Talking with Ti
with Ti Mikkel
Q&A with Emma Newman
TI: Hello Emma! Excited to chat with you today. I usually start with everyone’s WILD CARDS origin story, and for you that means going all the way back to Star Trek: The Next Generation.
EMMA: Yeah, Star Trek: The Next Generation. I was absolutely obsessed with TNG when I was a teenager, and it really got me through my teenage years. I don’t say that in a flippant way, it was a very difficult and disrupted period in my life with lots and lots of trauma, and Next Gen was my surrogate family. In the credits I would see Melinda’s name, and it was one of the very few female names—aside from the cast—that could be seen. I used to read her name and think: If she can be there, maybe I can be there one day, too. Even though I didn’t know anything about Melinda herself…this was back in the 90s when I was growing up and didn’t have access to the internet. I didn’t have that until I went to university. So I couldn’t just pop online and read about her, because that wasn’t available. She was literally just a name, a writer specifically which was a very important point because I was already writing stories then.
TI: You got the chance to meet Melinda in Chicago, is that right?
EMMA: Yes, I got the chance to meet her in Chicago. It was after my very first World Con, it was the last morning, and she came up to the table that I was having breakfast at with a few other people. One of them—I can’t remember who it was—knew her, and we were introduced incredibly briefly. I nearly died. I was very quiet and British about it and didn’t say anything, but inside I was screaming. It was a really important moment.
TI: And a few years after that, you were asked to write a story for KNAVES OVER QUEENS. Did Melinda call or the King in the North?
EMMA: I think two, three maybe more years after Chicago I went to Convergence in Minneapolis. I had the opportunity to meet Melinda there properly, and we chatted for a couple of hours in a bar. I was with my editor at the time, and I told him afterwards how important that had been and how incredible to be able to chat with my childhood hero. I told him the significance of why it was so important, and he was like, “Oh my God, you have to tell Melinda!” So we actually ended up having breakfast together, Melinda and I, and I talked to her about how important the episode “Measure of a Man” was to me. It was on an old VHS tape that I used to play when I was alone in the house, and I was alone a lot. When I was fifteen years old, I basically lived by myself. I was always scared in the house at night, and it was an episode that was the first on the tape. I used to put it on and listen to it as I tried to get to sleep. I told Melinda how important it was to me, and we cried! We’ve become very, very good friends since then. I’ve visited with her and had Thanksgiving with her. She’s a very important person in my life, and I’m hugely privileged to call her a friend now as well as my hero. (But she still is my hero.)
A few years after that I was asked to write a story, and it was an email from George. I like to call him George Really Really Martin, which is a bit of hangover from a joke in a podcast I used to make, but it stuck. So yes, George Really Really Martin sent me an email inviting me to write for the Wild Cards Consortium. Specifically, it was for Knaves Over Queens, because they wanted to do a British-focused book. Of course I said, “Yes!”
TI: Quick aside—for those who haven’t watched Melinda’s episode, “Measure of a Man,” you’re missing out. Do you go to Trek conventions? Is TNG your favorite series?
EMMA: For me “Measure of a Man” is one of the best examples of the purest joy; a philosophical exploration through science fiction. I did used to go to Star Trek conventions when I was a teenager. I stopped in my early twenties…I just kind of moved away from fandom. I had a weird experience…I’d gone to very small conventions with only like 200-300 people. I went to my first really giant one in London, and it kind of booted me out of fandom. I don’t know why to this day, I suddenly had this moment where I thought this is not where I belong anymore. It was very odd, and I just kind of moved on.
I do love TNG, it’s something that I feel is a part of the early parts of my life. However, it’s not a fandom that I participate in actively. But you know, I love a Darmok Meme as much as the next Trekkie. I will always love it, and Picard will always be my Space Dad. Is it my favorite series? Yes, though I do love Discovery, even though I haven’t watched all of it yet. I’m only part way through season two. But it’s fundamentally a different experience for me. When I got into Next Generation, I needed it. It was my surrogate family. I don’t have that need anymore, so I’m not bonding with Discovery in the same way, but I think Discoveryis great. Still Next Gen is my favorite, but my favorite movie is the original cast in Wrath of Khan. Oh my God, I love that movie so much.
TI: Back to your writing. You were a published author well before WILD CARDS. How did you get started? Did you emerge from the womb with a typewriter, or was writing something you discovered later in life?
EMMA: *laughs* No I did not emerge from the womb with a typewriter, but apparently I started when I was four. That’s my grandmother’s favorite story about me, her going up to me at the kitchen table because I was industriously working on something, and she said, “What are you doin’ love?” in her beautiful Lancashire accent. And I apparently said, “I’m writing a story, Nana.” I don’t remember this, obviously, because I was four. When I had my first book published, she was very, very excited and told everyone this story at my launch.
I wrote all through my childhood. I wrote a huge amount, and then I wrote a short story that got me into university. There’s a whole story associated with that that I’m not going to go into now. And then I didn’t write for ten years. I guess I’d had my first measurable success, and it terrified me. Then my late best friend sent me a book called The Artist’s Way with a note saying: Didn’t you used to write? I sorted my head out, with the help of that book, then I wrote my first novel in 26 days! It was rubbish, but the important thing was that I had finished a novel! I’ve never looked back.
TI: Did your family encourage your creativity?
EMMA: I don’t know what to say to that. They didn’t discourage it, but I think they were mostly unaware. I was quite a private child. I know that when I was a teenager, and I went to go live with my dad, that he was kind of faintly amazed that I was just able to write all this stuff. But it wasn’t something that I really shared with anybody. It was very much mine.
TI: Can you tell us a little bit about how you write? Do you keep to a schedule?
EMMA: At the moment, I have a word count goal. The first thing I do in the day, once I’m actually conscious, is write until I reach that goal. Then everything else is gravy. When I am in a first draft phase of novels, the writing is the priority, and I do that above everything else.
TI: That’s some impressive work ethic, Emma. My brain stops functioning after 3PM, so if I don’t get my work in before then, it’s usually a lost cause.
EMMA: Things are a little bit complicated now since I’m recovering from a breakdown, and I wasn’t able to write for most of last year. But that’s coming back now, and I’m having to learn how to pace myself. So at the moment I write a minimum of a thousand words a day. Today, I accidentally wrote 1600 words, but my goal is to write a minimum of a thousand, preferably stopping at 1200, and doing it five days a week. Trying to build myself back up. Usually my word count goal when I’m writing a science fiction novel first draft is 2,000 words/day. When I wrote my urban fantasy series several years ago, I was writing 4,000 words/day. It depends on what I’m writing and how difficult it is.
TI: Are you someone who can write anywhere at any time?
EMMA: Yeah, I can, if I need to. As long as I have headphones, I can work in cafes and other places, though I don’t like it. I have a writing space at home, and I prefer to use that. I prefer to write in silence, but if I have to be out and about, I will put on music. And I can write at any time of day.
TI: Let’s talk character. You created Stonemaiden for KNAVES, who can turn living things to stone. You drew inspiration from Midas and Rogue from X-Men, is that right?
EMMA: Yeah, definitely. The story of King Midas terrified me as a child. I found it absolutely horrifying. I remember the first time that I read it. It was in a collection of myths and legends that I had when I was a kid, and I went through a phase where I was obsessed with Greek mythology. I think it was in a collection with lots of Greek myths, and I don’t know why it was? I think it was just a story collection of myths and legends, and it really terrified me. I like to write about things that scare me and things that make me angry. So it fell into the ‘things that scare me’ camp.
And Rogue from X-Men, I love Rogue. I love the inherent tragedy of her, and how she just can’t have a normal teenage life. I’m thinking of the movie example of her, of course. With Stonemaiden, I made it granite that she turns people into, because she’s Cornish. I’m Cornish, I was born in Cornwall, and a lot of Cornwall is made of granite. It was a big part of what I associate with Cornwall. That’s why I made it granite instead of gold. Those were the two main things I drew inspiration from…and also basically just wanting to make a Cornish superhero. *laughs* Cornwall has amazing figures from history. We have giants, and we have Richard Trevithick (that is such a mouthful) who invented the steam locomotive. But no modern heroes that I can recall from my childhood, and I just thought it would be great to have a Cornish superhero.
TI: How many characters did you create and pitch before you landed on her? From what I’ve heard, it can be a daunting process. The WILD CARDS universe is massive and adding someone into the mix isn’t as easy as it sounds, friends.
EMMA: I was insanely lucky, and she was my first. George really, really liked it.
TI: So basically you won the lottery.
EMMA: Yeah, I know how difficult that can be because I was with my husband at the time, and he’d also been invited, and he had to go through several rounds. So I felt very lucky that George liked Stonemaiden.
TI: Aside from your own contribution, do you have a personal favorite character in the universe?
EMMA: It’s gonna sound really cheesy, seeing as I’ve just talked about how important Melinda is to me, but Double Helix really is genuinely one of my favorite characters. I love how complex he is. I love how screwed up he is, how many facets there are to his personality, the things he does and how it affects him. I love him as a character.
TI: Most writers are readers, and most readers have a favorite or two that they revisit every now and again. Recommend to us your favorite books.
EMMA: Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky. I absolutely adore that book. The Imperials series by Melinda. Absolutely top-notch, fantastic space-opera. Love them. I love Do You Dream of Terra-Two? By Temi Oh. Fantastic science fiction set in an alternate Britain in 2012. Temi is a fantastic writer, and a fantastic person. Really, really, super smart. I loved Spider Light by Adrian Tchaikovsky. I also love the old classics, like The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham is one of my favorite books. There are a lot of his other books that are obviously much more famous than that one, but The Kraken Wakes is my favorite. It’s just such a slow burn. You know that awful things are going to happen, and then they slowly creep up on you.
TI: You are a lover of tea.
TI: I’ve already admitted as much to Max Gladstone, but for years I didn’t understand the appeal. In U.S. grocery stores, our selection is abysmal, and the satchels are usually stale or devoid of flavor entirely. Everything changed when I sipped a proper aromatic peppermint and eucalyptus blend. I couldn’t believe it. Tea is magnificent, and now I spend more money on the stuff than I’m comfortable admitting.
EMMA: Tea is magnificent. Thankfully being in England, we have a lot more choice than I understand you do in other parts of the world. I have several American friends who talk about how it can be really difficult to find it, and as you say, the selection is abysmal. Tea is incredibly important to me.
TI: I still love coffee, though.
EMMA: Oh, I still love coffee. It’s coffee that starts my day. I have two cups of coffee before I’m fully online, and then it’s tea for the rest of the day. There is something deeply important and comforting about tea, I think in particular in the British psyche. It is the cornerstone of so much, of our culture. That sounds sort of ridiculous, but you know, if a friend has a problem, they come over for a cup of tea. Someone dies, and you make the bereaved a cup of tea. You’re stressed about something—I’ll make you a cup of tea. Oh, I don’t know what to do, I’m going to make myself a cup of tea and then have a think. It really is such an important, ritualistic part of life.
TI: You mentioned being born and growing up in Cornwall. What was your childhood like? Lots of time outdoors, exploring?
EMMA: *laughs* I don’t want to talk about that very much. But in terms of the Cornish part of my childhood, yeah I did spend a lot of time outdoors. I did go wandering, not necessarily over all of the rolling fields and things, but I did roam quite extensively. I remember many, many days at the coast. I lived in a town that was about a ten minute’s drive from the coast, so a lot of my summers were spent there. Messing about in rock pools and bodyboarding. I spent a huge amount of time outside.
TI: Bodyboarding! Yes, okay. Cornwall forms the tip of the south-west peninsula of the island of Great Britain, exposing it to anything blowing in from the Atlantic. So it sounds like it is as windy as I’m imagining?
EMMA: Yes and no.
EMMA: When I think back to it, I don’t remember it being constantly windy. But what is a particular weather you get in Cornwall that I haven’t really experienced anywhere else is what we used to call forty-mile-an-hour fog.
TI: Oh, God.
EMMA: It could be really, really, really windy and foggy at the same time, which is really counterintuitive if you live elsewhere. Fog is usually associated with very still days. But yes, if you get a front in from the Atlantic, which is really wet and really windy, it’s like living in the clouds for days on end. One of my most favorite things about Cornwall is the fact that when you go near the coast, you see the trees are permanently bent. They look like they are permanently being blown by a gale, like someone has cast a spell and frozen them in time. Cornwall feels like an ancient place that hunkers down and endures whatever is thrown at it. It’s a very beautiful, very brutal place, and a lot of people only ever experience it as tourists. They see it in the summer, but it is a brutal place.
TI: How so?
EMMA: It can be bleak and incredibly harsh in winter, with wind and rain. Don’t get snow, though we did have a week of snow as a kid, and it’s one of my favorite childhood memories actually, because it was so rare.
TI: Apparently it’s also home to a sizable surfing community…which is entirely unexpected and strikes me as both amazing and also very weird.
EMMA: Yes, but in very specific locations. Not the area of the coastline where I grew up. I grew up down on the southern coast, was born in Penzance which is as far south and west as you can go in the UK. It’s mostly the north coast where you have lots of surfers, as you have the wind, and the waves are better up there. So it doesn’t feel weird to me, just a part of life.
TI: You’re based in Somerset now, is that right? I consulted a map, and it tells me that’s near Bath. Has the area been shut down due to the pandemic?
EMMA: I live now just north of Bristol.
TI: And you’ve been shut down due to the pandemic, I assume, but I’m guessing there’s a lot to explore in the area?
EMMA: Everywhere has been shut down. But yeah, in Somerset there are lots of beautiful places you can walk. Unfortunately, I moved just before the pandemic, so I haven’t had a chance to explore far beyond two square kilometers around where I live. I don’t know this area as well, but there is lots of beautiful countryside nearby.
TI: Let’s switch gears. You’re very open about your struggles with anxiety, and I absolutely adore that about you. Well met. I am terrified of everything, too. Please share with us (me) your coping mechanisms.
EMMA: This is a huge topic for me at the moment. At the end of last year, I was diagnosed as being autistic. In my early twenties, I was diagnosed as having generalized anxiety disorder, and that was incorrect. So the past few months, I’ve been coming to terms with the fact that I have been trying to manage my life as if I have an anxiety disorder, when in fact I am autistic. It’s very hard. I made a decision several years ago when I became an author and started to have a life online, in a way I didn’t before, to be very open about the fact that I have a lot of struggles with anxiety. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still hugely anxious and autistic, it’s just that a lot of the roots of the feeling of anxiety are different. I’m still unpacking it—it’s complicated, it’s difficult. It’s distressing realizing that your entire life has been much, much more difficult than it should have been. If I had received the correct diagnosis back in my twenties, a lot of things in my life would be a lot easier, and I would be a lot less traumatized, let’s put it that way.
Some of my coping mechanisms are going to stay the same though. Sometimes you can feel hugely anxious that something has to get done, and one of the decisions I made a very long time ago was that I was never going to let fear stop me from achieving what I want to achieve. If I can identify that it is a fear that is just in my head, that it is not real… For example, if I lived in a war zone, and I was afraid of being shot if I went outside? That would be a real thing that I would have to adapt my life to. Whereas if my body is telling me “you could be shot at any moment,” that level of anxiety when I am living in England…then I know that it something that is arising from my brain, and that I do not need to heed in the same way.
It’s a matter of identifying ways to overcome that fear. I give an hour-long workshop on the technique that I’ve developed to do this with my writing.
TI: Can you provide a link to that workshop for those interested?
EMMA: It doesn’t exist online, I’m afraid, as it’s one that I have only taught in person. I am thinking about making an online version though.
I find social situations incredibly difficult, and conventions have always been insanely difficult for me. *laughs* I am now aware of course that it’s because I’m autistic. But when I didn’t know, and I thought it was because I had generalized anxiety disorder, I would make myself clothes.
TI: That’s right you sew!
EMMA: Yes! I used to be a designer dress-maker many years ago. I ran my own small business doing it when I left university. So I would just design an outfit for a convention and make it before the convention. Then I would be more anxious about whether I was going to finish my outfit in time than the actual event itself. It was a displacement activity, but when I got to the event it was useful as well. It was like armor, social armor that I could wear. I could dress up in it, and it made it easier to cope.
I think now through an autistic lens, I’m starting to become aware of how one of the things it’s useful for is that it gives you something to talk to other people about. I cannot do small talk, which is an autistic trait. So it’s much easier to talk about my outfit than anything else, and it’s a way of hiding in plain sight. I have a very dramatic, blood red, floor-length coat—which is one of my favorite things I’ve ever made—and people see the coat, they don’t see me. I’ve had so many people say to me after a particular World Con, the one in London years ago, “I kept seeing you! Like this dash of red, but I couldn’t get to you in time!” And I was thinking yes, you saw the coat, you didn’t see me. And that makes me happy.
Now I’m relearning how to deal with things. It’s still very raw and difficult. I got quite confident about how I thought about anxiety and how it affected my life and how I dealt with it…and now it’s all sort of been pulled out from under me.
TI: Just to touch on the sewing a bit more, because it’s so difficult (I’ve tried).How did this start? Did you take classes or teach yourself? I’ve sewed a few buttons here and there.
EMMA: I taught myself, and started when I was at university because I have a body shape that is not fashionable. I have a waist-to-hip ratio that is unfashionable. I have an hourglass figure, which is the one that supposedly everyone wants.
TI: As someone shaped like a stick, yes, this is what I want.
EMMA: But it’s the least catered for in high-street, fast fashion. It used to drive me crazy. I couldn’t find anything that fit me properly, so I thought I’ll just make my own clothes, and I’ll teach myself. I literally did that, I got some books, and I taught myself. Then I realized it was very useful for LARP, which I had started doing at university, and then I could start making costume. From making costume and the clothes that I made for myself to wear, I started to have lots of people saying, “Could you make me something?”
After I finished my degree, I was very disillusioned with what I wanted to do. I did a degree in psychology, thinking that I wanted to be a psychiatrist, and then I changed my mind because of what I learned in my degree. Didn’t know what to do with myself, but I thought well, okay, I can sew. Initially, I went into other things. I had a very chaotic twenties, and looking back it’s because I was actually farting around trying to forget that I was trying to be a writer. I genuinely believe that was the case. I was catastrophically messing my life up constantly because I was suppressing my writing so much.
But yes, there was a spell of two years where I ran a designer, dress-maker business, and it was just me. I made several wedding dresses, ballgowns, costumes for LARP, normal clothes. A friend of mine still wears a coat that I made for her, twenty-odd years ago. I made all sorts of things for people. But it was very lonely, which is ironic. I always said, “I stopped doing that because I was lonely.” And now I’m a writer, which I do by myself, and I love being by myself. So looking back with the awareness of myself now, I think I got bored. Once I’ve learned how to do something, and I get proficient at it, it becomes very boring to me. It wasn’t enough to sustain my interest, if I’m being completely truthful, so I went off and did something else instead.
TI: Okay, you might have gotten bored, but sewing is so hard. You’re an icon.
EMMA: *laughs* I don’t see it that way! It’s one of those things where it all depends on the person, doesn’t it? I have a friend who’s a quantum physicist who conceives of things that I find incredibly difficult. Does maths that I would never, ever be able to do. I don’t think sewing is hard, but obviously other people do. My quantum physicist friend wouldn’t have a hope in hell of being able to make a coat.
TI: Coat? Buttons haunt me.
EMMA *laughs* It’s just a skillset, isn’t it? It’s just what you decide to put your effort into and how motivated you are. I was incredibly motivated to have clothes that I liked, that fit me properly. Now I like having clothes that are weird and dramatic that I can wear at conventions, that fit me properly. So that’s a good motivation. Ultimately, trying to make enough money to survive was not a good enough motivation for me to continue to sew. Also in part because, in our dreadful, unfettered capitalist hellscape life that we have now, it is not a job that you can do and have a comfortable living wage at. People don’t appreciate how much work goes into bespoke tailored clothes. So unless you’re somebody who is a tailor on Savile Row and you have other ways to make people pay the money you deserve for your work, it can be incredibly difficult. Especially for a baby dressmaker like I was at the time.
TI Let’s talk television. What’s been your favorite pandemic show?
EMMA: I have just finished watching all of the first thirteen seasons of Midsummer Murders with my best mate. *laughs* It is just the weirdest alternate reality…I’m not going to go on about it. It is one of my favorite shows, and I have many reasons why. I’ve actually thinking about doing a talk or YouTube about why that show is so magnificent.
I’ve also just finished watching Wandavision. Absolutely adored it. And I really like Call the Midwife, which I never thought I would say, but when lockdown first happened last year and I was also having a severe mental breakdown, it got me through. Not usually my kind of show, but it did it for me.
TI: I love Call the Midwife! I have never made it through an entire episode without crying. Any others?
EMMA: I used to love Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and I still think it’s a fantastic show, but with everything that’s been going on in the past year, and my own reading and thoughts about the police…I don’t feel as comfortable watching it as I used to.
TI: I know we’ve talked about books, but are there any that you re-read? Comfort books?
EMMA: Yeah, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one of my comfort books. I haven’t re-read many books. Currently, I share a house with my best friend, and I’m re-reading Guns of the Dawn as I’m reading it to them, like a live-action audiobook narration I guess.
TI: Tell us what’s next for you. Any interesting projects in the pipeline?
EMMA: I traditionally never talk about what I’m working on, but I think considering the topic of the interview I feel that I can say that I’ve just finished the first draft of a new Stonemaiden story. I really hope George likes it. *laughs* I still have to edit it, as it’s coming in above its word count. So yes I’ve just written a new story on her to fill in the gap between her origin story in Knaves Over Queensand her later appearances in later books.
I also write a short story every month for my newsletter subscribers and my Patreon patrons, and that is what I’m writing this month. If you sign up on my website, you get that story for free. New story every month. After that, I’m starting a shared-world project. It’s not Wild Cards, it’s a different publisher, but it hasn’t been announced yet.
And then there is my own personal project that I’m working on, but no I’m not going to talk about that.
TI: *laughs* Fair enough final question—I’ve read on your website that you have a healthy distrust of fried mushrooms. There’s a lot to unpack here, but let’s start with why?
EMMA: How can anyone be in the same room as mushrooms that are being fried and not think that they are the worst things. *laughs* Okay, so the smell of fried mushrooms makes me want to vomit. There is something about it that I find deeply distressing, but also it’s the texture. And the way that they look. So they look to me like dead slugs.
EMMA: Hello I’m quite strange. *laughs* They look like dead slugs! And the texture of them is how I would imagine dead slugs would taste. I have never eaten slugs, obviously, because that can literally kill you. But I’m very imaginative funnily enough, given the job I have. And yes, that is what my brain says when I go near fried mushrooms. No, they are actually chopped up, dead slugs. So yeah, there we go! I can’t stand mushrooms. Also time lapses of mushrooms and slime mould I think have also contributed to my deep hatred of anything mushroomy. *shudders*
TI: *laughs* I will think of you every time one comes across my plate now. And slugs. Thank you so much, Emma. You are delightful.