We were so taken with Emma Martin’s speech for the launch of Two Girls in a Boat that we convinced her to share it with our readers below. Emily Perkins launched the book with another wonderful speech, which you can read here.
Someone asked me recently if I’d always been a writer, and I had to say, no. For no other reason than that I didn't really get my act together when I was younger, and then jobs happen and kids happen and life just gets filled up. If you’re not careful, whole decades can slip by like this. Then five years ago, for my birthday, my partner Billie gave me a voucher for two and a half hours writing time each week for a year. It might not sound like much but it’s a rare luxury when you've got very young children, as we did at the time. We were living in London and I used to sit in a café in Clapham Common on Sunday mornings and drink peppermint tea and try to work out how to write fiction. I managed to put together a submission to do an MA in Creative Writing at Victoria; somewhat to my amazement, I was accepted.
And you know how it is. You’re not a young student fresh out of school with your life stretching unbounded before you; you've had half your life already and you've realised there’s less of it than you once thought. So you put on your best outfit – you want to look sort of writerly but not as if you've tried too hard; a cardigan is good – and you catch the bus to the university. But you get confused by the map of Kelburn because everything’s on a slope, and you end up approaching the building from below instead of above; and although it looks close on the map actually there are lots of steps, so you’re sweating and breathless by the time you get there. This is it, you think. This feeling wells up inside you, an urgent conviction that you've something to say. Your heart is bursting with it.
That MA year was a wonderful one but also a hard one because I would start each story with such hope and then it would be finished and I would look at it on the page and wonder what an earth I’d done. There’s a fairy tale about a girl whose words, when she talks, turn into toads and drop to the ground at her feet. That’s what kept happening to me. I was producing these warty toads with bulbous eyes that sat there staring at me. It turns out that it’s not enough to have that bursting sense you've got a story to tell. You actually have to know how to write one. I tried and tried and it never worked out how I wanted it to. At the end of that year I went to see Damien Wilkins, who was my supervisor. I was sitting in his office and it was a bit socially awkward because there were all of these toads on his floor, kind of flopping around at my feet. The thing is, once they’re out, you can’t really put them back in again. Damien was very good: he just acted like they weren't there. I said, “And after all that, I still don’t know what a short story is.” “Neither do I,” he said. “But I know one when I see one.”
Now, it is a little-known fact that if you kiss a toad it really does turn into something else; though mostly it turns into another toad. Over the next couple of years I went back to those stories and some of them I rewrote four, five, six times. After a while, you start to feel quite attached to them, warty and misshapen though they are. Maybe they start to look more in proportion. Maybe they even become a little beautiful, in their own way.
All the same, my writing group would say, ‘How is the collection coming along’ and I’d say, ‘ I'm not writing a collection!’ I didn't know why you’d want to take a bunch of short stories and put them together to form a book. It felt like cheating, as if you couldn't write a real one. I was late understanding how stories can amplify and reflect each other, yet eventually did realise that I’d been working on something over and above some individual stories. Meanwhile I’d been sending some of those stories out into the world. When one of them, astonishingly, won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, I guess I thought, okay, maybe I'm writing a book after all.
Well if you want a book, there’s no maybe about it. You have to go hard out. And you rely a lot on other people. Many of the people who helped make this book happen are here this evening. I want to thank Fergus at VUP for being fantastic and also Helen, Ashleigh and Sarah. My wonderful writing group: Fiona, Mel, Francie, Jo, Hannah, Meg, Claire and Breton. Emily for her incredibly kind words. Damien. Commonwealth Writers. Also Matt and Unity Books. And finally thank you to all the friends and family who’ve supported me, especially my mother, my children Eli and Bessie, and Billie, for my two and a half hours – and for all of the hours since.
Emma Martin at Unity Books on May 2nd
photos © Matt Bialostocki