Interview with Emma Claire Sweeney, author of Owl Song at Dawn

Today I’m delighted to be welcoming the talented Emma Claire Sweeney to my blog as the final stop on the Owl Song at Dawn blog tour. Owl Song at Dawn is Emma’s debut novel and was inspired by her sister who has cerebral palsy and autism. The novel was published on the 1st July by Legend Press.

My review follows the interview.

Owl Song Cover

Welcome, Emma! Thanks for coming by to talk with us today about your novel.

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photo  taken by Rosalind Hobley

Firstly, could you please describe the story for readers?

Maeve Maloney is a force to be reckoned with. Despite nearing eighty, she keeps Sea View Lodge just as her parents did during Morecambe’s 1950s heyday. But now only her employees and regular guests recognise the tenderness and heartbreak hidden beneath her spikiness.

Until, that is, Vincent shows up. Vincent is the last person Maeve wants to see. He is the only man alive to have known her twin sister, Edie. The nightingale to Maeve’s crow, the dawn to Maeve’s dusk, Edie would have set her sights on the stage all things being equal. But, from birth, things never were.

If only Maeve could confront the secret past she shares with Vincent, she might finally see what it means to love and be loved, a lesson that her exuberant yet inexplicable twin may have been trying to teach her all along.

What is it that makes this story unique?

Owl Song at Dawn explores the UK’s hidden history of learning disability from the 1930s to the present day – a subject very close to my heart since my sister has cerebral palsy and autism. Few novels enter this territory, and, those that do, tend to perpetuate the myth that learning disability leads irrevocably to family breakdown.

What motivated you to write this novel?

I have yet to come across a novel that offers a place for my kind of family: one that has largely succeeded in lovingly accommodating learning disability. And yet, such families are – and always have been – typical.

Novels, I believe, can subvert misconceptions. I wanted to challenge the assumption that a sibling must inevitably resent her sister or brother with learning disabilities; that the life of someone with learning disabilities must be overwhelmingly bleak; that families who raise their disabled child at home are somehow saintly in their powers of endurance. I wanted to celebrate people of all sorts of abilities and call into question what our society tends to value. 

When did this story begin, for you as the writer?

Inspired by William Horwood’s wonderful novel, Skallagrigg, my first ever secondary school creative writing assignment was about a girl trying to decipher a phrase that her sister kept repeating indistinctly.

Over a decade later, when I was studying on the University of East Anglia’s MA course, I found myself gravitating again to this subject during timed creative writing exercises even though I was working on a novel about an entirely unrelated subject.    

Keenly aware that I was in the early days of studying my craft and alert to the importance of a sensitive representation of learning disability, throughout my twenties I wrote about other subjects. And yet, I never doubted that my pen would one day return to this.

What challenges did you encounter while writing the novel?

I wanted Edie, the twin who is diagnosed back in the 1930s as ‘severely subnormal’ to narrate in the first-person, answering back stereotypes with candour, authenticity and verve. And this is where I came unstuck. Initially, I imposed certain limitations on myself – Edie’s voice would only be in the present tense, for instance – in my attempts to capture her apparent inarticulacy on the page.

Although early readers praised the energy of such excerpts, I knew deep down that there was a falsehood at their heart. The rules I imposed on myself threatened to alert the reader to the artifice of Edie’s voice rather than providing the intimate empathetic experience I’d so confidently set out to offer. What’s more, there was a childishness to these sections that undermined my desire to subvert the persistent popular perception of people with learning disabilities as infantile.

How could I convey a certain type of inarticulacy, distinct from the language (or lack of it) in early childhood that would nonetheless demonstrate full access to emotion and the experience of being human?

The answer was close to home. I began transcribing all the things my sister said to me during our nightly phone-calls. In my revised novel, I have attempted to capture something of Lou’s inventive phrases and melodic use of language in the voice of Edie, my character with learning disabilities. Of course, I have simultaneously adapted it for the character who was born in the 1930s in Morecambe and whose seminal life experiences are radically different from Lou’s.

One of my favourite things about this novel is that it not only features disabled characters, but it contains a number of them—in fact, the story is reliant on them, as are the other ‘able’ characters. Could you talk a little about what went into your decision to create a positive story with disability at its centre?

People with learning disabilities and those who love them often know lots of other people with learning disabilities too. I felt that an authentic representation would explore this sense of identity.

When I moved to the town where I now live, it took me a while to feel at home. My first real sense of community came when I was awarded an Arts Council sponsored writing residency at Sunnyside Rural Trust – a social enterprise that offers work experience to adults with autism and learning disabilities. The people there welcomed me into their world with such generosity and warmth that I was struck by the inadequacy of the term ‘disability’. Here were a group of people with all sorts of abilities that demand to be celebrated.    

There are very few characters like Edie, Len and Steph in literature. Why do you think this is and what can be done to remedy it?

I’ll be candid! I suspect that publishers shy away from acquiring books about people with learning disabilities – especially those novels that question misconceptions. We have a problem in the UK with the literary industry showing little faith in readers.

Publishing is chronically undiverse – white, middle-class, Oxbridge, metropolitan – and the gatekeepers are often subconsciously attracted to characters and scenarios that are close to home. But I think that readers are far cannier: we want to read about all sorts of people and enter into all sorts of new worlds – whether they be refreshingly new or reassuringly familiar.    

Your novel not only includes a rich cast of disabled characters, but also features characters who are elderly. Both of these groups are often neglected in mainstream fiction. What advice would you give to writers who wish to expand their character range to include more diverse characters?

Just do it! If the world you are representing would contain all sorts of different characters, then it is only right to render this on the page. But you must do it with authenticity. Work out both the stereotypes and the overly politically correct versions and then try to avoid either extreme. Immerse yourself in the worlds about which you write.

Edie, and those like Edie, aren’t always able to communicate their experiences in the same way as others. Unfortunately, because of the society we live in, this means that they are often excluded. In your opinion, what can be done to create a more inclusive and welcoming society, and what can individuals do to help foster a culture of positivity towards difference?

We need to start focusing on what people can do and less on what they can’t. If we really began to value a wider range of skills, we could increase the shameful rates of paid employment among people with learning disability in the UK (currently 6.6%) and we would see a much-needed fall in rates of disability hate crime (which rose by 41% last year).

I hugely admire my sister’s capacity for happiness – a skill far beyond the reaches of most classrooms. At parties, she is always the first on the dancefloor, giving the rest of us permission to shed our inhibitions by dragging us in her wake. The best way to foster inclusivity is to discard any anxiety or embarrassment and interact with people of all sorts of abilities, learning to value all they have to give. 

Could you talk us through your journey to publication? Was it difficult to find a publisher for the novel, given its themes and characters?

The journey to publication began with relative ease when I was signed by Veronique Baxter at David Higham Associates. I had long admired her, since she represents Emma Henderson (Grace Williams Says It Loud) and Edward Hogan (The Hunger Trace) – two authors whose representations of disability I hold in extremely high regard. Early readers likened Owl Song at Dawn to novels by Maggie O’Farrell, and I was hugely complimented by the comparison. Naively, I assumed that publishers were hungry for books like this that bridge the literary/commercial divide. But editor after editor came back to us saying that they could not work out how to market this book.

I think they were put off by the combination of a cast of characters with disabilities, the northern setting, and the elderly protagonist. Ironically, if I had written a high literary novel, representing a bleaker narrative of disability, it might have been easier to get it published. Certainly, a more commercial novel that repeated well-worn stereotypes would have fared better.

I did work on the novel with an editor from one of the big publishers but she ended up getting cold feet. But this redraft meant that the novel was pretty much ready to print when my tenacious agent sent it to the wonderfully risk-taking team at independent publisher, Legend Press.

Can we expect another novel from you?

So long as I can get it published! I’ve completed the research for The Sister Who Throws Scissors – a novel that will bring together both my fascination with female novelists and my interest in disability. I discovered that the sister of one of my favourite authors was diagnosed with ‘imbecility’ and written out of the family history. The Sister Who Throws Scissors will be narrated by her. 

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about you or your writing?

My next book will be a non-fiction book on female literary friendship, which I am co-writing with my own writer friend, Emily Midorikawa. A Secret Sisterhood: the hidden friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf will come out in autumn 2017 with Aurum Press in the UK and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the USA.  

Thanks so much for coming by to talk with us today! Best of luck with Owl Song at Dawn and with all your writing!

Readers can obtain Owl Song at Dawn from Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Song-Dawn-Emma-Claire-Sweeney/dp/1785079670/

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Song-Dawn-Emma-Claire-Sweeney-ebook/dp/B015H5RQZY/

Owl Song at Dawn has been selected for Books etc. book club, so, until the end of July, the paperback is half price through them: http://www.booksetc.co.uk/features/view/1676-the-books-etc-club-july

Visit Emma’s blog: www.emmaclairesweeney.com

Follow her on Twitter: @emmacsweeney

Catch up with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/emmaclairesweeney/

My review of Owl Song at Dawn

I want to tell him that I need you to sit beside me in the pew, your head resting on my shoulder, the scent of Pears soap on your skin.

Vince Roper and Maeve Maloney’s shared youth frames the budding romance of their twilight years. But, while light-hearted in places, this is not your typical romance novel. Instead, it’s a novel about love—the love we seek, the love we share and the different forms this love may take, or not take, depending on the individual and their circumstances. Set against the once-glamorous backdrop of Morecambe in its heyday, Sweeney skilfully compares Morecambe’s glory days to Maeve’s own.

For Vince and Maeve, it was their shared love of Maeve’s twin, Edie, which brought them together. Edie was an enigma to Maeve. While similar in some ways, in others they couldn’t have been more different. While Maeve expected to obtain a degree, to travel, to marry and to have children, Edie’s life would never contain these pleasurable pursuits due to what her unhelpful physicians termed her ‘severe sub normality,’ and a society which seemed to be set against her unique abilities from the start. In modern-day terms, Edie was affected by  cerebral palsy with associated epilepsy resulting in frequent grand mal seizures, which sometimes put her life at risk. She was also autistic.

Their parents, already living under the constant fear that their beloved daughter might be taken from them, decide against medical treatment and instead choose to raise Edie at home (the story takes place in the 1930s, when the forced extermination of the disabled was taking place in Germany and eugenics was popular in Britain and America). This decision results in a close bond amongst the family and especially between Maeve and Edie, who is particularly loving and affectionate.

With not a word out of place, Sweeney tells her story with poetry (quite literally in the scenes where Edie speaks), poignancy, grace and an uplifting humour. Her characters make for a refreshing change as many of them are learning disabled. But Sweeney doesn’t make the mistake of treating her characters as poor, defenceless victims worthy of pity who sit helplessly on the side-lines while the other ‘real’ characters get on with the action. Instead, her disabled characters are central to the story. For without Maeve’s sister Edie, there would be no story. Without the help and companionship of Len and Steph (both of whom are learning disabled and who help to run Sea View Lodge), Maeve Maloney’s life would be joyless and she would not be able to keep up with her work. Sweeney’s novel demonstrates the importance of diversity and the pleasure which can be achieved when we embrace and celebrate our differences.

Owl Song at Dawn is a novel unlike any other I’ve ever read. Striking in its subtlety, nuance and depth, this is a novel to cherish. I shall look forward to re-reading this for years to come and uncovering new layers with each reading. I strongly encourage you to read this for yourself and see what you make of this ground-breaking new title.

Owl Song at Dawn blog tour

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9 thoughts on “Interview with Emma Claire Sweeney, author of Owl Song at Dawn

  1. Pingback: Owl Song at Dawn: A Month Since Release – EMMA CLAIRE SWEENEY

  2. Great interview and review Kendra! Northern setting, elderly characters and disability – this is one book I must get. 😃
    I agree with her comments re: diversity in publishing. I also often feel writers need to be given permission to write about disability, when they have no experience of it themselves, it’s certainly the message I got from the workshop on disabled characters in fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Ruth–it is a fantastic book and I felt honoured to be able to take part in Emma’s blog tour.
      Yes, I agree with her comments about the lack of diversity in publishing too. Back in April, Emma ran a series of literary salons on this topic https://kendraolson.wordpress.com/2016/05/19/something-rhymed-literary-salons/ . It was fascinating, though the statistics are bleak.
      I’d love to see more books being published with disabled and other more diverse characters in them. Here’s hoping that more writers will bring up the courage to include them! Your workshops are a great start to this, and an important contribution to this much needed dialogue in the literary community.

      Liked by 1 person

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