Emma sits across from me in the ‘Heathrow’ room of the Renaissance Hotel, the space assigned to her Split Worlds role-playing game at the 2013 Nine Worlds Geekfest.
“I loved the idea of blurring the fantasy of the books and the reality of the real worlds, and I've been a role player forever, so the thought that I could make the world from my head come into the world and have people enjoy it as a game was irresistible.”
She is resplendent in a self-made beautiful black and red gown, the kind of lovely frock that Cathy, protagonist of The Split Worlds, might unwillingly wear to a shindig in Aquae Sulis. Do not let the fact that Emma has sewn her own dress fool you into thinking that this lady has a surplus of time on her hands. Emma Newman has quite simply a dizzying array of projects. She has written the Split Worlds novels, for which she has personally recorded the audio books, she has an active blog, hosts the very funny Tea & Jeopardy podcast in which she interviews authors, goes to all the conventions, wrote a short story a week alongside all of this, planned the role-play split worlds game at Nine Worlds...let’s just say that Emma Newman is busy.
The Split Worlds novels feature people struggling within the world they have been assigned, both with themselves, but also against their would-be puppet masters. Division plays a huge role in the split worlds. The world itself is split in two, but the division is externalised with Max, a man who has been separated from his soul. His soul is now housed within a wonderful gargoyle, a very endearing character in itself. When Max does something terrible, his soul - the Gargoyle - is distraught, but Max feels nothing. Max and the Gargoyle highlight how we can close our eyes to our actions, and also society’s own disconnection to its soul.
“ What's going on with Max and the Gargoyle goes pretty deep,” says Emma. “I've finished book three, it comes out in October, and their relationship is very gently changing as the books go on and the Gargoyle wants to connect with Cathy and Max is indifferent and all those kinds of things.
“I've made conscious comments on lots of aspects of society but not the wedding rings! I'm very happily married and until I met my husband I never thought I would be.
"I think what I love about wedding rings is that they are a very obvious visual symbol and they do mean a lot. I think the thing is, it's like everything, it depends on the person wearing them, and the person enforcing them upon the other, they can be a wonderful thing meaning being loved and protected and committed, but obviously they can be much, much darker.”
Although the tone is often light, funny, and endearing, this darkness is something that runs throughout the themes that develop within the novels. But there is respite. There is inspiration. Cathy’s governess played a huge part in shaping her life. She is Cathy’s awakening, the thing that opens her eyes to the repression she is living with, and makes her want to break out of it. Did Emma have a similar role model growing up that opened her eyes to sexism?
“ No. Maybe I'd written someone I wish had been in my life. All my role models were male, which really fucks me off. As I got older I appreciated the influence and majesty of my own grandmother, who is a true matriarch of the family, in the very best sense of the word. She is someone who I respect more now than I ever did when I was younger. I wish I had had female role models and perhaps my anger at the realization that I did not was a big part of the Split Worlds.
“I don't think I could have written the Split Worlds five years ago because I wasn't angry enough but I'm really fucking angry now. It's almost like my mum's generation nodded off and everyone just thought oh we've done it, and now we're in a really, really shit situation and the only hope I have is that feminism seems to be resurging thanks to social media. There were many female teachers in my life that I loved and respected and played a huge part in my education and the direction of my life, but I never appreciated that until later on. I wish I had a Miss Rayner!”
That unfolding of understanding that Cathy experiences is one of the things that draw you into Emma’s Split Worlds. She isn’t a finished, cut out character, but one that grows and changes just like a real person does. In the second book (slight spoiler alert) Cathy realises she is not the only one having a shit time, and that maybe she has a responsibility to help other women in similar situations. This is something that, perhaps, women in general could do more of. Maybe we should bring some of these principles out of the Split Worlds and into our own lives in Mundanus?
“ I have a fear that there's a part of me writing this book to another part of myself. I have a fear that in fact what I'm doing is telling myself to do more and telling myself to be more active. I'm very much a product of my gendered upbringing. I find it very difficult to disagree with people in public and debate in public, and even now I'm worrying that in this interview I've said I don't like a particular type of character and I don't want to offend anyone. But I think I should say more, and I think the Split Worlds is part of that, and I only hope that I find the courage to do more.
"I think with Cathy she's got very tangled up in the idea that she's the only person suffering. That revelation is one of the key moments for her ... character. I think that's one of the things that's so heartening about social media is that there are other people talking about this and we can collectively make a loud noise. It's very hard and very scary. I have to really psyche myself up to read my itinerary at conventions, and the thought of holding my head above the parapet is really scary.”
That fear of holding one’s head over the parapet may sound familiar to a lot of us, but anxiety is something that Emma has had to continually struggle with. Instead of letting this get in her way, Emma has used this as an impetus to spur her on.
“ It makes me do more things so I can be certain that the anxiety has not beaten me yet, so when opportunities come up I've made an agreement with myself to say 'yes', especially if it terrifies - can I swear? - If it terrifies the fuck out of me I know I should do it, because the day I say no to something because I'm afraid of it, it's the day I know the anxiety has won.”
The next Split Worlds intallment, ‘All is Fair’ is out now.
Follow Emma on Twitter @EmApocalyptic
Emma Newman is angry. You'll like her when she's angry.
Yet, even though she is setting out and accomplishing so much, Emma doesn’t see it that way. “I always have the feeling that I'm not doing enough...I feel it's always this constant need to be making something new and there's just loads of stuff in my head. It's been a real challenge [writing her new book] at the same time as all the other stuff, as when I wrote the first two Split Worlds books, that was all I was doing, and the split worlds stories of course, but that was only a story a week.”
We point out that ‘only a story a week’ is quite an achievement in itself. “Well they were teeny tiny stories, teeny tiny flashes. So when you list it like that it sounds like quite a lot but most of the time I'm like ‘oh, I'm not doing enough’, but I suppose that just underlines mental fear. I just have no perception of how much I'm doing. There's so much that I want to do, so many other projects that I've got bubbling away in the back of my head, and there's not enough time.”
Perhaps Emma is right. Perhaps the seemingly impossible outpouring of creativity is simply the result of a woman that knows how to graft. But from within the frenzy of this hard work, fantastic stories bloom.
"I think [the arbiters]are the most tragic in a way. I wanted to explore the ethical questions of having arbiters. If you take away someone's moral and emotional self, then what do you do without that? What is left behind?
The Gargoyle is one of the most fun characters - I love him dearly. I get so many people tweeting I really want a Gargoyle, and so do I! I really want a six-foot lump of granite walking around with me talking to me, it would be fabulous!”
As well as division is also the powerful theme of unity. Wedding rings and marriage feature in the Split World books, as chains, weapons of control, and also as protection. But this is one aspect that Emma hadn’t actually intended to highlight.
So who did influence Emma, if those female role models were indeed missing? Were they there for her instead in the pages of her favourite novels?
“Growing up I read stuff that was of its time, like Asimov and Clark and there were no female characters. I think that I have an impoverished reading experience in genre in regards to good female characters. Maybe that's too strong.
"[T]here's a [type of] woman who is always very beautiful and has everyone falling in love with her and also kills vampires. That does nothing for me and it feels like it's part of the patriarchy. A lot of people point towards that as a strong female character but it's not for me.
"That's one of the things I wanted to move away from with Cathy. She's strong in some ways and utterly shit in other ways. She has blind spots the size of the Atlantic Ocean. She slowly becomes aware of them in book two. She is shit. She doesn't go around kicking people's asses. She's just trying to figure her way.”
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