“An affecting, achingly beautiful debut.”
Emma Flint grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne, and has been writing fiction since she knew what stories were. She graduated from the University of St. Andrews with an MA in English Language and Literature, later completing a novel-writing course at the Faber Academy. She worked in Edinburgh for four years, and now lives in north London.
Since childhood, she has been drawn to true crime stories, developing an encyclopaedic knowledge of real-life murder cases. She is equally fascinated by notorious historical figures and by unorthodox women – past, present and fictional.
All of these themes informed and inspired Little Deaths, a heady blend of sex, murder, obsession, noir and a femme fatale. Set in 1960s suburban New York, the novel re-tells a horrifying true story with a modern feminist slant.
She is currently working on her second novel, which is also a re-telling of a true story, this time about a love triangle which ends in murder. Set in 1920s London, it explores shame, evil, and the power of fantasy and obsession.
…he threw back the covers and slid into his clothes and told her in a whisper like he was in church that he had to get home, that the kids would be up soon, that she knew he was married didn’t she, so why was she looking like that—and it was just a little fun, and he’d call her, okay?
COMMON THEMES IN MY WRITING
All of my novels centre around actual historical episodes, most often a murder or a series of murders. Each book is a fictionalised version of true events, with a strong and relatable female character at the heart of the story.
While I love reading crime fiction and thrillers, I’m interested in writing about real crimes of the past from a new perspective. I admire authors like Megan Abbott and Tana French, whose work follows some of the conventions of crime novels, but does not sit easily within a single genre.
When I’m writing, I enjoy using my imagination to poke around in the darker reaches of the human mind, and to explore what people are capable of under extreme circumstances. I like to linger on physical descriptions, and to exploit those tiny essential details that make characters human.
In these respects, I’m influenced by a number of contemporary authors, including Sarah Waters, Hilary Mantel, and Maggie O’Farrell.
Q&A – LITTLE DEATHS
What drew you to suburban Queens in the 1960s, and to this case in particular?
It wasn’t entirely a conscious choice: I first read the story that inspired Little Deaths when I was sixteen, and I found that I couldn’t forget the woman who became Ruth Malone, or what happened to her.
What drew me to her story was the sense of injustice that pervaded it, and my impression that she was condemned for who she was, rather than for what she’d done. I’m not sure that society, particularly certain areas of the media, has moved on in that respect in the past fifty years – and I wanted to highlight how women are often still judged on their appearance more than anything else.
How did you approach the border between the known facts and your fiction?
Writing about a real crime is similar to any other historical fiction: it’s my job as a novelist to take the basic facts and breathe life into them so that the reader can experience them in a new way. The key things are to make the characters real, and the past immediate and familiar, by writing about situations and experiences that the reader can relate to.
The opening of Wolf Hall is my favourite example of this: the writing is so powerful that we can see the unravelling stitches on the assailant’s boot, and we can feel the gash in Cromwell’s head and the blood on his face. It doesn’t matter that the episode is largely fictional, or that the character died almost 500 years ago – the sensations Hilary Mantel describes are universal.
Who is your favourite character in Little Deaths?
Ruth Malone fascinates me. I thought about her every day for six years and now that I’ve finished writing, I miss spending time with her. I’m really looking forward to discussing her with readers once the book is out in the world.
I also have a soft spot for Gina. I admire how honest she is about herself – sometimes brutally so – and how loyal she is to Ruth.
What involvement, if any, did you have in selecting the cover art for your book?
I was lucky enough to be involved in discussions about both the British and American covers. I had the opportunity to say what I did and didn’t like – although I absolutely love both covers and couldn’t be happier with them. It was an amazing experience to see the cover of my own book and then later to hold a copy of the first proof. I’d waited thirty years for that moment.
Tell us about your research.
I read two excellent books about the original case which I mention in the acknowledgements, as well as dozens of relevant newspaper articles, but most of my research was done online. I used Google Maps and Streetview to ‘walk’ down the streets in Queens where the story is set, to look up at the buildings, and try to get a sense of the neighbourhood where Ruth lives. I listened to Queens accents on YouTube, and I looked at thousands of photos of suburban America in the mid-60s.
I also kept thinking about my own childhood: I grew up in a quiet and sometimes claustrophobic suburb on the outskirts of a city. I think anyone who grew up in an environment like that will understand the closeness of that kind of neighbourhood, and how anyone different stands out.
In terms of craft, what is the most valuable lesson that writing this novel taught you?
To trust myself. I learned a huge amount from my agent, my first readers and especially from my editors, about the technicalities of writing a novel: how to increase suspense, how to avoid repetition, how to make characters more realistic. But the thing that helped me most was learning to trust my own ability, and my own sense of where the book was going. I didn’t write a plan until I was about 40,000 words in, but I knew the story I wanted to tell and I knew how it would end.
What's coming next?
My second novel is also based on a historical true crime, but this time is set in southern England in the 1920s. I’m looking forward to spending time in a completely different period, and to getting to know my new characters as well as I know Ruth and Pete. I’m approaching this book in a different way to how I wrote Little Deaths, and I’m intrigued to see what effect this will have on my writing.
When they stopped at the lights, he saw their figures silhouetted against the neon, watched as his arm came up around her, as their darkness merged and the space between them closed.