I can’t begin to say how excited I am to be interviewing Emylia Hall about her writing today. I love her books. You can read my review of The Thousand Lights Hotel here, of The Book of Summers here and of The Sea Between Us here.
The Thousand Lights Hotel was published in e-book on 1st July 2017 and is out in paperback on 13th July 2017. It is available for purchase through the links here.
The Thousand Lights Hotel
When Kit loses her mother in tragic circumstances, she feels drawn to finally connect with the father she has never met. That search brings her to the Thousand Lights Hotel, the perfect holiday escape perched upon a cliff on the island of Elba. Within this idyllic setting a devastating truth is brought to light: shaking the foundations upon which the hotel is built, and shattering the lives of the people within it.
A heartbreaking story of loss, betrayal, and redemption, told with all the warmth and beauty of an Italian summer.
An Interview with Emylia Hall
Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag, Emylia. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing and The Thousand Lights Hotel in particular. Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?
I grew up in the wilds of Devon, and after spells in York, Lausanne, London, and the French Alps, I now live in Bristol with my family. My first novel, The Book of Summers, was published in 2012, and I’ve been writing full-time (well, alongside looking after my boy Calvin, who’s now three) ever since. The Thousand Lights Hotel is my fourth book. If I have a preoccupation as a writer it’s ‘place’ – the ideas for all my novels have come from thinking about setting, and I love working to capture the genius loci of somewhere. I’m a tutor with the Arvon Foundation, a mentor with the WoMentoring project, and have run creative writing workshops in Devon, Yorkshire, Zurich, Lausanne, and Kigali.
(Oh! If I ever get my writing act together I’ll have to attend one of those workshops!)
Why do you write?
In writing workshops I always, as a last exercise, ask people to think, and then write, about why they write. After teaching at Arvon a couple of years ago, I blogged about the experience, and did the same exercise myself. This is what I wrote then, and I stand by it…
‘I write because life’s too amazing to live just once. Because somehow we’ve been gifted hearts and minds that permit us to transcend the order of things, so why wouldn’t we want to see where that takes us (even if, sometimes, it turns out to be just three streets over, drinking coffee instead of tea)? I write because it’s time travel, it’s hurtling through place and space, it’s kissing the one who got away, or the one you never knew existed. It’s the button that came off your skirt one day when you were five years old, and knowing that that button mattered – maybe because your mother sewed it on and she’s not around any more, or maybe because she is here but you don’t see enough of her, or maybe, actually, everything’s pretty fine between you and your mother, but for some reason you still find yourself caring about that button… In a world where even the things we think we have a good grip on tend to have a habit of, sooner or later, slipping away, writing them down feels like the one practical, magical thing that we can do to hold on tight.’
(That’s beautifully put Emylia.)
When did you realise you were going to be a writer?
As a child, if you’d asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said a writer. I read voraciously, and wrote stories and poetry all the time. Somewhere along the line I lost that single mindedness, and easy belief. While studying Literature at university I found I read less for pleasure, and my connection with what I was reading – and the feeling that maybe I was capable of doing it too – became far less involved. It was only when I was working all hours in a hectic advertising agency in London that I felt the strong desire to reconnect with what I really loved, and what, as a child, I’d been passionate about. That felt important to me, because the child-me felt like the purest version of my identity, in a way. I knew I wanted a different focus, and thought that writing might be it, but I was struggling to find the creative energy to do anything about it. It was only when my husband (then boyfriend) and I quit our jobs and spent two winters in the French Alps – working in a chalet, then as a snowboard guide and shop-girl respectively – that I felt free enough, and inspired enough, to start writing. I set my mind to it then. When we moved back to the UK in 2007 I was working on The Book of Summers, and writing that book was a big part of how I saw myself, and my hopes for what I wanted to be, and do next. Three years later – three years of that novel feeling like a kind of secret garden, mine to play in – it was ready to send out to agents.
Which aspects of your writing do you find easiest and most difficult?
I find first drafts difficult; their disorder and uncertainty unnerve me. I’m always relieved when I get to the end, as then I feel I have a base to build upon. I think I prefer rewriting to writing; it’s the officiousness in me. I like thinking ‘well, I have all that, now I just need to make it better’. What do I find easy? Maybe settling upon the heart of a story. I always know how I want the story to feel, even if it takes some time to work out how best to express that.
What are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?
Since my son’s been around I just have the afternoons to write. Four hours a day. When I’m feeling the pressure of a deadline, or am on a real roll, then I will work in the evenings, and every other early morning (when it’s my turn for a lie in, and my husband gets up with Calvin) too. When he was a baby I used to steal an extra hour or two of writing a day while he was sleeping – I’d stride around Bristol pushing his buggy, my whole morning designed around getting him to nod off in the vicinity of one of my favourite cafes, then I’d whip out my laptop and revel in an extra bit of writing time. When he starts school next year I’ll have more time than I know what to do with. No, I know exactly what I’ll do: write more.
Without spoiling the plot, please could you tell us a bit about The Thousand Lights Hotel?
The novel is set on the island of Elba, just off the coast of Tuscany. It follows a British travel writer, Kit, who goes to the island to connect with – or, perhaps more accurately, to scope out and challenge – the father she’s never met. I liked the idea of placing someone in a holiday environment, whose motivation is one that’s far from pleasure; she’s grieving, and carries an old, imprecise anger. The story is told from three perspectives – that of Kit, Valentino, and Oliviero. Valentino is the owner of the hotel, a man who’s devoted the last thirty years of his life to hospitality and serving others in his Elban idyll. Oliviero is the hotel’s chef, a wonder in the kitchen and something of a Lothario. As Kit settles into the Hotel Mille Luci, attempting to keep a cool head, and a distant manner, she finds herself drawn to these two men, and slowly succumbing to the hotel, and Elba’s charms. The story is about redemption, an opening of hearts, and making peace with the past.
Travel, water and the sea seem to be dominant features in your writing. Why is this?
You’re right, water figures prominently in all four of my novels. This wasn’t a deliberate thing, but it doesn’t surprise me. I’m perpetually drawn to water. To me it speaks of reflection and contemplation, and then motion, renewal; the seas and lakes in my stories are never still. My writing aside, I find my heart lifts whenever I’m near water, even just wandering alongside Bristol’s harbourside is a tonic, and in my day dreams I’m living by the sea. As to travel, I’m interested in how people behave when they alight in new places: the opportunity for reinvention. Travel evokes freedom, and when we travel we’re all looking for something (even if it’s something as uncomplicated as relaxation and a sun tan) that hope and desire, and sense of being an outsider connecting to a new clime, is of endless interest to me.
When I read your novels, I’m always struck by the fabulous appeal to all the senses. How conscious are you of including them in your writing or are they a natural part of your style?
It’s pretty natural – I guess that’s how I experience a place, with all the senses. I recently went to LA and had a terrible cold the whole time I was there. I had no voice, so taste, no smell, and the way I responded to the city was just so diluted. I felt like I’d been wrapped in layers of wadding, and was barely there. I’m used to feeling enlivened by new surroundings, revelling in the feeling of possibility, and to go so far, and to somewhere I was so excited about, and have that experience dulled… I felt spectacularly cheated. I like reading prose that appeals to the senses and paints a vivid picture – and I think we all write what we like to read.
You always include very complex relationships in your novels. How far do you think this complexity is a natural part of family life?
I think complexity of relationships is absolutely a natural part of family life; we’re all interested in the muddled workings of other families, as it makes our own seem less crazy! Parents are vitally present in all four of my books, and certainly in three of them the relationships are, in some way, challenging; perhaps A Heart Bent Out of Shape is the exception. Thinking about it, I’m rather hard on parents – I’ve killed three mothers, and have a number of absent or unsatisfactory fathers – and this is probably an inversion of my own experience. I’ve always got on well with my mum and dad, they’ve never given me reason to doubt or reappraise them in their role as parents, so my explorations of more complicated relationships are maybe a kind of fantasy, or anti-wish-fulfilment. Also, all stories need conflict – even natured, temperate dynamics don’t make for such interesting fiction; conflict that arises from childhood or parental relationships feels so deep-rooted and inescapable, it’s fascinating to explore.
I’m aware of a pervading sense of loss behind your writing. Is this something you’ve experienced yourself and how far do you see writing as a cathartic experience?
I once read somewhere that you write what you’re most afraid of. Loss does run through all of my novels, but it’s not informed by any particular experience of my own. I like writing about change, and how we respond under the pressure of extreme situations – death sure fits that bill. All stories need conflict, and inner conflict is, to me, the most interesting. For all the loss in my novels, they each contain a positive note, and are, essentially uplifting. I write from a place of optimism, and hope.
In The Thousand Lights Hotel you add layers of authenticity through using small smatterings of Italian. How difficult is it to get the balance right for readers when using a foreign language in your writing?
I think it’s a balancing act, and a little goes a long way. I consider what I respond to as a reader (that’s a decent MO for most aspects of writing, really) – a flavour to lend authenticity, but not so much that it becomes tiresome or potentially incomprehensible to readers. With my first novel I used quite a few Hungarian words and phrases, and when it came to recording the audiobook I had to furnish the actor with a pronunciation guide, which was fun to write.
In The Thousand Lights Hotel I was struck by Valentino as almost Lear like because of the complexity of his relationships and his guilt. What would you say to that description of him?
I must admit, despite studying English at University, I’m not all that familiar with King Lear. An angry bearded king, with three daughters? Wait, let me look it up… Ah, okay! Well, now you mention it I can see the parallel, and I love that you make the association… The most important thing for me with Valentino was to write a man who was full of contradictions, burdened by his own past, but intent on making the present pleasurable for other people. Seeking to do right by Kit once he learns her identity, but also resistant to this, because opening himself to her means making a massive internal adjustment which, even thirty years on, he doesn’t feel he’s equal to. As he holds court in his hotel he presents as charming and affable, a man at ease in his own skin, but his interior life is a different matter.
When I’ve read your books I’ve been transported to Cornwall, Elba, Italy, Hungary and Devon. Where might I be travelling in your next novel?
Ah, so that means you’re yet to read A Heart Bent Out of Shape? You’re missing Switzerland from your travels! I’m currently working on a story set in LA, but it’s early days, so I almost don’t want to jinx it by saying anything more, but I’m enjoying writing my way to California…
(You’re right – A Heart Bent Out of Shape is the one I have yet to read.)
How did you go about researching detail and ensuring The Thousand Lights Hotel was realistic?
I’ve spent nearly four weeks on Elba over the years. When I first began working on the novel in early 2015 the island was already imprinted on my mind, and I loved the act of transporting myself back there (we’d visited in 2003 and 2012). My son, Calvin, was born while I was working on my third book, The Sea Between Us, and thanks to my husband and I sharing the care of him 50/50, I’d been back at my writing desk every afternoon since he was three months old. But as I was beginning work on the new novel – traveling to Elba on the page – I felt a stronger urge than ever to actually get up and go. Part of that was the desire to do something that felt like it was just for me. He was seventeen months old at that point, I’d recently stopped breastfeeding, and although I’d never had a night away from him, it felt like the right time. So I went to Elba for five nights. And they were… amazing. Being wholly on my own, responsible just for myself, losing myself in the landscape of my novel… My God, it was incredible. I’d done a lot of desk research to decide where I was going to base myself – and, by definition, set the book – and when I got to Marciana Marina on the north coast I wanted to cry; it was so perfect. I got off the bus and walked down to the seafront, talking to myself like a lunatic, unable to believe my luck that a place that looked lovely in pictures online was just so intoxicatingly gorgeous in real life. Looking back I really needed that trip – not just for the progress of the novel but for my own nourishment – and I think that heady ‘I love Elba’ feeling is evident in The Thousand Lights Hotel.
If you could choose to be a character from The Thousand Lights Hotel, who would you be and why?
I’d be Bernardo, the kitchen pot washer. He has the easiest, breeziest time of it, doesn’t he? No hard times in his past. And every morning when he gets to work Oliviero has a hot chocolate and a fresh cornetti waiting for him. Yep, I’d be Bernardo.
If The Thousand Lights Hotel became a film, who would you like to play Kit (or Rosa, or Valentino or…. any of the characters really!) and why would you choose them?
Oh this is easy! I love a bit of fantasy casting. Felicity Jones would be Kit. Stanley Tucci would be Valentino. Juliette Binoche would be Rosa. And Oliviero would be played by a hot newcomer.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?
I read fairly widely – mostly contemporary novels. I like to keep up with what’s current, what’s considered good, while also making my own discoveries. Some of the authors I admire most are Susan Fletcher, Tim Winton, and Anne Tyler, and I return to their novels again and again. In writing I look for a string sense of place, poetry and lyricism, and depth of feeling. I always want to feel an emotional connection to a story, and be lifted by the quality of writing.
Finally, Emylia, if you had 15 words to persuade a reader that The Thousand Lights Hotel should be their next read, what would you say?
To quote from The Enchanted April, if you ‘Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine’ it’s for you.
Thank you so much for your time Emylia in answering my questions.
About Emylia Hall
Emylia Hall was born in 1978 and grew up in the Devon countryside. She is the author of The Book of Summers, which was a Richard & Judy Summer Book Club pick in 2012, A Heart Bent Out of Shape, The Sea Between Us and The Thousand Lights Hotel. She lives in Bristol with her husband, the writer Robin Etherington, and their young son.
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