By Emma Claire Sweeney
I love to hear from Novel Studio students that our conversations have spilled from the classroom into chats over coffee in the campus café, or glasses of wine at The Peasant. It was just these kinds of tête-à-têtes that first fired my friendship with Emily Midorikawa, my former Novel Studio colleague.
We were lucky enough to have chanced upon each other almost fifteen years ago, back at a time when we were both living carefree lives as young English teachers in rural Japan. I have vivid memories of the moment when we first admitted that we were both secretly writing: the bowls of garlicky spaghetti we were eating; the acquaintance who unexpectedly showed up at the restaurant, putting a stop to our conversation; the way we picked up where we’d left off as we wandered through a shopping mall on our way home.
At the end of that formative year, I headed off to South East Asia carrying my notepad from noisy Bangkok hostels to crumbling villas in Laos, while Emily continued to type away in her tiny Japanese apartment surrounded by carparks and convenience stores.
Many messages pinged between the computer in Emily’s Japanese staffroom and the internet cafés I visited in Chiang Mai and Hanoi and Luang Prabang. According to Emily, it was during this time that I sent her a message in which I daydreamed about the two of us writing together one day. It was a throwaway remark – one I can’t remember making. Back then, we were both just beginning to forge our own paths. We didn’t know where we were heading so we could hardly invite anyone else along for the ride.
We would have been delighted and surprised, I think, to see the similar directions in which we’d travel during the years to come: each working away on our own stories, becoming City colleagues, and eventually finding a way to co-write.
The route we could take for writing together became clear during a chat one summer’s afternoon. We got talking about how much we’d come to appreciate our own friendship and wondered whether our favourite female authors of the past had enjoyed similar types of bonds.
We knew about Coleridge and Wordsworth, Byron and Shelley, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. But did Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë have female confidantes outside their immediate family circles? Could the great George Eliot ever have deigned to single out another female author as an equal? And did Virginia Woolf look for a woman of comparable talent away from the male-dominated Bloomsbury Group?
In search of answers to these questions, we began co-writing literary features for the broadsheets and magazines, and we then set up a literary blog, SomethingRhymed.com. Together we gradually uncovered a wealth of hidden yet startling collaborations, which led us to be commissioned to jointly author A Secret Sisterhood – a non-fiction book about the hidden literary friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf.
Our book was published simultaneously by Aurum Press in the UK and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the USA to coincide with Jane Austen’s 2017 bicentenary. On launch day, we were delighted to celebrate not only the joint road on which we had both travelled but also the trailblazing work of the female writer friends who made our journey possible.
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