Emma’s passport photo, aged 20.

Emma’s passport photo, aged 20.

More About emma

I was born and brought up in London, the middle of three sisters. My mother was an English teacher, and my father was a lawyer, so perhaps it was inevitable that supper table arguments were usually about words: their exact meaning, ambiguities, overtones, etymology and changing use. 

My father was in the Diplomatic Service, and when I was three we were posted to New York: one summer we camped across the USA, my father retelling the stories of the Greek myths as we drove on and on, across the prairies and into the Rockies. My mother read us Edward Lear, The Princess and the Goblin and Noel Streatfeild. Later, in airports and on cross-channel ferries, it was Shakespeare, Kidnapped and Jane Austen.

We spent many holidays on the Essex/Suffolk border, where much of The Mathematics of Love is set, but when I was nine Britain joined what was then called the EEC, and my father was posted to Brussels. We spent three years commuting between London and Belgium, and travelling around Europe for holidays. Those memories have shaped my work too: the battlefield of Waterloo, and the road from San Sebastian to Bilbao. We were even once caught by the Guardia Civil when we set up camp by mistake on General Franco's country estate.

A Secret Alchemy, on the other hand, has many of its roots in my London childhood: films like Olivier’s Richard III, visits to the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey, memories of Josephine Tey's detective story The Daughter of Time, and always the layers of history that underlie everything, and show wherever the modern surface cracks.

I liked writing stories as a child, but history was my great love. I read Geoffrey Trease, Cynthia Harnett, Barbara Willard, and time-slip novels like Penelope Farmer's frightening Charlotte Sometimes. I moved on to Hornblower, Heyer and Mary Renault, but as a teenager I caught the theatre bug and went up to the University of Birmingham to read Drama & Theatre Arts. To this day I use what I learnt of characterisation, subtext and stagecraft in my own writing, but I also worked through my stage-struckness and out the other side. My Finals dissertation was on play publishing; realising that the book industry was a place where I felt at home, I spent some years in academic publishing. It was only when I had two small children that I started writing a novel. Then I was diverted: my first camera had been a tenth birthday present, and now I finally acquired a darkroom.

But I became more and more sure that writing was what I should be doing, and I got a place on the MPhil in Writing at the University of Glamorgan, where my tutor was novelist and poet Christopher Meredith. By that time I had discovered Peter Ackroyd, Allan Massie, Rose Tremain, Hilary Mantel and A. S. Byatt. Historical fiction for adults had become what it has always been for children: a unique space where serious writers can explore fundamental desires and fears, while revelling in the nearness and otherness of worlds that we know were here, but can' t quite see. The novel I wrote for the degree became The Mathematics of Love, and I paired it with a critical paper on narrative and structure in A. S. Byatt's novel Possession.

I graduated from the MPhil just as The Mathematics of Love was being sold to Headline Review and then to William Morrow in the US. I had found the form of a practice-led research degree so fruitful that, despite the book contract, I decided to study for a doctorate at Goldsmiths, where my supervisor was Maura Dooley.

The Mathematics of Love was published in 2006; The Times described it as “that rare thing, a book that works on every conceivable level. A real achievement”, and the Daily Express as, “an addictive, engaging foray into historical fiction that leaves the reader believing in the art of perspective and the redemptive power of love.” The Mathematics of Love was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers and Goss First Novel awards, longlisted for the Prince Maurice Prize and the RNA Novel of the Year, and translated into many languages. As far as I know, The Mathematics of Love is the only novel to be listed simultaneously for the Commonwealth Writers' and RNA prizes. Since then, I've appeared at literary festivals from Hay on Wye to Brisbane, by way of Swindon and Pitlochry.

My second novel A Secret Alchemy was published by Headline Review in 2008 and by Harper Perennial in the following year. It reached the Sunday Times Bestsellers Lists in 2009, and was named as one of The Times Top 50 Paperbacks of 2009. The Daily Mail called it “powerful and convincing”, and the Times “spellbinding”. 

A Secret Alchemy also formed the major part of my doctorate, which explores how historical fiction works as storytelling: voice, structure, using real historical characters, and the genre's place at the intersection of the reading and writing of fiction, and the reading and writing of fiction. I was the first writer to be awarded a PhD in Creative Writing by Goldsmiths, and among the first in London University as a whole. (For more on creative writing PhDs, click through to my post about them at my blog This Itch of Writing.)

As it happened, 2009, when the paperback of A Secret Alchemy was published, was also the Bicentenary of the birth of my great-great-grandfather Charles Darwin, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species, I had a busy year, and was asked to Mexico and later Spain, to lecture on creative thinking in my extended Darwin-Wedgwood family tree. It was partly this work that suggested that I should root my next novel in my family tree, but three years of intensive work ended in disaster: I could not write the novel, and ultimately became very ill.

It was not an easy time, but although I had to give up on the novel, I found I still wanted to write about the family, and ultimately I did find a way to do that. My first work creative non-fiction, This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin: a writer’s journey through my family will be published in February 2019.

By now my blog about creative writing, This Itch of Writing, was establishing itself among not only individual aspiring writers but all kinds and levels of writing course: on any given day the stats will show visitors from MAs in the UK and around the world, the major publisher-led courses such at Faber and Curtis Brown, and many of the big online writers’ forums.

Working on historical fiction has been a central part of my teaching and mentoring of writers ever since my PhD, and led to my being commissioned by John Murray Learning to write Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction for their classic Teach Yourself imprint. The book was challenging to write, as I had to help both for writers new to writing fiction at all, and experienced writers wanting to make the transition into this most demanding but exciting genre, but I am very proud of the result.

Having cut my teaching teeth doing manuscript reviews for aspiring writers for Writers’ Workshop (now Jericho Writers), for some years I was an Associate Lecturer at the Open University teaching creative writing; I have taught at Arvon and I still regularly give workshops at universities and writers’ conferences; I also co-teach an online course, Self-Editing Your Novel, with Debi Alper for Jericho Writers. But, chiefly, I now concentrate on the wonderfully rewarding work of mentoring individual writers. To find out more about my teaching click here, and to see where I’m appearing in the next few months click here.

I also write short fiction and occasionally articles in the national press; and my stories have been published in anthologies, magazines and the national press, and been broadcast on Radio 4; for more on this, click here.

I now live in South East London, still surrounded by history: there was a Viking fort on the hill behind their house. A few miles away is Eltham Palace, where many important scenes in A Secret Alchemy are set; no further away is William Morris’s Red House, which inspired the Chantry and the Pryor family in that novel. Down House, home of my great-great-grandparents Charles Darwin and his cousin and wife Emma Wedgwood, is not far away: for more about them, click here. I'm also proud to be a great-great-great niece, on my maternal side, of the Victorian master of the uncanny, J. Sheridan LeFanu, and have paid tribute to him in short fiction.