Emily Barr talks about Turning Fact into Fiction

Travel is a huge part of my life and something which I think really shapes people, so I was delighted to hear Emily talk about her travels and her writing. Rather than

give my opinion, I thought I’d let you experience a snippet of the event through Emily’s own words…

Emily Barr
Emily Barr

“90% of my time is spent writing and about 10% of the time this changes and I get to talk about people about writing – which I also love. The main theme of my books is travel and I’d like to talk a little about how that translates into my fiction.

Working at the guardian I was a terrible journalist – and I got into it by wanting to write like my father (present in the audience. I remember lying in bed listening to the clatter of the typewriter and I began to think that writing books was a possibility. By the time I got to university I wasn’t believing it was possible because everyone was wanting to write a book – so I ended up in journalism.

Diary column – gossip – and I got stupid jobs to do like phone up people and pretend he was an astrologer until he shouted at me and then we’d print it the next day because it was funny. When a colleague resigned, I took the opportunity and contacted the editor saying I could travel for them and write a column; she’d just had the same idea and so that was it. I got to travel to lots of places like New Zealand and Australia, but they were all pretty safe…

Then on December 30th 1998, I flew into Ho Chi Minh city and Asia hit me – got taken to a different hotel and on New Year’s Eve headed into the city with the aim to talk to someone. This was used in my novel Backpack – thought it’d be fun to create a character who was very obnoxious. (Emily reads an amusing section of the novel featuring said obnoxious characters).

While I was travelling I met James who is now my husband in a bar, so a few years on, James was studying and we had the opportunity to go to Havana for a few months. We had a baby but were young and carefree and thought it’d be fine so we did, renting a soviet-style one-bed breeze block apartment.

The baby would nap a lot, James would be at university and I’d be working on my book Cuban Heels. When he came home, we’d go to a restaurant for dinner. The waiters would always whisk the baby away during dinner which was disconcerting but after a while, we got used to it. The baby was like a king. I had to try to get some of the incidents in but extended and fictionalised (Emily reads a section of Cuban Heels which talks about a stolen baby).”

Anne relayed plenty more events which haven’t yet appeared in books, including guns in Pakistan and ash clouds in Barcelona. She also revealed how research for her books still tends to be imperfect;

“For the latest book, I went with my friend to Malaysia for 10 days, and everything that could go wrong went wrong. The plane ran out of fuel, taxi driver ripped us off and took us the wrong way so we missed the bus, our guide book was full of wrong information and paradise island where we’d booked online didn’t have a reservation for us…But it all worked out in the end, even better for the longer journey and mishaps.”

How long does take to write your books?

Some come more easily than others and it’s about a year for one. So far, I’ve always had a two-book contract from my publishers and that’s what they expect.

Questions from the audience

How do you know what autobiographical elements to include?

What I like is that you can put autobiographical descriptions in fiction but people dont realise – you can just slip them in. You go with instinct.

Do you choose the destination first or does it happen by accident?

It’s both – for this one, I really wanted to set another book in Asia so I thought about which countries in Asia I hadn’t been to and did some research. That’s when I found these islands and thought they’d be a great setting.

In all your travel, have you found the ideal location to live in?

At the moment, Cornwall. We’re fairly settled there and its a great place for the children to grow up. After this trip, I did spend a lot of time googling jobs in Malaysia; but then, I learned after five years in France it’s difficult to be foreign and I think long extended trips would be best.

What are your best memories of France?

Using same market stalls, dinner with neighbours, change of scenery, landscape. But in the end, I didn’t want to be foreign any more- my children and husband were bi-lingual and I’d always be foreign as soon as I opened my mouth so I ended up just wanting to go home.

And one of Emily’s favourite books?

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (great choice in my opinion).