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Interview: October 17, 2013

HOW TO BE A GOOD WIFE, Emma Chapman’s debut novel, is a psychological thriller about good wife Marta, who has been married for so long that she can hardly remember a past without her husband. But when strange visions flit at the corner of her eye --- including that of a blonde girl no one else can see --- she begins to wonder whether she is losing her mind…or starting to remember something important. In this interview with’s Terry Miller Shannon, Chapman talks about why she chose to write Marta’s complicated story in first person, as well as the creative freedoms and limitations that come along with writing from the point of view of an unreliable narrator. She also discusses why she became interested in exploring what it means to be “a good wife,” why she has a hard time writing about a place while she is living there, and, of course, what she is working on next. What was your inspiration to write this story? Was it based on a true event?

Emma Chapman: My inspiration came from a documentary I saw about Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. I was fascinated by the possibility of repressing a particularly traumatic event, only to have it resurface many years later. The more I researched, the more engrossed I became in the possibilities of the subject.

BRC: Frankly (and I hope you take this as the compliment I intend it to be), your story gave me the creeps. How is it to write something so eerie? Did it affect the rest of your life, giving you nightmares and making you startle at the tiniest sound?

EC: To be honest, I don't think I realized how creepy the book is until I heard the audiobook being read! It was very claustrophobic to be inside Marta's head for such a long time, and some parts of the book were quite harrowing to write. But, as a favorite writer of mine, Madeleine Thien, said, it is important to go straight through your subject without fear. To get to the truth of the story, you have to immerse yourself fully in the world and character you have created, even if that is not a comfortable place to be. 

BRC: I read recently a remark by an author that "we write what most frightens us." Without giving away any spoilers, do you feel this applies to you?

EC: Interestingly, it is only with hindsight that I can answer this question with a resounding yes. If you had asked me while I was writing it, I would have said that Marta's character and her experiences are totally separate from my own experiences. In many ways, that is correct, but I can now see that I was exploring some of my own fears about what marriage means for women and whether it is limiting. 

BRC: Again, without giving away any plot points, can you tell us how you conducted your research regarding Marta's life?

EC: I conducted a wide range of research, including reading psychology texts and journals, interviewing psychologists about patients with PTSD, and watching documentaries. In terms of the setting of the book, although it is unnamed, it is based on travels in Norway I conducted after my undergraduate degree. 

BRC: It's impossible not to sympathize with Marta, yet some of her actions (such as the way she treats her son's fiancée) are quite disconcerting, bordering on offensive. Why did you choose to perform such a tightrope balancing act with her personality?

EC: I've always loved unreliable narrators, as they give the reader so much space to interpret the book in their own way. I actually think that it is impossible to write a first-person narrator who isn't in some way unreliable. Our own interpretations of our actions are always one-sided. I wanted the reader to feel sympathy for Marta, but also to be unsure whether to trust her interpretation of events. This becomes especially important later in the novel.

BRC: Some reviewers have commented on what they perceive as Marta's life portraying your commentary on women's roles in society and/or marriage. Do you feel that's an apt observation? If so, did you set out to accomplish this, or did it come about organically as you wrote the book?

EC: I was writing a dissertation on second-wave feminism while writing the novel, and I have always been interested in a woman's role in marriage and whether it is limiting or not, so they were definitely important considerations when writing the book. I wasn't aware of putting those themes through the book, but I find that if something is preoccupying me, it works its way into my writing.

BRC: Did you purposely choose a wintry Scandinavia setting to enhance the stark chilliness of the book? Was it your first choice, or did you toy with another setting?

EC: I did deliberately choose the bleak setting: the harshness and uncontrollable natural world outside the house was supposed to both contrast with Marta's domesticity, and show her inability to control everything about her environment, something very important to her character.

BRC: HOW TO BE A GOOD WIFE is cleverly composed in that it peels back bits of what seems to be Marta's reality, exposing snippets of her tale through memories, visions and flashbacks (while also making the reader question, as Marta herself does, what is true and what is false)…kind of a literary strip-tease. This seems like a very complicated plot to write. Did you outline it, or did the story reveal itself to you as you worked?

EC: I didn't outline it, and the plot of the book changed dramatically over the three years I was writing and editing it. The plotting was the aspect of the book I worked hardest at: Marta's voice was always accessible to me, but I find plotting a novel to divulge the right information at the right time very difficult to achieve. I'm currently struggling through the same problems with my new novel.

BRC: Marta certainly often feels like an unreliable narrator (and she appears, at times, to believe this about herself) as she offers up "memories" (or are they?), which adds to the eerie, haunting feeling of this book. How difficult was it to pen this nebulous, indefinable characteristic as you built the plot?

EC: Marta's voice was how the book began, and the momentum that drove it through the long editing process. Without that surety of voice, I don't think I would have been able to finish the novel. I built the plot around her.

BRC: Is the marriage manual Marta quotes from (those quotes often contrasting queasily with what's happening in her own life) based on a book you've seen?

EC: Some of the quotations are based on an article in Housekeeping Monthly from May 13, 1955, which some have since suggested is a hoax article. I wrote the quotations in the book myself, however!

BRC: Again, trying hard not to give away plot points, some of Marta's choices toward the end of the book seem puzzling (at least to those of us who have never been in her shoes), and the conclusion is a bit ambiguous. Was it your intention to leave readers off-kilter?

EC: Yes, it was certainly a deliberate choice to leave the end of the book open-ended, and one I knew would not satisfy some readers who like everything tied up. It was important to me to let the reader decide who he or she believes, and for me that is the power of the ending. 

BRC: Can you tell us about your path to publication? How long did it take you to write the book?

EC: I completed the first draft in one year as part of a Masters in Creative Writing.  During this time, I also worked part-time at a literary agency. When I finished the book, I moved to Australia, and sent it to the agency where I had been working. Luckily, they liked it, and we worked on the book for two more years before it went to publishers.

BRC: From reading your "about me" section on your website, it seems you have moved around quite a bit: born in England, lived in Scandinavia, off to Australia and now residing in Indonesia. Is travel somehow connected to your writing? Do new locations inspire you? Is finding your way through a plot somehow analogous to making a new location into your home?

EC: My husband is an Exploration Geologist, so we have the opportunity to travel with his job. Strangely, I find I can't write about a place when I am living there. For me, writing is about discovery, so if I choose to write about a place, I usually know nothing about it when I begin. If I live there, I feel too close to it. New locations definitely inspire me, and I enjoy the challenge of being in a new environment and setting up a life there from scratch. Your link between that process and writing a novel is one I hadn't thought of before, but there are a lot of similarities: finding your way into your subject is actually a similar process to getting to know a new environment.

BRC: Marta relays her story via first-person present tense, which completely immerses the reader in her life, moment by moment. Was this your first choice? Was it difficult to keep track of what Marta would know at any given point? Were her memories and flashbacks a complication to telling her story in first person and present tense?

EC: Marta's story was always in the first person and present tense. Although there are many limitations in terms of perspective and feeding the reader information through this method, it gives immediacy and was imperative to do justice to Marta's state of mind. The memories and flashbacks allowed me to progress the plot: not a lot happens to Marta in the present, all the action is relayed through the past, which is a rather unusual way to tell a story. 

BRC: Are you drawn to writing psychological thrillers? Will your next book be in a similar vein to HOW TO BE A GOOD WIFE?

EC: I am definitely interested in psychology, but the thriller part was not intentional. My new book is very different from HOW TO BE A GOOD WIFE. It is about a male war photographer who spends time in Vietnam during the war. Something happens there that impacts his family life and his future. It has similarities to HOW TO BE A GOOD WIFE in that it asks the question: If something traumatic occurs in your life, can you be the same person afterwards as you were before?