Novelist Emma Glass on the visceral world of her debut novel Peach.
Released in January, the 30-year-old Londoner’s book gained immediate attention not just for its surreal, gory poetry, but for its timeliness in the midst of the #MeToo debate. Written from the point of view of a teenage sexual assault survivor who takes biblical revenge on her attacker, the slim 98-page volume is replete with flesh that aches, smells and swells, that gets bruised like fruit and carved up like butcher’s meat. Rape smells like grease, and the rapist ends up melting as a hot juicy BBQ bite under the vegetarian tooth of his victim. Raw, rare and thoroughly palatable, it’s a meaty prose feast indeed. We caught up with Glass before her appearance at this month’s Literatur:Berlin Festival, where she’ll be reading from the book.
Why choose sexual assault as a topic for your first book? You’ve made clear it wasn’t inspired by a real life experience.
I didn’t set out to write a particular story. In the beginning, I was purely drawn to the narrative voice and experimenting with lyrical language. When the character of Peach occurred to me, and when I realised I was writing about a damaged girl, it was less about her being assaulted and more about the menacing presence of her attacker.
Your prose has this strange visceral and epidermic quality, and a physicality to it – as if you had the urge to bring every emotion down to the sum of its particles. And when one emotion resists, you give it a smell, a taste, a texture…
Once I realised the darkness of the story, I had to give myself distance in order to keep writing. I felt that the surrealist approach really helped that. I also feel like I’ve given the characters more originality and dynamism by dealing with their physicality.
Why so many references to food? There’s Peach, but also her friend “Spud”, her teacher “Mr. Custard” and of course, “Sausage”…
In truth, I really don’t know. Food is such a big part of life. I was using what I had readily available! The name Peach came about because fruit can be the most beautiful and delicious thing one day and rotten and disgusting the next. It’s precious because it expires so quickly.
Peach’s belly seems to take centre stage in your narrative…
I thought about it and wrote about it in very literal terms. There is a peach stone at her core, which is both natural and unnatural at the same time. I think because everything is so organic from her, we see the world entirely from her perspective. In the end, it was really important that the reader sees her core, both psychologically and physically.
Peach is vegetarian – are you?
At the time of writing Peach I was! But I’m not anymore. I worked at a grill restaurant in my early twenties and was surrounded by meat. One day I just grew so sick of it, particularly the smell, that I gave it up.
Is this why rape tastes like “sausage”?
I was looking for words to describe hate and horror, things that I detested. And, yes, at that time it was meat and in particular sausages. By thinking about things I really didn’t like, I found the true words of disgust.
Even among her friends and relatives, there are those grotesque elements: why describe their smiles as “oversized” or “spilling”?
I wanted Peach to be as isolated as possible, so that she would have no choice but to do the unthinkable. The smiles and happiness are meant to taunt her, and so everything is exacerbated; she notices it but it is still so far out of reach for her.
This is a book that has its own distinct sound – words rustle, harmonise or clash, rhyme and alliterate. Do you write aloud?
Yes, I will write a line and read it back, checking the sounds of the words next to one another and the effect of pauses between phrases.
Your favourite praise for the book?
George Saunders wrote to the editor-in-chief at Bloomsbury to say that he loved the book but it “scared the shit” out of him. That’s the coolest thing.
And worst criticism?
A Good Reads reviewer said some of the lines in the book were “lazy”, and that really hurt me because every line, word and punctuation mark is carefully considered and meticulously placed.
Although written before the #MeToo campaign, Peach feels pretty zeitgeist-y. What’s your take on the current movement?
More and more people are speaking up, and this is the only way things will change. But I believe people are still not having their voices heard, and I hope that things continue to change so that people are not suffering in silence and isolation for much longer.
Emma Glass at Literatur:Berlin Festival Mar 19, 20:00 Maschinenhaus/Kulturbrauerei, Prenzlauer Berg
Emma Glass grew up in the Welsh city of Swansea. She studied English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Kent before opting to become a nurse. Today, she lives in North London and is a research nurse specialist at Evelina London Children’s Hospital. Peach is her first novel.