Amy Ridler interviews writer, Eva Verde
Eva Verde is a writer from Forest Gate, East London. She is of dual heritage. Identity and class are recurring themes throughout her work. Her love song to libraries, I Am Not Your Tituba forms part of Kit De Waal’s Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers with Unbound. Eva’s debut novel Lives Like Mine, was published by Simon and Schuster in June 2021.
I read an interview with you for Mixed Messages, and one particular line really stuck out for me – ‘I write for the brown faces in white spaces.’ Do you feel with that comes responsibility?
I’ve often felt isolated, in the sense of not having anyone who shared or properly understood my lived experience, navigating most of my life as the sole brown face in the room. Since moving to Essex from East London at ten years old, I’ve been hyperconscious of the skin I’m in, trying to gauge how someone’s judging me, altering myself for their comfort. Naturally assuming I was less, because I’d no other tangible vision beyond the white lens.
I’d started challenging this mindset in real life, so it was easy to pour that all out through Monica. LLM was so much about getting stuff off my chest, that I never really thought past writing for myself. It’s been real therapy.
When publication became a possibility, the thought of other readers scared me stiff! And I did wobble and question whether it was my place to write about racism – being a light skinned black woman brings a different dynamic and its own dysfunctional privileges. The way my book’s been received I find very hard to express, but I’m glad I wrote it without any sense of responsibility because that allowed me to be honest. It’s only one story, once experience, but it’s an honour to represent and highlight the gaps that exist within our otherness.
Can you tell me about the process of writing Lives Like Mine – and your writing process in general?
LLM began life as a short story for an OU creative writing module and grew into an idea that wouldn’t leave me. I’d write scraps here and there, scenes more than anything else, that I stitched together for an attempt at chronology and gave to my first writing tutor Sarah Armstrong to read. She pointed out that yes, it was just a load of scenes stitched together that would need real help to become a novel, but she loved the story, especially Monica. She said, if it ever did get published, people would get it, which makes me feel quite emotional now. If it wasn’t for her encouragement, I’d never have considered myself any good, let alone publishable.
Early drafts were overexplanatory, as if I was writing for an exam; lovely sentences but without much feeling. Every redraft, I grew braver – plus things were happening politically that were really pushing my buttons, so I began to write from my viewpoint and my furies, and I think that’s when the story came alive.
Making a book from scraps of scenes makes life very difficult. I don’t advise it and is certainly not the sort of thing I hear on podcasts and interviews from other authors! I am a chaotic creative, who binge writes when the emotions come. There’s no pattern.
When I was reading Lives Like Mine, there were points that felt so familiar, I had to reach out to you just to thank you/raise a fist in support of the representation you are bringing. How has the book been received?
It made my day when you did! I can’t begin to tell you how gratifying it is when someone messages to say the book chimes with their experiences. After being so ethnically isolated it is like finding family. LLM is simply the seed of a dream that went nuts. If you could ask the five-year-old me what I wanted when I grew up, I’d have said to have a book I’d written in a library. It’s odd when your dreams come true! But I still can’t believe the response it’s had. Some nights I run through in my head all the fantastical things off the back of it – a mention in the Independent, endorsing books, speaking at London Book Fair, writing a new foreword for a Jackie Collins novel, and I get palpitations. It’s baffling that somehow this is my life.
Have you had any negative reactions to your shining a light on the microaggressions that people ‘like us’ face every day?
Fortunately, the negatives aren’t in any significant number, but I am very aware that if you are of a certain mindset and ideology, you’re going to find Monica detestable.
Part of me quite likes that, because I didn’t write her for everyone. I wanted her complex, at odds with her identity, but throughout the story there’s never a moment where she’s not proud of where she comes from. I am still on that journey, still learning, so when people say, I feel this, I know this, I just never had the words to explain, it truly eclipses the negatives.
Are there autobiographical elements to Lives Like Mine?
Lives Like Mine is exactly that; a life like mine. But not my life. They do say write what you know, and as a new writer finding my voice, using myself as a template I found very comfortable, and added, I hope, a sense of believability.
When my oldest friend read it, she said, ‘this is so you, it’s like I’m reading your diary.’ Writing Monica was like walking out of my life and into another. Apart from the attack towards the end of the book, every other bigoted moment and microaggression are true – moments that have happened to me or my circle. I set the book in a similar place, we’re both married to white men. So, in loose situation yes, but I don’t have a posh lover, I’m not estranged from my parents, and I had a fantastic Mother-in-law, Glennie, who sadly never got to see LLM published but was my number one champion. I dedicated it to her.
But the hoops and the curves and the big black hair being all about rebellion? That’s absolutely me.
How did the Common People anthology come about?
I believe it came about as a result of Kit De Waal’s Guardian piece – ‘Where are all the working-class writers?’ I’d been subbing LLM to agents with no luck, so thought I’d try writing something else. What really stood out, besides the free entry and the possibility of being published alongside some seriously impressive writers, was the mentoring. I was starving for professional attention on my work, for someone to tell me why agents weren’t ‘quite feeling passionately enough.’
I remember scrapbooking with my daughters when I got the email from Norwich Writer’s Centre. I was one of two writers from the region that had been picked to form part of the anthology. It changed my life. My self-perception and my self-belief. I wrote out a little telephone script to follow the first time NCW rang to discuss next steps, such were my nerves. The nerves almost had me backing out of a workshop to meet the other new writers in the book, too. I couldn’t fathom that I might belong. Walking into that room was one of the most difficult things I ever did and became the most life altering. There was no explaining ourselves, no pretenses, we were simply ordinary people who could all write our socks off. We became a family.
Who are your go-to writers?
Cash Carraway’s memoir Skint Estate was so fantastic I’m sure I think of it every day, and it’s become my thing to make sure I read everything she does. And lately, Heidi James can do no wrong. Her book The Sound Mirror touched me in places I’d not known existed – isn’t it fantastic how stories can do that?
My most read author is Toni Morrison. Pick any book, any para, and you’ll find something wise and beautiful. But my favourite book is Stephen King’s Carrie. Though he sits pretty jarring against pretty much everything else I’d normally read, I’ve always loved Stephen King. I read Carrie, and a short story of King’s called Rage when I was about 13, and I’ve read both pretty much every year since. They make me feel. There’s no other way I can explain it.
When was the first time you felt represented in a book – (or did you have to write it?)
I’ve had very emotional reactions reading characters of mixed ethnicity, for example, in Kit de Waal’s My Name is Leon. My family set up is identical; white mum, white siblings. I was seven when my sister Jenny was born, and just the same as Leon, instantly besotted. For the grace of stability, Leon’s story wasn’t mine, yet his left me devastated. It is always the world that makes colour the issue. Never love.
I did write Monica to create my own representation, yet I’ve been so touched by the people who feel she stands for them too; people who’ve struggled with their identity, or sexuality, all the folks who don’t cut the mainstream, and found a kindred spirit in Monica’s journey to self-acceptance. Anyone who feels like an outsider will forever be my kind of person, so this aspect really is next level special.
Are you working on something new, can you tell us about it?
I swore I’d be more civilized with the next and write a proper start to finish draft of this second novel – but no, I was back piecing together scenes. It’s been an even more chaotic way of doing things, as it’s a three-person perspective…with flashbacks. My head’s been in some terrible tangles lately!
It’s out next August. We have three generations of women, who between them have a whole lot of shit to overcome. If only they were all on the same side, they might just conquer the world…
I was worried that I wouldn’t feel the same love for another book the way I did for LLM. But now it’s done and I’m editing, I clearly see my heart in it all over again; these new women also carry little pieces of me. It is darkly domestic, and triggering, but I think that’s how I like to do things. Write a flawed character and trust readers will get it and love them anyway. Fingers crossed. Because that’s another scary thing, having the debut do well; will this next book fly, or will it mark the end of this beautiful purple patch? The anxiety of what’s to come is very real.
But it’s beautiful. I wouldn’t swap it. I’m self-sufficient, doing something I love – and at last unanswerable to the people who have thrived in my discomfort. Proof also, that it’s never too late to trust your ambitious heart.
AMY RIDLER IS A WRITER AND ENGLISH TEACHER IN EAST LONDON, WHERE SHE RUNS THE LGBT+ SOCIETY. SHE HAS WORKED WITH THE QUEER, FEMINIST, LIVE ART THEATRE COMPANY CARNESKY PRODUCTIONS AS AN ASSOCIATE ARTIST, SINCE 2009, AND CONTINUES TO BE A MEMBER OF THE COMPANY’S ADVISORY BOARD. SHE IS CURRENTLY AN MA CREATIVE WRITING STUDENT AT BIRKBECK. AMY IS THE CO- MANAGING EDITOR OF MIR ONLINE.