Sunday, April 2, 2023

Q&A with Emily France


Photo by Erin Cox

Emily France is the author of the new novel Daughter Dalloway, which was inspired by Virginia Woolf's classic Mrs. Dalloway. France's other books include the young adult novel Signs of You.

Q: What inspired you to write this novel about the daughter of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway character?


A: In 2018, I came across an article about Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I had not read the book since college, so I picked it up again


As I read, I noticed a character I had never seen before: Mrs. Dalloway’s only child, Elizabeth. She plays a small part in the original; we see her at age 17.


I also caught a line about Mrs. Dalloway: she’d almost died in the 1918 flu pandemic. It had damaged her heart; Woolf writes that Clarissa had grown very pale since then.


I quickly did the math: Elizabeth would have been 12 years old. She would have watched her mother nearly die in a pandemic. I already knew a lot about the 1918 pandemic; it killed my great-grandmother and left my grandmother an orphan. The flu pandemic was an important part of our family history, and we discussed it often as I was growing up.


I did some research and found pictures of children in masks. I was horrified. Children in masks? I couldn’t imagine putting my own child in a mask in hopes that he would survive. I was riveted; I so badly wanted to write the story of a woman who’d been a pandemic child. How had it shaped her? I began the book.


And that was in 2018.


Little did I know that in just two short years, the world would be gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic. Little did I know I’d be putting a mask on my own young child. Little did I know I’d be terrified that our family pandemic history was repeating itself.


But what truly broke her character open for me was the realization that she was a contemporary of the Bright Young People—a postwar youth movement made up of young people who were disillusioned by the horrors of WWI, determined to disrupt outdated social rules, determined to do things differently than their parents.


The average birth year of a Bright Young Person was 1905; Elizabeth Dalloway was born in 1906. The movement was populated by upper class youth, and as the daughter of a member of Parliament, it is certainly not a stretch to assume Elizabeth would have been invited to join their ranks.


They had treasure hunts through London in the early ‘20s, parties with a mix of people her mother would be shocked to see, and an angst that only children of war could have. In other words, it became clear to me that her mother didn’t know her at all.


Q: What did you see as the right balance between Woolf's characters and your own as you were writing the novel?


A: Because Elizabeth Dalloway has such a brief role in the original, I had a wonderful opportunity to create her entire life based on the clues Woolf gives us.


The primary word Woolf uses to describe Elizabeth is inscrutable. Because she is. Her mother can’t understand her daughter, is confused by her constant study of history, and assumes she is quiet and cloistered in her room praying.


Yet Woolf describes Elizabeth as a pirate as she rides an omnibus alone, riding through the streets of London, dreaming of having a career as a veterinarian or running a vast enterprise. When other characters see Elizabeth, they take notice.


Elizabeth is “off-screen” for most of the novel, so I imagined where she would have been, what her life would have been like when she was not under the watchful eye of her mother.


When I rewrote a scene that appeared in the original, I tried to portray the characters exactly as Woolf did in that moment. This was one of the most fascinating parts of the process—to see the Elizabeth I had created interact with the original characters.


Q: What do you think accounts for the ongoing interest in Mrs. Dalloway?


A: For me, it is that Woolf shows us how the human mind works, what consciousness really feels like—and it’s strangely comforting. It is such a relief to see a woman’s thoughts tossed about like mine are.


One moment Mrs. Dalloway is joyfully intoxicated by the smell of a flower, and the next she’s thinking of a friend who lost a son in the War. One moment she’s in her home pleasantly resting, and the next she is so consumed with memories of her youth that she feels she is there—squarely in her past.


At one point she stands in the middle of her own perfect party—she has invited the right guests, seen to every detail, and looks flawless. And her mind whispers, “You’re a failure.”


When I read it, I feel both the joy of a mind fully present and see the dangers of thoughts unnoticed. I am reminded to pay attention to my mind and make sure it is being kind to me.


Q: The writer Marie Benedict said of the novel, “Beyond a compelling, imaginative retelling of the Virginia Woolf classic, Daughter Dalloway offers a unique take on what it means to sift through the remnants of the past.” What do you think of that description?


A: First and foremost, I am honored by these words from such a gifted writer. And I love this description.


One of the most fascinating things about the original Mrs. Dalloway is that each character seems to be in the past and the present at the same time. They are present, but memories chatter in their minds at all times. There is really no separation.


My book revisits this and offers a modern take on how to find peace of mind—both about one’s past and present.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Writing is a mysterious process for me; I find that talking about a novel before it’s finished can weaken my confidence in it. But I’ll say that my next book is quite lighthearted and hopefully hilarious. I am exhausted from spending three years with Woolf.


One evening after writing, I exclaimed to my husband that I just couldn’t take it anymore, that it felt like Virginia Woolf had moved into our home, that her words were roaming the halls at all hours of the night. He smiled and said, ever so gently, “I think it will be good for you when she moves out.”


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: While this book is inspired by Mrs. Dalloway and follows one of its characters, it is absolutely not necessary to have read the original to understand my story. I wanted it to stand alone.


Oh, and I really hope you like it.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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