Working with Words: Emily Gale

Emily Gale is the author of several pre-school books and the YA novel Girl Aloud, which has been published in the UK, Germany and the US. Her first book set in Australia was last year’s Steal My Sunshine. Her latest books are My Explosive Adventure: Eliza Boom’s Diary and My Fizz-Tastic Investigation: Eliza Boom’s Diary. Emily has worked as a children’s book editor and is a specialist children’s bookseller at Readings.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

When I was 19, and studying English Lit at the University of Sussex, I joined the student magazine editorial team. I was an extremely nervy editorial assistant and madly in love with the charismatic editor. Tragically, my love was unrequited, but on the upside he did publish a piece I wrote on feminism. It was a truly dreadful piece of writing but it was a start. The magazine won a Guardian award that year for best student magazine in the UK. My piece would have played no part in that decision but I like to think that my dotting of the i’s did. By the following year I was editor, but please note that no bunnies were boiled during the takeover.

What’s the best part of your job?

I have two jobs: children’s author and children’s book buyer. It’s the actual process of writing that I love most – simply the sitting-down-and-doing-it part. I find the being published part really nerve-wracking. Since working full-time at Readings I’ve had to fit writing around a 40-hour week, not including reading time, with two small(ish) children, which is a pretty good commitment test. When a book is going well I wake up at 5am and write for an hour before getting ready for work. I never thought I’d be that disciplined but those hours are precious and pure, when it’s just me and the story.

There are lots of things I love about being a book buyer. There’s another precious hour I have between 8 and 9, before the shop opens, when I dust and do window displays and make everything look pretty in the children’s section before the customers walk in. It’s the only kind of housework I enjoy. I love the reading, obviously – I’ve never read so much in my life. My colleagues are great fun and I love the atmosphere. On Christmas Eve the queues went right to the back of the shop, snaking through the children’s section, and that was very uplifting.

What’s the worst part of your job?

With the writing it’s the moment my author copies are delivered. I fly into a panic, which I try to internalize because it’s very dull, so my insides are pickled in angst. Bad reviews aren’t very enjoyable either. And then there’s the negative royalty statements. That’s probably enough worst parts to be going on with.

The worst part of being a book buyer is the returns process. It has to be done but I feel like I’ve failed every book I have to send back. Except for the crap ones.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

My writing career has been bumpy to say the least. It’s certainly no glamorous story. I found my first agent very quickly, off the back of some picture book manuscripts and three chapters of a children’s novel. A year later she hadn’t sold anything for me and I’d just delivered my first YA novel to her. I was feeling pretty chuffed with it and proud that I’d managed to finish it in time to have my first baby, whose arrival was imminent. Then a letter came: it was my agent telling me completely out-of-the-blue that she could no longer represent me. I nearly gave birth on the spot. I called my mum and cried down the phone. After a period of feeling very sorry for myself, those two essential words came to me: Fuck. You. Just over a year later I’d written another YA novel and signed with a new agent.

But the moment that I’ll never forget for the opposite reason is receiving an email from Jaclyn Moriarty telling me she’d enjoyed my first published YA novel, Girl, Aloud. That was magic because I admire her writing so much.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

It’s simple and came from a friend who isn’t a writer: just get on with it. Best delivered with an eye-roll and a pfft immediately after a writerly whinge. I’m sorry if it sounds too simple but I think of my friend saying that to me all the time and it works. He’s a grafter, he doesn’t make excuses, and ultimately that’s what is needed in this game: there’s a lot of raw talent around but it’s only the people who get on with it who are in the running.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

Well, there is a review of one of my books that says ‘this is the worst book in the whole world’, which I thought was quite some claim.

I’m always surprised when people say that I come across as confident or that I’m good at public-speaking because of all the sleepless nights and anxiety that happens behind closed doors.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I think anything else I did would be temporary; I’d flit from one thing to the next. Being a primary school teacher might come into it for a while, but I think I’m too greedy about alone-time and I’d be awful at dealing with parents. I could have been a lawyer, too, which always seems like a missed opportunity when I look at my bank statement. Am I allowed to have my own bookshop in this terrible working-without-words world? How about if I promise not to read any of the books? (At least until you’re not looking.) It might turn out to be a bit too much like Black Books.

There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

I’ve never been to a writing class or taught one, so my opinion is pretty groundless I’m afraid. I hasten to add that I’d love to take writing classes, it’s just that you need time and money for that and I’ve been short of both. Authors I know who’ve taken courses have gone onto to produce novels that I adore, but I don’t know what they would have produced without that teaching.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

I’d have to refer back to what works for me: just get on with it. Lots of people talk about writing a book ‘when I have more time’, but you have to make the time and it’s bags of it you need to make because most writers’ first efforts are awful. Rewriting is the thing. Sending out your first attempt and then feeling flattened when you’re rejected is a common mistake. Feeling angry with the publishing world because doors aren’t opening fast enough is another. I don’t like the sense of entitlement I see with some writers. I think it’s really important, if you want to be published, to find out as much as you can about the industry you’re trying to become a part of, and I’ve met lots of people who believe they should be published who are very ignorant of the processes and some of the realities.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

The staff discount at Readings is one of the many good reasons to work there. But I buy books everywhere I go. I love bookshops and I’m terrible with (my own) money, so I’m not a likely candidate for seeking out online bargains.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

This feels like an odd choice even as I write it down but I’d pick the sea-witch Misskaella from Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts. I completely surrendered myself to that book and came out feeling deliciously bewildered. Dinner with Misskaella would be the same deal. I’d be terrified and wouldn’t be able to eat a thing but it’d be worth it. I’d grab a burger on the way home, with Eeyore.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

I think career-wise it would be Feeling Sorry for Celia by Jaclyn Moriarty. I was 26 and working as a children’s book editor. I’d never properly considered writing for young people, even though I was pretty sure that somewhere down the line I’d write novels (if only I could just get on with it), until the moment I finished that book. I just knew I wanted to write about teenagers, and bring up all that old stuff that was lurking deep down – all that good angsty material.

It’s all Jaclyn’s fault.


Emily Gale was recently credited by Mark Rubbo as being instrumental to the creation of the Readings Children’s Book Prize. The inaugural shortlist will be announced on Wednesday 2 April.

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