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Desert Island Books: Emma Jane Unsworth

02.10.20

Emma Jane Unsworth

Emma Jane Unsworth is an award-winning novelist and screenwriter, beloved by the likes of Jessy Burton, Dolly Alderton and Marian Keys. With a Sunday Time bestselling novel – Animals – under her belt, she has turned her hand to fiction one more, with her latest novel, Adults. A hilarious and heartbreaking tale about living online and trying to find yourself in real life; a hymn to the power of female friendship and an essential read for you and every woman you know. You can buy your copy from Waterstones here.

And if you’re keen to find out which books Emma Jane Unsworth loves the most; wonder no more. From collections of poetry to contemporary classics, read on to find which eight books Emma would take with her to the shores of a desert island.

Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth

Postcards From the Edge by Carrie Fisher

This is probably my all-time favourite book and was a huge inspiration for Adults (in fact, I wanted to call Adults “Emails From Hell and Texts From my Mother” in homage, but everyone thought it was too long – not to mention un-hashtaggable. Bah. But seriously, if you haven’t read this book, read it. It’s semi-autobiographical, about an actress in rehab. It’s not only hilarious, and clever and tender, it’s actually a masterclass in voice. The way Fisher shifts between perspectives and registers and gets every narrator bang-on is truly awe-inspiring. It makes me so happy.

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank

I have read few books that have had as much heart as this one. When I first read it I got so close to the characters that my phone would ring and I would genuinely think it was going to be one of them on the end of it. I felt like I knew them and they were around. Some of the one-liners and single sentences are stunning. T’s a collection of short stories that work as a whole and build towards a heart-stopping sucker-punch. Bank is a real stylist, and her wisecracks and dialogue are sublime. It is a book that is at once artful and naturalistic; commercial and classic. The dream.

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

This book taught me how to be brave. Like The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, it’s another collection of inter-connected short stories, this time about a music industry exec and his kleptomaniac assistant. I love books that are experimental but where the experimentation is completely in keeping with the story, and enhances it rather than sticking out. That’s how it is in this book. The final chapter is told as a power-point presentation and it’s genius and I won’t spoil it as to why but you’ll cry when you read it. This book is bold, and brilliant, and it showed me that books can do all sorts of unexpected things and be massively playful, and that’s what I wanted to do.

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Collected Poems of WB Yeats

God, I love Yeats. I fell in love with his poems when I was a teenager. And he’s troublesome, and problematic, and probably not at all cool, but GOD HE MAKES ME FEEL THINGS. One time I was away in a remote cottage in the Lakes with my friend Jesca Hoop and we recorded a song version of ‘When You Are Old’, which is one of Yeats’ best, and I keep trying to get her to put it online but I think she’s likely quite ashamed of it because she’s a professional and I’m karaoke at best. We’d also drunk a lot of whisky so it probably sounds awful in reality.

Collected Poems of WB Yeats

Ann Sexton Collected Poems 

Pretty much every time I get drunk I recite the poem ‘For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further’ to the people I’m with. They always seem to enjoy it, although they could well be humouring me. It’s my favourite poem of Anne Sexton’s and it breaks my heart because it’s so much about women, and madness, and writing about ourselves. I quote one of Anne Sexton’s letters to her daughter in my book Adults: “Be your own woman. Belong to those you love.” Her work means a lot to me. I often read poems when I’m writing fiction because it’s inspiring but not intrusive or distracting, or too off-putting. Anne Sexton is my evergreen read, like David Bowie is my evergreen music, However I’m feeling, I can go to her, and I’ll get what I need.

Trumpet by Jackie Kay

This is one of those quiet, unexpected books you read by chance and then it stays with you your whole life. I read this when I was about twenty and individual sentences from it still haunt me almost daily. It’s a taut, deft little novel and I think they’ve just serialised it on Radio 4 of you’d rather hear it that way. It’s the story of an American jazz musician, but really it’s about loss and heartbreak, and what happens when a private life is forced into the public eye. It’s so timely but so eternal; so fluid and lyrical. You feel like you’ve witnessed something so intimate when you read this book.

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The Collected Stories of Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore is an absolute master. I keep her books around to dip in and out of when I’m feeling low on ideas or mojo. She is a generous writer, too. Never smug or overly flashy (although sometimes I do like the smug, flashy writers, too). She inhabits such a range of people and experiences, her characters are so well-rounded and empathetic. Only Anne Tyler is comparable in this way, really. I love her stories for their sheer craftsmanship. When I start to read her, a part of me inside relaxes. I think it’s the old reader in me, the bit that was there before the writer. That bit of me goes, Ahh, we’re in safe hands. That’s how it feels.

Fast Lanes by Jayne Anne Phillips 

Jayne Anne Phillips is as good as Phillip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, John Updike, Raymond Carver and all those other big lads rolled into one. She’s phenomenal. She’s ballsy and bold, her range is off the chain, and and she wrestles with all the big issues, generally from women’s points of view. Rad. Try telling her that the default protagonist setting is male existential angst. The stories in this collection present female wanderers and drifters in all their hotspots – from the dusty road to the rusty kitchen. For me she captures the ultimate conundrum: how to connect and be truly free, as modern women.  She is extraordinary. Incandescent. True literary rock n roll.

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