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Interview With an Author: Emily Critchley

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Emily Critchley and her debut novel, One Puzzling Afternoon
Author Emily Critchley and her debut novel, One Puzzling Afternoon. Photo: Hannah Couzens

Emily Critchley has lived in Essex, Brighton, and London and now lives in Hertfordshire where she works as a librarian. She has a first-class BA in Creative Writing from London Metropolitan University and an MA with distinction in Creative Writing from Birkbeck University of London. One Puzzling Afternoon is her debut novel in the U.S., and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for One Puzzling Afternoon?

I had the opening lines of chapter one for several months before I did anything with them. The lines intrigued me. How could someone see a friend from school they hadn't seen for over sixty years looking exactly the same as they did in 1951? I'd been wanting to write something from the perspective of an older female character for some time, and Edie's voice was so strong I knew she had to be my next book. I'd also had the idea of writing about an eccentric female character living in a small town in post-war Britain, performing seances for the local community. That character becomes Edie's mother in the 1951 timeline.

Are Edie, Lucy, Amy, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

I tend not to base characters on any specific individuals. There are perhaps shades of someone I unfortunately used to know in Reg, Edie's step-father, but he's the only character in the book who may have been inspired by any real person. I think my characters are more inspired by people I might pass in the street or see in a cafe. For a few moments, I wonder about their lives and what it would be like to be them. As a writer, you have to constantly try to put yourself in other people's shoes.

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?

My very first draft contained diary entries from Lucy, but I later decided it was better we hear the story entirely from Edie and that the diary entries weren't adding much. I had a slightly different resolution in my first draft as to what actually happened to Lucy. Still based around the same person (I don't want to give too much away!) but in a different situation. I lost a couple of scenes when I re-wrote the final chapters with the new idea, and I am still fond of those original scenes even though they had to go. Sometimes you really do have to kill your darlings!

In the novel, Edie struggles with her memory, and she has recently been diagnosed with a medical condition that affects memory. How familiar were you with the challenges memory can be for the elderly prior to writing One Puzzling Afternoon? Do you have family members with similar conditions, or did you need to do some research? A combination of the two? If it was family, can you talk a bit about those experiences? If you needed to do research, how long did it take you to do the research? What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

I didn't have a family member or close relative living with the condition, so I had to research. I read memoirs, biographies, guides for carers, and anything I could find on the subject. Of course, everyone's experience is different, but I felt a responsibility to portray Edie's memory problems and confusion as realistically as I could. I was surprised to learn that the condition can affect a person's taste and sense of smell. I also discovered it's a condition we still have a lot to learn about.

Is Ludthorpe, the small town or village where the novel takes place, a real place? If so, have you ever lived there or visited? If not, was it based on a real location? Can you tell us where?

Ludthorpe is a fictional town, but it's loosely based on the town where my Mum grew up, a small market town called Louth in the county of Lincolnshire. I've always loved hearing the stories of my mother's childhood, along with stories about the lives of my grandmother and great-grandmother, and it was easy to picture the town in the past. The anecdote about Edie's bicycle was a story taken from my grandmother's childhood.

Your biography says that you lived for a while in London. Do you have any favorite places? A hidden gem that someone visiting should not miss but would only learn about from a resident?

I lived in London for six years and really loved it. Bloomsbury and Hampstead are two of my favourite places. I worked for a while at Waterstones Gower Street, which is a wonderful five-floored bookshop. I used to eat my lunch on the roof among the pigeons and admire the view. Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road, Daunt Books in Marylebone, and two more must-visit bookstores. In terms of a hidden gem, Broadway market at London Fields is great for street food. In warm weather, you can sit in the park and watch the bike polo. And there is a lovely independent bookshop called Broadway Books there, too.

What's currently on your nightstand?

I have volume one of The Forsyth Saga by John Galsworthy, borrowed from my Mum, The Anomaly by Herve le Tellier, my book club’s choice for October, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw, and an advanced reader copy of Last Night at the Hollywood Canteen by Sarah James.

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

Five is difficult as there are so many writers who inspire me. I will go for Donna Tartt, Margaret Atwood, William Trevor, Barbara Comyns and Daphne Du Maurier.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I loved a book called Fast Talking Dolphin by Carson Davidson, about a boy who finds a talking dolphin in a pond in New England. We also had a Beezus and Ramona book by Beverly Cleary which I really liked as I identified with Beezus who also had an annoying little sister. My Dad used to read to us and I remember Stig of The Dump, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Folk of the Faraway Tree. Then I moved on to the Sweet Valley High books and was very disappointed to learn I couldn't go to high school in California and was stuck in rainy England.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

When I was a teenager, my Mum bought me a book called Shanghai Baby which I read several times. It's about a young woman, a writer, who lives with her impotent boyfriend, but she's also having an affair with an older, married man. I suspect my Mum didn't quite realise what was in it. The book felt important to me at the time as I realised fiction could be dark and risky and that characters didn't always have to be likable.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

I try not to do that! I can't think of a specific situation, but I only read A Christmas Carol a few years ago even though I'd read several other of Dickens' novels. It's one of those where you know the story so well from film and television adaptations you forget you haven't actually read it. Although I'm happy to say I have now!

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

I almost bought Bad Relations by Cressida Connolly a few days ago as I loved the cover’s 1970s vibe. I told myself I have too many books to read at home already, but I expect I'll go back for it. There is a book on my bookshelves called On Eating Insects that my boyfriend bought because he liked the cover. At least I hope that's why he bought it, as he tends to be the chef in our house.

Is there a book that changed your life?

The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowls showed me what can be possible when it comes to writing historical fiction. A Room With A View by E.M. Forster made me realise how easy it can be to end up in a relationship with the wrong person, although things thankfully work out well in the end for Lucy Honeychurch.

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

A few years ago I absolutely loved a book called The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery but when I recommended it to my Mum's bookclub they all hated it. At the moment, I'm really enjoying reading mid-century female writers. A few of my favourites include Barbara Comyns, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor and Dorothy Whipple, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns is so brilliant, I've been recommending it to everyone, and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor is just wonderful.

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

A Room With A View by E.M. Forster.

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

I recently watched a film called Steel Country starring Andrew Scott that really stayed with me. It features a main character with unspecified learning difficulties who becomes obsessed with solving a crime. I love an underdog.

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

I would spend the morning writing, the afternoon out on a long county walk, and then go into London for dinner with friends or family in the evening.

What is the question that you're always hoping you'll be asked but never have been? What is your answer?

What is your greatest non-writing achievement? To which I would answer: coming third place in a pumpkin growing competition when I was ten years old. My pumpkin wasn't the biggest, but it was the most orange.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on a new novel. I'm afraid I can't say too much about it as I'm still at the stage where anything could change, but I will say that it's partly set in a big, crumbling county house and features three sisters.

Book cover of One puzzling afternoon
One Puzzling Afternoon
Critchley, Emily