A creative partnership - Chesterfield writer Emma Pass and her artist husband Duncan

Emma and Duncan Pass with examples of books written and produced by students at one of their classes

Emma and Duncan Pass with examples of books written and produced by students at one of their classes - Credit: Archant

Derbyshire Life meets writer Emma Pass and her artist husband Duncan at their home near Chesterfield

Duncan’s prize-winning print 'Zoomies'

Duncan’s prize-winning print 'Zoomies' - Credit: Archant

Emma Pass wrote her first novel when she was just thirteen years old. Recalling the day when she put pen to paper, she said: ‘I’d been shopping with my mum. Rather than spending my pocket money on chocolate, I’d bought a biro and a 300-page notebook with a bright yellow cover. On the way home, we stopped at a garden centre. While my mum went in, I stayed in the car and began writing. Once I had begun, I couldn’t stop. I continued writing before and after school each day, and even during school. I can clearly remember hiding my notebook under my exercise book during Maths lessons. This explains why I’m so terrible at Maths.’

By his own admission, Emma’s husband, the artist Duncan Pass, was terrible at most school subjects, largely because he had been completely switched off by education. His only really useful learning was obtained by rummaging around in a dump on some land close to his home and putting to good use the metal objects and fragments he found there. It was through this process of self-education that he acquired the sort of practical skills that would become vital in his work as an artist.

Like Duncan, Emma benefitted as a child from rummaging around out of doors. She was brought up in an environmental studies centre where her parents were employed and where her exploration of the grounds gave free range to her imagination. Her first attempt at translating the wanderings of her mind into written form was conceived as a sort of sequel to the film Jurassic Park, which she had seen as a thirteen-year-old during a family holiday. Although Emma didn’t show this ambitious literary effort to anyone, she was determined that she would become a published novelist one day.

Surprisingly, rather than taking a degree in English after leaving school, Emma opted for an Art Foundation course followed by a degree at Falmouth College of Art. She was still composing stories and committed to her original ambition to be a published author, but her writing remained a closely guarded secret because, as yet, she didn’t have sufficient confidence to expose her work to scrutiny.

Duncan Pass with his homemade printing press

Duncan Pass with his homemade printing press - Credit: Archant

After Duncan left school, he found work as a lifeguard in a leisure centre, but he too had a secret ambition. He said, ‘I had always loved drawing but my schoolteachers had dismissed my efforts as worthless. At the age of 24, I decided that it was time to make the most of whatever ability I had, so I took an access course at Chesterfield College, where a teacher called Tony Currell opened up the world of printmaking for me. Although I went on to study Animation at Falmouth Art College, my real interest was still in printmaking, but I wanted to build up my skills privately and slowly.’

It was at Falmouth that Emma and Duncan met and began a relationship in which they have always given each other tremendous support, no matter what financial hardships they have had to endure while pursuing their creative interests. In the six months that Emma had to wait to find a job after the couple moved to Derbyshire, she wrote every day. She said, ‘I tried every possible genre, but I could not decide what type of writing was right for me. The problem was solved when I attended a creative writing course run by Linda Newbury, who advised me to write for young adults.’

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Meanwhile, Duncan had taken a job as a road cleaner so he would have time, in the afternoons and evenings, to pursue his art work. Unable to afford a printing press, he decided he would design and build his own, using girders, steel bars, railway waggon wheels and steel tubing, together with some components made by a local engineering firm. After spending five years on this task, he even set to work on a second press, using bottle-jacks for compression and Land Rover springs for the return.

Acting on Linda Newbury’s advice, Emma set to work on her first young adult novel. Although her early efforts were rejected by publishers, the rejection letters included some very encouraging words. Inspired by Robert Swindells’ book Brother in the Land, an ‘after the bomb’ novel set in a world where lawlessness has broken out, Emma wrote her own dystopian story, set in a future time when a calamitous financial crash has brought about the collapse of democratic government.

‘The Fearless’ by Emma Pass

‘The Fearless’ by Emma Pass - Credit: Archant

The heroine of Emma’s story is a seventeen-year-old girl who has to be strong enough to survive in a world where the internet is blocked, travel abroad is banned, ‘life partners’ are arranged, citizens can be brainwashed, and all aspects of everyday life are policed by an all-seeing, all-knowing organisation called ACID (Agency for Crime Investigation and Defence). The novel is exciting, action-packed, further enlivened by a story of young love and driven by a plot full of twists and turns.

When the book, simply entitled Acid, was snapped up by the leading publisher Random House, those long-held dreams of becoming a published author became reality. Published in the UK, USA and Spain, Acid won the North East Teenage Book Award and was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. Emma’s second book, called The Fearless, has also been published by Random House and shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. Another gripping and pacy dystopian novel, this book charts the adventures of a resourceful teenage girl who is determined to rescue her brother from the clutches of ‘The Fearless’, an evil group that has access to a drug which strips people of all humanity.

Whilst Emma was writing novels set in a terrifying future, Duncan was tapping his knowledge of North East’s Derbyshire’s past as a source of inspiration for his art work, much of which he converts into prints by using those ingeniously constructed homemade presses. The Vikings who sailed to our shores and colonised eastern England are the subject of some of his most delightful engravings, which feature stylised figures of Viking warriors and images of their longboats.

Duncan has also found artistic inspiration from Derbyshire’s mining past. His sketched interpretation of the carving of a lead miner set into the wall of Wirksworth Church has been used as a cover illustration for an anthology of poems edited by Kathy Grindrod. Another picture depicts a pigeon-fancier releasing his birds, Duncan said, ‘Keeping and flying pigeons represented freedom for so many Derbyshire coal miners who spent so much of their lives underground.’

Emma Pass at work in her study

Emma Pass at work in her study - Credit: Archant

Emma and Duncan have a fancy for ex-racing greyhounds, which they keep as much-loved pets. The dogs also feature in a number of Duncan’s pictures. A print called ‘Zoomies’, which depicts three greyhounds engaging in a chasing game, was awarded first-prize at the 2013 Melbourne Festival. The couple’s current pet greyhound accompanies them on walks in the local woods, where Duncan photographs and draws the complex geometry of trees, and uses the images as prompts for large pencil sketches, such as ‘Sunlight and Shadow’, which won the 2014 County Council Award.

Bolstered by their prizes, Emma and Duncan have given up their jobs so they can devote all their time to creative activities. As well as writing, Emma runs creative writing courses and the couple pool their talents to put on courses that enable participants to write and print small books. It would be hard to find better tutors for novice artists and writers than this inspired and inspiring couple.

Acid and The Fearless are both published by Corgi, an imprint of Random House Publishing. The website www.emmapass.com includes details of Emma’s writing workshops and school visits. Duncan Pass’ prints, drawings and paintings can be found and purchased on www.duncanpass.com