Journalist Emma Gannon’s debut novel explores one woman’s decision to remain childless. Having already documented her own personal stance on motherhood, she tells Tanya Sweeney it’s time that we all talked more openly about the subject
Ask any female novelist about the most annoying question they get asked in interviews, and many will admit that they're often asked about how much of the character is written from real life. It's a question that author Emma Gannon is having to field a lot right now.
"It definitely does annoy me a little bit," she laughs. "Other female authors have prepared me in advance about how I'll get asked this, although it's up to me how much I want to reveal."
As it stands, Gannon has much in common with the protagonist of her lively and readable debut novel, Olive. In it, the British podcaster/journalist mulls over a pertinent question: what does a life without children look like for a modern woman in her thirties?
Naturally, Gannon's own stance on wanting children has emerged. As a journalist, Gannon has already written about how much she enjoys her child-free existence.
"I felt conflicted about it," she tells me, referring to her decision to disclose her own stance on wanting kids.
"Part of me wants to do the eye-roll, and there are people who think I've pretty much written a memoir. But on the other hand, I feel I'd be doing a disservice to the reader if I didn't talk about it. We do write about what we know, and I'm not going to pretend that this is something that has nothing to do with me."
Gannon's titular protagonist finds herself at a crossroads, trying to figure out many things. Flying high in her career as a journalist, a freshly single Olive is more than aware that her 'child-free by choice' status marks her out as a bit of an outlier.
As her friends gravitate towards marriage and motherhood (and all the struggles and challenges therein), Olive is forced to check back in with herself and re-evaluate her stance on not wanting children.
Gannon handles this with elan, putting on the page the various complexities, challenges and uncertainties of the child-free existence.
"There is a sense of being a little exposed, but when you write fiction you're in a bit of an invisibility cloak, and you can wander around saying all these interesting things through the mouths of your character," Gannon smiles. "Sometimes, they do come from my deepest, darkest thoughts - works of fiction are weirdly truthful."
Though Olive is the undisputed heroine of the book, her college pals Cecily, Bea and Isla are also forging their own territory as parents; something that afforded Gannon the chance to "play with ideas of what motherhood can be".
"I suppose that sort of symbolises how I feel," she says. "I'm 31. I don't think I want children. I don't want to set it in stone as it's too soon to make any kind of definitive statement about it, but it's been fun writing the alternative."
Engaged to be married next year, Gannon hears the 'you'll be next' refrain from well-meaning types more often than she'd like. "When I'm with my nephews, I get a lot of that," she smiles. "The other one I get is, 'you'll change your mind eventually'. My favourite though is, 'who will look after you when you're older?' The one I find quite offensive is, 'maybe you've not met the right person yet'. I've met the right person - that's not the issue. We're not yet at the point where someone will say that they don't want children and people will just go, 'oh right, that's cool'.
Unlike Gannon, Olive, at 33, is absolute in her decision that she wants to remain child-free. It's not easy to find characters like Olive in today's swathe of fiction, which is exactly why Gannon decided to write the book.
"I do think it's something we need to talk about more, about what 'child-free' means for a new generation," Gannon notes.
One motif that still somehow endures is that of a 'cold war' between child-free women and mothers, and it's an idea that Gannon wanted to tease out in Olive.
"It's a weird one, isn't it? I did hear someone say that once in a workplace, they sort of hinted that the child-free should be doing more of the work. I suppose I wanted to bust the myth that child-free people always have so much time. The truth is, there's a lot going on for a lot of us. And just because you don't have children, you can still nurture and love and give back.
"I think this is a book about how we are all more similar than we think, there is no real divide there - no binary," Gannon continues.
"Womanhood comes in many forms, and the 'us and them' is just problematic. Some people would love to have children, and can't. How lovely would it be if we could all just work together and just live and let live, in a beautiful harmony?
"Ultimately, at the heart of the book, I wanted to write about friends - people who have been in the same boat, gone through school and university together, and feel they have the same benchmarks to hit. Suddenly, in your thirties, you can feel distant from them, and threatened by their new life: 'will they stop seeing you if you have a child?' I think these are very typical fears that come to mind for women.
"It speaks to the insecurities women feel - are we making the right choice? You can often tell when you're being horrible to someone or a bit mean, it's often to do with fear, and being scared of someone making judgements on you. You start to worry about things like, 'is my friend ahead in her career?' There's a real taboo around those kinds of judgments among friends.
"So many people have said, 'Olive feels so true to me, as I've had these sort of fallouts with friends'," Gannon adds. "People say they don't get invited to mum things anymore if they don't have their own child. I'm glad the novel is painting that reality. Luckily, I don't have those struggles with my own friends - we respect each other's priorities and whenever I, say, have a book launch or something, my friends are there, showing up."
Teasing apart taboos and having tricky conversations has long been part of Gannon's professional lifeblood. And her innate curiosity has made her podcast, Ctrl Alt Delete, one of the most popular business podcasts in the UK.
"I think I always knew I wanted a job where I could get to be nosy and ask a lot of questions," Gannon says. "I love having the sort of conversations that make me uncomfortable. Curiosity often leads the way - I like that it helps you learn more."
With over six million downloads, Ctrl Alt Delete has seen Gannon interview everyone from Sharon Horgan and US actor Ellen Page to director Greta Gerwig and Gillian Anderson about their work lives. It was also the first podcast recorded inside Buckingham Palace.
"I genuinely love every single person I've interviewed but I often think back to the interview with (philosopher) Alain de Botton, because he just comes at things from a very different angle."
Her non-fiction debut, Ctrl Alt Delete, was released in 2016, and was swiftly followed by The Multi-Hyphen Method, "a new business book for the digital age".
In it, Gannon extols the virtues of a 'portfolio career', and exploring our own entrepreneurial spirit to create many strings for our own bows. Talking to people who run blogs or run online stores in their spare time, Gannon's book suggests working less and creating more and defining your own version of success.
"I don't necessarily agree that everyone should have a side hustle - it's another plate to spin for some people, but if you have a passion project, or an idea, and have whatever it takes to get started, ask yourself, will it improve your mental health? Will it help you meet new people? Are you happier being creative? "It's not even about making more money - it's about something that brings you joy."
Although released two years ago, The Multi-Hyphen Method has even more relevance in the current climate, where people in lockdown have been re-evaluating their work lives.
"It's a strange one, isn't it?" Gannon agrees.
"Two years ago I was talking about flexible working and new ways of working, and basically how a full-time job isn't a safety net anymore, and no one really wanted to hear it. No one really believed that flexible working could be the future. There was still a sense that people must still go to their desks and work from nine to five.
"It's been interesting, it's like we've been thrown into this social experiment (during the pandemic)," she adds. "Two years ago I had CEOs tell me they'd never allow employees to work from home, but now they're all working from home."
In The Multi-Hyphen Method, Gannon also writes of the benefits of self-promotion. "It's really hard for some people - either it comes naturally to them, or the thought paralyses them with fear," asserts Gannon.
"I tend to tell people that we're now living in a culture where self-promotion is pretty much part of the job. So much recruitment is done online, and there's a lot of competitiveness with the internet, and if you're not showing up for yourself on social media, it does have a knock-on effect. There's a way to self-promote that doesn't feel icky or boasty. Just use the way you'll tell your best friend what you're doing. It really is an extension of the job, and it will help you get more work."
With success in both the fiction and non-fiction realm, Gannon is now working, true to form, on a number of different side projects in addition to her podcast and day job.
"Maybe there's another novel (in my future), but I have another non-fiction book about self-sabotage out in September, too," she reveals. "I wrote Olive in secret, almost like an experiment. I don't necessarily want to leave non-fiction behind. I love that world far too much."
Olive by Emma Gannon, published by HarperCollins, £14.99