Author Q&A:
Emma Healey

Whistle in the Dark (Penguin, £8.99)

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The author of the acclaimed Elizabeth is Missing returns with her second book, also about a missing person, Lana, who refuses to give her parents an explanation on her return. The book tackles family drama, mother-daughter relationships, and teenage depression with witty prose and believable and likeable characters.

Did you think there’s a continuity between this novel and Elizabeth is Missing, or did you want it to be a clean break?
I wasn’t interested in writing about the same characters after finishing Elizabeth is Missing, and I felt I had exhausted many of the major themes in that novel, but in some ways I think of Whistle in the Dark as being a kind of companion piece. Both books are about people – female people – being missing, both focus on mother-daughter relationships, both are about a destabilised mind in some way, and set very much around the home, with a sense that the home is perhaps not always very homely, but might be sinister or threatening.

Right at the start of the book Lana is found relatively safe after being missing for four days, whereas other writers may have led up to that point. What did that allow you to achieve?
To lose someone, actually physically lose them, is so extreme and provokes emotions that are so vital, or primitive, that I’m not sure how interesting it would be to describe. I think the reader can imagine that part of the story without me. The surprising part, the nuanced part, the part where the reader needs some guidance, is what happens afterwards. So that’s why I began the story there. I also like to take the reader straight into the action, to gather them into the story and run.

Jen and Hugh – who is particularly patient – have a solid relationship, with little conflict. Were you keen to show that their daughter depression couldn’t be attributed to the most obvious explanations?
Hugh is patient, but he’s also not the one who feels accused or blameworthy (it’s mothers who are most often condemned for their children’s psychological states, and mothers who most often criticise themselves), so I felt it was realistic to show him as the more relaxed partner.

And yes, absolutely. I think looking for a reason for depression is the wrong approach. There can be triggers, often multiple triggers for depression (in the case of teenage girls it might be body issues, friendship problems, parental separation, exam pressure, bullying, etc), but not always. I wanted to give Lana’s parents a stable relationship, an “ordinary” middle class existence, rather than give the reader the impression that they were to blame for Lana’s condition.

I know asking novelists how much of their own life is in their books is lame but… is there something of the young you in Lana?
Ha ha! I’m not like Lana in personality, at all. But I did have depression as a teenager, and was suicidal, so I was exploring that part of my past in this book. I was also keen to look at that time from another point of view.

I thought very little about what my mother was going through when I was depressed and I suppose this was a chance to go back and correct that in some way. It was more intriguing to look at that relationship from the opposite perspective anyway, and I think that stopped me writing something that might have become a long letter of self-justification. I knew what Lana was going through even as I wrote it as a mystery for Jen – that meant I could be quite hard on Lana in some ways because ultimately I was on her side.

All your characters, whatever their plight, are capable of some pretty nifty one-liners. Did you have fun writing them?
I loved writing them! In fact I began the book by writing lots and lots of dialogue, getting to know the characters and their relationships by working out how they spoke to one another. Sometimes they made me laugh, and so I knew I could spend the two years it would take to write the book in their company. Hugh was a lovely antidote to some of the darker moments, and Lana’s rudeness to her mother was a lot of fun to write.

You’ve spoken about the influence of Evan S Connell’s Mrs Bridge and EM Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady on your book. In what way did these two 1930s novels exert that influence?
The influence of Mrs Bridge was mostly in form – it’s written in very short, titled, chapters and gives the reader a series of snapshots of a woman’s, and her family’s, life. It’s a poignant, but also very funny, surprising book. Diary of a Provincial Lady had more of an influence on the voice in Whistle in the Dark, though it too is written in shorter sections. There’s a sense that the narrator is sometimes on a knife-edge, on the verge of panic, and this makes the humour wonderfully sharp.

“Happiness was doing everything wrong and finding things had turned out okay anyway,” you write. Is it misguided to search for happiness rather than allowing it to find us?
I don’t think it’s misguided to search for happiness. But I think it is easy to overlook happiness, and then recall a period of time and regret not appreciating it while it was happening. I suppose that’s what I was getting at in the section that quote is from. This doesn’t mean we should all be counting our blessings all the time, or expecting things to get worse, but sometimes happiness is just life being relatively straightforward and manageable rather than like fireworks or a carnival.

Photo: Emily Gray Photography

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