Thursday, 12 February 2009

Guest Blog by Emma Darwin - Entirely Irrelevant


You don’t have to be a celebrity to get published. What you discover, when you’re having that crucial meeting with your publicist, is that her job is to make every author, however dull and obscure, sound irresistibly fascinating. Blurbs and covers can only do so much, and the chief function of reviews is to provide quotes for the paperback. But introduce the writer as a person – a person with a story – and people get curious. And who are we, as professional story-tellers, to balk at that? So your publicist will order the Chardonnay and interrogate you until you come up with something interesting – a hook, an angle – about yourself.

If you’re a banker writing financial thrillers it’s easy. Ex-SAS writing chicklit? Better still. Even a sensitive dissection of bourgeois life in Dewsbury can grab columns if you’re a professional deep-sea diver from Tierra del Fuego. But what if your only angle is nothing to do with you?

I’m putting off getting to the point because I was brought up not to mention the 2-3% of my genes which I have in common with my great-great-grandfather Charles Darwin. (I know the percentage because my genome was dissected on one of the big biology blogs. Weird feeling.) The Darwin industry has been getting steadily bigger for years and my name is my name, as well as my great-great-grandmother’s: I get asked about it anyway. In the tooth-and-claw battle of the bookshop tables you use what you have, and all I have is Darwin.

I’m sure I’m not the only writer whose chief publicity interest is entirely irrelevant, and I’m not complaining: it’s got me coverage I’d never have got otherwise, particularly in that uneasy time before the book’s out there. And if I’m being interviewed, then fair enough: it’s part of my identity. But in a thirty-word listing, sixteen may be about The Ancestor. And bad reviews are an occupational hazard, but how about one which starts ‘Emma Darwin may have smart genes but she doesn’t deploy them well here’? I’ve been asked many times if I would have got a book contract if I weren’t a Darwin. I hope it’s just ignorance that you don’t have to be a celebrity, but maybe it was meant as an insult: in our don’t-show-off culture, am I showing off to talk – when I’m asked to, like now – about my huge, high-achieving family tree? If I say it’s a double-edged sword, which it is, since it plays sometimes painfully to my own middle-child hangups, am I whingeing?

Now my novels The Mathematics of Love and A Secret Alchemy are out there, there’s more else to talk about, but here comes the Bicentenary. Being freelance, I have a web presence and journalists phone: do I say no, when it gets me and my books out there? And, yes, there’s a reason this post is appearing today, The Birthday. I’ve learnt to use what I can’t help having. But I’d rather be read and known for what I write than for such a tiny bit of what I am.

Emma Darwin is a novelist living in London. Find her website at http://www.emmadarwin.com/ and her blog at http://emmadarwin.typepad/thisitchofwriting

16 comments:

Roderic Vincent said...

Interesting post. You don't sound too happy about it, but let me wish you a Happy Birthday, none the less. When I read On the Origin of Species about twenty years ago, I loved it. You are keeping up the family tradition of writing important books.

Samantha Tonge said...

Whilst emailing Emma over this post i started blathering on about a programme i'd just seen about Charles Darwin and creationism versus evolution and... i thought afterwards poor Emma - she must get that a lot and after all these years the novelty must have worn off a tad.

Great post.

Sam x

barjoker said...

Thank you Emma, a fascinating insight. I love that you know so much about your own genome! History is in your very genes - no wonder you are drawn to histfic.

CarolineG said...

Really from the heart stuff, thank you for an interesting post Emma.
It must be a right pain sometimes, but as you say, a bit of a double edged sword..

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Thanks for a great post, Emma. I've often wondered what you feel about your ancestry and its relationship to your writing. And you sum up beautifully the dilemma. I guess it's similar for those children of famous actors. Publishers and Directors love a 'brand' name because it's instantly recognisable and the audience feel they are in safe hands, perhaps? But ultimately, of course, it comes down to the work itself, and if that doesn't stand up to the reading, then all the branding in the world can't save it. Unless you are Eddie The Eagle, of course!
Susiex

Geraldine Ryan said...

Emma, what's your familial connection with the poet Ruth Padel, who I believe is also connected with CD? Doesn't seem to stop her blethering on about him on Radio 4!

Caroline R said...

Great post, Emma - thank you for joining us today.

Re. people asking if you would still have got a book deal if you weren't a Darwin - I expect a lot of them are just interested and don't mean anything by it - and yet it sounds so snide. It must be one of the most difficult aspects to cope with.

Gillian McDade said...

A very interesting read Emma - thank you for sharing it with us.

And may I wish you a 'happy birthday'.

emmadarwin said...

Thanks, everyone, and thanks to Strictly for the chance to describe how it feels from my side of it.

Susie/Caroline my real answer to the question of whether I'd have been published if I wasn't, of course, is that if the name was all it took, the six novels under my bed would have been published years ago!

Geri, Ruth's my third cousin - the common ancestor/s is actually Charles and Emma - though I've only met her recently (it's a huge family). She's a conservationist as well as a poet, and has been writing poetry around natural history and The Ancestor for a while: now she's got a new collection out: 'Darwin, a life in poems'.

Geraldine Ryan said...

Thanks for that, Emma!

Rosy T said...

Thanks for the fascinating insight, Emma - because normally you don't talk about The Ancestor, and (being sad and nosy like all those journalists) I've always been curious....

sarah fox said...

Thanks Emma - SO interesting to hear your private thoughts on this.

emmadarwin said...

Thanks all - glad you find it interesting. I'm perfectly willing to talk about it, see above. I just tend to forget that people might be interested, unless they ask!

Geraldine Ryan said...

Er - want to ask - what is a "third cousin" ? And how do you work out all this family stuff. My family is very small but even so I get confused between cousins, second cousins, cousin-once- removed etc.

emmadarwin said...

Geri, do you really want to know..? Okay everyone else, look away now!

Imagine a pair of first cousins (i.e. their parents were siblings). Each has a child - those children are second cousins to each other. If those second cousins each have a child, those children are third cousins, and so on. In Ruth's and my case, for instance, the common ancestors are Charles and Emma - we're descended from different children of that marriage. In fact, apparently, there are 72 of us great-grand-children.

'Removed' is when there's a difference of generation. Go back to those first cousins: if one has a child, it and it's parent's first cousin are first cousins once removed to each other. If you have a pair of third cousins (see above), and one has a child, and then a grandchild, that grandchild is a third cousin twice removed to the other original third cousin.

Throw in my family's habit of marrying its cousins, and it gets very complicated indeed - I have cousins who you can count different ways, depending on which marriages you trace the relationship through!

womagwriter said...

Well I can honestly hand on my heart say I bought and read and enjoyed The Mathematics of Love, not because you were CD's great-great-grandfather, but because I'd been reading your blog and liked the sound of it. I bet CD wasn't all that great at fiction anyway.