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Taint by Emily Howes

Taint by Emily Howes

What the judges said

‘It's beautifully written, and I raced through it. Research is filtered through contemporary consciousness, and deployed with skill. It's a polished performance’ Hilary Mantel, novelist

‘I really loved the depiction of the close relationship between the two little girls who look out for each other – it's something I can't recall reading before Jo Unwin, literary agent

‘It's both interesting and compelling thematically, and really strong on a sentence-by-sentence level. You can tell she's been working on it for a while’ Marianne Tatepo, commissioning editor

How I did it


The idea came from a Gainsborough exhibition at the National Gallery; I read that his daughters were in love with the same man and that one had a serious mental illness. I wondered whether I could build a novel around that story.

My grandmother had post-natal depression after my mother was born, and was in an asylum for 25 years. I feel there are many untold stories about women’s mental illness.

I’d already been writing for years, first collaboratively for theatre – though I was mainly a director. Then when my daughters were little, and I couldn’t work in theatre any more, I tried to write some short stories. But I was going through a divorce at the time, and couldn’t find the space. It wasn’t until I had moved house as a single mother that the words started to come.

I sent a story out and had no luck at all, but I kept sending it out and suddenly several editors accepted it. So I sent out another story, and some flash fiction. And I started to get some success, which increased my confidence, until I though maybe I could try writing a novel.

I read a lot about Gainsborough’s life – biographies and online. The story in the novel is based on fact, but also on my own theory about what happened to the two girls.

By then I had started a four-year MA in Existential Psychotherapy and I knew that if I didn’t commit to the novel before I started seeing patients, I probably never would. So I signed up for a three-month course at Curtis Brown Creative, which gave me the impetus to work on the book. I’m still in touch with the people I was on the course with – but it’s so hard to keep going with a novel. By the time I entered the competition, I’d lost faith in the book really. Getting longlisted gave me the push I needed to finish it.'

EMILY HOWES was a theatre director for many years, but now works as a bereavement counsellor as part of her training to be a psychotherapist. Her short fiction has been published in Mslexia, the Bridport Prize, and elsewhere.



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