Thursday 10 May 2018

A Conversation With Amanda Berriman

Amanda Berriman was born in Germany and grew up in Edinburgh, reading books, playing music, writing stories and climbing hills. She works as a primary school teacher and lives on the edge of the Peak District with her husband, two children and dogs

Meet Jesika, aged four and a half. The most extraordinary narrator of 2018.

She lives in a flat with her mother and baby brother and she knows a lot. She knows their flat is high up and the stairs are smelly. She knows she shouldn't draw on the peeling wallpaper or touch the broken window. And she knows she loves her mummy and baby brother Toby.

She does not know that their landlord is threatening to evict them and that Toby’s cough is going to get much worse. Or that Paige, her new best friend, has a secret that will explode their world.

"Heart-stopping. A need to read novel." Kit de Waal, author of My Name is Leon

Greenacre Writers are delighted to welcome and thank Amanda for taking part in A Conversation. We wish her huge success with 'Home', which is an exceptionally moving debut. 

Tell us of your journey as a writer

It’s been a very long one! At primary school, I was always getting lost in a story but by the end of secondary school exam work took over, and then I went on to study music at university. I didn’t come back to writing until 2003, a few years into my first teaching job, when an idea was sparked in an English lesson. I spent the whole of that October half term writing feverishly and a year and half later, nine chapters into my first novel, I was completely hooked. At this point, I was introduced to the Writers’ Workshop and over the next few years, through them, I had a couple of manuscript critiques, finished the novel, collected many agent rejections, joined the Word Cloud forum, rewrote the novel, collected some more rejections, went to the York Festival of Writing, did Debi Alper and Emma Darwin’s truly excellent, lightbulb-inducing Self-Editing course, rewrote the novel again... Shortly after this, Debi became my mentor, I rewrote the novel again and in 2012 it was shortlisted in the Opening Chapter competition at York. But after many rejections, and despite coming very close with a couple of agents, I wasn’t getting anywhere and I decided to put the novel in a drawer and try something new.

In 2013, Debi invited me to enter a short story on the theme of ‘Home’ for the charity anthology ‘Stories for Homes’ to raise money for Shelter. I had no ideas and no inspiration but I really wanted to be involved, and then I read ‘The Night Rainbow’ by Claire King, an exceptional story about grief told from the point of view of a child. A thought popped into my head: what does homelessness look like to a child? And there was Jesika, jumping up and down in front of me, impatient to start her story. It was selected for the anthology and I returned to other projects but Jesika wasn’t done. She insisted there was more to tell, so I wrote her a novel. That took another three years of writing, rewriting and editing until finally, in August 2016, I had a draft I was ready to submit to agents. Since then everything has happened very fast! Four agents were interested in the full MS, two made me an offer and by September I was represented by Jo Unwin. I worked with Jo on some editing changes and she sent the novel out on submission in late November. Two publishers made an offer before Christmas and by March 2017, I had a signed contract with Transworld! The last year has been a steep learning curve, but fascinating and exciting, and finally seeing ‘Home’ on the shelves in February this year (almost 15 years since that first spark was ignited) was a truly special moment.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

What I love most about being a writer is when a reader connects with something I’ve written and completely gets what it is I’m trying to say or sees something in it that I didn’t even consider – it’s truly wonderful to think about your novel going out into the world and evolving all by itself in the minds of readers. As to my role as a writer, I found this really hard to answer! I don’t think about my role as a writer when I’m writing. I have a story that insists on being told and I tell it. Perhaps at the rewriting/editing stage I think about it a bit more – What’s the point of what I’m writing? What am I trying to say? – and with ‘Home’ that was about creating a human angle for all the media headlines that never quite get to the heart of the real story of real people living real lives of hardship. I wanted the characters in ‘Home’ to be people that readers could identify with and feeling empathy for, and although Jesika and Paige and their family and friends are fictional, I wanted them to feel authentic enough that people started to think about the real Jesikas and Paiges out there.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?
Empathy is all about understanding or feeling what another person is experiencing from their point of view and I find it impossible to write even the most hideous characters without, for a short while, standing in their shoes. But it can be uncomfortable, painful, depressing... after spending some time in the head of one particular character in ‘Home’, I felt physically sick and wanted to scrub my brain with bleach! But it’s an essential part of getting to know my characters that I listen to them all, good or bad.

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

It’s very easy to write about what you know, or people who are the same as you, but that’s not an honest reflection of the communities we all live in and it’s boring. When I was writing ‘Home’, I looked for inspiration in the communities where I live and work and that’s a never-ending source of interesting, diverse people who are all unique. And once you’ve got the basis of your cast, listening to these characters is fascinating because these are people who haven’t had the same life experience as you and they have stories to tell you that send you off on all sorts of interesting research trips. Writing several different versions of me would not be half as interesting!

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

The Coromandel Peninsula, North Island of New Zealand. Follow the coastal road north until it heads inland and begins to wind its way up and down over green hills. Some miles on, there’s a farm at the base of the hills and on its vast acreage there’s a track that climbs up to a summit with views across the bay towards Auckland in one direction and out over the Pacific in the other. There are also trails along a ridge and through the bush, hidden streams and pools and a waterfall, and space and quiet to think and dream. My husband and I spent time there, on and off, in 2004/5 and it’s where I wrote a lot of the first nine chapters of that first novel. We’ve not been back since, but it’s a place I return to in my head a lot.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. It is the most beautiful, devastating, perfectly crafted book, and I still can’t talk about it without crying! No other book has ever done that to me.

What advice do you have for would be novelists/writers?

Writing isn’t all about writing. Give yourself space to dream and brew. Figure out what gets the ideas going – for me it’s getting outdoors, walking or cycling – and do that as much as you can. Find trusted writing friends who will give you honest feedback on what you’ve written, but be open to their ideas and be prepared for it to sting sometimes. Always give feedback time to sink in before addressing it and then ‘accept, adapt, reject’ – you don’t have to agree with everything you’ve been told! Learn as much as you can. Join writing forums, ask around about inspirational courses and festivals and workshops (and if this is beyond your budget, ask about bursaries and funded places – Twitter is really helpful for things like this). Be brave. It’s not easy to submit to agents because rejections hurt but they aren’t the end of the road and sometimes they can lead to valuable learning opportunities. Eat chocolate, drink wine, laugh with friends and then start again, but don’t give up. I lost count of the number of times I was rejected – certainly more than thirty – and it took me almost 15 years, but I made it in the end!

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I’m working on an idea that involves some of the minor characters in ‘Home’ - not a sequel, but more of a side-step. However it’s early days of first-draft-awfulness so hard to say where it’s going yet!

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

Anne of Green Gables! When I was growing up, there were aspects of her that I recognised in myself: a dreamer, a writer, a girl not afraid to fight her own battles and make her opinions known however ‘unladylike’ that was seen to be. Like me, she wasn’t entirely comfortable with herself and sometimes made mortifying mistakes, but her intentions were always good. And as much as she hated her ginger hair, I really coveted it because I thought brown was boring!

Home is published by Doubleday.

Follow Amanda on Twitter: @MandyBerriman

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