Amanda Jennings: ‘A first draft is your lump of clay. It’s not going to be pretty’
I often find exchanges I observe in real life inspire an additional scene. When you’re writing, the subconscious often seeks out things that enhance the themes you focus on
Amanda Jennings: I always speak to professionals to check any facts in my books. In my latest book I spoke to two policemen, two solicitors, a psychiatrist, a doctor and a librarian at the British Library. I also ask Twitter. Twitter can be invaluable for advice and information!
What was the first book to make an impression on you?
I adored Enid Blyton, and the Jinny of Finmory pony books by Patricia Leitch, and then there was the magnificent The Dark is Rising Sequence that all thrilled me, but the first book to move me to tears was Animal Farm. I remember the rising horror I felt as Boxer walked into the trailer to be taken unknowingly to the slaughterhouse. The injustice, his innocence and loyalty, the betrayal – I felt it all. I cried for days afterwards.
What was your favourite book as a child?
If I had to choose one it would be Where The Wild Things Are. My mother used to read the monster parts with a really scary voice and I would be terrified yet desperate for more. It was the one I used to beg her to read to me when I was very small.
And what is your favourite book or books now?
I have so many and to choose one is very hard. I think if pressed, I would choose The Book Thief. It’s the book I wish I’d written. It’s original, moving, beautiful, with glimpses of humour and agonising heartache. It’s a book that has stayed with me years after reading it, which is truly the sign of great writing.
What is your favourite quotation?
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” – To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Who is your favourite fictional character?
I have so many favourites. I think the character I’d like to be would be Charlie Bucket. I would give anything to visit Willy Wonka’s factory. I still dream of leaning over the side of a boat made of boiled sweet, and dragging a mug through the molten chocolate river and drinking it.
Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?
I have yet to cross into the 21st century and buy a Kindle. I love print books. I love the feel of the pages and the weight of them. And the smell, of course. I’m one of those people who surreptitiously sniffs the pages of books when I think nobody’s looking…
What is the most beautiful book you own?
My husband was shocked that I hadn’t read To Kill A Mockingbird when we met in our very early twenties. He thrust his copy into my hands and insisted I read it. I was transfixed, moved, changed, and my sense of injustice was heightened. The fact that it had affected my husband in this way too made me feel even more drawn to him. For our first anniversary, I bought him a signed copy of the book. This is one of the only material things I would save in a fire.
Where and how do you write?
I write in notebooks anywhere, to start with. But when I’m ready to start the first draft of a book, I write on my computer in my study. I sit beside a window overlooking the garden so there is plenty of opportunity to stare out of it. I edit with a pen and printed-out manuscript, and during this stage I will take a bundle of pages and head out and about. I enjoy the bustle around me and often find exchanges I observe in real life around me inspire an additional scene in the book. When you’re writing, the subconscious often seeks out things that might enhance the themes on which you are focused.
What is the most research you have done for a book?
I always speak to professionals to check any facts in my books. In my latest book I spoke to two policemen, two solicitors, a psychiatrist, a doctor and a librarian at the British Library. I also ask Twitter. Twitter can be invaluable for advice and information!
What book influenced you the most?
Stephen King’s On Writing. When I started writing I believed there was no place for “how to write” books. I thought that if I was good enough to write a book I was good enough to write a book. But after my first (and frankly dreadful) book was written and many agents had (rightly) turned it down, I heard an author raving about On Writing and bought it. It changed my whole view of the craft. Stephen King – whose books I adored as a teenager – is incredibly inspiring. Reading about his journey to publication, about the spike on his desk on which he used to spear and collect rejection letters, about the moment – penniless and living in a cold, damp flat, and on the edge of giving up – he was finally offered a contract for Carrie, is both inspiring and sobering. He doesn’t beat about the bush and the second part of the book offers sometimes harsh truths amid the advice on writing and editing. He tells it like it is. Writing is hard work and requires determination and grit. I always read this book before I begin any first draft and then read it again before I start editing.
What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?
A copy of To Kill A Mockingbird, signed with love and a message about being tolerant and standing up for what’s morally right.
What book do you wish you had read when you were young?
Catcher in the Rye. I always wanted to be a rebel, but it’s quite hard to be a successful rebel when you come from liberal parents. I think reading about the rebellious teenager, Holden Caulfield, who goes on a wild romp in New York after being expelled from a smart school, would have resonated with me in a way it could never do now.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Get your first draft written. You need to write “The End”. A first draft is your lump of clay. It’s not going to be pretty. It’s not going to resemble your final book. But it contains everything you need. If you start editing as you go along you run the risk of never finishing. Once you have a first draft, you can look at the whole book, draw out themes, knock back characters that don’t further the narrative, develop important areas, and build on it, shape it, and smooth it until you have something lovely. Don’t be scared of rewriting. And maybe rewriting many, many times. This is where the magic happens.
What weight do you give reviews?
I would be lying if I said I didn’t read them. I do. The harsh ones undoubtedly hurt. But if I do get one that isn’t great – a one- or two-star – I look up a book I love, perhaps The Book Thief or The Kite Runner or Jane Eyre, and read the one- and two-stars for that. It helps put things into perspective. If the very best books in the world can attract poor reviews, then why am I worrying about mine? Reading is highly subjective and differing opinions go with the territory. If a book is going to move some readers then it is just as likely to grate with others.
Where do you see the publishing industry going?
There have been some fabulous independent publishers springing up in the last few years, including my own publisher, Orenda Books. The reaction in the industry to these passionate people who believe in the integrity of publishing and have a clear vision about the books they want to publish has been overwhelmingly positive. There seems to be a reaction to the domination of the industry by the larger publishers, and I hope that small presses will continue to emerge and allow a continuing diversity of books.
What lessons have you learned about life from reading?
Reading is important in developing empathy, and with empathy we gain compassion and with compassion there is kindness. People who read, who immerse themselves in books and in the created worlds of other people, who feel pain and pleasure and love and injustice with the characters they’re reading about, often find it easier to put themselves in other people’s shoes. Empathy, kindness and compassion are the cornerstones of humanity, and reading is a wonderful way to develop them.
What has being a writer taught you?
That, as a group, writers are the most neurotic, sensitive, self-critical, anxiety-addled people on the planet. And I wouldn’t be without them!
Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Oscar Wilde, Caitlin Moran, Anne Tyler, Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway. I would like lots of wine, really good food and would sit and happily listen to them all talk and joke until the small hours.
What is the funniest scene you’ve read?
I love Arthur Dent trying to stop his home being bulldozed at the beginning of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
What is your favourite word?
Serendipity. It sounds beautiful and it’s the most enticing of concepts. Anything that happens by happy chance works for me!
If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?
I am desperate to write a book about the suffragettes. My great-grandmother was a suffragette and also became the first woman to qualify as an optician in England and I feel her legacy passionately. She was hugely supported by her husband, who strongly believed that women should be educated and be able to support themselves independently of men. I would love to look at it from the point of view of both women and men who supported the fight to get the vote for women. It’s such an important time in women’s history and the opportunities to look at society, the emotions, passions, determination and bravery of a handful of individuals is such an enticing prospect.
What sentence or passage or book are you proudest of?
I tend to be quite critical of my writing so this is hard! If I had to choose something, there’s a passage in my first book (Sworn Secret) written from Kate’s point of view. Her eldest teenage daughter died a year previously and she is remembering how her daughter, Anna, asked her to peel an apple when she was 12. Kate recalls being too busy, recalls snapping at her, telling her she’s too old to have her apples peeled. She remembers telling her that she should peel it herself. But now her daughter is dead she is looking back on this with regret, angry at herself for being so sharp, asking herself why she didn’t do this simple task for her child. She says that if she knew her daughter would be gone just a thousand days later, she would, of course have peeled the apple. She would have peeled her an apple every day, “a thousand apples, just for Anna”.
What is the most moving book or passage you have read?
Last year I read a passage in The Silent Hours by Cesca Major. It describes an atrocity from the second World War, which occurred at Oradour. Major describes the tragedy through characters in whom we are totally invested, and the complex emotions and heinous nature of this real event floored me. It was utterly compelling in its unfolding horror and I cried throughout.
If you have a child, what book did you most enjoy reading to them?
Where the Wild Things Are. I love the idea of passing a love of books through the generations. And this reminds me of Mum reading to me. I read it with the same voices my mother used and loved watching my daughters react.
Amanda Jennings is the author of In Her Wake (Orenda Books, £8.99)