Emilia Bernhard was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Since then, she’s lived in Iowa City, Iowa, Fayetteville, Arkansas, London, Cambridge and Bristol. She likes to move. She currently lives and works in Exeter, Devon, where she has two cats and a cozy little flat. She is the author of the “Death in Paris” series, which features amateur ex-pat detectives Rachel Levis and Magda Stevens.
1) First, I want to thank you for taking the time to do this interview with me! When did you know that writing is what you were called to do? What is it about being a writer that you love the most? What about being a writer frustrates you the most?
Well, thank you for asking me. I feel very flattered. Undoubtedly what I love most about being a writer is the writing itself. I don’t mean the first draft writing, which I always find incredibly hard and painful, but rather the revising, where I can try to say what I want to say and show what I want to show as accurately as possible. I find that both fascinating and very uplifting.
Similarly undoubtedly, what frustrates me the most is that it’s very difficult for me to find time to write. Like a lot of writers, I have a second, full-time job to make money, and it takes up exactly as much time as you would imagine a full-time job to take up. This means that I get to write perhaps once a week, if I’m lucky, rather than every day (which is what I’d really like).
I wouldn’t say that writing is what I was called to do (I get more into this in my answer to question 11), but I’ve done it quite literally for as long as I can remember. I’ve kept a journal for almost thirty years, and I make notes or write messages to myself every day, so writing is something I do constantly and regularly. I didn’t call myself “a writer” until I was in my 40s, but I wrote all the time long before that.
2) Can you tell us a little about your book(s) and where our readers can find out more about them and you?
My books are three mystery novels set in Paris, featuring two American female amateur detectives. The women are in their late 40s, and they solve mysteries they stumble on, usually accidentally. I try to give a lot of the flavor of Paris, one of my favorite cities, as well as the flavor of what it’s like to be an interested, interesting woman, and to be in a long-time best friendship.
The books are published by Crooked Lane Books, and you can buy them on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, and at any bookseller, who can order them for you.
I have an author page on Amazon, and another on Goodreads, as well as one on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/emiliabernhardip/. You can also follow me on Twitter, @1LaMew.
3) Where do you draw your inspiration from for the stories that you manage to weave together and the characters that you create?
My main characters were based on my best friend and my relationship with her, so that was easy.
There’s no doubt that finding inspiration for the stories was, and is, harder. Usually I read about something or see something on TV that sticks with me. For my second novel, I read an article in the New Yorker more than a decade ago, and one aspect of it stuck with me. I took that aspect and worked up a whole mystery novel around it. For my first mystery, the very first sentence just came to me while I was washing the dishes – I find washing the dishes to be a time when my mind produces a lot of interesting stuff; there’s something about the way it allows my brain to shut off that then leaves that brain free to work subconsciously. The first sentence set up specific requirements about who could have killed my victim, and how, so I arranged the mystery within those requirements.
The truth about inspiration is that it isn’t really in your control. Your brain just fastens on something and then makes something of it, often without your noticing or trying. Inspiration is what people used to call “the muse,” and they made it an outside creature because it feels as if it’s a separate occurrence that’s visited on you. I’d say that’s a pretty accurate description, actually. Alas (really alas, because I wish it weren’t true), you can’t will inspiration.
4) Do you have a schedule for when you write? Do you outline your novels? How long does it generally take you to finish a novel? What projects are you currently working on?
I try to write whenever I have time, but the truth is that I write best at night, and best of all very late at night. I come from a family of people who go to bed late and get up late, so I think in part I’m genetically programmed to be at my most creative when it’s dark. There is something, though, about the concentrated silence of late night, about the sense that I’m alone in a vast empty world, that I find very stimulating.
I do outline my novels. I find plot quite difficult (I can work out the beginning and the end, but managing the middle is so hard!), so lately I’ve taken to using a diagram I found of a right triangle, with one long side rising to the climax, and the other side dropping to the denouement. I put in all the rising action plot points on one side – in pencil, so I can change them – and the falling action on the other side. It’s been working very well for me as a visualization exercise.
It generally takes me a year to a year-and-a-half to finish a novel, and there’s no doubt that the longer I have the better the book is. Ideally, I’d have about three years’ writing time for everything I wrote. But that kind of time is a luxury.
At the moment I’m working on a literary thriller, and after that I have a big stream-of-consciousness thing I want to try.
5) What’s the first book you ever read that really moved you emotionally? Who is your favorite author to read? What book are you currently reading?
To be honest, the very first book that moved me emotionally was probably The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf. I loved the way Ferdinand finally just got to hang out under his tree, calm and happy. But the very first book that I felt a connection to, and that made a difference in my life, was Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. That’s a book that speaks to every smart, over-looked girl. I read it for the first time when I was twelve, and I still give a copy to any twelve-year-old girl I know.
My favorite author to read is Kate Atkinson. I’d read anything she wrote.
I’m currently reading Jews Don’t Count, a very good meditation on the subtlety of anti-Semitism by a man named David Baddiel.
6) What has been your most significant achievement as a writer thus far? Where do you see yourself within your career in the next five years?
My most significant achievement was getting published! I would have kept writing novels even if I’d never found an agent, and then a publisher, who was interested, but it was fabulous to know that someone else thought my work was worth putting out into the wider world. I believed in me, but it was nice to see that someone else believe in me, too.
In the next five years I hope to publish the novel I’m working on now, and the novel I have in mind to write after that. Because both are very different from what I’ve written before, I find myself very excited but also very intrigued. I’m interested to see if I can write them well.
7) How have you dealt with rejection within your writing career? What is your advice for other writers to better be able to cope or navigate their way through the publishing process, be it traditional or self-publishing?
I think I was very lucky when it came to rejection, because I was a full-grown adult before I focused on publishing my work. That meant I’d already experienced a very great deal of rejection, so I knew how to deal with it. The truth is that if you want to try being anything unusual in life (ballet dancer, chef, Senator, writer), you’re going to experience a huge amount of rejection along the way, no matter how good you are. You just have to accept that. The trick is to read the comments that come along with the rejection and consider the possibility that they might be valid. Sometimes they aren’t (I once had someone reject my manuscript and ask if I could send in, “a domestic thriller, perhaps with an intellectual female in distress,” as if I could just write to order), but quite often people are giving us valid feedback. What you submit is not necessarily the best you can produce, and the criticism is seldom personal, but usually meant to help you improve it.
I think my advice for other writers would be that you need to write for your own pleasure and fulfillment. You might get published; you might get famous – but you might not. If you need to publish to be fulfilled, you’re risking a lot. Absolutely try to find a publisher, or choose self-publishing, but at the foundation write because you enjoy it. That way you won’t depend on publication for validation that you’re a writer.
Also, just keep on sending out work. It’s grinding, it can be dispiriting, but it’s what increases your chances of being noticed.
8) Do you find it hard to juggle the creative side of being a writer against the business side of being a writer, in terms of marketing and promotion and things of that nature? How hard has it been (or easy) for you to build up your author platform?
I wish I had to juggle the marketing and promotion side! I’ve not had much opportunity to do promotion (thank you for this one!), which is a pity, since I think I’d be really good at it.
It has been difficult for me to build up my author platform, but I confess that I haven’t really made an all-out effort. I have another job besides this one – I’m a teacher – and that takes up a lot of my time. I’ve done promotion and marketing where I’ve had opportunities, but I simply don’t have the time to seek out other opportunities. Which is a pity because, as I say, I think I’d be very good at it, and I know I enjoy it.
9) So many writers say that they hate reading their own work. Do you ever enjoy reading your own work back to yourself after it’s out there for the rest of the world?
I enjoy reading my own work if I think it’s good. I’ve written a very few things, mostly academic articles, where I read them afterward and think, “My God, did I write that? How did I ever write anything that sounds that good?”
I admit I’ve never had that experience with one of my novels.
10) Do you believe that there is ever a point in life where it’s too late for an aspiring writer to become successful in this industry? Do you feel a late start would hinder their chances?
No, I don’t think it’s ever too late for an aspiring writer to become successful. One of the best writers in English, Penelope Fitzgerald, didn’t publish her first novel until she was 61, and she published her last when she was 80. And each novel was better than the one before! No one asks how old you are before they accept a manuscript, so I don’t think age makes any difference.
11) I feel like writing is a remarkable tool to help people not only express themselves, but also to cope emotionally and mentally. I know for me I write to be and feel more authentic. What unique quality is there about you, about your art, that you feel represents your authenticity? How does writing help you to be more empowered in your purpose?
This is a very difficult question for me. I don’t believe I have a purpose, so I can’t say writing helps me be more empowered in my purpose. I don’t feel my art represents my authenticity in any way, because I’m not exactly sure what my “authenticity” is. Wait, I feel my work accurately expresses my deep commitment to feminism – is that my authenticity? Then let’s go with that.
I do absolutely agree, however, that writing is a remarkable tool for self-expression and coping. I’d go so far as to say it’s an essential one. I’ve kept a journal since I was 19 (so, for 34 years), and it’s been a huge help to me in terms of understanding and dealing with my emotions. I have no doubt that it would be incredibly boring to anyone else – I’ve actually never read back in it, so for all I know it would be incredibly boring to me – but while I’m writing in it, it allows me to think, process, and achieve catharsis in very helpful ways.