Norwich author Emma Healey reveals her top lockdown books

Norwich author Emma Healey. Picture: EMILY GRAY PHOTOGRAPHY

Norwich author Emma Healey. Picture: EMILY GRAY PHOTOGRAPHY - Credit: Emily Gray Photography

The writer of adapted BBC hit show Elizabeth is Missing, on how social distancing is affecting her creativity.

Norwich-based author Emma Healey is a graduate of UEA’s acclaimed creative writing course. Her debut novel, Elizabeth is Missing, about an elderly woman living with vascular dementia, which was inspired by her grandmother, was published in 2014 to great acclaim after a bidding war between several publishing houses. The same year it won the Costa Book Award for First Novel and in 2015 she was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and won the Betty Trask Award. Late last year a screen adaptation of Elizabeth is Missing was shown by the BBC, starring Glenda Jackson as the novel’s protagonist, Maud, who sets out to solve the disappearance of her friend, Elizabeth. Emma’s second novel, Whistle in the Dark, was published in 2018.

What did it mean to you to be longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction?

It was a real thrill. So many of the authors I admired had been long listed before me and with me, so it felt like being admitted to an exclusive club. It also meant I got to go to the awards party which was really fun – it was the year Ali Smith won for How to Be Both and everyone was in tears during her moving acceptance speech.

Have you read any of the books on this year’s list and if so, which and what did you enjoy about them?

Well, I was planning to read several of them while my daughter was at nursery, but as she’s been home there hasn’t been time! I am a huge fan of Jenny Offill so that’s the one I’m most excited about. It was a pity her event at the Octagon Chapel [in Norwich] had to be cancelled due to Covid-19. She’s a really interesting and innovative writer.

It was wonderful to see the adaptation of Elizabeth Is Missing on TV. How did you feel seeing your novel transferred to the screen?

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I was very moved. Much more than I expected. I’d seen some of the filming in August and I thought I’d got my emotional moments out of the way, but seeing the final thing was incredible. It was so faithful to the book, while bringing another angle to the story, and of course Glenda Jackson was astounding as Maud.

Can you tell us about what you’re working on at the moment?

I’ve gone through my usual process of beginning and then scrapping a couple of novels. It’s frustrating because it means months of work and tens of thousands of words are wasted, but this time I think I will come back to both ideas again soon. In the meantime I’ve just finished a ‘writer’s block’ novel that I’ve been working on to free myself up.

How has lockdown changed the way you work and structure your day?

It means a lot more negotiation with my husband about when I can work and when I need to look after our two-year-old daughter. I’m now squeezing in a couple of hours very early in the morning and late at night – neither of which are ideal times for my creative brain. I think lots of people are in similar positions.

And how has it affected you creatively?

It’s been hard to concentrate.Very early on in the crisis I had a talk with my agent about what kind of books people might want to read after all this. We were speculating out of curiosity rather than planning, because I think writers have to go with what interests them, rather than try and write to satisfy trends. Still, it’s hard to settle on what feels important enough to put into fiction at the moment. That’s another reason I’ve been writing a novel that isn’t for publication, something I find easier to concentrate on.

It’s been reported that more people are choosing to read books during the lockdown. What titles would you recommend to someone at the moment and why?

At the moment I’m drawn to sun-soaked classics, so I’m rereading The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden and A Month in the Country by J L Carr. I’m also making time for some non-fiction, especially Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women and Helen Lewis’s Difficult Women. Apparently I’m into non-fic with the word ‘women’ in the title! This is also a good moment to look at writing as a practice and so I’ve just bought Patricia Highsmith’s Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction.

The Norwich-based National Centre for Writing offers online courses in non-fiction, fiction, scriptwriting and crime fiction, which start this month. They also have a range of resources for writers available on their website. See