Emma Healey doesn’t miss a beat. “I had a breakdown when I was 15,” says the award-winning novelist. She is talking about the genesis of her latest work, Whistle in the Dark, a compelling tale that starts with the discovery of the teenage Lana who has been missing for four days.
Like Lana, Emma herself battled with teenage depression and she has drawn on her own experiences in Whistle in the Dark, although she’s quick to point out that “Lana is much cooler than me”.
The novel is told from the perspective of Lana’s mother Jen who is struggling to deal with the aftermath of Lana’s disappearance. Lana won’t, or is unable to tell her parents about what happened during those lost days, simply replying ‘I don’t remember’ to family and police entreaties. Lana had previously been suicidal and Emma, as a young teen, had similarly made a number of attempts to end her life. Jen’s visits to local pharmacies to ensure her daughter couldn’t buy paracetamol reflect those made by Emma’s mother.
“I was really interested in what my mother would have gone through during that time,” says Emma, “looking at the whole experience from her perspective. I did that a little bit with [my debut novel] Elizabeth is Missing. I was looking at my grandmother’s perspective, rather than mine.”
Elizabeth is Missing also dealt with a mental-health issue – dementia. For Emma, this was personal and helped her to bring an authority to the novel which won the Costa First Novel Award in 2014 and is currently being adapted for television by the BBC.
“I had so many people in my family with dementia that it felt like it belonged to me in a way,” she says. “I feel like the same with teenage depression because I went through it. I feel like I’m allowed to write about it, it’s mine. And also I can bring something to do that other people mightn’t bring.”
Emma’s depression was devastating for those around her. “My mum says that the worst part was that I just stopped communicating with her. We’d been really close and, as far as she was concerned, I had told her everything about my life in the way that children do and then, at 14, I just stopped that.”
Her mother knew that Emma wasn’t happy, but was shocked to receive a call from her GP saying that her daughter had been referred to a social worker and that she was suicidal.
Emma’s parents, who had split up before she was born, had a session with the social worker, a doctor and a nurse.
“It was a really long morning of them just asking the same questions over and over again, and me not being able to answer,” says Emma. It was decided that she should go to mental-health facility, even though the only available bed was in an adult ward.
“We were told we had to follow the nurse in the car,” says Emma. “My Mum asked if we could stop off to get me some clothes and they said no. My Dad asked if I was being sectioned.”
The answer was no but when he asked what would happen if he and Emma’s mother decided not to send her to hospital, he was told that then his daughter would be sectioned. When Emma and her parents arrived at the hospital, they had to go through several locked doors to get to the unit. Emma says that although she remembers the journey as being a bit frightening, she mainly felt relief. She would not have to engage in real life for a time.
Her mother in contrast remembers us all crying in the car says Emma, “whereas I don’t remember crying at all or, if I was crying, it was because she was upset.
“I was lucky because when we got to the psychiatric unit, the consultant psychiatrist didn’t want to admit a 15-year-old, saying ‘this was not right for you’.”
After spending a couple of hours with her, the psychiatrist gave Emma a prescription. It involved dropping most of her GCSEs, spending a week at her grandmother’s house and going to see a William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain.
It wasn’t a quick fix. She didn’t really leave the house for the next year, but she did find solace in an unexpected source – reading Mills and Boon novels. “I feel like Mills and Boon saved my life. It was a way of not living. I read a lot of other books as well, but they were definitely the best for just switching my brain off, not having to deal with reality.
I thought well, I’ll just write one. And if I write one, I never have to leave the house, I’ll earn money and it’ll be an excuse to be a hermit forever. But I was terrible at writing Mills and Boon, they’re actually really hard to write.
After 40,000 words, she gave up. She worked on her portfolio for art college and won a place at Central Saint Martins. She got a job as a bookseller, worked in the art world and eventually applied for the creative writing MA at the University of East Anglia.
She had always wanted to be a writer.
“Having that ambition – even if I didn’t really talk about it – was something to cling onto.”
The critically acclaimed Elizabeth is Missing won multiple awards, and Emma admits to feeling pressure to produce her second novel. Her publishers were keen to capitalise on the momentum generated by the success of her debut, but she had difficulty in finding the right voice, the right story. At the same time, she was trying to get pregnant.
I used to go to the gym with one of my best friends and we seemed to have the same conversation over and over again. I was always saying I’m still not pregnant and I still haven’t worked out what I’m writing and her answer to both was always just relax!
Emma’s friend was right. She began writing Whistle in the Dark in December 2015 and 10 months later, she would find out that she was pregnant with her daughter Cora.
Emma had really struggled while trying to get pregnant. “It’s a strange irrational thing.” Seeing the rounded stomachs of pregnant women exacerbated her difficulties. A trip to Australia in early 2015 provided inspiration for Whistle in the Dark. Emma heard a news report about a woman who had gone missing. The woman was discovered 17 days later suffering from dehydration and heat stroke, very close to the path where she had originally wandered off.
Emma was intrigued by the press reaction to the story. “They seemed to not believe her or they felt that there was something she was not telling them about where she had been.”
To give the novel authenticity, the character of Lana is younger, disappeared for a shorter amount of time and enabled Emma to draw on her own experiences of teenage depression. When Emma relaxed and let herself just write what she wanted, she found that the voice of Jen came to her easily. Similarly when she eased up on the accepted rules to get pregnant – not drinking, cutting down on caffeine, having sex on the most fertile days and so on – and went out to celebrate her husband’s birthday, the magic suddenly happened.
She feels strongly that being a writer prepared her for motherhood.
You’re exposed in the same way. People always want to give you advice about parenting. People who you’ve never met before will tell you you’re doing something wrong. And it’s quite similar in writing. People forget that you’re a human, they just want to give you their advice.
The early days of parenting felt familiar to the novelist.
“Babies don’t really give you any feedback for a long time. Cora’s a delight now, but for the first six months I was like ‘what do I do, this baby doesn’t have any reaction to us’. She was smiling but it’s not like a relationship where you feel you’re getting something back all the time. And writing a book is similar, you’re writing it for two years and then, finally at the end of that, you’re getting feedback from readers, there’s a similar delayed reaction.”
For Emma, Cora and Whistle in the Dark will forever be inextricably linked. She was still working on the novel during Cora’s first days and her birth informed elements of the book.
“I had thought I knew everything about what it would be like but then I realised I didn’t have any idea.”