Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Emma Stonex

Emma Stonex is a novelist and The Lamplighters is her debut under her own name; she is the author of several books written under a pseudonym. Before becoming a writer, she worked as an editor at a major publishing house. She lives in Bristol with her husband and two young daughters.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I hit on The Lamplighters while writing the first draft, and knew I’d fight to keep it if it was ever up for debate (my publishers liked it too, so that was lucky!). Traditionally, lamplighters were employed to tend streetlights, not lighthouses, but my reason for choosing the word was twofold. First, ‘The Lamplighter’ is the title of a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, who belonged to the Stevenson family of lighthouse engineers. (You can imagine how out of place a fiction writer might have felt in a clan of straight-talking builders.) This felt like a perfect fit. Second, I just love the word ‘lamplight’ – it has an evocative, inviting feel, a soft rhythm brimming with warmth and hope, but also mystery. The Lamplighters is based on the real-life disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from a remote Scottish island in 1900, whose fates to this day are still unknown. I wanted to convey to the reader a sense of the romance and allure of lighthouses, but also their potential for darkness and secrecy.

What’s in a name?

I’ll choose my fictional lighthouse, the Maiden Rock, fifteen miles off the south coast of Cornwall. It felt important to come up with my own lighthouse, so as not to trespass too closely into history, but it was difficult to decide on her name. I say ‘her’, because of the female gendering common in nautical spheres, and also because, in a way, I wanted the lighthouse to be one of the women. Certainly, that’s how the keepers’ wives in the novel see her – as another woman, a mistress of sorts, who has taken their husbands away to a fortress in the middle of the sea. The word ‘maiden’ also conjures a sense of the inaugural, and in the novel’s world she is one of the first lighthouses to be built: two attempts in hostile seas were washed away, with her wick finally being lit in the 1890s.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

I think The Lamplighters would make sense to her. I’ve always been drawn to the dark side of life, the mysterious, even the supernatural. Ghost stories have always sent a shiver up my spine, and at boarding school we used to swap spooky tales after lights-out. The sea, too, has always been in my heart: I’ve always wanted to write about the sea. So, my teenage self would probably – hopefully – feel it’s where I was always headed. I certainly see it that way now.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I decided early on how I wanted to answer the mystery of the missing lighthouse keepers. I don’t want to give anything away here, but my interpretation of events – and the resolution I offer – definitely shaped the book from the start. For that reason, I found it easier to write my ending. Beginnings can be difficult because they need to achieve so many things simultaneously: to set up the story and characters, establish the pace, resist giving too much information at once, but at the same time just enough to reel the reader in. I always have to rewrite my beginnings.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Yes, I do, some more than others. There are parts of me in all the characters in The Lamplighters: I think it’s hard for an author to disassociate herself completely with any of her players. Of the men, there’s most of me in Arthur, the Principal Keeper of the Maiden Rock: he’s sensitive and introspective and loves reading and nature. His wife, Helen, is the woman with whom I most identify – she misses Arthur when he’s away on the lighthouse, but she is all right on her own; she can stand on her own two feet and doesn’t need him next to her in order to live her life.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Walking in the wild, particularly by the sea. While researching The Lamplighters, I stayed in converted keepers’ cottages in Devon, right on the headland, with only the ocean for company – that was hugely inspiring. I also listened to a lot of 70s music to get into the feel of the period, things like King Crimson and Pink Floyd.
Follow Emma Stonex on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue