CLIFTON PARK, N.Y. — Saratoga Springs native and new author Emily Layden was the virtual guest last week of the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Library as the facility joined with the rest of the country in trying to return to a sense of normalcy.
A graduate of Saratoga Springs High School and Stanford University, Layden had her debut novel, All Girls, published in February by St. Martin’s Press.
During the one hour Q & A and conversation on April 28 Layden read from her novel, discussed the book’s plot and structure, described how she came to write it, and dipped into her writing process; all the time answering questions posed to her from two moderators primed with queries from an audience quite familiar with the book.
Her publisher describes the book as capturing “one year at a prestigious New England prep school, as nine young women navigate their ambitions, friendships, and fears against the backdrop of a scandal the administration wants silenced”.
To situate listeners to the where and when of the story, Layden read from the book’s opening pages to begin the webinar.
“There are no major highways in the northwest corner of Connecticut that comprises Litchfield County,” she read. “Travelers from the more densely populated suburbs of New York, from Westchester and Long Island, from Danbury and Greenwich find themselves frustrated by the paths of winnowing thoroughfares, turnpikes and interstates splitting again and again like capillaries from an artery.
In this corner of New England, like the freeways of southern California, like the pavement that cuts between oilfields outside Odessa, these are the roads meant for window sounds and music on loud. This is where teenagers wrap themselves around telephone poles.”
Layden comes from a family of writers. Her father was a sports reporter for the Times Union before becoming an author himself and an author’s collaborator. She has an uncle who writes, as well as a cousin writing for television. Writing, she said, was the only thing she’s been sure of in her life.
Discussing what it was like as a young girl growing up around a writer in the house Layden put it in perspective for anyone who views the creative process as something near magical; something that just happens, something innate rather than acquired.
“Watching him was an invaluable lesson in grit,” she said. “My dad shows up for his job every day. And he works at home.”
She added that she is a runner and the only way to maintain skill is to run every day.
“I try to write every day. For me, I have to just show up in the world I’m creating,” she said.
After graduating from college with a degree in American Studies and having taken several creative writing courses Layden taught English in a number of boarding schools including Emma Willard and Albany Academy.
“I spent most of my 20 teaching at boarding day schools, mostly all girls,” she said. “I found all the girls smart, empathetic, and thoughtful and wanted to write something that showed all their strengths, do them justice.”
Before writing the book Layden said she sat down and sketched out a diagram of the school she wanted to describe; one with classroom buildings and dorms surrounding a circular common. Then she charted out how the girls and the faculty all related to each other.
The book itself, she said, started as a collection of short stories and it’s that origination that gave it the structure of having multiple viewpoints from the girls as to how they were impacted by news of a scandal at the school.
Asked how she got published Layden said she began as most writers do by sending query letters out to agents with a few chapters of the book hoping they spark an interest with someone. She admits she was lucky. The chapters drew several offers and after signing with an agent in 2019 the book was sold later that year. She is working on a second novel now.
In discussing if Saratoga Springs or the Capital Region shows up in any way in All Girls Layden said she found it impossible to keep all the elements of this area out because it’s so easy here to get to the “rural suburban nowhere” found in the novel.
Asked if publication had changed her Layden said it hadn’t but added, “there’s nothing you can do to prepare yourself when you put a piece of your art out in the world”.