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An Interview with Emma Firth

Updated: Aug 16, 2020

Just a few months ago, I wasn't familiar with Emma Firth's brilliant work. But I became a fast fan, and now she's one of my biggest inspirations. Emma has written, with great dexterity, for CNN Style, Wallpaper*, ELLE, and more. Her pieces are tailored to each publication's sensibilities, but all contain her inimitable voice. I have a particular fondness for her recent article for British Vogue where she details her relationship with her teenage rocker crush. But where she really shines is as features editor at BURO.

Emma's work for BURO has an element of introspection not often seen in fashion/culture journalism. Whether she's writing about writing therapy or fashion podcasts, it feels more like she's on the journey with you rather than just spouting out advice. And, of course, her (and the rest of the BURO staff's) playlists are expertly crafted, offering the kind of intimate experience I used to think belonged to the bygone era of physical mixtapes decorated with stickers and scraps of paper.

When I first read her responses to my questions for this interview, I was startled by how transparent and uncliched they were. They reminded me of the kind of honesty and wisdom that's whispered over empty bowls of popcorn and candy wrappers in the dead of night at a middle school sleepover. Maybe that sounds like I'm doing a disservice to her writing, but I can assure you, some of the best conversations I've had took place under those circumstances. What I mean to say is, after reading her answers, I not only had an even greater appreciation for her work, I also felt like I'd known her forever.

Who are your biggest inspirations and what lessons have they taught you?

It always sounds obvious when people say “my mum!” Like you’re an awful person if you don’t acknowledge the person who birthed you. But truly my mum never fails to inspire me - we can infuriate each other, but she is my biggest cheerleader, and has always encouraged me to pursue whatever made me properly happy and fulfilled. Even that one time when I was 19, at art school, and thought I wanted to be an actress. Her response? “Well, do a bloody acting class then!” After two classes I realised this was categorically not my calling, but that was beside the point. I tried. She’s instilled in me a “if you don’t ask, you don’t get” mentality I think from day dot. We talk endlessly, as is pretty obvious, about meaningful stuff and absolute rubbish. She would joke that I was like her therapist as a kid, so it’s somewhat unsurprising I’m now a writer. I love hearing and sharing stories and digging a little deeper into people’s lives. I tend to over-analyse everything, but it’s served me well…in my career at least!

In terms of people who inspire me that I’ve never met, I can’t not mention Nora Ephron. I love that she worked in different fields but always found her voice in each one: whether writing for film, theatre, or magazines. I think When Harry Met Sally is possibly the best romantic comedy ever written. And her novel Heartburn is such a beautiful, brutal and hilarious portrait of love. That’s hard to come by. When I was in New York last year I went to Strand Bookstore - truly the best bookstore in the world FYI, I want to be buried there- and bought all the Ephron I could get my hands on. From essay collections to a play she did with her sister (Delia, also a brilliant, underrated writer) called Love, Loss, and What I Wore. Her words are just so pitch-perfect and make me want to be better. I often think of a great line of hers: “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim”. It’s true, just sometimes we need to remind ourselves of this fact.

What's been the most transformative experience of your life?

Falling in love. Losing love. Can I say that? Maybe this doesn’t relate to my work… but maybe it does? I think all life-shattering experiences like this, from the electrifying oh-fuck-I-really-really-like-you to heartbreak, ultimately enrich you. You draw on these experiences; and feel a weight of empathy with others around you because of this. It shapes who we are and what we do. It helps you to connect - with people and art. It sounds a bit wanky, but it’s true.

Actually - there is one thing that springs to mind now but I tend to block it out because it’s pretty horrific. I was 13 years old and being a total shit really – smoking cigarettes at break time and hanging around with guys who had nicknames like ‘Rat Boy’. Anyway, at this age I decided it would be fun to try alcohol for the first time. I downed nearly a whole bottle of whiskey and ended up in hospital. It was pretty catastrophic and also wasn’t really me at all, I was just trying on the ‘cool girl’ look for size. It didn’t fit. After my hospital stay, I went back to school and my lovely English teacher, Miss Dyson, took me aside after class and gave me a good ol’ pep talk, something to the effect of: “these kids you’re hanging around with don’t care about you, you’re better than that, don’t drink, you show promise, read more books.” And so, I did.

What advice would you give to an aspiring journalist?

Try really hard not to compare yourself to other writers. Living or dead. Sure, consume to the high heavens. And take inspiration from them, but don’t feel like you have to write like them to be great. They are great because they have a unique voice and stories to tell – what is your unique voice and stories you want to tell? The only way you are going to find this out is to write, write and write some more: whether that’s in a journal (I’ve had a diary since I was about 11, total waffle some might say, but it teaches you disciple to write somewhat regularly), or creating a newsletter, or writing for your student newspaper. Give yourself deadlines, if no one else is giving you them - being a self-starter is so important because there’s going to be days when you don’t want to do anything. You will hate everything that is glaring back at you on the screen, words that you wrote. Keep calm and carry on, work hard and be kind. Find a mentor if you can – I’ve had many over the years, shout out to the divine Holly Fraser! Women lifting other women up is a special kind of office romance; one that leaves no bitter aftertaste. Also, if there’s editors or writers you admire, DM them! Whether it’s pitching advice or tips on how to get your first internship – most of the time they’ll be happy to help in some way. Because, we’ve all been there.

Using a metaphor, how would you describe your writing process?

Chaos is a friend of mine. Writing is definitely not a stable profession – if we’re speaking in monetary terms - but it’s one of the most exciting and fulfilling jobs. There’s hard work, yes, but the high you get after finishing a feature you’re proud of is intoxicating and knocks all the internal doubts out of the park.

What's the most challenging part of your job?

Saying no. I can be a people pleaser, but this part of my personality has to go to sleep if someone is pitching a story - be that a PR or another writer - that, whilst good, doesn’t fit into a brands’ guidelines. But harness the power in saying no; try to exercise this every day in some way. That way you’re more authentically committed to the things you say yes to.

What's the most rewarding part?

Collaborating with people that inspire me, finding solutions to problems and seeing readers engage with a piece you’ve written (the beauty of working predominately in digital publishing - the numbers game). Also, being in a position where you can help raise the profile of rising talents – whether that’s a comedian or fashion designer – is a privilege. I strongly support cheerleading the next generation.

How do you hope your work will change in the future?

Usually, I’m in an office 5 days a week. But in this age of isolation, it’s more obvious how us writers can pretty much work wherever (as long as there’s good Wi-Fi and coffee nearby). So, looking ahead in time, I think they’ll likely be more acceptance about people working remotely. Yes, they’ll be new modes of connecting with audiences as a digital platform and through social media – like through gamification, augmented reality etc. Though` people will never lose their appetite for good words. Words that mean something; literary acid trips that keep your attention longer than any caption you’ll see on your Instagram feed. That will never change.


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