SevenStreets is just like you. We’re still chipping away at that Great Unfinished Novel too. So, every time we happen upon a new writer, with freshly born debut beautifully formed, strong of spine and adorably unputdownable we have to admit it – we suffer the same pangs of jealousy every bookless young professional does.

Fortunately, Emma Unsworth’s first born is so assured, so mature and – damn it – so clever (we bet it’s walking before it’s in softback) we have to reluctantly admit it: some of us are born to write for city based arts and culture blogs, and some, well, some are looking at the stars. And everything.

Unsworth’s Hungry, The Stars and Everything is a deceptive little package, too. It’s the story of a quarter-life crisis, of a feisty female (Helen Burns) with relationship woes who smokes too much (‘it’s the only way I can regulate my breathing’) and lurches from one beautifully drawn domestic crisis to another (so far so lit of the chic). But – and this is what separates Unsworth from the pack – while it speaks of earthbound trials, the novel’s canvas is anything but. Within its orbit it touches on astrophysics and the dark arts. For Burns is a protagonist with an eye on the pulsing of dying stars and – from a very early age – she’s not been afraid of courting with the Devil himself…

Maybe that’s why, as a food critic, Burns is assigned a commission to review a mysterious new restaurant named Bethel. And, as the tasting menu commences, Burns has an uneasy feeling that it’s not just the wine they’re pairing with the food: as each meticulously crafted course opens up some gastronomic wormhole – a timeslip into an earlier chapter of Burns’ short but spiky life so far.

SevenStreets read Hungry, The Stars and Everything in one, erm, hungry sitting. And we got awfully excited when we discovered that Unsworth, whose partner is Elbow frontman Guy Garvey, is heading to Waterstones Liverpool ONE next week for a reading.

We’re there. Sure, the book raises lots of questions about the fatal forward propulsion of youth, and the dilemmas of life, career, sex and greed: but, really, we’re fascinated to find out how you actually, like, finish writing that first novel.

First albums, first novels…intentionally or not, they have a habit of revealing an autobiographical streak. Would you agree?

Well, they do say you should start with what you know, and I’m not sure whether I did that so much as start with what I love. In a lot of ways, the book’s a collection of my passions – at least my passions when I started writing it a few years ago. Food, astronomy, romance, rebellion – they’re all things I enjoy writing about but I’m by no means an expert on any of them. But that’s the best part – making stuff up. I wouldn’t want to just capture a person or a scene from real life – where’s the fun in that? No one in the book is anyone I’ve ever actually met and while odd details and one-liners have snuck in, overall I’d hope the book is a mixture of my experience and my imagination, or at least my experience fed through the mincer of my imagination. Or the sausage-maker of my imagination. Yes, that’s suitably dark and revolting.

Tell us about the process of writing a first novel – was this the first story you wanted to tell? Did it arrive fully formed?

It is without a doubt the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve wanted to write about a heartbreak and a rebound relationship for many years, and had a lot of false starts. This story mostly stuck because of the restaurant setting and the menu structure – it gave me momentum to write it and portioned up the story in a satisfying way – for me at least! The other themes were circling in my head and they gradually started to come together and make sense, but it still took a few drafts to smooth them out and integrate them. Even now, published, I’m aware it’s a very strange book. My next one’s even stranger.

The central character in the novel, apart from Helen, is food itself, and the memories it triggers off, involuntarily. The feeling is that, while Burns’ intellect might struggle for control she’s a prisoner of her senses…

Absolutely. I like the contrast between the technical analysis of food – which Helen has some grasp of as a food critic – and then the surrender involved in really enjoying something; in true pleasure. I wanted to write about how she tries to be critical and rational and then she’s knocked off her feet by her feelings, which are provoked by her senses. I suppose it’s the old Spock vs Kirk scenario – you need logic for sanity and clarity, but you also need to be at the occasional mercy of the more unpredictable and untamed side of human nature in order to really discover anything about the universe, or yourself. Food’s good at transporting the mind, I find – whether it’s to a place of comfort and security, or somewhere new and exciting, or somewhere old and unsettling but important to remember.

Tell us about your views on greed? The ‘wanting it all’ propulsion of your protagonist – and the hunger for more, is a recurrent theme in the book…

Yes, that’s one of the big questions at the heart of the book: how much is it acceptable to want? Helen starts out full of longing, full of desires, but because she doesn’t try hard enough to understand why she wants what she wants, she’s overrun by her feelings and winds up heartbroken. I think your teenage fantasies – when you’re at your freest in a way – can set you up for the wrong thing. I remember as a teenager walking round like a bag of nerve endings, like most people. Then as the years pass you get your bits of insulation, but they don’t always end up in the right places.

Again, it’s the balance between the head and the heart. As a woman in your late twenties, sometimes it feels as though there’s so much you’re expected to want: a partner, a house, a career, a baby. By that point in her life, Helen doesn’t really want any of those things as much as she wants to feel understood, and connected to someone, like she did with her biggest true love-so-far. But it’s that terrifying doppelganger situation: you encounter someone who gets you, really gets you, because you’ve got something similar at your core, and it can go either way: you can embrace the mirror, or seek to destroy each other. Either way, it’s unnerving.

Without getting too cosmic, there’s a strong sense of timing running through the novel – and the chaos that can ensue when events happen ‘out of time’ in one’s life. Do you agree? If so, what are your thoughts on fate, and destiny?

Well, I don’t believe in fate. I think you can be more ‘tuned in’ to certain things, and therefore hyper-conscious of them, in a lot of ways that’s how writing works: when you’re exploring certain themes then certain words blaze out of pages, and certain people stand out in the street. They were always there but you notice them more because it suits what you’re doing, it fits your mindset and justifies your theories. But I don’t think it’s fate in a magical sense. Nor do I like what the concept of fate implies for people who don’t end up happy – is that their fate, to be miserable?

It seems cruel or at best apathetic to think like that. in the book, I was interested in how and why Helen made the decisions that had such huge, horrific consequences for her life. I suppose you could see the consequences as not being all that horrific – after all, she has a nice house and a boyfriend who cooks and a job she likes, but there’s still a part of her inside that wants more, and that same part remembers when she had more, and how it felt bigger and better than anything she has now. The idea of having made the wrong decision out of cowardice and suppression of your deepest feelings is, I think, truly horrific.

There’s a strong supernatural undercurrent running through the book too – and that includes religion – why did you chose to weave these into the narrative?

I love magic realism and surrealism in films and books, I like that extra level of meaning and the freedom it offers. When something steps into the realm of fantasy, literally anything can happen next.

I’ve just finished a brilliant book called Mr Chartwell by a writer called Rebecca Hunt – a fictionalisation of Churchill’s depression, which he referred to as the ‘Black Dog’. The black dog is an actual character in the book and – as well as having all the best lines – I loved the fact this dog was a heavy, real, brooding physical presence. It doesn’t take much for me to suspend my disbelief when the characters are compelling. In my book, Helen sees the devil at various points in her life – similarly because i wanted him to be a physical presence who could help her do things, and empower her in that way.

What about the locations – Liverpool features strongly: why did you choose it?

I’ve felt strong links with Liverpool since I went to university there (1997-2000). People go on about the Taj Mahal but I’ve seen it and, you know what, I think the Liver Building’s just as beautiful. I love walking down the grand streets towards the docks and seeing the mixture of heritage in the faces and the buildings. Liverpool seems to have been an international city for a long time, longer than Manchester, even though I love both cities for some of the same reasons too – their vibrancy and warmth, the incredibly supportive music and literature communities, and the way those ‘communities’ don’t set themselves up as exclusive the way they do in some places.

Are you happy with it? What’s next?

I’m generally happy with it, yes, but because it’s my book I can see all the flaws, and it feels as though I wrote it so long ago – years and years, with different feelings and focuses. I’m currently in the process of writing my third novel whilst editing the first draft of my second – there’s no way I’d write that first book the same now, but that’s the way it goes. You have to draw a line under things and move on, see it for what it is and seal it up, and let it go. All that said, there are passages in Hungry that I think are as good as anything I’ll ever write, and when I read those I still feel very proud of them.

The second book is about trauma, and how some people are defined by it, and others aren’t – how and why this happens. I think it’s got a lot to do with self-worth but there are no real answers in the book. It’s called The Museum of the Heart because the central metaphor is that your past is a museum inside you; you can walk round the exhibits in your memory, and see what happened to you when and what effect it had – but those things aren’t alive any more because it’s a museum not a zoo. It’s set between Manchester and Paris and tells the story of a girl who is orphaned at the age of 13. I’m going to spend a lot of the summer redrafting it, but the bones of the story are essentially in place and I’m happy with it.

My third book is about deal-breakers in relationships and follows a woman with a gambling addiction in the six months leading up to her wedding. Her fiance is a vicar. The working title is Deals With God and Other Strangers and it’s taking a lot of research…

David Lloyd

Hungry, The Stars and Everything (Hidden Gem Press, £7.99)

Book Launch and reading:
Waterstone’s Liverpool
Friday, 1 July 2011, 6:00PM

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