Interview: Emma Glass on her debut novel Peach

Despite what teachers, parents and bosses might preach, Emma Glass is proof that leaving things to the last minute does not always end in tears.

Only a few days from the due date for the final assignment of her creative-writing course and exasperated by failed attempts to start, a desperate Glass resolved to type the first words that came to mind as she listened to music one evening.

"I just started throwing out words to see what would happen," Glass, 30, says on the line from North London.

"Once I relaxed and started going along with the music, throwing out individual words, an image formed in my mind. I didn't know much, but from then I had a picture of a girl in frustration."

The eventual result was Peach, a debut novel that has garnered comparisons to Max Porter's Grief is the Thing with Feathers and Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, and inspired Man Booker Prize-winner George Saunders to declare that Glass' "fearlessness renews one's faith in the power of literature".

But not yet. The high praise, promising early reviews, and inclusion on numerous "books to watch out for in 2018" lists, would come nearly a decade after Glass discovered her story beneath the shadow of a looming deadline.

Then 21, Glass submitted the early chapters and synopsis of Peach, graduated from the University of Kent in England, and returned home to Wales at a time when the recession had hit Britain hard.

"Writing wasn't really a practical option for me at the time. I needed to get a job where I would be able to be useful and have a career and I didn't think I would be able to do that as a writer," she says. "I had the time of my life at university but that's not reality and that wasn't reality for me and I couldn't see how writing would fit into my reality."

Instead, Glass followed in her mother's career footsteps and enrolled in children's nursing at Swansea University in Wales. For the next several years it was medical notes rather than novels that preoccupied her time. She spent time working as an acute nurse, helping children who were undergoing life-saving treatment for rare immunology diseases.

"Nursing changes you. The moment you see somebody's life end, that changes you. And the moment you have to work that into your everyday life, that really grounds you as a person."

But Glass had not forgotten the would-be novel her friends dubbed "that strange thing you were writing". In 2016, then 28, the time was ripe to finish Peach.

"I hadn't been able to forget about it the whole time so I just went back into it and I found it was like a riding a bike really, the language just fell out of me," Glass says. "I never thought I would send it out anywhere or try to get it looked at by an agent or publisher. I was just so happy [when] I finished it because it sort of felt like it had infected me after all those years rumbling about in my mind."

Glass may have had no "grand plans" for her novel, but writer couple Todd McEwen and Lucy Ellmann, who taught at the University of Kent, saw the potential and offered to take charge. While it reportedly took Eimear McBride nine years to find a publisher for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, things moved fast for Glass.

"It's kind of a fairy story for a writer," she says. "I know this is such an unusual thing and I feel so lucky and I feel so nervous because I know that it has been a risk."

The slim but engrossing Peach is marked by staccato punctuation, lush language, repetition and rhyme, with poetic sentences that demand to be read out loud.

Each line is precisely formed, perhaps reflecting Glass' own process of "never writing more than 100 words" before returning to edit. Try this one, for example: "The bricks push me, put pressure on each side of my stomach. If I squeeze in any more I might burst burst, pop, split and squirt my building boiling venom all over the rain-slicked street. I could burst with hate. With hate. And show my core. I wait."

The "I" is the eponymous Peach, whose stream of consciousness narration gives the novel an unstoppable flow. We meet Peach, a college student, as she navigates her way home after she has been sexually assaulted.

The book does not hide its fire. In the disturbing opening pages Peach relives her assault ("His black mouth. A slit in his skin. Open. Gaping. Burnt black. Burnt flesh"), stitches her own wounds ("White thread turns red. Red string. Going in. Going out. I pull") and watches as her pet cat laps up the blood that drips from her and leaves a puddle on the kitchen floor. The story explores the physical and psychological trauma that follows the sexual assault, and Peach's dark revenge on her attacker, the greasy "sausage man" Lincoln.

The visceral nature of the novel has led some readers to presume incorrectly that it was drawn from Glass' own experience, or that she was tapping into what she had encountered as a nurse.

The exploration of the ownership and consumption of women's bodies has an urgent contemporary relevance that Glass could not have guessed when the character of Peach first came to her as a student. Glass spent her undergraduate years analysing themes in novels, but says as a writer she was not always conscious of where her words were taking her.

"I wanted to try and tease out deep-rooted feelings to see more than anything what it looked like on a page. What it looks like on a page is pretty dark. I think I just wanted to create an entire sensory experience. It felt a bit like an out-of-body experience if I am honest because I was just so focused on the language."Perhaps too focused on language at the expense of plot and characters, according to one of Glass' university lecturers, a commercially successful writer, when they discussed her idea for her assignment.

"I completely understand what she was saying ... I just really loved the way the words flowed and I didn't want to change that to fit a conventional plot. I felt really rogue and cool doing that," says Glass. "It's so hard to write an original story. I think that's where Peach came from. For me, sitting in that classroom, everyone had really interesting ideas but I kind of felt like I had read that before, or seen that on a television show before."

In her mission to test the limits of both language and the novel as a form, Glass acknowledges the influence of James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. But music has also proved a well of inspiration, with Kate Bush, Dylan Thomas and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon among those Glass credits as teaching her how to be daring as an artist and in her work.

Genre-defying fiction, according to Glass, is having a moment. A riskier time, she says, demands riskier writing and publishing.

"I think there is more fiction out there which is being shaped in a different way and that is a great thing," she says. "They are not just doing something different with story, they are doing something different with language and that is the key to it."

By night Glass might be dancing with words, but during the day she remains Nurse Emma.

Glass has taken the week of the publication of her novel in Britain off work, but will then return to her full-time position as a research nurse specialist at Evelina London Children's Hospital. The job is one she clearly loves - the relationships with patients and their families, the camaraderie of colleagues, the sense that she is doing something that matters.

Not to mention the inspiration she has derived for the second novel she is currently writing.

"I have this kind of dual life and one minute I will be in this busy clinic taking bloods and then two hours later I'll be at a book event. It's hard because I still haven't convinced myself that I am a writer yet. I am still Nurse Emma, the writing bit is yet to dominate."

However, there is a feeling akin to invincibility, Glass says, having written a novel with the power to shock and surprise readers. A novel that dares to be new.

"At least If no one else reads the book," she says, "I'll always have that George Saunders quote."

Peach will be published in February by Bloomsbury at $24.99.

This story Interview: Emma Glass on her debut novel Peach first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.