Today I’m excited to welcome a writer who’s currently taking the literary world by storm with her incredible third book, psychological thriller In Her Wake – the lovely, quirky, talented Amanda Jennings. Though until recently we’d only communicated via modern missive – Twitter, Facebook – her warm personality shone between the lines. And when we finally met physically, at her recent book launch, it was like meeting an old friend. So hello lovely lady, welcome. Let’s start gently shall we, as all good relationships should. A nice easy question for you. Something light to warm us up. Tell me, what’s the meaning of life and does the size of the universe scare you?
AMANDA – What a question to kick off with! Right, I’ll pour myself a gin and then get to answering it… I was one of those children plagued by the Big Questions. I would lie and worry about what would happen if you got in a space ship and just kept flying in a straight line. What would you happen when you reached the ‘edge’ of Everything. I remember being momentarily calmed when somebody showed me that thing with a strip of paper that you put a twist in and then trace your finger around it and your finger arrives back where it started. The person who showed me this said this was what the Universe was like, that if you kept going you would eventually end up where you started. But the more I thought about it, the more I struggled to envisage it in three dimensions, so the headaches soon started up again.
Now I am a little more sanguine about it all. I know that it’s just too much for us to understand, but am reassured that Science is in charge and, like when we found out the world wasn’t flat, one day, in the distant future, we will have the answer and know what the Universe really looks like.
The meaning of life? Better pour myself another gin…
I am a big believer in life being given meaning with the relationships you make and with the attitude you harness when it comes to Nature and the animals we share our space with. When we’re gone we will be held in the hearts and minds of those we touched. Heaven, for me, is being held fondly in the memory of people I’ve encountered. I read something once that said something along the lines of trying to leave any person you meet just a wee bit happier than when you bumped into them and that if everybody did that the world would gradually become a more wonderful place. Far too idealistic, I know, but it stuck with me. I have no truck with unkindness. I am not a believer in the ‘saying it how it is’ school of thought (or lack of thought). Kindness, compassion, understanding, these are human qualities I aspire to, and I believe that spreading a little bit of joy in the short time we have on the planet is what it means to live. This, and a jolly good dance and a great kiss.
I should follow this up with a really important, deep question for you, now shouldn’t I…
So, tell me, Louise, if you had a superpower for a day, what would it be and why?
Before I answer your question I have to say that I’m totally with you on being a kid plagued by the Big Questions. (Might need to also pour the gin here. What time is it? Oh, after 9am. That’s fine.)
I can clearly remember being in the school canteen, aged perhaps six, wearing a paper headband with colourful tassels stuck to it (we’d made them in class, though I don’t recall why) and being worried about the size of the universe. I couldn’t imagine eternity. It hurt my brain too much. But I was worried that one small flaw or thing going wrong might unravel everything and end the world, like if one tassel had come off my headdress it wouldn’t be quite how it should be.
Oooh superpowers? My instinctive and immediate response was to have the ability to read minds, but then I realised I really wouldn’t want to know. I’m way too sensitive. Then my nice side kicked in and I thought I’d love the power to heal, maybe by touch, but it just doesn’t seem quite right to have such a messiah-like quality. What the hell – I wish I could get my thoughts on paper (or screen) just by thinking them! Bypass the time consuming act of typing (I’m a two fingers girl, utterly pathetic!) and so write novels by the power of thought!
Since I’ve magically got us on to writing – which I happen to think is a superpower in itself, one with the power to heal and change the world – tell me what was the first thing you ever wrote? Not as part of your education, but creatively, artistically, by choice?
AMANDA – *Drifts off into dream world* Gosh, sorry, got distracted for a moment thinking about the power to write novels straight from the head. Mind you, for me, it would just be a load of rambling nonsense magicked onto the page, and probably far too many pages to wrestle with! I always wanted to talk to animals. I had this fantasy that if I could tell a wild horse that I wasn’t going to hurt her I could just jump on to her back, knot my fingers into her mane, and gallop along the beach through the shallows with no bridle or saddle and, of course, hair flowing and stirring background music playing…
The first thing I wrote? Well, like many fledgling authors I did spend a lot of my childhood making tiny books, illustrated stories about naughty elves and magic doorways, which was cut to size and crookedly stapled together. As a teen a dallied with poetry and forced myself to write ‘meaningful’ diary entries, but diary-keeping wasn’t a passion of mine, so it was very sporadic and fabulously self-absorbed, as you would expect from an idealistic fifteen year old. But the first piece of writing that made me think ‘my goodness, I love writing’ was a short story I wrote in the middle of the night at university. I used to get up sometimes and paint if I couldn’t sleep, but this time, not sure why, I picked up a pen and paper. It was all about people staring at the narrator, she wished they would leave her alone, or look at her for something other than her looks and her fame, and that when they looked they weren’t really looking, not at her, not the real her. At the end of the story it’s revealed that the narrator is the Mona Lisa. I imagine if I read it back now I’d be horrified by it, but at the time it was a piece of writing that took me to that special place where time flies past and you aren’t aware of it. There was a bit of fire in the belly.
Speaking of the first thing we write, I’d love to know how things are coming along with your next book. As you know, I adored How to be Brave, and was transfixed by your writing, and I’m extremely excited to find out more about your next one. Did you struggle with the infamous ‘second album syndrome’?
I absolutely agree that in having the power to get novels straight from the head onto paper (or screen) it could be messy. But I’d have so much fun editing that raw creation, shaping it into something special.
I so see you on a wild horse. I bet you do have that power, secretly, you just don’t know it….
Oh gosh, I too wrote little notebooks full of stories and pictures. There was always a contents page, a proper ‘posh’ prologue, and usually some sort of afterword too. As a young teenager I wrote two full novels – one in first person present tense after my English teacher said it just wasn’t ‘done’. It’s dangerous to tell me you shouldn’t do something, or that it’s not possible. I just see that as a challenge. I wish I still had those novels. One of them made my friend cry and I absolutely knew this was what I wanted to do – not make people cry, you understand, but get a reaction to my writing. Make readers feel something. Also, writing is the most joyful thing in the world. Can never imagine not doing it.
Oooh, the next book? Well, The Mountain in my Shoe kind of existed before How to be Brave. I had already written a first draft about three years ago. But it’s changed a lot since then because I’ve learned so much more, both by reading and writing, and also by living. Because isn’t living the most important part? So yes, I’m still experiencing the dreaded ’second album syndrome’ in that I’m terrified it won’t be as ‘good’ as How to be Brave, which I’m so proud has received some great feedback. The Mountain in my Shoe was inspired by my time volunteering with children in the care system. Many of these children have a Lifebook. This is a book where all the carers, absent parents, foster parents and social workers write up that child’s history so that when they’ve grown up they know what happened in their childhood. I always thought what an amazing way that would be to tell a story. So a Lifebook forms one of three narratives in the novel, alongside that of Bernadette whose husband has gone missing on the very night she planned to leave him, and that of ten-year-old Conor who has also disappeared.
Shall I let you into a secret about both books? The titles in both cases are an actual phrase that a child in the novel says. It wasn’t intentional. It just happened that each child said something profound that I loved.
Tell me – do you think you’ve written your best work yet? Do you feel there’s an even greater novel waiting for you – if that’s possible after In Her Wake, which I have a limited edition hardcopy of, signed with boobs drawn in, much to the chagrin of our lovely publisher Orenda Books! Is there an idea for something you haven’t written yet that both terrifies and excites you?
AMANDA – That’s so interesting about The Mountain in My Shoe, because it’s the same thing as In Her Wake. In Her Wake, was about seven years ago, called The Merrymaid and I. It’s the book that attracted my agent, but sadly we couldn’t find a home for it. But when I finished my second book I kept thinking about The Merrymaid and went back to it. I did exactly what you describe, rethought and rewrote it using the knowledge that I gained from the books I’d published. I’m so glad it wasn’t published back then.
I am in love with the idea of there being The One book I have to write, that I was born to write, and I’d like to think I will keep improving my writing and my storytelling. I think I’d like to write a sweeping, literary, duel timeframe book set in a culturally diverse place during one of the wars. My mother’s best friend, who I spent a lot of time with growing up, is Iranian and her father was a General who had to escape the regime. The way she described Persian culture and history when I was younger was intoxicating, and the feasts she would prepare were so exotic and delicious. So perhaps a book that has connections to 1950s Persia in some way. But having said all this, there’s a big part of me that would love to write a dystopian, post-apocalyptic book in which I could really let my imagination run free!
Is there something, other than writing, that frees your creativity and imagination, Louise?
I do think a lot of first novels aren’t first novels; they’re simply the first novel that was lucky enough to be published. I really did get a strong feeling when writing How to be Brave that it would be the one. The first novel I wrote (as an adult) is the one that got me an agent back in 2012, that sadly she – like your agent – couldn’t sell. Then she retired. That book too (called Maria in the Moon) is very different now and means a lot to me, so will hopefully be my third. I’m so glad you went back to The Merrymaid and I (ha, such a quirky title!) and that we got have In Her Wake.
I agree with you that it might be exciting to write something completely out of my comfort zone. I really fancy writing some erotica – something beautiful and literary, but absolutely filthy. One day I’d love to write my memoir to, but very sadly my parents will have to be gone for me to do that.
Every single thing I try and think of that frees my creativity and mind comes down to writing. I’ve written plays, short stories, the odd poem, newspaper columns, essays, travel pieces, diaries…. Ahhh, I LOVE to travel. I’ve written some of my best things when away. If money permitted, I’d go everywhere in the world. I love being on the sea, or near the sea. That frees my creativity most of all. But then it’s my ancestry, isn’t it?
Okay my lovely Amanda, one more question for the cheap seats in the back. Fishfingers or Viennetta?
AMANDA – I have a sweet tooth (I love Viennetta, did you see the YouTube video of them being made in the Vignette factory?! Incredible) but on this occasion, and only if I’m allowed sliced white bread, butter and tomato ketchup, I’m going with a four-fishfinger sandwich!
It’s been lovey to chat. Thank you smooch for having me!
PS – WRITE THE EROTICA!
Hahaha – I did write a slightly erotic short story called Notes from the Night which won the Glass Woman Prize and I’m sure it wants to be a bigger thing! (Oooerrr missus.) Who knows?
Viennetta for me all the way. Half a one if I can get away with it.
No, thank you, Amanda. I’ve had a blast. Can’t wait for our next physical event together, which is May 12th in London everyone, for the Orenda Roadshow. You bring the fishfingers and I’ll bring the Viennetta….