How To Make It As a Novelist
Emily Barr is making her YA debut with The One Memory Of Flora Banks, a very good new novel about a girl with zero short term memory and a million problems. But unlike many author debuts, she isn't new to this whole pen-to-paper thing. Before Flora, she was a prolific chick-lit writer—think Sophie Kinsella, a fellow beloved Brit writer—with a dozen bestsellers under her belt. And before that, she was a serious journalist at the Guardian, traveling the world and reporting stories. With a career trajectory that impressive, we had to ask her how she got there (and how we all can, too).
What were you like as a teen?
I was very quiet and shy and nervous. I was the one at school who had things to say but I had no confidence to say them—the one who was always looking down at the desk hoping not to be asked to answer a question even if I knew the answer. It took me years and years to feel brave enough to join in.
As an adult, what do you wish you could tell your teenage self now?
That it’s OK to speak out! That really, if I said the things in my head no one would laugh at me. That if you fake being confident, it’s the same thing as really being confident, and that I would get there one day.
What’s the most valuable thing you learned as a journalist?
Deadlines! I truly believe the best thing I took away from my short journalism career was a healthy respect for deadlines, and an ability to focus and work hard as the dreaded moment approaches.
One of the many awesome things you’ve done during your career was to take a year off and travel (while writing about your journeys!). What prompted that decision? What was the biggest lesson you learned?
I was working in London, at the Guardian newspaper, while knowing that it wasn’t really what I wanted to do long term and also knowing that I wasn’t that good at it and I’d much rather be writing fiction. One day the journalist at the next desk announced that he’d just resigned: ‘I’m going to go to Scotland to write a book,’ he said. I realized at that moment that I could either stay in a job I liked but didn’t love, feeling jealous of other people when they decided to move on, or I could do something exciting myself. I emailed the newspaper’s travel editor then and there, suggesting that I might go backpacking for a year and write a column for her as I went. I didn’t for one moment expect her to say yes. But she did, and three weeks later I was away, on my own, for a year. It was amazing.
And the biggest lesson I learned, I think, was that you have to seize any opportunity you can, and go for it.
“Be brave” is a frequently mentioned theme of the book. How did you learn to be brave?
Partly by traveling alone. It’s a thing that seems terrifying until you do it, and then it’s actually wonderful. I loved sitting on trains or buses, reading book after book, looking out of the window, having random conversations with people. It’s incredibly good for the soul. It also builds your confidence like nothing I’ve ever done before or since.
What's one thing you wish had known then that you know now about having a career?
I wish I’d known how tenacious you have to be to have a career in writing. I think that applies to other fields too: you have to decide to do something, and then keep on and on long after you feel any sane person would have given up. Eventually, with any luck, your persistence will pay off.
What work advice do you have for teens or for young people just starting out (whether that’s an internship, or actual job)?
I was given a piece of advice when I was starting out in journalism, and it’s always stayed with me: whenever someone asks you to do something, do it as well as you possibly can. Even if it’s the most boring thing in the world. When I started out as an intern on a newspaper I remember spending a couple of hours calling people and asking whether they liked peanut butter, for a sidebar feature. It was boring, but if you do something like that efficiently and with good results, next time you’ll get something better to do. And so on, all the way through.
What’s your go-to tip for dealing with writer’s block?
Mainly it’s that you don’t have to allow writer’s block to exist. Just accept that you’re not writing the particular thing that’s giving you trouble, that day, and write something different instead. Keeping the words flowing is the important thing, and after a few days away from the troublesome part you’ll look at it completely differently.