Emma Flint has been longlisted for this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction for her debut Little Deaths. Read on to find out what it was like to write the character of Ruth Malone, based on the real-life controversial figure of Alice Crimmins, why Emma usually finds herself writing in the British Library and who her literary heroines are.
Your character Ruth Malone is based on the real-life figure of Alice Crimmins, an American woman charged in the 1960s with the murder of her two children. What are the main similarities and differences between Ruth and Alice?
Ruth and Alice are the same age, physically they’re similar, and the facts of their lives are the same: both are separated from their husbands, both have low-wage jobs that require them to work shifts, both are very attractive. Each has two young children who disappear from their bedroom and are later found dead – and both Ruth and Alice become the main suspects in the subsequent murder investigation.
But Ruth Malone is really a work of imagination like any other fictional character.
Because of the way that Alice looked and the things she was quoted as saying, I built up a picture in my mind of a strong, stubborn and defiant individual – but how those characteristics manifest themselves in Little Deaths is purely imaginary.
In addition, I gave Ruth a different ending to the one that Alice chose. It’s difficult to explain why without revealing the end of the novel, but I wanted to give her as much autonomy as possible.
What research did you do to enable you to write this controversial character so convincingly?
Alice’s biographical details were fairly easy to find online, and I did a lot of reading about the case, particularly of contemporary newspaper articles that gave me an insight into how she was judged even before she was charged.
I also read modern newspaper accounts of women who’ve been involved in more recent crimes, such as Amanda Knox, Kate McCann, Amy Fisher and Andrea Yates. I wanted to see how women like these – either accused of or linked to violent crimes – were treated in the media today.
I’m delighted that you feel Ruth is convincing: she certainly felt very real to me, to the point that I had daily conversations with her for years, and I could tell instinctively what her opinion would be on most subjects. It’s been difficult to let go of her and to let her move beyond my writing and out into the world.
Do you have a particular place where you like to write?
I’d love to be able to write at home, but I have two very energetic kittens who see my laptop keyboard as their personal playground. So on writing days I’m usually somewhere in the British Library, taking inspiration from the work going on around me and from the portrait of Hilary Mantel.
Who are your literary heroines?
Excellent question. I’ll start out with Jo March and Jane Marple – firstly because of their respective interests in writing and in crime, but also because of the unconventional paths they took in life, and the way they carved out their own versions of contentment. I’ve always had an enormous affection for Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, for Anne Elliot (of Persuasion), for Dorothea Brooke (Middlemarch), and of course for Jane Eyre. In more modern fiction, I like Sarah Waters’ characters very much, particularly Nan Astley, Margaret Prior and Frances Wray, largely because they’re very flawed and very human. Sarah Waters writes with such depth, giving extraordinary insight into how those characters think and feel, to the point that they seem very real.
When did you first realise you wanted to be a writer?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. I wrote my first ‘novel’ at the age of ten: it wasn’t very good! I’d recently started reading Agatha Christie, and my book was about a French detective with a huge moustache, his upper-class English sidekick and a series of murders in a country house.
I wrote throughout my teens and twenties: mostly terrible poetry and an awful novel that will never see the light of day. I started writing seriously in my mid-thirties, and began writing what became the first scene of Little Deaths just before my 36th birthday.