Emilie Pine is a very busy lady – she’s Associate Professor of Modern Drama in UCD, and now the bestselling author of Notes to Self. Emilie’s book is a collection of essays, organised thematically, with topics ranging from family to menstrual cycles, or as she puts it: “each essay is about something different, and multiple events that all kind of cohere around that one theme, or that one idea.” It’s a fascinating piece of work that evolved out of an essay that Emilie wrote a few years ago. “I started accidentally … the first essay in the book is Notes on Intemperance, which is about my Dad. He went into hospital in 2013, and I wrote that in 2014, after he was kind of ok again. I didn’t write it with the aim of getting it published at all, and it was very short and fragmentary. And then I went back to it and I thought ‘ok, maybe this is a piece so I went in and filled in the gaps’, as it were.”
On a personal level, she is very interested in the essay form and non-fiction as genre. “I just happen to love essays. I read a lot of memoir and a lot of non-fiction, particularly by women. The first one I ever read was Zadie Smith’s collection Changing My Mind and I’d never really read anything like it. It was a kind of hybrid of thoughtful and also memoir…thinking about the world but doing it through the framework of your own life. And that just appeals to me.” But let’s be clear; this is absolutely not an autobiography. “I didn’t want to write an autobiography because I think an autobiography is the story of your life, and I didn’t want to do that!” she laughs.
“Dealing with something is not easy. I think we have a cultural narrative around trauma, which is if you tell your story then ‘you’ll be grand’. But you’re not! It doesn’t make it go away.”
She explains that this is a different kind of project than what she’s used to encountering in her academic work. “It’s both easier and harder. It’s easier in the sense that you don’t have to go to a library, because you know everything. But the flip side of that is that it’s much harder, because you are your own topic, and it’s harder in the writing of it, because the book was coming to terms with things that I’d kind of put away. If I was going to write this book, then it had to be fully open; there was no point in writing an essay that was going to be coy about a subject matter. Every essay has something difficult inside it. But it was talking openly about not only having had a miscarriage, but talking openly about not being able to have children at all, which felt like the ultimate failure – also talking openly both to people I know, and people I don’t know (in some ways it’s harder for me that people I know are reading this book) about having being raped as a teenager. I never even wanted to describe myself in that way. So it was much harder, and harder now that it’s been published. It’s really hard to talk about yourself!”
A lot of Emilie’s academic work revolves around the concept of memory. I asked her whether she thought that was a factor in writing this book. “Yeah it’s interesting, because I know the theory, right? I’ve written about other people’s memoirs and autobiographies. I know the theory that it’s meant to be about, putting a narrative shape on things, the catharcism and all the rest. I can now say, having experimented on myself, that that’s correct! In the book, when I talk about being vulnerable but also powerful at exactly the same time, the simultaneity of that – that looking back is quite empowering, because I’m now in a position of safety, so I can recall things that were incredibly difficult, say, twenty years ago. But also, doing it first hand, there is a sense that memory is not about finishing something, it’s about the fact that you’re reanimated it in the present. Memory is always a reconstruction of the past rather than just looking back at something fixed.” Emilie thinks that the process of writing has helped her to deal with these memories to an extent. “Dealing with something is not easy. I think we have a cultural narrative around trauma, which is if you tell your story then ‘you’ll be grand’. But you’re not! It doesn’t make it go away. But I wanted to make this book about the version of the story that I could tell. My family, friends, colleagues will have their own versions of the ways in which they intersect in the book.”
But how do you deal with writing such a personal book, with opening up and leaving yourself bare in front of people you know? “I kept trying to not think about people reading it,” Emilie says. “Because I think if you write for a particular audience, that changes your story, and it means you’re trying to impress them, or trying not to hurt them or you’re trying to make them happy – any time I did that it started feeling a bit fake. And so I suppose that is a part of the joke of the title – I really did write it for myself. I really did write what I wanted to read, and people have said it’s very courageous, and sometimes I think that the emotion that drove the book was anger. If I had thought that I was being courageous then I would not have done it!” On that note, Emilie describes her family and friends’ reaction as “ incredibly proud, and supportive and very generous. They read it as I was writing it, so every time I finished an essay I would send it to my sister and my mother and my dad. They were able to catch things, and if something did upset one of them I would think about how to tell that a little bit differently. There were key things; for example, I told the story of my sister’s daughter dying. I had to sit down with her and say, can I tell this story? Even though I was there, I can’t write about her little girl without her permission. I think it’s important that isn’t just ‘Emilie’s story’ and that they hold onto their own stories as well.”
She admits that people have wondered whether this book conflicts with her role as a teacher in an academic institution. “I don’t see that at all. One of the things I love about UCD is that I think we do something very special here, which is that both staff and students get to focus on things that we’re really passionate about. There’s that space to be autonomous. I really think UCD and the university in general is two things: on one-hand it’s an institution that has to be run, but most of the time we have to disengage from that in order to do the things that we love, whether that’s teaching in a classroom or writing at a desk. That’s what I think is really important about UCD. It gets a lot of bad press but I think there is that space for creativity.”
I’ve never been one of those people who could just turn up. I work really, really hard in order to be good at something and it’s really important that what I do I’m good at – whether that is teaching, or writing academic work or research or Notes to Self. I worked hard on this and so it’s nice for it to connect.
Emilie is very grateful for the opportunity to have worked with Tramp Press, an independent Irish publisher that was launched in 2014. “A really important part of the book is not about me, it’s actually about the publishers – working with Lisa Coen and Sarah Davis-Goff in Tramp Press. Firstly they commissioned the book, they had the vision for it, they said ‘would you want to work with us’, and I said yeah, absolutely, and secondly, they’re feminists to the hilt, so they were there constantly saying, ‘ok, push a bit harder on this’, and that was brave of them to do. They were incredible both as publishers and also as editors. So I didn’t have to think about that stuff, I just worked with them. It really was a collaborative conversation that I was having with them over the 18 months that it took to write the book.”
Notes to Self has received an incredible reception, which Emilie finds amazing. “Personally I’m thrilled that something that I wrote is being read, which is always your ambition. I’m blown away by the number of people who get in touch with me, and tell me their stories, for me I think that’s a real feminist moment…some people have said about the book that it’s a breaking of the silence. I think that there have been so many times that we have broken the silence, Notes to Self is kind of just the latest. I think the silence is so suffocating that we keep having to have these books, we keep having to tell these stories. The other side of it is political, it just shows you the scale to which people feel silenced. So on the one hand I feel very sorry about it, but I also think it’s brilliant that books can become about the reader. When I was writing it, I said to my boyfriend ‘Oh my god I can’t believe I’m writing this, it’s so ridiculous that anyone would want to read about my life’ and he said ‘it’s not about your life, it’s about their lives. Go back and keep writing!’ It’s kind of clíched but that idea that if you make it personal or as specific as possible then it becomes quite universal. I don’t think it’s an extraordinary life at all, I think it’s an incredibly ordinary life, actually, and that’s the point, that we have to write and talk about our ordinary lives, not just people who go and do exciting things.”
Since we spoke, Emilie has won the Butler Literary Award for Notes to Self, and is nominated for the Michel Déon prize. “I worked my ass off. I worked really, really hard to make this book. It’s funny, people mean it as a compliment when they say ‘oh, she has such a natural way of writing’, or they say ‘it’s like reading her diary’, and I don’t mean to dismiss those as compliments, but it’s not my diary. I don’t keep a diary, and you don’t craft your diary. I think sometimes as women we’re expected to pretend that we’re not working really hard to do excellent things. I’ve never been one of those people who could just turn up. I work really, really hard in order to be good at something and it’s really important that what I do, I’m good at – whether that is teaching, or writing academic work or research for Notes to Self. I worked hard on this and so it’s nice for it to connect.”