Emma Jane Unsworth:
messy business

The writer talks about female friendship, the myth of having it all – and whether she was disappointed the original Manchester setting of her novel Animals has not been retained for the film

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“Intense female relationships are endlessly interesting to me, especially between messy women – women who are messy because they just are, or women who are messy because of the boxes that society has tried to squish them in. Messy women will always be my bag, and the links and loves between them,” says Mancunian author Emma Jane Unsworth, whose novel Animals was lauded for its candid portrayal of a friendship between two women as they arrive at a crossroads, partying on regardless under a looming dark cloud of societal expectation that most women find hanging over their heads once they hit 30.

“Manchester was a character in the book. It felt intrinsic to the story, to everything.”

Unsworth wrote the novel in 2012 with an overriding question in mind: how does society judge women who say no to convention, deciding against or delaying marriage and children to carry on drinking and dancing into their third decade? Now, five years after the book was published Unsworth is ready to restart the conversation, with the long-awaited film version of the novel released on 2 August.

Directed by Sophie Hyde, Animals brings protagonists Tyler and Laura from page to screen, following them on their quest of drunken and drug-induced debauchery while Laura attempts to balance her hedonistic lifestyle with her impending marriage to a sober pianist.

For Unsworth it is a chance to see a story that has lived with her for more than seven years brought to life on screen, but there is a slight difference. What started as a novel based in Manchester, with Tyler and Laura gallivanting around the city’s bars and beer gardens, and stewing in their hangovers from the comfort of their Hulme flat, has culminated in a film set and filmed in Dublin. The decision was made for financial reasons, and Unsworth admits she was disappointed.

“At first I was gutted,” says Unsworth. “It was such a Manchester story to me – Manchester was a character in the book. It just felt intrinsic to the story, to everything. The reason I chose Manchester was because at the time it was very much in flux like the characters. It was a place that was shifting and changing. I know it still is, but it really was when I was writing it.

“It’s my hometown and there aren’t enough films made about Manchester. For all those reasons I wanted to put it on the map in that way with my story. But it just didn’t turn out that way, and even though I was initially gutted I’ve made more than peace with it.

“I chose Manchester because it was a boozy city, a radical city, a literary city, a city where you could find lots of little corners and crevices and adventures, and Dublin is all of those things. There’s literally poetry on the streets in Dublin, like there is in Manchester.

“I’m so proud of the film and what the team made that it couldn’t be any other way now, so it’s not like I can look back on it as anything other than that was the path and that was the right thing and this is where we ended up.

“The main creatives behind [the film] were intent on keeping the heart of the story true, about these women, about this friendship, about these crossroads in their lives, exploring all the things we wanted to explore.”

Born in Bury in 1978, Unsworth grew up in Prestwich and was a pupil at Bury Grammar School for Girls before studying at Liverpool University. From 2009 to 2012 she was a Big Issue North columnist.

Unsworth’s debut novel Hungry, the Stars and Everything was published in 2011 and was shortlisted for the Portico Prize for Fiction the following year. But it was Animals that earned her a reputation for nailing the intricacies of female friendships while chronicling the kind of nights out anyone who has spent time in Manchester will be familiar with. The Guardian praised her as an “extraordinary talent”, while author and Sunday Times columnist Caitlin Moran described the book as “Withnail for girls”, declaring that she wished she had written it.

With Animals back in the spotlight, Unsworth is admiring her story in its new form. She wrote the screenplay and says Didsbury actor Holliday Grainger and American Alia Shawkat couldn’t be a more perfect fit to play Laura and Tyler. She is also enjoying looking back at the themes she homed in on in the past from a more comfortable distance.

“Loads of the book came from my worries and concerns and embarrassments, my fears and my joys as well,” says Unsworth. “I really wanted to write a comedy that was a two-hander, a double act of wise-cracking women, who are sort of marauding around town and getting to be the flâneurs that we see male characters so often get to be. I really wanted to write a pair of female flâneurs enjoying Manchester, and so many of the feelings from that were drawn from my own experiences with my friends having nocturnal adventures.

“It’s great because I don’t feel too close to it. The more time that passes the more emotional distance I clear from it. It doesn’t feel raw. I can step back and see it. I can’t think of those characters now without seeing Holliday and Alia’s faces. They are those characters now to me.”

A lot has changed for Unsworth since she penned her second novel. She is now married and has a son, and is asking herself different questions about women and the expectations put on them, which she says were developed further by Hyde.

“With Sophie directing, she really added a whole new element to it, which was about a woman’s relationship with work and with creativity, and a lot of that she brought from her own life,” says Unsworth. “One of the main questions of the film became: can you live a full life as a woman? Can you live a full life once you reach a certain point, where you fully explore your body and your desires and your work, and if you want to fall in love, if you want to have kids, your friendships, can you do it all or do you just end up spread too thin because of the system and structure that we work in?

“We’re told we can do it all and can have it all. This is the main thing for me because I actually wonder whether that’s true. We can’t because we’re not paid as much generally, we’re sold a lot of golden myths that actually turn out to be quite hard realities, but we’re then too ashamed to say we can’t cope within them.”

The question of whether women can truly have it all is one that Unsworth is still asking herself. Her new book Adults is out in 2020, and she has reverted back to the topic of female friendships again, this time honing in on rebuilding broken friendships and the relationships women have with their mothers.

“Female friendships for me are as complex, interesting and ultimately potentially heartbreaking as any love affair, any romantic or sexual relationship,” she says. “I feel like mine are changing constantly as my life goes on. I feel like there is something there that I can draw from, hopefully relatable, universal themes that I can build a story around.”

Although she is now based in Brighton, Unsworth is a proud northerner and credits the north with shaping her voice as a writer, saying her columns for Big Issue North helped hone her feminist thinking.

“I think there’s a cheekiness to my writing, I hope, and a playfulness, and I hope an element of something radical and political,” she says. “I am a gobshite but hopefully with something to say. I think that’s a very Mancunian thing.

“I used to write my columns at a dining room table with the sun pouring in and I have such good memories of writing them and of those times. The great joy in them was that it was something I could write relatively quickly, certainly compared to a novel, and then it goes out directly into the world.”

For now, Unsworth is looking forward to sending Animals back out into the world, and credits Hyde with helping Grainger and Shawkat portray the friendship that inspired her to write the novel.

“The chemistry between the two characters is so key to the film and to the story – that their relationship is convincing and they seem like best mates who have been living together for 10 years and have this co-dependency and intense love going on.

“So for all of that to ring true, when Holliday and Alia got together they went out loads in Dublin. They had some good, wild nights together – they went a bit method, I think. Sophie was such an imaginative director in that way. I think we struck gold across the board. There was magic there amongst those people and on that set.”

Animals is in cinemas now

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