Interview With an Author: Emilia Hart

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Emilia Hart and her debut novel, Weyward
Author Emilia Hart and her debut novel, Weyward. Photo of author: Otto Wicks

Emilia Hart grew up in Australia and studied English Literature at university before training as a lawyer. She lives in London. Weyward, her debut, was highly commended by the Caledonia First Novel Prize, and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Weyward?

I began writing Weyward in the early days of the pandemic in 2020. I was lucky enough to spend the lockdown working remotely in Cumbria—a beautiful, rugged part of North West England. I was very grateful to be safe and healthy, but I really struggled with the uncertainty of the time, particularly the uncertainty about when I’d see my family in Australia again.

The Cumbrian wildness became an escape from these fears and worries: I loved exploring the surrounding fells and the sparkling creeks. It was the most amount of time I’d spent in nature since moving to Australia from the UK in 2015, and it felt really restorative. It also gave me this urge to create.

At the same time, I learned that the stunning landscape concealed a dark history: like other parts of the UK (and indeed, America), North West England was caught up in the witch hunt frenzy of the early modern period. In fact, one of the most notorious witch trials in English history, the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612, took place in Lancaster—not far from where I was living.

I was really struck by this contrast between the beauty of the landscape and these terrible things it had seen. I also had this sense that misogyny was echoing through the ages, particularly we began to hear of increased reports of domestic violence in lockdown.

I wanted to write something to examine how misogyny has morphed and shifted—but remained ever present—through time. But I also wanted to celebrate female power and resistance, as well as the solace that can be found in the natural world. I had this image of a young woman fleeing an abusive relationship in London for a remote cottage in the wilderness, and there discovering—and drawing strength from—the stories of her female forebears. It all went from there!

Are Altha, Violet, Kate, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

They aren’t, although I would say that Kate is quite similar to me in terms of her personality! We also both share a fear of birds...

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

Kate’s timeline in particular changed a lot—but I think all of the changes were for the better! I’m so grateful to have had such a brilliant editorial team. My agent Felicity Blunt and my brilliant UK and US editors, Carla Josephson and Sarah Cantin, definitely made the novel what it is today. I feel like all three of them really saw my vision for Weyward and helped me enhance it. We actually ended up adding some characters and scenes—for instance, we were able to draw Violet’s mother out of the shadows, which I think works really well for the story.

How familiar were you with life in 17th and mid-20th century England? Did you have to do a bit of research? How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write Weyward? What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

A lot of what I knew came from reading fiction, but I also read quite widely to ensure that I could capture the context of each moment in history. For instance, Tracy Borman’s book, Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts, was invaluable in explaining the burgeoning political and religious unrest of the time. James I was fixated on witches: by the time he came to power in England (having already been King of Scotland), he’d already instigated the notorious North Berwick witch trials of 1590 which led to the deaths of dozens of women. He even authored his own book about witchcraft, Daemonologie. Of course, witch-hunts were already a widespread phenomenon across Europe, but it’s amazing how one man’s obsession proved fatal for many.

In terms of Violet’s timeline in the 1940s, I read Lesley Lewis’ memoir, The Private Life of a Country House, which I found in a secondhand bookshop in Cumbria. This really informed my understanding of how a large manor house like Orton Hall would have operated in Violet’s day—I was fascinated by all the thorny rules of social etiquette and hierarchy.

Probably the most surprising thing I learned—and hopefully this isn’t too much of a spoiler—was how doctors tested for pregnancy in the 1940s. If you can believe it, they used frogs! The woman’s urine would be injected into the frog and if the frog produced eggs, that meant the woman was pregnant. Apparently this happened up until the 1960s!

Same questions regarding the British witch trials of the 17th century. Did you do a bit of research? What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

I was surprised to learn that some of the women accused of witchcraft may have actually believed in their own powers. This was particularly the case with the Pendle witch trials, which inspired Weyward: most of the women accused came from two families headed by matriarchs, who saw themselves in competition with each other in providing healing services to the locals.

By no means does that justify what happened to them, but I think it shows how differently people thought about the world back then.

Do you share Violet’s fascination with insects?

I have to admit, I’m a little afraid of insects, especially spiders. That probably comes from growing up in Australia, where some of them can kill you! But I did come to appreciate them while researching Violet’s character. I remember looking up at a close-up photograph of a fly and thinking it was one of the most beautiful images I’d ever seen—this iridescent body and huge mirrored eyes. You might mistake it for a fairy! So I think in the end, Violet—and all the Weyward women—did give me a newfound appreciation for insects, and the natural world in general.

Altha, Violet, and Kate all share a special relationships with crows. Do you have an idea or theory regarding why/how writers and readers as so fascinated with crows and ravens?

Corvids, and birds in general, are certainly a powerful motif in literature, fascinating writers from Poe to Dickens to Du Maurier. I did some reading around this when I was writing the book and I learned that it probably stems from folklore. For instance, there is an association between crows and ravens and the Morrigan, the Celtic goddess who is said to be a trio of women, something that appealed to me when writing about three female characters. In other cultures, they’re associated with death or messages from the gods. For my part, I wonder if that’s because there’s something slightly humanoid about them: their silky black feathers make me think of cloaks, and their cries sound eerily like human voices.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Dazzling by the wonderful Chikodili Emelumadu, Women Talking by Miriam Toews and Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Kate Atkinson, Daphne Du Maurier, Maggie O’Farrell, Tim Winton and Louisa May Alcott.

As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

It’s wonderful and an absolute privilege. But I wasn’t quite prepared for how exposing it would feel! Make sure you have your best people around you, and take time away from social media when you can.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It’s also the first novel I ever owned—my father bought me a copy for my first Christmas. I still have it today. It’s such a wonderful novel, and ultimately it’s about the power of storytelling. Sara Crewe, the novel’s heroine, begins life as the privileged daughter of a wealthy man but when tragedy strikes, it’s her vast imagination that sees her through. I think that’s a lesson I’ve carried with me to this day.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

I was so dazzled by the cover of The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett that I simply had to buy it. Of course, the story is just as beautiful as its packaging.

Is there a book that changed your life?

There are probably a few, but here are two examples. Ariel by Sylvia Plath opened my mind to the possibilities of language, and What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt made me think about romantic relationships in a different way.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

I adore Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. It’s a really stunning novel about memory and is so beautifully written. I love Lively’s short stories, too.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson. It’s such a powerful novel and one I’ll never forget. I’ve read it a few times now and every time the ending makes me sob, but it would be magical (albeit heartbreaking) to read it with fresh eyes.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I went to an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London recently where I saw the paintings of Marianne Werefkin for the first time. She was a Russian Expressionist painter, and her art is just so beautiful, such a vivid use of colour and form. You feel like you could step inside one of her scenes and join in on the story. I ended up buying a print of one of her paintings, The Contrasts—it’s this stunning depiction of people going about their lives in a town square with these majestic mountains rising in the background. For a long time female artists like Werefkin were sort of forgotten in terms of their contribution to modernist art—it’s wonderful they’re finally being recognized today.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I would love to have lunch with Daphne Du Maurier and pick her brain. I’ve only read five of her novels, but they are all so different and yet equally brilliant—how did she do that?!

What are you working on now?

I’m writing my second novel! Like Weyward, it focuses on female stories and has a historical element. This time, I’ve been inspired by the transportation of convicts to Australia from England and Ireland in the 1800s. Sisterhood and the lure of the sea will be strong themes of the novel, and there’ll be a sprinkling of magic realism, too.

Book cover for Weyward: A Novel
Weyward: A Novel
Hart, Emilia

In Weyward, Emilia Hart tells the stories of three women, separated by centuries and generations, who share experiences, intuitions, and, above all, a desire to be free. Hart illustrates not only how women of every generation have been subjected to the will and ire of men, but also how those men have knowingly and willfully made themselves obstacles for women to overcome. While there may be male allies in the women’s lives, they are often few and far between. The result is women learning, sometimes subtly, and sometimes overtly, how to retaliate and fight for the freedom to live their lives as they choose. All of this, with just a touch of magic realism, makes for a powerful debut novel from an author whom readers will definitely want to read in the future.