Emily Koch is a Bristol-based author and journalist. Her debut novel If I Die Before I Wake was published in January 2018 by Harvill Secker, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Commissioning Editor Sami Coulthard was lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to interview Emily about the success of her novel, her writing routine and what she’s working on next.
For those who haven’t read it yet, what is If I Die Before I Wake about?
If I Die Before I Wake is a psychological mystery about Alex, a journalist in his late 20s who has locked-in syndrome. He can hear everything that goes on around him, he can feel pain – but he can’t move, talk, blink or do anything to communicate with his family or doctors. And as if that isn’t bad enough, he discovers that the accident which put him in hospital wasn’t an accident at all. Who tried to kill him?
Tell us a bit about Alex and ‘locked-in syndrome’. Did writing from the perspective of a motionless body prove difficult?
Locked-in syndrome was a fascinating area to research. There are some incredible accounts out there – shorter articles as well as full-length books – of what it is like to be trapped in your own body, like Alex is. Alex likens it to being buried alive, and it’s also a bit like sleep paralysis, if you’ve ever experienced that.
It was a challenge to write about someone living like this, but the research was key to making it work – I was confident writing about what it felt like because I knew how people who had actually had locked-in syndrome felt in certain situations.
Tell us about the research process. Were you familiar with the novel’s main content (comas, hospital procedures, etc) prior to writing?
Not really! I did a lot of internet research, read reports into the care of patients in vegetative states and so on. I also contacted everyone I could to talk about the premise of the novel, and to clarify any concerns or confusions I had. I contacted a friend who was training to be a neurosurgeon, an aunt who is a nurse, and some researchers in Canada – as well as several others. But, at the end of the day, a novel is a work of fiction. At some point you have to start writing and bring the story to life – afterall, your job as an author is to create.
How difficult was it to write a narrator who lies motionless?
The hardest thing was that Alex can barely see anything, so everything had to be described using his other senses. Sometimes, his eyes open of their own accord, but even then he can only see blurred black and white shapes as his vision has been impaired. I had to think hard about what he would smell, hear, taste and feel. It was tough but really fun – I spent a lot of time with my eyes closed, tuning into what was going on around me. I also had a go at lying very still for long periods of time. It’s nothing compared to what locked-in sufferers go through, but it gave me some idea of how annoying it is to have an itch you can’t scratch, or an ache you can’t rectify.
Novel writing is all about workshopping, editing and redrafting. How smooth was the process whilst writing If I Die Before I Wake?
Workshopping is hard work, but completely necessary. I learned so much from the other people who read my work and gave me feedback. Some of it was hard to hear, but the novel is much, much better for it.
The editing and redrafting process was also a challenge, but once the first draft was done I didn’t ever really look back. It’s the first draft that was the most difficult to get through. Once you’ve got the story down, it’s about refining the plot, the characters and the writing itself – but at least you’ve got something to work with. I did about 18 drafts of this novel – including several with my agent and several more with my editor. Some were big, structural and terrifying, and others were just looking at tiny details here and there, which is less stressful but just as time-consuming.
If I Die Before I Wake was recently on The Guardians ‘best thrillers’ list. Did you always plan to write a thriller/mystery novel?
Not really. I just knew that I had this particular story that I wanted to tell, and I knew it was a book that I would want to read. I read thrillers, mysteries and crime novels – but I also read a lot of other stuff. There were times when I considered cutting out the thriller plotline in the book, and concentrating instead on the experience of being locked-in. But I’m glad I stuck with it as it is. I’m proud of the how the novel has ended up.
Were there any particular skills that you learnt through your Creative Writing MA that proved most beneficial whilst writing?
The MA really helped me become a better reader. I learned how to read other people’s novels and study them in a way I had never done before – that has definitely made me a better writer. I love stopping at the end of a chapter and thinking, “How has this author made me feel like this?”
Who are your writing inspirations? Are there any novels that influenced you to write yours?
I couldn’t pin it on one author. Like many people who write, I’ve loved reading since I can remember. I read widely – I love to be dazzled by some of the most acclaimed fiction out there and I’ve always been a huge Shakespeare fan, but I will also devour plenty of ‘book club’ reads. I enjoy psychological thrillers like Gone Girl and Before I Go to Sleep – but I couldn’t read those kind of books constantly. What I look for most in a book is a story that moves me. I want to feel something.
As for influences on my own novel, several books I studied on the MA played into it – but the ways in which they did were often small and obscure, just giving me a hint of how something could be done differently. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad gave me the inspiration for one particular scene near the end of my novel; William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice was responsible for me rethinking who narrated If I Die Before I Wake; the way in which Don Delillo wrote Falling Man helped me with certain emotionally-detached scenes in my own book.
What advice would you give to current Creative Writing students who are hoping to publish a novel?
Good things come to those who work hard. You need luck, too, and a good idea – but keep working hard and I believe those things will come. You can’t get lucky or get that magic idea if you’re not writing and working at being published. Also: stay positive. It’s not a trait that comes naturally to writers, but that’s why you need to consciously work at it. No one else is going to tell you that you are amazing, so do it for yourself. I listen to really upbeat music when I write, because it makes me feel invincible and excited and I’d never hit my word count if I didn’t give myself that encouragement. I have notes stuck up above my desk saying things like, “I have it in me to write great books” (I’ve got my old tutor Celia Brayfield to thank for that one).
Finally, or perhaps it should have been firstly, FINISH THE NOVEL! If you actually finish a draft of the book you are trying to write, you are a step ahead of most people who say they want to write a book one day. Don’t give up halfway through – even if this one doesn’t get published, you’ll learn from it and you’ll know it is possible to finish a whole draft.
Anything in the works for a second novel?
Ahhhh… the Difficult Second Novel. Yes, I’m working on a plan for the next one. I tend to plan in detail before I start writing, and I am nearly ready to start writing, which is an exciting point to be at. Just as I finished reading proofs of If I Die Before I Wake, I became a mum for the first time, so my time and energy has been demanded elsewhere for the last year! It’s good to be getting back into my work again.
We’d like to thank Emily for taking the time to talk to us about her best-selling novel, If I Die Before I Wake, which you can purchase here. Be sure to follow Emily’s writing via her Twitter page (and follow us too, while you’re at it!).