Emily Barr's latest novel, The Perfect Lie, is about secrets, lies and escaping. “As in all of my books there's a lot of running away,” says Emily. “I don't know where that comes from, but the idea behind it is that you can't run away from your problems. You have to face up to things and the fear is worse than the actual confrontation. Not that I'd like to leave my life behind but part of me is living the idea of that freedom.”
Ten years ago Emily took a year out of journalism to backpack around the world and wrote a diary column for The Guardian. “Part of me felt I'd done a bit of career stuff and it was the time to do it,” she explains. “The world was out there and I had no responsibilities - it seemed like a now or never kind of thing. But it was a very impulsive decision.” When she returned she began writing bestselling fiction, set in exotic locations.
Now with three children, her travelling time is severely reduced. “I researched my first book, Backpack, for a year and now I'm down to a week if I'm lucky,” she says. “The last one was set in India and I managed 10 days away.” She looks out of the window. “There's a feeling of freedom about having all your stuff in a bag. Maybe we could do that again when the children have left home because I really do miss it.” She laughs. “My eldest is always asking when he can come along too – he's 8!”
In The Perfect Life, when a stranger records Lucy rescuing a child from the cliffs, the footage ends up on television, and Lucy's 'perfect' life begins to unravel. She flees to Venice, desperate to stay one step ahead of an evil figure from her past.
Emily's books all have a sinister twist, but she's not sure where that comes from. “I think my dark side comes out in the novels, but I do think that makes the characters more interesting,” she says. And Emily's main characters tend to have dependency issues with alcohol or drugs, Emily doesn't write from personal experience. “I don't think I could be addicted to anything no matter how hard I tried, but I do know someone who's an alcoholic and is estranged from the family. I find it fascinating that someone can be ruled by a substance to the extent of dropping everything else.”
Emily counts herself as lucky – all the unhappy things in her novels are made up. “I got quite alarmed when I was writing The Perfect Lie, thinking 'where is this coming from?' It was horrible.” She flips back her hair, a habitual gesture when she's thinking. “But my parents split up when I was 6 and I spent my whole childhood trying to keep both parents happy.” She smiles apologetically. “I'm almost glad now, because I think if you've had a totally happy and secure childhood, maybe you don't have much to write about.”
All writers have different ways of working, but Emily needs activity around her. “I can't sit at home and write,” she explains, so she writes in a cafe. “I work much better if there's something going on around me.” And being a writer fits in well with motherhood. “It's good discipline for me to stop and get the children from school which I think is nice for them.” She pauses. “Though sometimes that can be deeply frustrating! I love spending time with my children but it would drive me crazy to do it all the time.”
Emily and her family moved from France to Falmouth last year and she feels it's a wonderful place for children to grow up in. “I'd always thought that we couldn't move to Cornwall because everyone would hate us for being English rather than Cornish, but it's so not the case. Children's lives can be so restricted now and I try and let mine have more freedom but it's hard. James takes them climbing at Maenporth up the rocks and through the caves and I have to restrain myself from looking!”
Cornwall has even given her some ideas for the future. “In addition to my novels, I am interested in branching out a little bit. I feel there's a gap in the market for easy children's chapter books for age 5 and 6 and I'd like to have a go at that.” She smiles. “I have half an idea for a children's book already – a kind of Swallows and Amazons adventure set in the creeks.”
If her adult books are anything to go by, the children are in for a real treat.
The Perfect Lie is published by Headline in May 2010