Emily Woof has crammed a lot into her life so far. As a stage actor she has written and performed her own material; as a movie star she appeared opposite Rufus Sewell in The Woodlanders, and jostled with male strippers – including Robert Carlyle – in The Full Monty. As a professional trapeze artist, she trained for eight hours a day, building up her strength on a diet of sheep’s livers. Yet she admits that writing her debut novel, The Whole Wide Beauty, was the scariest proposition yet. “When you’re on stage,” she says, “there’s an illusion of being slightly in control. You can hide behind characters and feel that you’re somehow steering the thing. Writing fiction is far more open, especially as most of the characters were slightly different versions of me.”
The novel tells the story of Katherine, a young mother trapped in a failing marriage and mourning her previous, highly-charged existence as a dancer. Through her father, who runs a struggling poetry foundation in Northumberland – Woof was born in Newcastle and her father was Director of The Wordsworth Trust – she meets a poet with whom she falls headlong in love. Woof’s spare prose crackles with passion as Katherine succumbs to a heady affair.
“I never planned to write a novel,” Woof admits. “Quite the opposite. In fact, for ages I called it “the thing”. I just started writing in a notebook after my father died, as a way of keeping a conversation going with him, to keep him alive in some way. Eventually, I realised I was creating the seed of a character.”
It took Woof, 43, two years to write the book, during which she had her second child. “I wrote whenever I could, usually in the evenings or when my youngest son had a nap – I’d be desperate to get on with it. With young children,” she adds, “you dive in. There’s no sitting around, waiting for inspiration to strike or battling with doubt – you’re fired up and there’s a hunger to get the words down.”
She mentions a male writer friend “who goes off to European cities to come up with ideas which he’ll then mull over. Imagine having the leisure and freedom to do that.” She peels with laughter. “I’d love to think that writing and raising a family makes for a healthy balance, but in fact it’s extremely demanding.”
She was warned that the launch of her novel would lack the pizzazz of an opening night: “There’s no event at all. It just sort of…seeps out there. You don’t know if you’ve reached anyone.” Unlike performing on her trapeze, I suggest. “Oh yes. It’s such an intense form of physical expression. You become addicted to the endorphins firing around your body.”
While she hasn’t performed for many years, she still has her trapeze in the attic. “Sometimes I’m tempted to put it up. Not in our garden – it’s too small. But maybe in the park someday…”
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