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Interview: June 1, 2012

Emylia Hall’s debut novel, THE BOOK OF SUMMERS, tells the story of a girl who grows up torn between her childhood home in England and her mother’s new home on the Hungarian countryside. In this interview, conducted by’s Melanie Smith, Hall gives insight into the book’s various characters. She also draws comparisons between its settings and her own childhood summers in Hungary, shares some details about Hungarian culture, and reveals what she’s working on next. THE BOOK OF SUMMERS is a spectacular debut novel centering on an English girl, Erzsěbet Lowe, who is abandoned by her mother but spends many blissful weeks every summer visiting her mother and mother’s lover in Hungary. Hungary becomes a special place for both mother and daughter in the summer months, and together they find a Hungary that becomes a source of inspiration and conflict. What made you choose to write about these ideas?

Emylia Hall: I visited Hungary for the first time when I was 11, and my family and I went back there every summer all through my teenage years. Those summer vacations --- month-long affairs, where we ate incredible food, caught the sun, devoured books, swam in bottomless lakes --- have imprinted themselves upon my memory. I wanted to write a book that allowed me to revisit those days, delighting in the aspect of time-travel that writing permits, but I was also conscious that I didn’t want it to be a simple travelogue. My mother was born in England to Hungarian parents but has always felt a strong attachment to her homeland, and I was interested in taking this idea and exaggerating it; imagining a scenario where a mother feels that pull too strongly to resist, and how the rest of the family comes to terms with that. In the end, personal experience formed the backdrop to the story --- the colours, sights and sounds --- but the freedoms of fiction allowed me to create the narrative. 

BRC: Do any details of your own Hungarian summers appear within these pages?

EH: Lake Balaton is a key setting in the novel, and it’s also my favourite place in all of Hungary. It’s a stunning freshwater lake, 50 miles long and 10 miles wide, surrounded by wild countryside and hillsides tracked with vineyards. In the summer it’s buzzing with activity, and the beach resorts draw day-trippers from Budapest and all over Hungary, plenty of Central European holidaymakers but very few English people. This always made it feel very exotic to me, as in all of our travels in Hungary in the early-mid '90s, it was rare to hear an English voice. Sunshine was everywhere as well --- and so it permeates the pages of the book. English summers are haphazard and the heat is never really guaranteed, so the Hungarian sun always amazed me and I surrendered to it wholeheartedly. Food was also always a highlight of our travels, so it’s no surprise that food figures strongly in the book. Gargantuan Wiener Schnitzels, rum-soaked chocolate trifles, pans of fiery fish soup --- I wanted to give readers a taste of Hungary in every sense.

BRC: Some cross-cultural references relate to conventions like love, family, companionship and gender expectations. These bring to light many differing perceptions between proper English society and a more coarsely defined, organic Hungarian community. Do you feel the tensions of modern life demand more flexibility and leniency of the western world?

EH: I don’t know if it’s as a result of the tensions of modern life, but I think in this day and age there is rather more perceived personal freedom, and a greater emphasis on personal happiness over duty and seeming responsibility. The Lowe family adapt, because they have to. But David is of the old world (in some respects and not in others). He would rather suppress an uncomfortable truth than make it known, and his mild manner longs for equilibrium; he’s no boat rocker. As to Marika, yes, she’s Hungarian, but I don’t know if her personality is particularly characteristic. For me, she transcends notions of nationality, borders, and even those of family; she’s a real free spirit, for better and, occasionally, for worse.     

BRC: Exploring the varied nature of love is a major theme here, particularly the question of whether love can be fully expressed in quiet and understated ways, versus clearer and more powerful demonstrations. Do you feel real love is most often easily and fully expressed? Is the expression of love different for lovers than for parents?

EH: David is not a demonstrative father, but he shows his love for his daughter in the most tender of ways: the extra efforts on her birthday, the small gifts of pencils, the attempts to bond over his vegetable patch. He may appear feeble next to Marika’s breathless kisses and welcome banquets, but he is no less well-intentioned, nor any less sincere. David and Marika are simply two wildly different people, who both love Erzsi very much. The way we each express our love depends on many factors --- our personal sense of freedom, previous disappointments, hopes for the future, degree of reliance on the return of that same sentiment --- but just because the expression is different doesn’t mean the essential emotion is of greater or lesser value, or intensity. In that respect, expressions of love between lovers and parents are not all that different. The key, as ever, lies in understanding --- understanding a person’s make-up, so that a gentler person’s smaller gestures are not missed in the blitz of a more extravagantly-natured person’s exuberance.

BRC: Another theme relates to the nature of happiness and serenity, as Erzsi’s life with her father in Devon, England, starkly contrasts with a carefree existence alongside her gypsy mother in the Hungarian countryside. What messages were you trying to portray about the nature of tranquility?

EH: For me, "home" is a state of mind rather than bricks and mortar, or a pin on a map. I’m very fortunate to have had a happy childhood in a lovely corner of England; my parents have lived in the same old cottage all my life. For me, home will always be on that Devon hillside. But I’ve also made a home with my husband in Bristol, which I cherish beyond belief. And when we go on vacation, I can feel "at home" very quickly --- and soon develop an attachment to a place (after just a few days in Santa Fe, I wanted to move there!). I guess I hoped to convey the message that a home is wherever you feel at your best; safe, calm, inspired, invigorated, happy. Erzsi’s life begins to feel unbalanced as she longs for her Hungarian summers, and her Villa Serena home seems superior to her Devon one. But a lot of that is to do with adolescence, her growing love for Tamás, the sense of unfinished business with Marika.

BRC: Your book is filled to the brim with beautiful imagery and breathtaking artistry. Did this novel take a great length of time to write, and did you pursue it remotely or by direct observation?  

EH: It took me between three and four years to write, and that was something of a stop-start process, with lots of wrong turns along the way. But throughout that time, the heart of the book always remained very much the same --- I knew the sentiment of the story I wanted to tell, and I knew the world I wanted to conjure. Villa Serena is portrayed as a kind of dreamland, so as much as it’s painted from the memory of Hungarian summers, there’s also a good dose of poetic imagining in there. I did go back to Hungary in 2009, when the book was at an early draft stage, and I really loved staying on the shores of Lake Balaton, scribbling in my notebook and thinking about the book. But the basis of the story was formed by that point, and the imagery was long-printed on my memory, and my imagination.

BRC: Can you tell us a little about your homeland and what home means to you?

EH: I touched on this earlier, but home, for me, is wherever you want it to be, wherever you feel good. I do have a deep attachment to Devon --- it’s a mainly rural county with a beautiful coastline in South Western England, bordering Cornwall. I was born and went to school there, only moving away at 18 to go to university in York, in Northern England. For a lot of people in England, Devon is synonymous with holidays --- moorland, forests, rolling fields, quaint fishing villages, stunning beaches --- and I feel privileged to have grown up there. Home was a thatched cottage in a tiny village surrounded by open fields and gentle hillsides. As a child, I enjoyed a great sense of freedom as I played in the countryside, adventured on my bicycle, stayed in the garden from dawn until nightfall. I think this gave me an appreciation for a life full of simple pleasures, and an emphasis on personal freedom (barefoot is best!). I also learnt to savour my own company --- reading was my way of exploring other worlds and making new friends, and the same must be said of writing.

BRC: THE BOOK OF SUMMERS touches on the nature of good parenting, providing some interesting scenarios in which traditional parenting styles are distorted by both the situation and environment. What unique insights and perspectives do you think Marika and David might offer on nontraditional parenting techniques?

EH: At first glance, David is of the make-do-and-mend school --- when Marika leaves, he and Erzsi try to get on with their lives, but something is always missing and he doesn’t seem to do an awfully good job of patching it up. He tries his best, and is never less than kind to Erzsi, but he seems weighted by a greater sorrow and can’t shake it. But I think when Erzsi (Beth) looks back, she’ll see that her childhood was one filled with kindnesses from her father. His greatest gesture is buying her a plane ticket to Hungary that first summer, a heroic moment for David. When parents put the needs of their children above their own, I think that’s incredibly touching and selfless. As to Marika, she emphasizes to Erzsi the importance of following her heart, seizing the day, prizing life’s small --- and large --- pleasures. Erzsi’s soul swells in Marika’s company, and a more passionate side of her nature opens up. Between her two parents, Erzsi is well looked after, even if at times the chasm of that word "between" is all too wide and deep.

BRC: At one point, Erzsi is confronted by a notorious boy at school who pushes her to abandon her parents and insists she’ll wish she’d listened to him. Did Justin’s statements influence Erzsi at all in withdrawing from her parents?

EH: When Justin confronts Erzsi, it’s the first time anyone has challenged her beliefs over her split parents, and her long distance romance with Tamás. But she’s a smart girl and she sees through him --- she knows his opinions are shaped by sadness, his virulence a mask for hurt --- and she stands her ground. If only the adult Beth had remembered that, she might have reacted differently. Instead, she and Justin grow to have more in common than she once might have imagined. It’s certainly not a conscious act --- but a reaction to hurt, just as Justin’s was.

BRC: THE BOOK OF SUMMERS cleverly defines many interesting aspects of Hungarian culture, including the continuing effects of being enclosed behind the Iron Curtain for so long. Can you give us some background on the Hungary you know?

EH: I went to Hungary for the first time in 1990, the year after the Berlin Wall came down and the Iron Curtain lifted. It felt like another world. We had to queue to cross the border, and we were very conscious of our big Western car sticking out as we drove through rural Hungary, past horse and carts and battered Trebants, Skodas and three-wheeled cars. There wasn’t a great choice in the shops, and people were obviously poor. But we were always warmly welcomed. Hungarians were eternally surprised to discover that we were from England --- they saw us and presumed German or Austrian, just because most tourists hailed from there --- and were delighted as a result. It certainly helped that my mum spoke Hungarian and wanted to make the effort to do so. We couldn’t go in a café or restaurant without entering into long conversations; even on the street, people would stop us wanting to chat.

I was only 11 and found the intensity of the experience a bit startling at first, but simple things soon drew me into feeling at home. I loved the heat and relished the tan I was getting, the food was familiar from my mum’s home cooking and just as delicious, and Lake Balaton --- when we discovered it --- became one of my favourite places ever, and remains so to this day. Over the years that followed, we saw Hungary grow more Westernised, more tourist-conscious, and more expensive to visit. But it never took a lot to feel like you were off the beaten track --- outside of Budapest and to a lesser extent Balaton, much of Hungary is still untouched by tourists.

BRC: You mention the “idea of someone being drawn to another country was undoubtedly inspired by my own mother.” Can you elaborate on this?

EH: My mother was born in England to Hungarian parents but has always considered herself Hungarian. When our family went to Hungary in 1990, it was the first time on Hungarian soil for all of us, including her, and she found the experience quite emotional. She loved speaking the language, meeting Hungarian people, and soaking up the atmosphere. I think she’d have loved us to have bought a cottage there, to have put down roots in some way, but we never did. At times, I’m sure she fantasized about moving there herself, but for her, the pull of family was too strong. When we visited Hungary for the first time she expected --- and wanted --- us to feel as at home there as she did. Because of our upbringing, with Hungarian home-cooking and a smattering of Hungarian words, Hungary itself was a curious mixture of the strange and the familiar, but in the beginning, "strange" was the dominant force. However, as a child, you’re brilliantly flexible, and my sister and I soon grew to love being in Hungary as much as she did. All the things I mentioned earlier --- the sunshine, the food, the lake --- seduced us. My dad is pretty easily pleased, too; so long as he had a good meal, a cold beer and a nice view in front of him, he was happy too.

BRC: Would you call yourself a romantic in the way Marika is?

EH: I would, but in a slightly more measured way, perhaps. My motto is to follow my heart but keep my head… I think Marika does all of the former and rather less of the latter. She’s not a perfect role model by any means, but I do admire her spirit, her lust for life, her easy joy. In the end, she works out what it takes to make her happy, and that’s a great thing, to not only have that understanding but the courage to follow through with it. Marika’s situation is messy and people get hurt, but there’s never any malice in it. I think the character I’d most like to be compared to is Zoltán; he’s warm-spirited, relaxed, creative, eternally welcoming and kind-hearted. When Erzsi goes to Hungary that first time and is a little flummoxed in her new surroundings, his equable presence and calming influence is just what she needs. 

BRC: What can you tell us about your next writing project?

EH: I’m working on my second novel currently, just reaching the latter stages of my first draft. I feel I’ll jinx it if I talk too much about it, but I can say that it’s set in Switzerland, on the glamorous shores of Lake Geneva. It follows a 20-year old British student as she falls in real love for the first time, and negotiates her way among a crowd of ex-pats and other foreign students. She wants to believe that everything is perfect, and of course it isn’t --- far from it. It’s a love story, but with a slightly darker heart. I’m also working on a short story for a forthcoming anthology that I’m really excited about. It feels like a treat to write some short fiction amidst the intensity of the second novel --- almost like I’m playing hooky.