Emily Bullock’s interview by Kev Milsom

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Hello Emily.  Firstly, many congratulations on the release of your début novel, ‘The Longest Fight’.  Could you give our readers a brief outline of the story?

The Longest Fight is a story about family loyalty and love, set against the brutal world of boxing in 1950s London.

Jack Munday has been fighting all his life. His early memories are shaped by the thrill of the boxing ring. Since then he has grown numb, scarred by his bullying father and haunted by the tragic fate of his first love.

Now a grafting boxing manager, Jack is hungry for change. So when hope and ambition appear in the form of Frank, a young fighter with a winning prospect, and Georgie, a new girl who can match him step for step, Jack seizes his chance for a better future, determined to win at all cost.

The main character of your novel – John James Munday – is a thoroughly intriguing individual.  In creating him, did you quickly build up a strong mental image of who he was, or was the creation of his character more of a gradual process over time?

I usually plan out who the characters will be and write them a short biography before I begin a novel. If I’m very lucky as I write the characters take on a life of their own and the plot has to be rewritten to fit their wants and needs. It is a bit like acting as it takes a while to inhabit the character; really getting to know them until I finally feel able to understand what they would do in any given situation – in that sense it is a very gradual process.

Your physical descriptions of London in the years surrounding World War II really draw the reader into the darker and starkly-realistic elements of the capital city during this time period.  What types of historical research did you engage with to create such vivid scenes within your novel and was there any major reason why you chose this particular era of the twentieth century?

Post war London had such a sense of disappointment about it that really fitted with the character of Jack Munday; the war might have been over, but for the people living in those slums and walking those bomb damaged streets it was a long way from being won. Boxing was a way out for many of those men, a chance at a better future – for many it still is. I was also struck by the parallels to austerity Britain today; yet the early 1950s often get overlooked as an era in historical fiction.

Historical research was important in trying to piece together the vanished landscape of bombed out London. I got a sense of this from maps, paintings and eye witness accounts. But I also needed to take a step back from the idea of the researcher as ‘historian’ and focus instead on the ‘creative writing.’ Research was critical but I wanted to reclaim the language, and the images of my sources, and feel they were mine before I could use them in the context of my character’s voice. I gave myself the freedom to play and create.

It’s impossible to discuss ‘The Longest Fight’ without mentioning the ‘noble art’ of boxing. As a lifelong boxing fan myself, I personally found those aspects of your novel to be utterly compelling.  Have you had a long interest/fascination with the sport and ultimately how much research into boxing history during this time period did you have to do for this book?

My grandfather was a boxer; I used to watch matches with him. I still remember that sense of anticipation during a round; the memory is clearer than the grainy VHS pictures we would have been watching.

The critical component of my creative writing PhD with the Open University involved a lot of research into other representations of boxing in fiction. I also turned to boxing reportage to investigate the level of realism that the boxing elements of the plot demanded; great boxing writers like Norman Mailer, Budd Schulberg, and David Remnick. What I also found in their writing was a range of creative techniques that I hadn’t expected to encounter; uses of flashback, a mythic sense of scale. Boxing reportage can’t just tell the reader it has to show them – that essential balance of showing and telling.

There’s no doubt that you accomplished that vital aspect of balance throughout the novel, Emily. Concerning your personal writing preferences, is there a favourite location where you like to write?  Do you use relaxing/inspirational music to write, or do you require absolute silence?  Also, do you prefer writing freehand, or on the computer – or do you employ a combination of the two?

 I prefer to write at home; I get too distracted in coffee shops and libraries. I usually battle with the internet during the writing day, coming up with all sorts of excuses as to why I need to turn it on – sometimes I wrestle control and manage to limit it to coffee breaks. Writing by hand would lessen the internet distraction but I find I can type a lot quicker than I can write, and I like to save different drafts as I go. I try to work a 9 to 5 day; I find the routine helpful in lessening procrastination. If I’m writing a first draft I usually listen to music (the same album over and over) as I find it useful to block out other distractions. But when I’m editing I need silence (or as quiet as you can get it in London)

Looking at literature in general, what authors have inspired you in the past and who continues to inspire you currently?

 Sarah Waters for great plots, and clever uses of time in her novels. Alice Munro for her ability to condense whole lives into a few thousand words – something I’m always telling students not to do. She breaks all those short story ‘rules’ magnificently and with true eloquence. Graham Swift’s characters are filled with such emotion that I’m always moved by their plights, and of course he chooses some great South London settings.

Would it be possible to share some brief outlines of your next writing project(s) and what genres interest you the most? 

 End Times, a novel about a Victorian matriarchal crime family. I also like to write short stories, and have various ones in different stages of editing at the moment. I like historical fiction that has a comment to make about society today; the universal nature of people making the same mistakes, living the same choices over and over throughout history always inspires me.

Many thanks for sharing your thoughts, Emily and once again, huge congratulations on the release of ‘The Longest Fight’.  To conclude, what personal advice and encouragement would you impart to anyone working on their début novel? 

Turn off the internet. Once you’ve done that, learn to love editing. But pick one thing to edit at a time; focus on dialogue in one edit, plot in another etc. I find trying to edit everything at once too overwhelming.

Picture courtesy of wikiHow

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