Interview: Writer Emily Lichthart

(This article originally appeared at emmanuelhl.com)

Emily Lichthart achieved what every young writer dreams of, publishing her debut novel Piece of Kate in 2015, still a 20-year old student at the University of Amsterdam. She sees the rise of the e-book and self-publishing industry as empowering the modern author to reach a global audience without the need for pen, paper or publisher.

Emily, you secured your first book deal aged 20, something many people have dreamt of doing when they were younger. What was that like?

It was unreal! Even when I held the first physical copy of my novel in my hands, I still felt like it was all a big joke. This story had been nothing but a word document on my laptop for such a long time; I could hardly believe it was an actual book. Books are for real writers, not for a 20-year-old literature student with some extra time on her hands. The best part of the experience was when the reader responses started coming in. Naturally, they weren’t all positive, but the majority of them were and there is nothing as fulfilling as having someone tell you they simply couldn’t put your book down.

Tell me a bit about yourself, where you’re from and what you’re doing at the moment — both in regards to writing and your academics/career.

I’m from Utrecht, a town in the center of the Netherlands. I have just completed my bachelor’s degree in English literature and will start a master’s degree in editing in September. In the past year, I was editor-in-chief of Writer’s Block, a students’ magazine for film and literature (http://writersblockmagazine.com/) and final editor for Chiaro Presentations. This summer, I started writing freelance reader reports for a Dutch publishing house, and last but not least, I am working on a second novel. I like to keep busy and continue to develop my writing and editing skills outside the classroom. Most of this work is a result of word of mouth; I’ve found that networking is everything.

And have you always had an interest in reading and writing literature? Where did that come from do you think?

Definitely! I think it’s all my father’s fault. He studied English literature himself and insisted on naming his first child after Emily Brontë. When I was twelve, I was very curious after this 19th-century author that wrote a book that was so good it made my father want to name his daughter after her. I read a Dutch translation of Wuthering Heights and was hooked. I read the original a month later and have loved literature (especially Victorian) ever since.

So tell me a bit about your first book.

My first book actually started out as a joke that got out of hand. I heard that the publishing house Luitingh-Sijthoff was looking for an author who could write a book within three months. That year, the company had bought a book on cake decorations by a British patissier that they wanted to publish around Mother’s Day, alongside a novel about a young woman who starts a bakery. This was a relatively last-minute idea and they had trouble finding an author who could finish the novel in time. I decided to be bold and sent in an abstract of my storyline and first chapter. The publisher invited me over for a talk and about a month later, I signed the deal!

And how long did it take you to write it? How did you manage to write so much, what techniques did you use?

As mentioned, this was a bit of a last-minute project, so I had to finish the manuscript within three months to allow time for editing and printing. I think all writers have their own habits and techniques that work for them. For me, beginning a new chapter was the hardest part. What worked best for me, was to just start writing, trying not to think too much and just seeing where it got me. Once I reached my envisioned word count (1000 words per day) I’d reread and edit what I’d written. My editor advised me to write a short summary of what each chapter was going to be about. It wasn’t set in stone, of course, but this general overview really helped me to get started, because I knew where I wanted each chapter to go.

Do you plan to write for an English audience in the near future?

I would love to. I’ve been fascinated by English literature since I was twelve and also really enjoy English thrillers and feelgood novels. I’ve heard people describe my writing style as “Kinsella-style”, after Sophie Kinsella, the author of the Shopaholic series. I consider that a great compliment, I absolutely adore Kinsella’s typically English sense of humour and think it has a lot in common with Dutch humour: ironic and very down to earth. Having said that, it is very difficult for Dutch authors to get translated. Usually, only the real bestsellers are considered for translation and publication. But, who knows. Maybe one day!

Can you give us a few clues as to what the new novel is going to be about?

My new novel is probably going to be a bit different from the first. I loved writing a romantic feel-good story, but am also very interested in trying new things. Right now, I’m exploring alternate viewpoints and more serious subject matter. Knowing me, I’ll still put in way too many puns, though.

How were you able to balance writing your novel with a social life and also a university course? Did you find it was strained or were you able to cope quite well?

Personally, I’m better at focusing on one project at a time and finishing that before I start another, so at the beginning, combining writing and studying was quite challenging. Once I got in the “writing zone”, I found it very difficult to abandon my work to go to class/the gym/a social outing. I really wanted to finish the chapter whilst still being in “the flow”, because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to finish it properly if I came back to it later. That’s why I usually wrote on free nights or in the weekends, so I could spend as much time on it as I wanted. To be honest, I still ended up writing the biggest part of the novel over the Christmas holidays, despite my careful planning.

What is it that you enjoy most about writing?

The immense sense of freedom that you experience; it’s like being a kid again and playing make-believe or The Sims; you can create anyone and anything you want. You can create an entirely new world that you can control and manipulate. You can decide what happens and how the story ends. It’s an incredibly powerful feeling. Quite daunting, really.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers, young and old?

Most importantly: keep writing! The more you practice, the better you get. And don’t be afraid to ask for help. I know it’s incredibly scary to let other people read your work, especially when it’s not finished, but their advice can really help you improve your writing. When the people you consult are actually writers themselves, they will understand how difficult it is for you to share your work with them, and probably take this into consideration when giving you feedback. Also, be on the lookout for writing competitions and positions. Sometimes, newspapers, magazines or blogs will be looking for freelance writers. This is a great opportunity to get your name out there and be part of a writing community (as well as keeping you motivated to write regularly). And don’t be afraid to try something bold. Remember that I decided to send in my chapter based on nothing but a rumor, and it payed off! Of course, it can be the first, tenth or twentieth time, but don’t give up. If you really want to write, you’ll find a way.

I’ve always been told that ‘in order to write, you need to read’ was true. Is this something you would agree with?

Absolutely. I think you can always tell when you read the work of someone who has not read a great deal. They are more likely to use clichés, without realizing it, and their imagery is usually a bit over the top, or lacks cogency. Reading other people’s work can be very inspiring. Analyzing the way in which they build phrases, use words, create unexpected twists in the plot and build up a connection with the reader is both fascinating and helpful. It might give you direct inspiration for you own work, or just help you get a grasp on all the techniques and possibilities out there. Whether it’s the work of published authors or writing friends, reading can only improve your writing.

With writing, how do you make yourself complete what you’re working on? For me, I tend to have a great idea and I’m really enjoying it but then it starts to fizzle out and I really have to push myself to finish it.

This is probably the main problem for all writing enthusiasts. How do you take time out of your day to actually transfer your thoughts to paper? I guess the only solution is: just do it. You can start off with a free writing exercise: writing down the first thing that comes to mind and continuing for five minutes straight without overthinking it. In some writing workshops, they start off with one sentence, such as “When I woke up this morning, I could have never guessed…” and see where that gets them. If you decide to work on a bigger project, such as a short story, essay or novel, the best way to keep yourself from quitting is to divide the work in small portions. So you want to write a novel? How many chapters are you going to write? How many words per chapter? What happens in chapter 1? Say in chapter one Peter comes home from school to find that his mother has disappeared. You have roughly 3000 words for this chapter. Say you write 300 a day, starting today. Let’s start with Peter leaving the school building. What does his school look like? What is Peter wearing? What happened at school today? Does Peter like going to school? Does he have many friends? Is he walking home alone? Why? Don’t stop writing until you have written your 300 words, then do the same thing tomorrow and slowly but steady, you’re novel will come!

How do you see the future of writing? Does the Kindle signal the death of the paper book?

I sure hope not. Personally, I still love reading an actual, physical book, rather than an e-book or pdf file. I think a lot of people do. But naturally, e-books have certain advantages. Even I have to admit that the idea of taking a Kindle on holiday, instead of an extra suitcase full of books, is quite appealing. The problem, of course, is that this development increases the risk of intellectual property theft. When I see how many of my friends give each other USBs with thousands of online books on them, it makes my very sad and indeed, quite anxious about the future of the book. I am not only speaking as a writer, but also as an avid book-lover when I say that the possible disappearance of newspapers, magazines, publishing houses and professional writers as a result of illegal downloading is very discouraging. I cannot help but stress how important it is to keep buying books or go to the library to take a book out, rather than downloading it online.

Luckily, there are a lot of innovative and creative people working on new ideas and platforms to keep the book market alive. In the Netherlands, there is an initiative called Elly’s Choice, which offers you ten e-books for 2,99 euros per month. Other companies such as Amazon are developing platforms that function like a “Netflix for books”. I hope and believe that these kinds of ideas might be able to save the (paper) book from disappearing. For a world without books would be a very dull and uninspiring place, indeed.

(This article originally appeared at emmanuelhl.com)