French improved hugely; I made great friends; I learned to snowboard in the nearby mountains and I fell in love --- not with a boy, but with a city, and that love has endured. I also discovered Ernest Hemingway while studying literature in Lausanne, starting with A FAREWELL TO ARMS, a story that ends in the Swiss city. For me, the author and where I first read his work will be forever entwined. I always wanted to write a story set in Lausanne, a desire to capture that glorious time, but I wanted an unexpected darkness amid the seeming perfection. That’s where Hadley’s story and mine differ; her year abroad is extraordinarily sad, as well as extraordinarily happy. One thing Hadley and I do share is an affinity for the lovely French phrase il faut profiter --- we both enjoy luxuriating in a moment, and making the most of an experience.
Q: In your first novel, THE BOOK OF SUMMERS, you chose Hungary as the backdrop for the novel. In THE SWISS AFFAIR, it’s the Swiss city of Lausanne. What is it about these foreign locales that inspires you, and why did you choose Lausanne specifically for this novel?
EH: I love traveling almost more than anything --- it’s the sense of anticipation in the buildup to a trip, the quality of experience as you’re living it and the longing that so often follows when it’s all over. For me, spending time abroad has always represented freedom and possibility. There’s something thrilling about being able to slip sideways into a different existence, where everything feels new and undiscovered. I’m fascinated by the way that people behave when they travel, the emotions that the act of relocation engender, and I think that’s a subject I’ll return to again and again in my writing. There’s also pleasure in desk-bound travel; when I write I can go anywhere, and for me, that’s part of the magic of it. Lausanne is an important city in my own history, and writing it into a novel is a wonderful way of tapping my memories, while enjoying all the liberties of fiction.
Q: In the novel, Hadley befriends a cast of international students and gets involved with an American professor. What were some of the challenges of writing characters who come from places unfamiliar to you?
EH: My experience of living in Switzerland was similar to Hadley’s in that I found myself part of an expat crowd. Our student residence was brilliantly cosmopolitan, which I enjoyed, so the cast of characters in THE SWISS AFFAIR was always going to be diverse. The challenge came in portraying nuance through language. Early on I realized that it would be tiresome to read dialogue written in stilted English, however accurate a representation that might have been. Instead, I tried to convey distinction with small phrases here and there, and certain gestures. That said, most of the international students I encountered in Lausanne spoke excellent English, putting my own language skills to shame, so it felt entirely natural to write characters like Kristina and Hugo, people who are intelligent, well traveled, with a fluent and even idiomatic command of English. When it came to the American Joel Wilson, I had some help from my U.S. editor!
Q: Hadley’s character makes an enormous transformation over the course of the novel, from someone who is perhaps a bit naïve to someone who is forced to confront and adapt to the cruelties of life. Did you have her journey entirely mapped out from the start? How did she surprise you along the way?
EH: I broadly planned Hadley’s journey from the start, in that I wanted her year abroad to be hugely transformative, full of immense happiness, challenge and the inevitable sadness of existence. She arrives wide-eyed and full of expectation --- not extraordinarily naïve, but just as any fresh-faced girl arriving in a new country might be --- and then throughout the course of her stay she cultivates new relationships, her resolve is tested, her emotions stretched and she has to decide what really matters in the face of some huge questions. I had a strong sense of her early on. She always felt like a fully formed person to me, never just a “character,” and as such she behaved largely as I expected.
There is, however, a moment late on in the novel when she’s in an incredibly difficult position and manages to be quite steely. I’d finished writing the dialogue, but then it felt as though there was more that she wanted to say, so I revisited it. She ends up displaying more compassion than I’d originally intended, and that felt right. It was Hadley’s voice in my head saying, “Wait, I’m not done yet. Let me say this one thing.” And to me it was a real moment of grace.
During the creative process the most surprising character was Hugo Bézier. His role in the novel increased throughout its writing as, quite simply, he demanded more page time, and I was happy to give it to him. I love those sorts of surprises when writing, and it’s why a sense of fluidity is so important. I plan…but only to a point. I do believe that, in the end, the nature of the novel takes its own course.
Q: As with THE BOOK OF SUMMERS, identity is an important theme in THE SWISS AFFAIR. What message about identity do you hope readers take away from the novel?
EH: Our experiences make us who we are. The Hadley who leaves for Lausanne is a different girl to the Hadley who will return after the book’s end. While her essential qualities will remain unchanged, she’ll be looking at the world with altered eyes. Change is essential, and even through difficult experiences we can draw some comfort from what we’ve learned. As a result of adversity, Hadley makes meaningful connections with people she might otherwise never have encountered, and that’s all part of her journey. Being open to life’s possibilities, and the people around us, is what I hope readers will take away.
Q: What was your greatest challenge in writing THE SWISS AFFAIR? Your greatest pleasure?
EH: Not everybody in the book behaves nobly --- each has his or her own set of motivations that, at times, outweigh all else --- but I really wanted every character to be largely likable, or at least deserving of sympathy, so I had to keep stepping back from them and appraising them objectively. When you spend a lot of time in a story, it’s easy to feel a sort of unconditional affection toward your cast, motherly, almost. The reader’s view was always my sense-check.
As to my greatest pleasure…Where to begin? I tremendously value a sense of place in writing (and reading), and I loved revisiting Lausanne and Switzerland in this way, taking to the city streets and the snow-swept mountains. Writing the dynamics between the characters also excited me, especially the Hadley-and-Joel and Hadley-and-Hugo scenes --- a curious sort of triangle whose tips don’t quite meet. And the figure of Ernest Hemingway loomed always at the edges of my writing. I took huge pleasure in channeling aspects of his work --- the books that Hadley was studying, the interests of Joel --- while also dotting my story with references that perhaps only an enthusiast would spot.
Q: Can you describe your writing process? Do you write the scenes consecutively or do you jump around? Do you have a schedule or a routine? A lucky charm?
EH: I always, always write consecutively. The only time I’d consider jumping forward would be if I was describing a setting or place. But if it’s people…never. I think that’s because I have faith in the natural process of character development. That’s not to say I don’t go back and forth in the editing process, but at the first draft stage I write as “naturally” as possible. I like to experience events as they unfold, just as the characters do. I write best in the mornings, aided by several cups of coffee always in my same bright orange Santa Fe mug, bought from a Five and Dime store on my honeymoon in New Mexico. That mug is the closest thing I have to a charm. If it broke I think I’d have to get on the first flight out to replace it.
Q: Can you tell us something about what you’re working on now?
EH: I’m enjoying writing some short fiction, while playing with ideas for my next novel. I love this time in a new book’s creation; the story tantalizes, and while its details are as yet unknown, a really strong sense of its heart can still exist. It’s exciting, and the possibilities feel endless.