Settee of Stories: A sitdown with Emma Healey

Norwich. A city of mavericks and makers, creators and trail blazers. A big-hearted city beneath even bigger skies, and open air, open minds. In Norwich, everyone has a story to tell. And we’ll be sure to tell it. Every month, we’ll be sitting down with local writers, designers, makers, artists and influencers to discuss life in Norwich. This week, we’re chatting with award-winning, Norwich-based author Emma Healey.

Emma Healey

Now a well-known Norwich resident, Emma spent her childhood living in South London. From a young age, she had a passion for reading, with her first ever job being in a local library. This love for literature prompted Emma to study at Central St Martins, before taking a degree in bookbinding at London College of Printing. After passing her undergraduate degree, she spent some time working as a bookseller and visual merchandiser, before ending up in Marketing.

Today, Emma is an award-winning, best-selling author. Her debut novel, Elizabeth is Missing (2014), has sold over one million copies worldwide and was recently made into a BBC film starring Glenda Jackson. Since then, she has published her second novel (Whistle in the Dark), got married and had a daughter. We sat down to discuss her meteoric rise from bookbinder, to best-seller.

How did you get into your chosen career/profession, and why did you decide to pursue this in Norwich?

I was always a keen reader and I took some short courses in editing and creative writing in London and thought I might secretly write a novel. After a few false starts I was inspired by both my grandmothers’ situations to write a mystery from the point of view of a woman in her eighties living with dementia. I joined a workshop group (and admitted I was writing a novel), which was really challenging and supportive, but then realised if I was serious about the project I needed to carve out more time for it. I came to Norwich to study for the famous MA in Creative Writing at UEA and it was the best decision I’ve ever made. The course was fantastic, I made good friends and I learnt a huge amount about literature and my own practice. It took me a year after graduating to finally finish the book, but I’d worked hard on it for five years by then and found an agent and then a publisher very quickly. The book sold after a life-changing 9-way auction which was won by Penguin, and I was suddenly living the dream as a full-time writer. The only downside was how much time I had to spend away from Norwich while I was on various book tours all over the world.

University of East Anglia, where Emma studied an MA in Creative Writing

What do you love most about Norwich and why?

I grew up in London and I’ve travelled to a lot of cities all over the world, but I’ve never had the feeling of coming home that I had when I first came to Norwich. It’s big enough to have everything you need, but small enough to feel friendly. It has a good mix of the major chains and independent shops and restaurants, and a vibrant arts scene – with arts and literary festivals and the Sainsbury Centre. It’s a very modern and forward-looking city (our record on recycling is one to be proud of), but is steeped in a very rich history that you catch glimpses of all the time. We’re lucky to be very near lovely countryside and beautiful beaches too. I also love that it isn’t somewhere you pass through – you have to want to come here, you have to commit to it.

And the food here is genuinely excellent, from the market to coffee shops, pubs to restaurants, bakeries and butchers, we’re really spoiled for choice.

Favourite place(s) to eat in Norwich?

Donnelli’s Pizzeria is top of the list. I love to meet my best friends there for pizza, dough balls and ice cream. Donnelli’s pizza was also the only food I could face when I was pregnant and so it was fitting that we eventually held my daughter’s christening party there! Our local pub is the Trafford Arms where they do fantastic food. When a house opposite came up for sale my mum was very tempted to move to Norwich just so she could eat there everyday. Benedict’s is incredible and Bishop’s is very romantic. Haggle and Jive are both fun and do fantastic tasty food. And all the restaurants in Jarrold’s are brilliant – I’ve spent a lot of lunchtimes in Benji’s. I’m sure I’m forgetting lots of other favourites – like I say Norwich is amazing for food.

Benedicts restaurant, St Benedicts Street, Norwich

Favourite place(s) for a coffee/beverage?

I love to go to the café in Eaton Park, the coffee is lovely (and the food too – black pudding hash is a real treat) and the outdoor space is great for keeping my daughter occupied. Greengrocer’s smoothies are delicious and healthy (as is all their food), and the attached shop is very tempting. Littlehaven and Stranger’s both do excellent coffee. Frank’s Bar was the first place I ever went in – I was flat hunting and badly needed a glass of wine. It’s still a firm favourite ten years later.

What are you most looking forward to doing in Norwich now lockdown is easing? What did you miss most?

I can’t wait to go to dinner with my best friends. We feel weird meeting without a pizza in front of us! I’ve had a lot of amazing Deliveroos from Shiki and Al Dente Pasta Bar, and it would be nice to go and eat in instead. I’ve also missed trips to the market over lockdown, going there for lunch used to be a regular treat. I especially love the food at Churros for the People and Indian Feast. I’m also looking forward to going to the Castle museum again, and my daughter’s really been missing Gymboree at Notcutts, the wonderful children’s library at the Forum, Spring at the Sportspark and Crazy Club soft play in Castle Quarter.

Norwich Market

What was your experience of lockdown like, and do you have any lockdown tips/recommendations for our readers?

One of the nice things about the lockdown was that we explored the green spaces closer to home. The Jenny Lind park, Jubilee Park, Earlham Park, Danby Wood & Marston Marsh, and Mousehold Heath. We invested in a rowing machine two years ago and cancelled our gym memberships – I worked out I had to use the machine three times a week for four years to justify the expense. Two years later, I row nearly every day and I’d recommend it for a full body workout in your own home. And while I row I listen to a lot of podcasts! I’m currently enjoying Writer’s Routine, which is a series of interviews with (mostly) commercial writers about the minutiae of their working days. More or Less from the BBC is fantastic and clear-sighted, fact-checking the numbers we hear quoted in the news. The New Yorker Fiction podcast is also brilliant because the guests both read and analyse a story from a famous author.

And finally, what does ‘Norwich’ mean to you, or can you tell us your favourite memory of the city?

When I moved here I thought I’d be staying for nine to twelve months and then would go back to London, but of course I fell in love with the city, and in the city. I met my husband when we were both working as booksellers in the Waterstones in the Royal Arcade. Six years later the shop had become a Jamie’s Italian and we had our wedding reception there, right where we’d first set eyes on each other. We got married in St John’s Timberhill and had an after party at Cinema City, where we held a private screening of Labyrinth. Our wedding ‘cake’ was actually 100-brownies from Dozen bakery on Gloucester Street. It was nice to feel we were giving our out-of-town guests a real tour of the city.