Emma's on top of the world

John Lyttle
Sunday 10 May 1998 23:02

She was Young Writer of the Year and hailed as Britain's highest- paid teenager. Now her debut novel has provoked critical ecstasy. John Lyttle talks to Emma Forrest, a child prodigy who has come of age and whose age has come

Emma Forrest is hopping on one foot, head twisted to the left, trying to look over her shoulder and down at her ass. She is worried. "John, do I have a black woman's bottom?" Yeah. Right. Ask me. The last man on earth who can answer that particular question. And why am I being asked anyway?

Emma explains. She was at the Grammy Music Awards in New York (the way you do) with gangsta rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard, he of Wu Tang Clan fame, and Emma was chatting away to Mariah Carey or Celine Dion or some goddamn diva when ODB gave her behind a friendly smack and a long, lingering look and suddenly announced: "Honey, you might be white but you got a black gal's butt."

Emma is still straining over her shoulder. Neck tendons bulge. Hope springs eternal: "He meant it as a compliment ... Didn't he?" Sure. Whatever. Now sit down and eat your noodle soup. Everyone's watching.

Emma shrugs, sits, lifts her spoon, lays it down again: "How can I eat my soup when there's a poor black woman somewhere out there searching for her buttocks and I've got them? How can I sit here on those very buttocks ... Why are you giggling?"

Emma. We're here to talk about the book. Your literary debut. The one The Bookseller called "a stunner." The one Elle dubbed "utterly endearing and very funny". The one Jon Ronson says is "JD Salinger meets Helen Fielding, but in a good way". The one Minnie Driver was moved to report she "loves so much that when I grow up I want to marry it". The one Robert De Niro is chasing the movie option on.

Emma bats Bob aside. She's poised to large it in the Big Apple for six months for Bob Guccione's new rock glossy anyway, so there'll be time a'plenty to wrangle about the rights and be bi-coastal. But Emma is excited about a new friend: "Minnie! Minnie! I like Minnie. I like Kate Winslet, too. But she hates me after the Vogue feature ... You know, she set her press people on me. I felt like setting my personal trainer on her. But I should talk, having a black woman's bottom. Unless it's Toni Braxton's. Ooh, ooh, when I was in La La Land, she filed for bankruptcy." Un-Break My Heart. We snigger. "Where was I? Oh, yeah. Minnie rang from LA last night ..."

Emma Forrest's novel is called Namedropper. Emma is not the creature named and shamed in the title. Emma does not need to namedrop. Emma really does know (nearly) everyone. Minnie, Rob, Julie, Charlotte, Liam, Evan, Barbara, Kate, Howard, James, Woody, Will, Leo et al. She even used to oven-warm Jeffrey Barnard's dinners. She can't cook. Really: "He was nice. And grumpy. I scalded him with hot butter. Accident."

"Emma, explain the book." The author shakes her gamine cut. Pouts. We're having a Gigi fling. A Lolita moment. Lolita is one of her many obsessions. Stephen Fry is the other big one. Just not today.

"No. You explain the book. It's your job." She sighs. "See. Emma-is- eating-the-soup."

Allow me to declare an interest. I read Namedropper ages ago. Correction: I read the first six chapters, hot off the printer, at around three in the morning. Emma had dropped the pages off earlier, mumbling that she needed an opinion. "An honest opinion." And I couldn't sleep, so I toted the neat and tidy folder downstairs, clicked on a lamp and squinted at the opening quote: "You're so vain, you probably think this song is about you."

Very soon I'm laughing. Laughing till tears stream. And not a little envious also. The prose is flip, shrewd, cool, sure and insightful. Teenage drama queen Viva Cohen is much more than "a fabulous comic creation soon to be as well known as Bridget Jones" ( The Bookseller again). Viva - as in Las Vegas? - explores the adolescent emotional landscape wearing nothing but fuck-me pumps - strictly a fashion statement - and her own sensitive skin. Actually, Viva has a habit of popping out of her own complexion and slipping into the pores of Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and Nico, when the occasion demands. And the occasion always demands. Pop culture; pin-ups; modern music; the Golden Age of Hollywood: these are Viva's comfort blanket and brilliant disguise. Viva is 15 , seriously sophisticated and completely self-conscious. Viva is what happens when you get your MTV. Emma, on the other hand, is what happens when you get over your MTV and get down to business.

"Now, Emma, 'Namedropper' is plainly autobiographical." Warily: "Y-e- s. Viva tends to do things before I do. She got her tattoo first. Then I thought, well, if Viva can do it, so can I." More autobiographical than that. Drew, the anorexic, androgynous rock star Viva befriends has to be Richie, the lead singer from the Manic Street Preachers. Emma used to hang out with the Manics a lot when she was... what, 16, 17, 18? Then one day Richie disappeared. Or committed suicide. No one knows which. So, Drew is Richie, right?

Emma says it slowly, with emphasis: "No. Drew isn't Richie. Richie is Richie." Wherever he is. "Wherever he is I hope he's happy." I pass over my napkin: "I'm sorry. Wipe your eyes." Emma nods. "I'm sorry too." Emma blows her nose instead, a curvy doll in a Ghost dress and fireball red lipstick: "You know me."

Since she was 13; this extraordinary, curious and witty child who wanted to talk about Philip Roth, feminist politics, Michael Portillo and a new way to do TV listings. Which was the year she landed a W H Smith Young Writer of The Year award and was already ... How would Viva put it? In hard- boiled hyperbole: "When Emma was already a bullet of talent in the gun barrel of fame."

Wait. She could have been 14. It's hard to keep track. Everything happened so fast. One day doing maths, next day living a Smash Hits fantasy. How did it happen? Emma is confused: "How did what happen?" It, Emma. It. "Oh. It. Nigella. I interviewed Nigella Lawson for the school magazine and a few days later the 'Evening Standard' asked her to write a piece about Madonna and she said no, but she'd met someone who should write it."

I consult my notes. "And the Generation X column at the 'Sunday Times' was when you were 16." Emma flings her arms wide: "Emma Forrest, child star! Shirley Temple with a dedicated word-processor!" Well, yes, kind of. Back to the notes: photographed by Snowdon the same year. "Yes." Profiled by Cosmopolitan. "Yes." Cited as the highest-paid teenager in Britain. "No. But I've been self-supporting since 16." Credited with inventing the term "comedy is the new rock 'n' roll". "Yep. My humble contribution to the language." Writing up gigs at The Independent - "That was your fault" - Guardian, NME, Sky, Telegraph et al. Slammed in Private Eye. Has to ask parents if she can stay at late at the Groucho. Rings me one morning to complain she can't concentrate on her history lesson because she was up all night interviewing Oasis. Then whinges that she thinks she's burnt out: that she'll never write another word.

Emma shrieks: "You aren't to mention that! Don't you dare." What do you want me to mention? That you're 21 the day the book is published and no longer want to be written of, or written off, as a child prodigy? "That's good. Say that I have a deeper side and I owe it all to Judy and Jeffery, my bohemian parents." Done. Anything else? Emma considers: "You could say you're proud of me." OK. I'm proud of you.

'Namedropper' is out today, published by Arrow at pounds 5.99.

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