Knowing the spirit of your story – Emylia Hall

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By Emylia Hall

In the summer of 2015 I was working on a novel that would eventually become The Thousand Lights Hotel. I had 40,000 words – half a first draft, really – and a solid plan for the rest. Then… I stopped.

I waited a while, mulled, digested, agonized, and then tore it all up. No one had read a word of it except for myself, and still to this day they haven’t. Back then, I only knew it as Book 4, and although it had a hotel in it, there were nowhere near a thousand lights. Set on the island of Elba, it was the story of somebody in self-exile. After an unexpected visitor arrives, the protagonist is forced to face up to the events of their past. In sketch form, this could be the outline for The Thousand Lights Hotel, but the characters, and the events of the story (the novel, then, for what else is there?) are very different. I’ll tell you what else there is – the spirit. And it was this spirit that stayed consistent, that remained my guiding light through the dark days of ripping it all up. It was through knowing the spirit of the story that I felt confident trying to find another way to tell it: to start all over again, while feeling like I wasn’t quite back at the beginning.

Throughout the autumn of that year I rethought all the elements of the novel as it stood. I talked to my supportive agent and editor. We had a meeting, and an on-going exchange of emails that was constructive, collaborative. But on the radio I kept hearing the Chemical Brothers’ Wide Open and the line ‘it’s getting away from me’ became an earworm; I was starting to feel afraid I’d opened it right up, questioned too much. I cried while I was washing up. Fretted in bed at night. One wet day at the end of November I tucked into a cafe with my notepad, my baby asleep in his pram beside me, and thought WORK THIS OUT, EMYLIA. I knew what I wanted the novel to be; I just didn’t know how to hang it together. Outside the rain came down and inside I scribbled furiously. I finally felt like I was on to something. An hour or so later, my coffee cold, my baby waking, I had the shape of The Thousand Lights Hotel. There were more emails, more conversations, the team around me gave it the thumbs up, and I was off.

That winter I battened down the hatches. My publisher was being flexible with my deadlines, but personally I felt I had time to make up: until I passed that 40,000-word marker, I’d be forever on the back foot. I’d never abandoned so much of a book before, and while I wasn’t concerned about my decision, I was conscious it’d been a bold move, and I needed courage to see it through. I went into self-styled retreat mode, coming off social media, hunkering down with only my work-in-progress for company. Five months later I emerged with a first draft I was pretty happy with, and a humbling sense of relief and self-belief.

What of that lost book? Or lost fragment, for half a first draft is a long way from a finished novel. Do I ever think of it ruefully, imagine that I might have been onto something after all? Honestly no, because all the things that really mattered about it can be found in The Thousand Lights Hotel. Indeed in sketch form it sounds almost the same. A redemptive story; people opening their hearts to others against the odds. A novel full of food, and passion for landscape. Sure, the players are different – I’ve moved them around, major characters swapping roles with minor, a ten-year-old boy now a man of thirty, and introducing new characters entirely. A hotel, only before mentioned in passing, is the principal setting, the ‘world’ of the book, the titular Thousand Lights.

Now that my novel is complete, and will soon be sitting on bookshelves, part of me can’t imagine it existing in any other way. It was always this story, wasn’t it? Always The Thousand Lights Hotel. But the writer in me knows that for several months it had, in fact, been something else. And instead of this being a destabilising feeling (when the options are infinite, how can we ever feel confident we’ve made the right choice?) – I find it inspiring (the options are infinite! What wonderful choice!). I’ve learnt to accept, indeed embrace, the fact that writing is a process of exploration. To understand, that while I might hold a map in my hand, I should be prepared to take wrong turns, to double back, or go the scenic route. So long as I know what I want from my destination, I should be confident that when I see it, I’ll recognise it. This last is, I think, the trick.

From time to time I teach creative writing, and when talking to people about their intentions for their work in progress I ask them to think of the finished book. If they were to imagine a dream review, from a trusted source, how would their novel be described? What adjectives would be employed? Essentially – how do you want your readers to feel? It’s an exercise that makes you step back from your work, and remind yourself of your ambitions for it. Those ambitions become guiding lights: a touchstone if you ever feel like it’s getting away from you. I wanted this novel to be a kind book, one that appealed to our better instincts. I wanted it to shine with Elban sunshine, and be full of the flavours of the island. I wanted to write about people who are a little bit lost, learning to find their way. I wanted the experience of it to be a holiday in itself – to transport my reader fully – for it to feel escapist, but emotionally authentic. All this is true of the piece of a book that I had, and ditched. And all this is true of the finished book that I now hold in my hand. The latter is simply a better expression of the former; and I’m happy that its spirit is intact.

Emylia Hall is the author of four novels. Her first, The Book of Summers, was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick, one of the best-selling debuts of 2012, and has been translated into eight languages. The Thousand Lights Hotel published in July 2017. With books set in rural Hungary, the Swiss Riviera, Cornwall’s far west, and the Tuscan isle of Elba, her work is strongly influenced by place. Emylia’s writing and short fiction has appeared in a variety of publications, including Elle magazine, the Book Slam anthology Too Much Too Young, and broadcast on BBC Radio 6 Music.

1 Comment

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    Mark Jones

    July 13, 2017 at 1:40 am

    Beautiful story behind the story, since the first book that I have read by Emily I have truly looked forward to her next. A wonderful writer most certainly looking forward to reading the book as well Thankyou for sharing your wonderful talent

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