Capturing the beauty and pain of motherhood

Dr Emma Darragh releases her first novel, Thanks For Having Me

At the age of 31, Dr Emma Darragh started over. Her youngest child was in kindergarten, her marriage had ended, and she was looking for her next chapter, so to speak.

The avid reader and long-time storyteller decided that it was time to change her life.

Enrolling in a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Writing and English Literatures, Emma says she was captivated from the start.

“I came to UOW to study writing and English literature and on the first day, I was in a lecture with Shady Cosgrove, who is now my colleague. The lecture was on editing, and it should have been boring, but Shady was so magnetic that she made the content fun. She made semicolons fun.

“I was worried that I would stand out as a mature-age student, but it wasn’t like that at all. It was the best thing I have ever done. Being a bit older, I brought my life experience, my years of reading and writing, to the table. I had the skills that I had developed through reading, but I got to learn the technical side to writing.”

The decision to study, to take a chance on a pursuit that she had always been drawn to, would indeed change the direction of Emma’s life.

After following her Bachelor of Arts with an Honours degree, Emma then enrolled in a Doctor of Philosophy in Creative Writing. Emma’s thesis, which focused on ‘The Short Story Cycle in the Twenty-First Century’ was awarded with Examiners’ Commendation for Outstanding Thesis. The experience of investigating the structure and power of the short story cycle imbued her with a love of the format, which, she says, is the perfect literary form for depicting life in the 21st century.

Inspired by the encouragement of her mentors and the rich tapestry of women's experiences, the creative component of Emma’s thesis became her debut novel, Thanks For Having Me.

“Coming to the end of my bachelor’s degree, I started writing a few short stories. Hayley Scrivenor, who was my teacher, read one of my stories and encouraged me to keep going.

“I looked at my undergraduate degree as a buffet, a chance to taste a bit of everything. But when I was deciding on the topic of my PhD, the short story cycle was what I wanted to spend time with. The feedback from my Honours examiners was that I should make those stories into a book.

“Short stories are a bit weird. You get the chance to explore lots of different things through lots of different angles. The short story cycle, which is a novel written in stories, was popular with women in the 1970s and 1980s, women who didn’t have the luxury or the time that men did to write long, exhaustive novels. You could get your stories published independently while slowly creating your big work.”

The cover of Thanks for Having Me, with a broken heart red lollipop and the title in pink

Thanks for Having Me is the first fiction title from JOAN, Nakkiah Lui’s imprint of Allen & Unwin. Described as unflinching, tender and darkly funny, Emma’s debut explores the themes of family, motherhood, and identity, told in fragments of interwoven stories.

“I was interested in how we become who we are and what do we pass on to the next generation, whether we want to or not. About the stories we pass on in our families and the patterns that keep repeating.

“Women’s lives have changed so much. My mother’s generation didn’t have as many opportunities as women now.”

Thanks for Having Me follows three generations of women in the one family, set across the decades in the working-class suburbs of Wollongong. The characters are finely rendered with an intricacy and depth that captures the difficult, poignant, and funny experiences of being a woman and a mother in contemporary society.

Emma joins an acclaimed group of published authors who have emerged from UOW’s creative writing program or who teach within the faculty, including Hayley Scrivenor [Dirt Town], Dr Catherine McKinnon [Storyland], Dr Joshua Lobb [The Flight of Birds], Associate Professor Shady Cosgrove [She Played Elvis], Dr Christine Howe [Song in the Dark], Dr Luke Johnson [Ferocious Animals], and Dr Julie Keys [The Artist’s Portrait], among others.

It took time, she says, to find her own voice as a writer, but her voracious appetite for reading as well as her day job working in the creative writing field meant she was constantly surrounded by inspiration and material.

Surrounded by a supportive community of fellow writers and mentors, Emma found her voice as a writer and educator. Drawing inspiration from literary giants like Elizabeth Strout, Alice Munro, and Joyce Carol Oates, as well as her talented colleagues, Emma fostered an environment of creativity and experimentation in her classroom.

“I started teaching in 2019 and I love it. I wrote the book while I was teaching, as a way of supporting myself. I learn so much from my students. Everyone in class will bring something different; we share ideas, and they challenge me.

“In my classes, the students undertake wild experiments in their writing, to find their voice and encourage their imagination and play. But I also love doing the same exercises in class because it improves my own writing and it means I put my money where my mouth is. The students can see me working through the same creative writing process.”

With her debut novel published and a fulfilling career as a lecturer and academic, Emma reflects on her journey with gratitude and a sense of fulfillment. What began as a leap of faith nearly a decade ago has blossomed into a life rich with purpose, creativity, and endless possibilities.

“When I started university, I thought I was a poet. But then I started writing short stories and found my place. It forced me out of my comfort zone. It has been the best thing I have ever done.”

Dr Emma Darragh will be In Conversation with her PhD supervisors, Dr Joshua Lobb and Dr Christine Howe, and interviewed by Dr Ellie Crookes at UOW’s Wollongong Campus (Building 25, room 128) on Thursday, 11 April, from 4.30pm to 6.30pm. The conversation will focus on the process of writing the book, the journey from undergraduate student to PhD, and how to forge a career as a writer.