Last week I had the pleasure of catching up with the hugely talented and very lovely Emma Kennedy. Having followed Emma on twitter for a while and read her very impressive website, my head was in a spin. Where would I start? Emma’s list of credits for radio, television, theatre and books is enormous and to cover it all would take weeks! But I needn’t have worried. Her warm personality and bubbly nature made for an easy and relaxed conversation and before long our chat was in full swing.
Emma is a lady with an endless number of professional hats to wear; broadcaster, writer, actress and comedian, to name just a few. I asked her which title she preferred. “I like to call myself a writer,” she said. “It’s what I do most these days and what I love. Acting is great fun but it’s the most insane job for a grown up! It’s essentially dressing up and mucking around for adults. And even at that, they don’t trust you to do up your own buttons! Having said that, I’ve had some great times in my acting career and wouldn’t change any of it.”
“I also really enjoy script editing,” she continued. “It’s something I’ve been doing a lot of over the last few years and I think I’m actually quite good at it. It’s one of those jobs that’s really satisfying – a bit like doing a crossword or a jigsaw. It’s wonderful to see it all coming together. If you’re a writer and especially if you write books that require you to be on top of plot and structure, the chances are you’ll make a good script editor.”
With so much on the go, I wondered how Emma juggles it all. And does she ever say enough is enough? “I suppose I’m a workaholic,” she laughed. “I’m always on the go and I wouldn’t want it any other way. But take my website, for example. I used to write a very successful blog every day but I had to give up on it a couple of years ago. What with writing the books, it was simply eating too much into my time. My rule was I wrote it every morning and I never spent more than half an hour on it. But I’m most productive at writing first thing in the morning so even taking half an hour out impacted enormously on my productivity.”
Emma’s humour and quick wit surely must have made her the joker in her class at school. Was she always the one to crack a joke and make the others laugh? “Well I sort of was,” she said. “I’ve always loved comedy. I used to be in the school plays and when I was in university I was in the Oxford review. I was always involved in comedy but it never crossed my mind that I could do it as an actual job. Nobody in my family has a history of being in the media or in the performing arts. When I was young, it was only really special people who got to be on the telly but it’s different these days. You can get on telly now without any talent whatsoever.”
So it seems that Emma knew she’d be a performer of some sort from a very early age. “Honestly, I really didn’t,” she protested. “I didn’t have a clue about what I was going to do until I was twenty-eight. I used to even be a lawyer – I had a secretary called Madge! And I was a pretty good one too. I was a litigator so I took people to court and I did my actual job well. People would come into my office with a plastic bag full of documents and would sit down and just moan at me about something or someone and I’d just look at them and say ‘oh let it go, just let it go’. And if I could dissuade people from suing other people, I’d do it. To be honest, I think people should be dissuaded from suing others – especially in matrimonial cases. All they’re doing is whittling away the family money. They say they want to make sure the kids are alright but they should be sitting down in a room and sorting it out! I genuinely used to forget to charge people too! But I’m not sorry I gave up a regular paid job. I’ve never, ever regretted the choices I made.”
Em… a lawyer who forgot to charge? I wonder what Madge thought about that! But of all the other jobs she’s had and things she’s done, what’s the thing that stands out mostly in her mind? “I really loved doing This Morning with Richard Not Judy with Stewart Lee and Richard Herring – I absolutely loved doing that. But in terms of things that I never would have believed I’d do it would have to be doing Notes on a Scandal with Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. That was an amazing experience and never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I’d act alongside two such brilliant actresses.”
Emma comes across as super confident and nothing seems to faze her. I wondered if she ever gets nervous before a performance. “No, I don’t anymore,” she said. “I’m absolutely comfortable about the fact that everyone isn’t going to like you and if there’s one thing I’ve learned throughout the years is that you can’t dilute what you want to say. You’ve just got to do what you feel is right for you and some people will want to come along with you on that journey and some won’t and that’s okay.” What fantastic advice!
Emma, who’s represented by Curtis Brown, has written a number of best-selling books, ranging from adult non-fiction to a series of children’s books. I wondered which type of book does she prefer to write. “Definitely the Wilma Tenderfoot books are the ones I’m most proud of. There are three in the series already published and the fourth is coming out in August. There’ll be a new children’s series of books after that which is going to be quite different from Wilma!”
And what is it about writing that she loves so much? “I love everything about it,” she said. “I never, ever get over the thrill of seeing my books on the shelves. I saw I Left My Tent in San Francisco in the front window of a Waterstones the other week and I just stood there and looked. It was such an amazing feeling. The other great thing is when I get letters from children about the Wilma Tenderfoot books, saying ‘you’re my favourite author’. Books have such an impact on children. They carry them in their heart for the rest of their lives. It’s such an amazing feeling to know I’ve made a child feel that way.”
Emma’s latest non-fiction book, I Left My Tent in San Francisco, tells the story of when she and best friend, Dee, headed to America to make their fortune. Completely inept and virtually unemployable, they’re forced to make the journey from California to New York with only pennies in their pockets and the sequence of hilarious events will have you rolling on the floor laughing. Her travel stories are second to none with her previous book, The Tent, the Bucket and Me, charting her childhood family holidays which always included a tent, a bucket and a disaster of some sort! I asked Emma if she could give us a taste of one of her funny stories from either book.
“Gosh, there’s been so many,” she said, “but our first family holiday is as good a story as any to tell. We arrived at a campsite on the Welsh coast and weirdly, there was no-one else there. It turned out the reason was they’d all been evacuated because the worst storm ever was on its way. My father put the tent up in circumstances like watching someone in It’s a Knockout with the water cannons on them. He managed to just about get the tent up and realised it was going to come right back down again in the storm. Just over to the left, there was a caravan on some bricks and the window on the end was flapping so he got us all to climb in to get some shelter from this storm. But no sooner were we in when the flapping window blew in and so my father and mother and grandmother ran very suddenly down to the end of the caravan to try to put this window back in place. But of course the effect of three adults running quickly to the end of a precariously balanced caravan was catastrophic. The caravan came off its bricks, started heaving upwards and my father shouted “get out of the caravan, get out of the caravan.” So we all had to then leap from the caravan. My grandmother was the last to leap out and just as she did, the whole caravan literally went end over tip, end over tip, end over tip, and then just slipped off the end of the cliff. Honestly, we just stood watching it in disbelief! It could only happen to us!”
With stories like that, it’s obvious why Emma’s books are such a hit. So what sort of books does she like reading herself? “I like to read lots of different things but at the moment, I have a great pile of books written by friends that I’ve got to read. Right now I’m reading Prophesy by SJ Parris, then I’ve got to read Penny Smith’s book, Summer Holiday and then next on the list is Grace Dent’s book, How to Leave Twitter. It goes on and on!”
MacMillan Children’s books in conjunction with ITV’s Daybreak have just launched a new writing competition called What’s the Story and Emma has been announced as one of the judges. “I was delighted to be asked,” she said. “The competition is for children between the ages of seven and twelve and they’ll have to write a 500 word story. The winning story will be illustrated by Lydia Monks and published by MacMillan. It’s a brilliant opportunity for any child who’s interested in writing and a fantastic thing for me to be involved in.”
Emma is quite an inspiration herself but I wondered who inspires her. “Well in terms of people who inspired me to be funny, I’d definitely have to say French and Saunders. They were an enormous influence on me; as was Victoria Wood and Julie Walters. When I was in my formative years, tv comedy was dominated by men but when the four of them came along it was like, oh hello! It seems girls are allowed to be funny too! And I just adored them. I thought they were brilliant and amazing.”
When I joined the Twitterverse last year, I quickly found Emma, who is truly one of the queens of Twitter. Her tweets never fail to amuse and entertain and with close to 40,000 followers, she only has to mention a subject to start a great debate. So what does she love so much about the social network site? “I love the interaction on it,” she enthused. “People who aren’t on Twitter just don’t get it – they think we’re just there to announce what we’ve had for lunch when it’s so much more than that. It’s an amazing forum to engage, not just with your peers but with everyone. I think the way of getting the most out of Twitter, especially if you have a public profile, is to engage with everyone. That’s why I’ve done 60,000 plus tweets. Most of those tweets are me replying to people – I try to ensure that I answer everyone who tweets to me. And on a business level, whether you’re a musician, a writer or whatever, Twitter is most definitely an effective way of marketing what you have to sell. There’s no doubt about it.”
With so much on the go at once, I just don’t know how Emma fits it all in. I asked her about hobbies – surely there’s just no time for play? “It’s been pretty much all consuming for the last few years because I’ve had to write two books a year. With that on top of everything else, it’s been really full on. The last time I’ve had a proper holiday which didn’t involve me having to work at all was four years ago. So that will give you an idea of my spare time. So at the moment – hobbies? Not a chance!”
At this point I asked Emma to indulge me. Let’s just say they were making a movie about her life. Who would she like to play her? “Well,” she said, grinning mysteriously, “stranger things have happened! Watch this space. And in answer to your question, I’d say Sally Hawkins.” Oooh well I’ll certainly be watching this space. How exciting!
Again, as always happens when I’m enjoying an interview, the time had flown and we had to say goodbye. But just before we parted company, I asked Emma what was next. “I’m writing a new series for CBBC at the moment called Strange Hill High and I’m doing that with the head writer of the Simpsons, Josh Weinstein. It’s filming in October and will be out next year. That’s my next big job. I’m also working for comic relief now. I’m the creative one – bringing lots of new and fresh ideas to the table. I’d also like to continue writing and maybe write a fiction book for adults.”
Well it doesn’t sound as though Emma will get that work-free holiday for quite a while yet! What a lovely lady – a pleasure to chat to!