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Newcastle-born author Emily Woof on her new novel set

Emily Woof appeared in films including The Full Monty but has now written a novel set in the North East in the 1980s

Angela Chan Emily Woof
Emily Woof

Emily Woof appeared in films including The Full Monty but now concentrates on writing. She tells Laura Fraine about new novel The Lightning Tree

The actor and writer Emily Woof was born in Newcastle and grew up in the city. Her late father, Robert Woof, taught in the English department at Newcastle University and later became the first director of the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere. Her mother still lives in the North East.

Now living in London, Emily based the Newcastle setting of her new novel, The Lightning Tree, almost entirely on memories from childhood.

“I hope people don’t read the book and start saying that’s not the way you walk from Byker to Sandyford,” she says.

“Sometimes I’ve done that and not minded that I have. It is an imagined world.”

Those people would, of course, be missing the point: The Lightning Tree is a dazzling work of fiction, displaying all the freedom that fiction allows.

Yet, knowing Newcastle, there is such a sense of familiarity as the characters charge down the elegant terraces of Jesmond, study at the Lit & Phil and drink in The Carriage.

can’t help but feel a sense of ownership over its setting, in much the same way as I did when reading Julia Darling’s The Taxi Driver’s Daughter.

“I have a real love of Newcastle and the North East,” says Emily. “It’s a deep, rich seam for me and quite a long-held dream that I would write about this place.”

There are echoes of Emily’s own childhood in the novel. She studied for her A levels at the Lit & Phil, like Jerry does in the book (“It’s a really secret world and a really wonderful world”), and grew up in Jesmond, as did her character, Ursula.

“Every character you write is an amalgamation that is partly yourself and partly pure imagination. Part of me is Jerry and part of me is Ursula,” she says of the book’s two main characters, who meet as teenagers and fall in love before life gets complicated.

The reader meets and grows to love brilliant Jerry, the class warrior from the wrong side of town, and complicated, difficult Ursula separately, before they narrowly miss, then meet one another, fall in love and then fall out of it.

This pattern of coming together and apart continues through the book against a backdrop of 1980s and 90s Newcastle – CND marches, politics, spirituality, showbusiness and familial strife.

There is a section of the novel in which Ursula has moved to London and loses all sense of herself while trying to make it as an actor, which is so terrible and raw that it makes difficult reading – especially when you consider that its author is better known as an actor in films like The Full Monty, The Woodlanders and the television series Oliver Twist.

You can’t help but feel that Emily puts a lot of herself into her work. “I kind of don’t know who I am when I am acting,” she says. “Acting is like being lost: going from one project to another, necessarily being cut off from yourself.”

While still working as an actor, she now balances that social, unstable career with a quieter existence as a writer, which she describes as “mining myself and my experiences on a deeper level”.

Her first novel, The Whole Wide Beauty, was published to wide acclaim in 2010. With the publication of this new and tightly woven novel, Emily Woof takes us on a journey through love in all its forms.

The Lightning Tree is published by Faber and Faber.

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