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Faculty of Law
UNB Fredericton

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Writing The Rock: A conversation with Emily Hepditch

Second-year student Emily Hepditch has already made a name for herself as a talented author. She released her first children’s book, Sweater, during her first year of law school, and in 2020, released her debut novel, The Woman in the Attic. The psychological thriller, set on the coast of rural Newfoundland, tells the story of Hannah, who returns home to transition her aging mother into assisted living. While packing her mother’s things, Hannah discovers a dark secret sealed within the walls of her childhood home.

The novel won a slew of awards including the 2021 #NL Reads - Love Our Local Author award, Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize (Mystery), Gold Medal Winner - Independent Publisher Awards (Canada - East - Regional Fiction), and was selected as a finalist for Best First Novel - Crime Writers of Canada Awards.

Emily recently sat down with Nexus to discuss her inspiration, process, and passion for writing.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

I always say I grew up in St. John's because I live right on the boundary of the two towns, but I grew up in Mount Pearl, Newfoundland. I went to Memorial University and studied linguistics, psychology, and criminology. I wanted to be a speech pathologist for a long time, but when I got through my linguistics degree, I realized that wasn't the path I was most compelled to follow. As I was preparing to graduate, I really started to concentrate on my writing.

Was writing something you always enjoyed, or was it fueled by a particular experience or moment?

I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I've kept a journal since I was a small child, and always loved to read and to watch TV and movies. I was fascinated by stories and storytelling. As I got older, I started experimenting with creating my own stories. I eventually found the inspiration to stick to a story. It was when I began writing longer pieces and committed to the journey that I realized how fun it was and realized that I wanted to do it long term.

Growing up in such a scenic landscape as Newfoundland and Labrador, it's no surprise that it's the setting for many of your books. What do you find most unique or inspiring about the land?

St. John's is notorious for being very hilly. You get in your car and drive in any direction for 20 minutes and you're going to find cliffs. Growing up, I was always inspired by the cliffy landscape overlooking the water. It's kind of funny to think about a cliff being a peaceful place, because it is also kind of scary, but it puts things into perspective—how small your problems may be in any particular moment.

When I started writing mysteries, it wasn't so much the land that inspired me, but the way Newfoundland is abandoned in a lot of ways. Most people have abandoned the small communities for the cities. I remember driving and seeing a saltbox house that was alone and falling apart. I wondered who had lived there. Newfoundland has a barrenness geographically; you have these dramatic cliffs and views that are unbelievable. It has an eerie abandoned sort of history in certain parts. It seemed only natural that the land inspired me to write.

Why is it important for you to write about characters and settings from your home province?

I took a creative writing course when I was at Memorial with a very accomplished and incredible Newfoundland author, Lisa Moore. At that time, I was writing a novel prior to The Woman in the Attic, and it was not set in Newfoundland. Nothing I had ever written was really set specifically in Newfoundland. Ms. Moore asked me why I was choosing to do this. My answer was that I wanted to write something that was not just for my home, something that could be anywhere. Moore's advice was, “when you write pretending to be from a place that you're not, it shows up.” She told me, “you won't have the same genuineness as writing something set in your hometown.”

I didn't really believe her at first. I decided to keep doing what I was doing. Then, when I wrote The Woman in the Attic, something clicked. It was just so natural to write something set in an area that I was from. That's been one of the most frequent comments about my writing. People will say, “oh, you nailed what it feels like to be in rural Newfoundland,” or “you nailed what it feels like to be in St. John's.” I think that goes back to what Lisa Moore so graciously told me. There's something easier and more natural when writing about your home. Even if I don't set all of my books in Newfoundland, I always want to honor Newfoundland in some way moving forward. 

When you're starting a new writing project, what kind of research do you do to prepare?

It depends on the project and depends on what I'm writing about, of course. The direction of the story informs how much research I need to do. For The Woman in the Attic, I was writing about a character who is experiencing dementia. I don't want to give any spoilers, but for a particular reason, I didn't want to be too accurate, if that makes sense. I did research, however, I scaled it back in a very calculated way.

My second novel, Alone on the Trail, tells the story of four backpackers who are very misinformed about the trail that they're following. I'm an experienced hiker, but I don't know everything. I certainly don't know a whole lot about overnight backpacking. I researched the hiker’s route—the geography and the area. I read posts about people who have done it, but I tried not to make myself an expert as I was writing from the perspective of amateurs who make some very bad mistakes. I did not want little pieces of my own experience to slip in and ruin the plot.

What comes to you first when developing a new story, the plot, or the characters? How does that shape the way you build the rest of the story? 

The characters, almost always. My writing is character driven; I like books that are character driven. I read procedurals, but I'm not typically in love with procedurals unless they have a very strong character element. It's definitely the characters that lead the story, and what I'm doing with the characters is what informs the plot.

This is something that I've always been interested in: How do you select the names for your characters?

For some stories, it's completely trial and error. I'm very driven by sound. I want a character to have a name that's catchy, punchy, that stays in your head. A lot of the time, they'll just come to me, and then I'll play with the sounds and the name until I find something that I like. Other times I will literally start a story because a name will appear in my head and not go away. I'm working on a complicated novel right now, it's quite a mess, but the character's name is Nora, Nora Mabrey. The name Nora was in my head for months. I've been working on this book for 3 years, but it's like Nora never went away. I knew because she was sticking around that I had to follow her story. When they don't go away, that's how I know that they're going to drive a full story.

I was reading that you have an interest in illustration. Would you ever be interested in designing the front cover of one of your books? 

For The Woman in the Attic, I made a fake book cover, printed it out, and pasted it to my wall as inspiration. When the book was published, I jokingly said to my publisher, “here's the fake cover I made to inspire me to finish.” He took it and said, “OK, great.” My publisher went to the graphic designer, Graham Blair, who is an amazing artist—cannot give them a big enough shout out. Graham recreated the cover I'd made myself almost to a tee. Graham found a house in Newfoundland and was able to make a cover that not just reflected the vision but also represented Newfoundland. Graham's much more talented than I am, so I'm very happy to pass it along into more capable hands, but I would love to try it.

What is your favorite and least favorite part of the publishing process? 

My least favorite part of the process is sharing my work. It sounds counterintuitive, but I find sharing what I've written extremely difficult. I don't come across as shy, but when it comes to my work and my writing, I'm very sheepish, I don't like to share it. Overcoming the fear of putting it out in the world is definitely the worst part for me. The few weeks after I finished Alone on the Trail were tough. I was convinced it was a bad novel, the worst thing I had ever written.

Once I get over the hurdle of sharing my work, my favorite part seeing the completed book. Going into Chapters and seeing it on the shelf and thinking, “oh my god, that's me.” That’s pretty cool.

Can you discuss your experience with the publishing industry?

This is a really important question, and actually ties into why I want to be a lawyer. I have a wonderful relationship with my publisher, I love working with them and have had a very positive experience thus far. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many writers. I had a friend who's a writer say to me, “after what happened to me in my writing and publishing journey, I just don't know if I'm ever going to want to write another book.” That was the day I realized I wanted to fight for writers.

So, you see your law degree fitting into your writing career?

Absolutely. Writing is what led me to law school. After publishing my novels, I saw authors and the way their contracts work. That led me to law school because I want to advocate for authors. I'm very interested in intellectual property as a whole, but especially interested in the area of authors rights and the publishing industry. My goal is to someday be a legal academic—I would love to teach law. I would like to research in particular ways that, through regulation, we can promote more contractual fairness in the publishing industry.

Publishing is a weird, unique little industry. Publishers are entirely at the mercy of creators. Without authors there is no publishing industry. Yet, authors are constantly believing that they have to jump at any agreement that is put in front of them. It is a very difficult industry to break into. You have a situation where there is unequal bargaining power because of the way the industry is set up. Authors have little power. You're taking agreements that are offered to you because that's your only option. You have a lot of opportunity for exploitation and for creators to be taken advantage of. As an academic or as a lawyer, I want to help create some sort of solution that makes contracts fairer for authors. Someone that takes the unconscionable clauses out of authors contracts, and helps authors advocate for themselves. 

What are your future goals? Where do you see writing taking you next? 

I recently signed with the Transatlantic Literary Agency in Toronto. I've been so fortunate for what I've experienced locally, but I’m hoping that we can get my books that are already published into other provinces and into the US. Writing-wise, my next goal is to finish my current work in progress—a domestic psychological thriller. It's my biggest piece as an author so far; I'm excited to hand that off to my agent and see if she can find the right home for it.

What does literary success look like for you?

Not to get too corny, but as a person who has wanted to be a writer from the time I was a small child, literary success was just holding a copy of my book in my hands. The Woman in the Attic was first released during the pandemic. My publisher set up the office so we could physically distance. This was when I signed copies of my book for the first time. To me, that was the peak of success, it was just that lifelong dream that was suddenly real.

I always promised myself I would never ever make writing about the accolades or the quantitative levels of success. I just feel so grateful and so lucky to have the opportunity to write and to have people want to read my work. That is success for me, just having this opportunity because you know there's just so many writers that wait for these opportunities. I never want to lose sight of the fact that I've been able to experience my biggest dream.

Thank you for taking the time to tell us about your writing. One final question, what advice would you give to aspiring writers or those who are just starting out?

Don't quit. Writing is the most infuriating, boring, long, tedious, lonely process in the world. You are alone with your thoughts all the time—frustrated because nothing ever comes out right the first time. You have to write and rewrite, so you're always frustrated. It's a waiting game from the time you begin to when you're a writer. Despite everything that you're going to face, you cannot quit. As soon as you think it's time to just hang up your pen, put it away forever, opportunity could be knocking. You want to be there when the opportunity knocks and you want to be ready.

My second piece of advice is write for yourself. Do not ever let your yourself go to the place in your mind where you're writing for an audience. You can't please every reader and that's OK. Not everybody is going to like your work, and that is OK. You need different opinions; you need different ways of thinking. Write what is true to yourself and write for yourself because that is going to be the writing that is the most authentic. That's the writing that's going to connect with people most genuinely.

Emily’s first two novels, The Woman in the Attic, and Alone on the Trail, as well as her children’s book, Sweater, are available for purchase from Flanker Press, and from bookstores across Atlantic Canada.

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