Cutting Words

EMMA FORREST seems to have it all - youth, beauty, talent and some fabulously glamorous friends. Indeed, she is just back from holidaying in Costa Rica with her bosom buddy Minnie Driver and, the other evening, was at the glittering New York première of Woody Allen's latest movie, Melinda and Melinda, starring another of her best friends, the Australian actress Radha Mitchell.

So well-connected is the screenwriter and author of three stylishly written novels - the latest and best of which, Cherries in the Snow, has been pronounced "electric" by Ethan Hawke - that her godmother is Woody Allen's former wife, Louise Lasser. One of her oldest childhood friends is Rachel Weisz. Meanwhile, Chloe Sevigny is yet another pal, after Forrest interviewed her for a glossy mag. They hit it off instantly, went back to Chloe's to play records (as you do) and soon Forrest was dating her brother. Which reminds Forrest of the time she interviewed Elijah Wood - "before he became dead famous" - and he followed her home afterwards.

"We became really good friends," she says, recalling that the diminutive one asked her what she was planning to do, and when she replied that she intended to feed her cats, he asked if he might join her. They've been chums ever since, but not romantically involved, she stresses. It doesn't end there, because if you think a Hollywood hobbit is pretty mega, you ain't heard nothing yet. Currently, she's done two drafts of the screenplay for a movie she has written for Brad Pitt. Not that long ago - shortly before Hollywood's golden couple's marriage collapsed - Forrest was welcomed to Brad and Jen's home, where they did a reading of her script. Wow!

"Yeah," says Forrest, "it was totally surreal." Needless to say, Brad is "amazing". And, yes, you guessed it, Forrest met him when she was commissioned to interview him for an upmarket lad-mag. The piece wasn't that nice, she insists, but he called her and said, "I have an idea and I think you are right for it". Sadly, she is not allowed to reveal further intimate details - "even to my agent".

Forrest continues: "Brad is so interesting to me because it's the tragedy of the character actor trapped in the leading man's body. He's such a clever man. I bump into him from time to time - in hotel lobbies." (As you do.)

A second screenplay, about someone who becomes addicted to tattooing, has been bought by the company that made Ethan Hawke's Hamlet. Hopefully, the film will star Minnie Driver and Natalie Portman, who is presently reading the script. "That's my dream casting," says Forrest. Now I don't wish to create the impression that namedrops keep falling on my head when in Forrest's engaging and truly delightful company - although her well-received first novel was actually called Namedropper, and was about a teenager with a Liz Taylor fixation and a rock star as one of her best friends. A large part of the book - it's a terrific read - is set in Chateau Marmont, the fabled Sunset Boulevard hotel which Forrest has been visiting since she was ten, because it has "the best ghosts. All my favourite people, who had mental breakdowns, such as Natalie Wood and Marilyn, stayed there".

She's such a regular nowadays that all the staff know her by name - and one day when she is very, very rich she wants to live there. In fact, she just happened to be hanging out in the lobby, when Minnie Driver came over and told her how much she used to love her "Generation X" column in the Sunday Times, penned when she was just 16. Forrest couldn't think why Minnie, or indeed, anyone, liked that column, since she professes herself totally embarrassed by it, but they became close friends anyway. "I still think Minnie's weird for having liked those columns."

After writing for the London Evening Standard when she was all of 14 (spit! spit!), Forrest was headhunted by the Sunday Times. Her school mag had sent her to interview Nigella Lawson, an old girl from the fee-paying academic hothouse of Godolphin and Latymer, in West London (Kate Beckinsale and Sophie Ellis-Bextor also went there). The pulchritudinous cook was so impressed that she recommended the schoolgirl to her Fleet Street friends. But Nigella is not the only media maven to take the dark-haired, velvet-eyed Forrest under her wing. Julie Burchill adores her and has provided an apt quote for the jacket of Forrest's "gorgeous" new novel, about "lust, love, loss, and lipstick". Of Cherries in the Snow, she says: "I don't mind her writing so knowingly about sex, but I wish she hadn't grown up to write so well about sadness."

And there's the rub in what, to the casual observer, seems to be Forrest's fantastically charmed existence. For, were there not some long, dark shadows shrouding her life, then she probably wouldn't write half so well - and then it would be difficult to resist the temptation to give her the green eye. But Forrest, who is slight, with an enviably slim but curvy figure, is devastatingly honest about the demons that haunt her, a reminder that the beautiful also bleed. "I'm a manicured psychotic," she claims and, although her fingernails aren't painted scarlet today, she apologises for the fact, hiding her hands like a child, and saying that my manicure puts her to shame. Now 28, she lives alone in New York, in a studio apartment that she's recently moved into in the boho West Village. We meet at the city's famous soul food brunch spot, the Pink Tea Cup, which happens to be her favourite caf in the neighbourhood. She is dressed in tight jeans and an even tighter white top - every time she sighs, the top button pops, revealing lots of olive-skinned cleavage. "Doing a Jayne Mansfield," she calls it. She eats two fried eggs, sunnyside up, and drinks fresh orange juice. Before we talk about Cherries in the Snow - the title is also the name of Revlon's iconic red lipstick - we discuss Thin Skin, Forrest's second novel. It's about the unforgettable Ruby, a modern movie starlet, who has it all - celebrity, bulimia, manic depression, a dead mother, absent father, prescription drugs, tattoos, and a predilection for self-mutilation, slicing her arms, legs and belly with knives. Apart from the dead mother and the absent father - Forrest has devoted parents, her mother is an American writer and her English father a solicitor - she can lay claim to all of the above, although she's emphatic that Thin Skin is a work of fiction and not a memoir. Nevertheless, one critic thought it the best study of a breakdown since Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. A hyperactive child, Forrest used to draw all over her face and body with a pen and then wash it off; she would also bite herself. At 11 and angst-ridden, she wanted to die. She began suffering from bulimia at Godolphin and Latymer and was "an insane over-eater because I was so manic and heavy". She began making herself sick, sometimes hourly, "purging myself of my misery".

When she was 16, she went to a tattoo parlour and emerged "after three hours and a lot of pain" with a huge navy-blue vampire ballerina on her lower back. She pulls up her top to show me, adding that her mother isn't very happy about it because it means she can't be buried in a Jewish cemetery, "although we aren't remotely religious". Soon, Forrest found that she wanted pain on demand, instant gratification. When she met Richey Edwards, of the Manic Street Preachers, he introduced her to the idea of self-mutilation. "I had never heard of people cutting themselves, but I began doing it after he vanished [it's assumed he committed suicide], so I guess you could say Richey bequeathed that to me."

Despite having left school with one A-level to go into journalism, she was still cutting herself. "Letting me leave school was my parents' greatest gift to me. They saw how unhappy I was." She had her Sunday Times job and was making good money. Although she was so successful and had become Burchill's darling - the Observer's Barbara Ellen is another of her mentors - Forrest says that she had also become the target of a lot of spite and envy, as well as lust from the guys at the Sunday Times. The malicious rumour was that she only got the job because she was a brat with big breasts; worse, she also discovered that the male journalists were competing for her virginity. "I felt disliked," she says. "I wanted to be ugly because I felt too young to be so sexualised."

The cutting became her way of saying the unsayable. "Why was I so unhappy when I have parents who love me and I have so much? I don't know. But for a few seconds, you say, 'That's why I'm in pain, because I'm in pain'." When she was 21, she moved to New York, after falling out with lots of people in London. "I think I was probably really obnoxious back then," she says with a sly smile. In the city, when Namedropper came out, she was a hot young novelist, invited to all the glitzy parties. After living with her mother's family in Brooklyn, she found an apartment in the West Village. Immediately, she says, she felt at home in this edgiest of cities. Eventually, she was diagnosed with manic depression and a borderline personality disorder. She had started sleeping a lot; then she began cutting her face and neck. A friend called her mother, who came out on the next flight. When her mother saw the scars she burst into tears. Forrest has been in and out of therapy since she was eight, but now she's also on medication - mood stabilisers - and doesn't care if she has to take it for the rest of her life. "It's brilliant," she says. "I'm so much healthier."

Cutting is an addiction, she explains, although she has not cut herself for a couple of years. Most of the scars on her arms and legs and stomach have healed. "You can't see them, but I can. My mum's always thought it so strange that someone so vain should wish to mutilate herself." Forrest counsels young girls through her website and is e-mailing a girl in New Delhi who is cutting herself in her sleep. "I would like to set up a sort of Cutters Anonymous, like AA," she says. Today, she's addicted to exercise, although she insists the medication has changed her life. Did she ever worry that taking drugs might interfere with her writing? "I've found it's the opposite. Before I started taking them I couldn't concentrate; I couldn't listen. I have severe attention deficit. Now, though, I can sit and write for 20 minutes. Before it would be four minutes, then I would have to get up and walk around. I sometimes wonder what I could write if I really put my mind to it. I kind of torment myself with the thought that this," she says, tapping Cherries in the Snow, "might be one-eighth of my ability." Until recently she was involved with "a beautiful man", who had a child from a previous relationship. Sadie, the heroine of Cherries in the Snow, falls in love a 40-year-old artist, who has an eight-year-old daughter. "I was so scared to tell anyone what this book was about because I thought everyone would think I was using him as research, but I had actually started writing it before we met. Things like that often happen to me. When I did tell him about the story, he was really creeped out and I think it haunted him - it was always the undercurrent when we had arguments. And, of course, your life does bleed into what you write, despite the best intentions."

They have now split up. "We can't be together," she says. "We make each other crazy, although he'll be part of me for ever. I love him and he loves me so much." During their last argument, he accused her of sleeping with the formidably talented 35-year-old Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, whom she met on a plane. " 'Of course I want to,' I told him. I want to sleep with all my friends - but I don't. When I love someone, I want to consume them." We finish brunch and go shopping for cosmetics. Then Forrest goes home to write the seventh chapter of her next novel, Kooks. First, though, she will put on her make-up, since she never wears it out of the house. "Like Sadie in my book, I write wearing lots of red lipstick - Cranberry Lemonade by Fresh. It's the best red."

• Cherries in the Snow, by Emma Forrest is published by Bloomsbury, at 6.99.