Ladies Who Lunge: Emma Jane Unsworth in interview

Emma Jane Unsworth discusses he second novel, “a filthy, funny story of friendship, love and animal instincts” set against a Rainy City backdrop

Feature by Sarah-Clare Conlon | 29 Apr 2014
  • Emma Jane Unsworth

The first time I had a proper chat with Emma Jane Unsworth was exactly three years ago, at Manchester Literature Festival/Bury TextFestival’s subversive promenade literature event Station Stories, when the great and the goodof Manchester’s writing scene, including Jenn Ashworth and Nicholas Royle, told tales about trains and travel.

Unsworth was an audience member, listening in via headphones with her then boyfriend, Elbow frontman Guy Garvey, and I’ve since always thought of her as a bit of a glammed-up rock chick, all leather biker jacket and wantonly flowing locks. In her latest novel, Animals (published by Canongate), that side of her has materialised into protagonist Laura – except Unsworth is far nicer and hopefully doesn’t have a best friend called Tyler.

The novel follows the lives and loves of these two “wild” women as they egg each other on to a slippery slope towards oblivion, persistently getting drunk, endlessly taking drugs and constantly throwing themselves at the wrong kind of men. On the cover, Caitlin Moran describes Animals as “Withnail with girls,” which Unsworth says she was “very honoured” about, although she isn’t so keen on comparisons with the ladette culture of a few years ago. “I see how these labels are useful for quickly capturing the mood, but I think we have to draw the line there, even with just one word, because otherwise there’s a danger of defining something as a carbon-copy of something masculine already in existence. Which isn’t particularly liberating.”

"I liked writing them as these pretentious drunks who went around quoting poetry – there was something extra bleak about that" – Emma Jane Unsworth

In fact, Animals is much more than just a snapshot of modern minxes or, say, a knee-jerk kick in the pants to chick lit, and is chock-full of philosophising about art, love, science and religion. “I was interested in religion in Animals,” says Unsworth, “because I was interested in people living by rules that haven’t been given to them directly by the society they’re living in. Belief systems intrigue me. I’m a sucker for a regime but I don’t particularly like the idea of anyone telling me what to do, either. Science is more of a constant source of excitement and panic. I’d love to go back to uni and do a physics degree because I feel like I’m missing out.”

There are also reams of references to art and literature. In the first chapter alone, we go from John Cooper Clarke to Ernest Hemingway via Edmund Spenser, while Laura’s surname is Joyce and Tyler spouts Chaucer to unsuspecting punters in the coffee shop where she works. I asked Unsworth whether this was a self-conscious decision. “In terms of Laura and Tyler, their friendship is forged through a love of poetry and that’s really all that holds them together a lot of the time. I also liked writing them as these pretentious drunks who went around quoting poetry – there was something extra bleak about that. In terms of me as a writer, I suppose I’m always wondering where, and whether, what I do fits in, so all that meta stuff is also me contextualising as I’m going along. But it isn’t random. The lines I’ve quoted are lines I love and want to share.”

So were there any particular literary inspirations, contemporary or otherwise? “I read a lot of American writers and I really enjoy short stories. Sarah Hall is incredible and I’d give my right arm to write like her. In fact, take my left arm too. And my hair. But one of the biggest influences for Animals was The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan. I’ve since read all his books and forced him to be my friend. His stuff made me braver, in terms of what I was prepared to examine morally; how deep I was willing to delve to work out what was really going on between the people I was writing about.”

Unsworth explains the thinking behind her second novel’s name, which manages to sum up in one word the story of Tyler and Laura, who even describe themselves at one point as “savages”. “It was called The Rogue the whole time I was writing it, and I was incredibly attached to that title in a snowblind sort of way. Then the brilliant publishing director at Canongate, Francis Bickmore, reminded me of the Frank O’Hara poem Animals, which was so poignant in terms of what I’d been writing about that I instantly thought, ‘That’s my title!’”

The chapters also have well-pondered headings (for example, ‘Near-death Experience in a Subterranean Bar’ and ‘An Inspiring Encounter that Causes our Hero to Sleep Under a Bush’); similar to the names of short stories, which Unsworth also writes. “Yes, I decided to give each chapter its own title because I liked the idea of riffing on a picaresque adventure story, where each episode is given its own name, like in Don Quixote or something like that.”

When Unsworth’s debut novel, the Betty Trask Award-winning Hungry, the Stars and Everything, was published by Hidden Gem in 2011, she told me she would be spending the summer editing the first draft of her second novel. Was that Animals? “It wasn’t Animals – it was another novel I wrote and then abandoned, even though I’d got to the second-draft stage. But it was just too bleak. And I like bleak, but this was too bleak even for me! My agent and friends were very tactful about it, but it needed to be set aside for a while really, so that’s what I did. Luckily, the idea for Animals started to come through, so I cracked on with that. I’m hoping to go back to the other one at some point, but I’ll need to change some major things about it. It’s about a boy in Rochdale who becomes obsessed with an orphan. Can’t imagine why it got everyone down.”

Both Animals and Hungry, the Stars and Everything are based quite prominently in Manchester, albeit with a few name changes (the Portico Library becomes the Georgian Library, for one). How important is place to Unsworth as a writer, and is the Northwest significant to her as a literary setting? “It had to be Manchester for Animals,” she says. “For a start, nowhere else in the world would put up with these two angry losers. Manchester’s very tolerant in that way. Changing place names (or not) is just a bit of superficial romanticising (or not) on my part. I’m not sure it necessarily denotes an easy transfer of the action. Using the Portico as an example: that kind of members’ library being a rare bastion of possibility for a wannabe writer with pseudo-academic leanings (like Laura) would only really happen in a large, grey-skied northern city.”

So, what’s next on the novel-writing agenda? “At the moment I’m finishing the third novel, a chase story set around Scotland, about a woman who’s ruined her life and exiled herself in a campervan. She’s got a really bitchy wit and nothing left to lose, and that’s been a fun release after Animals, which was in many ways quite an anxious book.” We look forward to it.

Animals is published by Canongate on 1 May

Its launch party takes place at Waterstones Deansgate, Manchester, on 1 May from 7pm, with guests Robert Williams, Greg Thorpe, Mary-Ellen McTague and Les Malheureux