The Beatrice Interview

Emma Forrest

"I'm not very ambitious, in a weird way; I just like doing this."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

At the age of thirteen, Emma Forrest started writing for her school newspaper in London. A few years later, she sent off a few writing samples to the Evening Standard, who promptly gave her an assignment to write about a young person's view of Madonna. Soon after that, she landed a column in London's Sunday Times, a gig that lasted about two years. She's been writing full-time ever since.

Her first novel, Namedropper, is as saturated in pop culture as her journalism. It's the story of Viva Cohen, a British teenager with a Liz Taylor fixation whose best friends include a sexy classmate and a rock star who acts like her big brother. I spoke with the now 22-year-old Forrest, who currently lives in New York City, by telephone in early August.

RH: How did you wind up writing a novel?

EF: Just about anyone who has a column gets letters from publishers asking if they've thought about writing a book. I was getting a lot of letters like that. They put the idea in my head, so I tried it, and I enjoyed it, and I was good at it. But I want to keep doing journalism even if I become known as a fiction writer. A lot of my favorite writers are journalists, like George Plimpton. I'm not using it as a stepping stone to higher ground. I think journalism is as important as fiction.

RH: How long did it take you to write Namedropper?

EF: It didn't take me that long once I actually started to write. I'm pretty good at procrastinating, and I talked about it for a while, but when I actually sat down, it probably took me about six months.

RH: Did you update this American edition?

EF: I did, very much so. Not for the American market, but for myself. I was so unhappy with the way my English publishers did it that I'm not publishing with them anymore. Nobody saw it through before it went to press. There were a hell of a lot of spelling mistakes, repetitions...I didn't have an editor; even though there was somebody who bought it, nobody looked at it. I was just really happy for the opportunity [with the American edition] to tighten it up, and...because I wrote it when I was a teenager, some of the writing was just too flowery. The more journalism I've done, the more spare my style's become. So I cut a lot of words. What's terrible is that people keep asking me things and I can't remember what I've written. I haven't read it since I handed it in. Everybody hates the sound of their voice on an answerphone, and I have an extension of that where I can't bear to read my own writing.

RH: Did you go to Chateau Marmont, where a major section of the novel takes place, for research?

EF: No, I've been going there since I was about ten. I've always just thought it was a magical place, and a lot of artists, or actors, or photographers, who read the book tell me they feel exactly the same way. Nobody likes LA, even people who live there. So when I'm in LA, I go to the Marmont and never leave my room.

RH: Speaking of LA, is there any interest in doing a movie of Namedropper?

EF: Yes, but it's actually owned by an English film company, Channel 4. They bought it about a year ago, and they just renewed the option. They say they have a script and they're happy with it, but I'll believe it when I see it. Books get bought all the time and never get made into films.

I'm also writing a screenplay, not for anyone but myself. We'll see how it goes, and maybe I'll hand it in to someone when I'm finished. It's a quite difficult medium, and really it's only with the new book that I've gotten a real handle on structure and plot. Namedropper is really character-driven, much more about the dialogue than about any amazing plot twists. So the screenplay is just a challenge to myself. And of course I'm doing journalism to pay the rent.

RH: What have you worked on lately?

EF: I just did a cover story for British Esquire, an interview with Brad Pitt. I think that's one of the best things I've ever done. I worked really hard on it, and I had 5,000 words to play with, which is about two chapters of a novel. I just found him very interesting and impressive--and it's a real challenge when you like someone to make him interesting to the reader. That's why we like reading bitchy articles; that's why people are writing them. They're easy to write and easy to read. It's much harder when you're impressed by someone to make it interesting to the reader.

RH: When you were writing for your school newspaper, did you ever dream you'd be interviewing movie stars for magazine cover stories?

EF: I probably would've dreamed that. My parents never made me feel like it would be unusual to succeed, or that there was a chance I might not. And I'm not very ambitious, in a weird way; I just like doing this. So I've never really thought of it in terms of, "God, I hope I get to do a cover story for a magazine."

RH: Who are some of your favorite fiction writers?

EF: Lorrie Moore. Phillip Roth. Truman Capote. And, actually, since the publication of my book, I've become blown away by Melissa Bank, whose book [The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing] I didn't read for ages, because I guess it was marketed as a Bridget Jones type of thing, but once I actually read it, I found her more on the level of Lorrie Moore. I think she's incredible.

RH: How'd you get hooked on old movies?

EF: I remember...I don't know if it was as big here as it was in England, but remember the TV show Twin Peaks? It was huge in England when I was starting to write, when I was thirteen. I was so besotted with it, and the way...well, the way all David Lynch's stuff is set in the present but with such a 50s ideology and look to it. And my mom said, "Well, if you like that so much, you should see these films." That was my way in, and I never really got out.

RH: What brought you to the States?

EF: My mom is American, so I've got a passport and I've spent a lot of time here. I kinda feel that if you make it in London, you should try to make it in New York. London is almost like the doctor's waiting room for New York, I think. It's where you sit until you actually get to business. I don't really have that many friends in London; I have a lot more friends here. So the only thing I really miss is my family.

RH: Is your second novel set in America?

EF: Yeah. I can't wait for it to come out. You know how you'll hear a band saying, "Oh, we don't even want to talk about this album because the next one is so much better"? I feel the same way. It's been a while since I wrote Namedropper now, and I'm much more proud of what I've just handed in. But that's always the way.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Molly Jong-Fast | Complete Interview Index | Maggie Estep

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan