'My stories are like good fairies full of magic and strangeness'


Sally Emerson's latest collection of short stories is titled Perfect; Stories of the Impossible - Credit: David Cruickshanks

A cloned baby, magical tablets that create insatiable lust, and eerily predictive death certificates, all feature in Sally Emerson's Perfect, Stories of the Impossible.

Critics have compared the seven tales with uncanny twists to a feminist version of Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected.

The Belsize Park author began them just before lockdown at a time of emotional upheaval. They are published by Quadrant this month "just as we're all pleased to be alive".

"They came out of a difficult period and are unlike anything I've written before" she says. "I keep a box file of ideas for stories and they were like good fairies, when I opened it they flew out full of magic and strangeness. It was wonderful and enriching to have access to other worlds during lockdown - that's the advantage of being a writer, you don't mind hermit-like seclusion."

She also doesn't mind the Roald Dahl comparison, but says her stories are "less savage and more entrancing".

"They start off in perfectly ordinary bourgeois settings but something unsettling or extraordinary happens. If it were Dahl it would be something terrible, but while these stories aren't sentimental, they have a kind of enchantment about them. They often have a joyful ending, so having been through the mill, people finish feeling happy. They are the short stories I would like to be reading."

Close friends with author and editor Tina Brown since Oxford University - they both studied at St Anne's and worked on literary magazine Isis - she has lived for several decades in Eton Avenue and set one of the stories - about a witchy landlady reluctant to see her lodgers leave - in the house.

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"Everything in life is so speedy that a short story is just a joy. You get an immediate hit, you never know what is going to happen, and the ending is a complete surprise - it's like a chocolate assortment if you don't like the almond you can have the orange cream."

Her most ambitious story, The Couple, deals with an academic whose ancestor was murdered as a heretic who meets a strange pair in a Los Angeles museum.

"It's about good and evil and the power of myth. It's quietly electrifying and has the quality of a fairytale."

If many of her female protagonists are "strong and interesting", she says she couldn't write anything else.

"As a child I was more a Scarlett O'Hara than Melanie Wilkes. Even though stories were always about women being saved from trees and fires, I would make up imaginative games where the heroine would be a version of me and do terrible things. There was nothing that didn't happen in my nine-year-old old imagination."

If there's a thread running through the stories it is "how quickly life can change and shift, either comically or dangerously - as we discovered with Covid".

"We read fiction to see how to navigate the world and it can prepare you for the trap doors that are waiting in life, although not necessarily a strange pill or death certificate."

BARRY HUMPHRIES, SALLY EMERSON, Perfect by Sally Emerson Book launch. The garden in NW3. 7 June 2022

BARRY HUMPHRIES and SALLY EMERSON at the book launch of Perfect in June - Credit: Dafydd Jones

Fiction can also lift us out of the ordinary: "I like stories of the impossible where you think it's one thing but it turns out to be something different. It's good to write about ordinary life, but what I hope for is for a dash of something else to interrupt the mundane."

Emerson's previous novels have included a devastated woman who turns to a spiritualist, a young girl with the power to seduce and destroy men, and another who lives in a psychic world of the past. The supernatural often features in her writing, but she's unsure if she believes in magic.

"I certainly believe in the magic of living. Just to have won this lottery of being born, we have entered a magical realm, but I'm fascinated by people harnessing the unknown. There's a lot of things that are inexplicable that we don't understand. You can go into a house and sense an atmosphere. My son can come through the door and know what mood I'm in. Being alive is extraordinary but there's also darkness and things that are difficult to deal with. Stories try to gather both."

But the biggest magic trick is the one played by writers: "You can create alternative realities out of thin air - talk about abracadabra and pulling a rabbit out of a bag."

Sally Emerson Perfect

Perfect by Sally Emerson is published by Quadrant - Credit: Courtesy of the publisher

Visit www.sallyemerson.com/