Hampstead author Emma Glass: ‘I have drawn on some intense feelings’

Emma Glass whose first novel "Peach" is published by Bloomsbury.
Picture: Sarah M Lee

Emma Glass whose first novel "Peach" is published by Bloomsbury. Picture: Sarah M Lee - Credit: Archant

The first time author has penned a strange and surreal tale of sexual assault

“It’s a sort of miracle,” says Bloomsbury editor-in-chief Alexandra Pringle of their newest publication. West End Lane Books is packed with people celebrating the launch of Peach, the debut work from a new writer.

With its protagonist a piece of fruit, its antagonist a sausage, it’s easy to see how this book attracted attention. It is strange, surreal and utterly unlike anything you’ve read before. Pringle says: “exceptional, experimental and bold”, as the author blushes beside her.

A couple of weeks earlier, Emma Glass clutches a cup of tea in her Hampstead flat, talking about her full-time job as a children’s nurse, and her humble buoyancy is very much at odds with the opening pages of her novel.

Peach begins in the immediate aftermath of a rape. The rhythmic tone is at once jarring and riveting. (“I see black. Thick black. Fat. My eyelids are fat. Swollen. Swollen back from the slap. Smothered in grease from his slippery slimy sausage fingers.”) It is simultaneously urgent, violent and wonderfully tender, filled with such humanity, despite the varying un-human forms of its characters.

“I decided I didn’t want normal tale of girl boy, I wanted it to be strange,” says the Swansea born writer. After the assault, Peach returns home to parents preoccupied with their own sex life and a baby brother made of jelly, and she goes to college beside her loving and loyal boyfriend, Green. “Even though it’s a very dark and sad book, I was really keen to put tenderness in there.”

The book was born ten years ago, as part of a creative writing assignment at university. Her tutor was a “successful commercial writer” and there was much emphasis on plot and themes and metaphor.

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“I found it really hard to construct anything in such a rigid way, and on the literature side of my degree I was reading experimental stuff like Gertrude Stein and some T.S. Eliot poetry, James Joyce’s Ulysses. I just knew that I didn’t want to write something about a detective or a fantasy novel, because my mind doesn’t think in stories and I was quite, at the time, obsessed with language.”

A few nights before her deadline, Glass was struggling to construct a piece of writing. With music on in the background, she was able to write. The words came out to the beat of the music.

“I must have been really angry because the first lines are really aggressive, but as soon as I started, I relaxed and was able to see the image of the character much clearer. Even then, I didn’t know the who or the why or what was happening.

“I just sort of took apart the words and the feelings and thought, something awful has happened to this girl.”

Glass discovered what happened to Peach in much the same way as the reader does, a little at a time. But after she’d handed in the assignment, she didn’t come back to the book for years. It went down “like a lead balloon” with her lecturer.

“It’s got a lot of repetition, but it’s purposeful. It pretty much reads like I wrote it and every full stop and comma is so meticulously placed because I want to have that stop start feel and I’m trying to create a tone with punctuation. She didn’t like it so much. She gave me an ok grade, but it didn’t feel like it had legs and at that time after I submitted it, I was just so glad to see the back of it!”

She trained as a nurse and left the story behind until she moved to London and her writing group encouraged her to finish it: “It kept coming back to me, and I felt like I couldn’t write anything until that was finished.”

It’s lucky she did: Man Booker Prize winner George Saunders said it “renews one’s faith in the power of literature” along with some other glowing reviews from Kamila Shamsie, Laline Paull and Lucy Ellmann.

Glass is emphatic in saying that the book isn’t in any way autobiographical.

“I think everyone has had personal tragedy or that feeling of isolation, and some people have had really horrific things happen. In my own life, growing up I’ve had some things happen to me that I wish hadn’t, but it shapes you as a human and even though this isn’t autobiographical, I have drawn on some intense feelings.”

The intensity is evident in the poetic voice of the book, which is unrelenting throughout. Some readers have taken the surreal imagery – peach, sausage, jelly, tree – as metaphor or fantasy, but Glass says her intention was to write this as reality: “What if it just is?”

But she welcomes different perspectives from readers and has been surprised at some of the ideas that have come from outside eyes.

“I guess very loosely I have a theme, but I never thought in my mind I’d write a rape revenge. It didn’t occur to me at all until reflecting on it later. But people read it how they want to read it and I guess that’s what makes it a bit different.”

Peach (Bloomsbury Circus, £12.99) is out now.