For Books’ Sake Talks To: Emma Chapman

6th Mar 2013

For Books' Sake Talks To: Emma Chapman

Published to huge acclaim from both critics and other authors, Emma Chapman’s debut novel How to be a Good Wife is a tense psychological thriller that uses issues such as power-play, control and dominance within relationships, and mental illnesses such as psychopathy and post-traumatic stress disorder in order to tell its story.

The book is written from the point of view of Marta, a protagonist who, according to the writer, “has spent much of her adult life trying to be the perfect wife and mother. She has been married to her husband Hector for so long she doesn’t remember much about her life before her marriage.

As the book progresses, she begins to see strange things, or perhaps to remember them. These visions, or memories, start to make her question her husband.”

Chapman is a Brit who, after gaining an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway and working for the Toby Eady Associates literary agency, transplanted herself to Western Australia, where she began working on How to be a Good Wife.

“I was prompted to write the character when I saw a documentary about Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome and it was very important to me that Marta’s experiences were depicted realistically,” says Chapman.

Although women’s role in society these days is considered to be more open, there is definitely still a case that a solely domestic life can be limiting to a woman’s potential“I was absolutely fascinated by severe cases of trauma where you can repress memories over twenty years, only to have them resurface later. When they do, you might not even be aware they relate to something you experienced.”

Chapman explains that prior to writing the novel, she spent a lot of time researching captivity-related trauma similar to Marta’s, as well as hostage situations and the identification of the victim with their abductor.

“The psychology-based research was key [because] I don’t believe you can write so far out of your own experience and not conduct research,” she adds.

Marta’s lack of autonomy stems in part from the fact that she is a housewife for much of her life. Her husband is some years older than her, and she was very young and vulnerable when they married, allowing him more control over her than he may otherwise have gained.

In the novel, Chapman uses their relationship to explore issues such as gender roles and power play within relationships, along with the mental illnesses that can accompany them.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the domestic role of women as limiting, and have read widely on this,” explains Chapman, adding that classic texts such as The Yellow Wallpaper, House of Mirth, The Awakening, The Doll’s House and The Feminine Mystique were all influential on How to be a Good Wife. 

“Although women’s role in society these days is considered to be more open, there is definitely still a case that a solely domestic life can be limiting to a woman’s potential, and marriage can encourage this. It can even be argued, as in The Feminine Mystique, that it is damaging to a woman’s psychology.

However, each individual situation is different, and I was writing about a very specific one with Marta and Hector, which is much more extreme than the average marriage in terms of dominance.”

As the story progresses, Marta begins to display symptoms of post-traumatic stress, meaning that the reader is sometimes forced to question her as a reliable narrator.

Even though Marta may not be the most enjoyable protagonist to spend time with, she is incredibly engaging, and there is a sense that the reader does not want to leave her alone with her experiences.

“From the first page I wrote, I always had a grasp on Marta’s voice and what she was thinking, and it was this which propelled the book onwards,” says Chapman.

“From that point of view, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar was influential in terms of a lucid heroine who is suffering from mental illness because from a reader’s perspective, we are inside her head, and so identify with her much of the time. I wanted to achieve a similar thing with Marta. Those little moments when the reader thinks, ‘Hang on, are we getting the full story here?’”

It’s unusual for a novelist to garner such acclaim for their first book, however deserving they may be. Did Chapman, who knew the industry from her time at a literary agency, anticipate such a response to How to be a Good Wife?

“No, not at all! After writing the book for three years, I had no real perspective on it any more, and therefore no idea how it would be received,” she replies. “The moment when I realized it might garner some positivity was when I received an email from Hilary Mantel with her wonderful endorsement (which is quoted on the cover), three months before the book was published. That was a real highlight for me as I admire her so much.”

How to be a Good Wife can be purchased from Foyles or your local independent book shop, or you can listen to Emma Chapman read an extract from the novel here.

Alisande Fitzsimons