The fourth novel from award-winning Bristol writer Emylia Hall follows a woman’s search for the father she has never met – a search that takes her to the Mediterranean island of Elba. Joe Melia finds out more
Your novels all have a very strong sense of place. What is the significance of the island of Elba to you?
I went to Elba for the first time in 2003 and it felt like we’d stumbled upon a true gem, an island paradise in Tuscany, with – miraculously – few British tourists. I returned in 2012, the year my first novel, The Book of Summers, was published, and the trip marked the end of what had been a thrilling summer. And while I was just setting out to write The Thousand Lights Hotel I spent five nights on Elba on a research trip; it was also the first time I’d had any time away from my toddler son and it felt seismic to be on my own, fully immersed in my new book. For me, the island has come to stand for celebration, and restoration. If people know one thing about Elba, it tends to be the Napoleon link (he was exiled there in 1814). In The Thousand Lights Hotel I take the idea of self-exile. It’s a story about people escaping, and finding themselves.
The Thousand Lights Hotel seems like the perfect place to stay. Is it based on anywhere in particular?
The Mille Luci is my dream of a good hotel – not an extravagant one, but one made of simple pleasures; abundant and excellent food, sunshine on the terrace, a verdant garden, a sea view. I did stay in a wonderful hotel on Elba once; we ate breakfast each morning under the shade of a giant palm, and every night at dinner the waiters came round offering seconds of the amazing pasta course. These essentially quite small things felt like vast luxuries. I think the best holidays are always therapeutic, good for the soul, and I want any reader of The Thousand Lights Hotel to feel as though they too are staying at the Hotel Mille Luci.
“When Kit was somewhere different, she always felt she could become somebody different too; try on other lives.” Do you feel like you’re trying on other lives when you’re writing?
Absolutely. Exploring what it feels like to be somebody else, to live in different places, to make different choices; that’s why I write, and why I read too. I guess I’m greedy – hungry for more lives than one – and insatiably curious. Sense of place, and travel, is important in all my books, and that comes from a desire to transport myself, to be a wanderer even when I’m at my writing desk.
This is your fourth novel in 5 years. How much has your approach to writing changed in that time?
My first novel was published in 2012, but it took me nearly four years to write. Over time I’ve become more focused, and, crucially, I’ve come to know myself better as a writer. Learning to be self-critical has been key, but in a constructive, and empowering way.
What impact has Bristol had on your work?
I moved to Bristol in 2007, with the ambition of writing a novel and working as hard as I could to get it published. My husband, the writer Robin Etherington, and I had just spent two winters living in the French Alps, and the move signified the new direction we wanted our lives to take. I will always think of Bristol as a place of creativity, and the realisation of dreams. The Thousand Lights Hotel begins in Bristol, with a woman running up and over the Downs, summoning the courage to confront her mother with the hardest question of her life.
The Thousand Lights Hotel (Headline £8.99) is published on July 13. A launch event is taking place at Foyles in Cabot Circus at 6.30pm on July 13.
Photo credit: Victoria Walker