I am very pleased to welcome to Air and Sea Stories, Amanda Berriman, whose fantastic debut novel Home will be published next month (February 2018) by the Transworld imprint of Penguin. Home is a beautiful novel with a unique voice – that of four-(and a half!)-year-old Jesika, who, with her mother is forced to negotiate the insecure world of a single-parent family living in an economically-depressed England in the midst of a housing crisis. A review of Home will be published in due course, but for now, suffice to say that I found it as fresh, nuanced and subtle as the best literary fiction, with as page-turning, compelling a story as any thriller. It is book that grabs hold and won’t let go until long after you’ve finished. It deserves to get a great deal of attention in 2018, and I think it will.
I first met Amanda through the Word Cloud writing community a few years ago. Amanda had written a story for an annual challenge on the Cloud, which involves writing a piece of short fiction to a set theme, with some wrinkles in the rules that make life difficult for the writer. Amanda’s story was both technically brilliant, using an unlikely form, and packed an emotional piledriver of a punch. It won that challenge, and can now be read in the Stories for Homes 2 collection in aid of Shelter. As introductions go, it certainly got my attention! As a result of that, and other work of Amanda’s that I had read in the meantime, I was looking forward to Home immensely, and it did not disappoint
So, welcome Amanda. First, please tell me a little bit about yourself and your writer’s journey. How did you start writing, and how did you come to write Home? Also, how did it come to be published by Transworld?
Thank you, Matt, for inviting me onto your blog. I’m a primary school teacher and writer, originally from Edinburgh, but currently living in North Derbyshire with my husband, children and dogs. I used to write a lot when I was a child – usually fantastical stories involving haunted castles, secret passages and hidden treasure – but it was pushed aside by school exams and then my music degree and I didn’t come back to it until a few years into my teaching career. I had a spark of an idea during an English lesson one day and that’s all it took to get me going again. That was fifteen years ago and I’ve spent the intervening years learning how to write, going on courses, attending festivals, getting involved in critiquing partnerships, submitting to agents, and being rejected many, many times. But in that time, writing has become so much a part of me that it’s hard to understand now what I did with myself during that decade when I barely wrote at all.
Home started as a short story (A Home without Moles) for Stories for Homes – an anthology published in 2013 raising money for Shelter. I intended to leave it as a short story but my main character, Jesika, had other ideas. She wouldn’t leave me alone, and so I gave her a novel. It took me around two years to produce a first draft and another year to rewrite and edit it to ‘final’ draft stage. During this time, I showed it to various agents four years in a row at the York Festival of Writing and, as a result of one of those 1:1 sessions, I was offered representation by Jo Unwin in September 2016. Having taken so long to get to this point, everything since then has happened incredibly fast! Jo submitted Home to publishers in December 2016, two publishers were interested and I found myself in the amazing position of making a choice between the two. By March 2017 it was all official: I had a signed contract with Transworld!
Could you describe your writing process? What’s your routine? Do you listen to music or prefer silence? Your biog describes you as a teacher and writer. How do you balance the two workloads? Do you have a struggle to fit your writing around your teaching commitments?
I’m not really a planner. I get an idea – a character, a single sentence, a strong emotion in a specific situation – and I play with it in my head for a while. As the idea solidifies, I start writing down descriptions, conversations and notes about scenes. When I think I’m ready to start writing, I begin at the beginning, but I often have several false starts before I get into my stride, and then I write chronologically (mostly) until I get to the end. After that I go through several drafts rewriting, editing and polishing to produce a final draft. Whether I write to music seems to depend on the piece of writing. When I wrote my first (unpublished) novel, I listened to the same Vaughan Williams CD over and over again, for a particular short story it was a single three-minute song on repeat, but when I wrote Home, I could only work in silence*.
I used to struggle to fit writing around being a primary teacher because, even working part-time, there was always so much school work to be done at home and it took over my days off so easily if I let it. But since moving to my current job teaching primary school music, I am more likely to stay late for concerts than I am to bring work home so my teaching days are far more contained. The hardest part about organising my writing time when I am not teaching is being self-disciplined because there are no fixed hours and home is full of distractions – chores, children, dogs and the internet! I try to stick to a rule of ‘write-first’ but when I’m particularly struggling to switch my mind off from household responsibilities (and the internet!), I take myself off to the local library for a few hours (and never connect to their wi-fi!) When I have a specific project that I need to make progress on, I try to write every day using a chart called Don’t Break the Chain. Every day I write, even if it is only a sentence, I colour in a box and the idea is to make the chain as long as possible. The lack of word count takes the pressure off and makes it easy to fit writing into every day, because even on the busiest days I can find time to write a sentence, and because I’m doing something every day (however little it may be), it keeps the story fresh in my head so I never waste time going over old writing to figure out where I’m up to. Some days I do only write a sentence but many others the sentence becomes a paragraph or a page or a couple of pages and it all adds up over time.
*silence being a relative term in a busy house that is rarely silent!
Jesika’s is an extremely striking voice and view of the world. How did you first imagine Jesika and what was it about her that made you want to develop her original short story (A Home Without Moles) into a much larger and more complex narrative?
Three things happened around the same time. I wrote something for a short memoir competition that delved into some childhood memories and experimented with a child-like voice. Shortly afterwards, I read a wonderful book called The Night Rainbow by Claire King which is written in the voice of a five-year-old girl. And finally my mentor Debi Alper and her friend Sally Swingewood launched Stories for Homes – a charity anthology raising money for Shelter. They asked for submissions on a theme of ‘Home’ and for weeks I had no ideas at all, until one day I thought: ‘What does homelessness look like to a child?’ And there was Jesika standing in front of me with her hands on her hips demanding to know what had taken me so long. Her short story was completed in a feverish, intense week of writing – I could hardly keep up with the words pouring out of me. After it was accepted for anthology, I went back to another writing project but Jesika had other ideas. She sat on my shoulder, whispered in my ear, pulled my hair, stamped on my keyboard, and in the end I gave in and wrote her a novel.
A big thread running through the book seems to be how children and adults inhabit worlds that are substantially incomprehensible to each other. How did you tackle rendering that collision from a child’s perspective in a way that is comprehensible to an adult while preserving the gulf of understanding? How difficult was it?
I think slipping into Jesika’s voice and her view of the world was the easiest part of writing the novel but I don’t think it came out of nowhere. I can recall my own childhood vividly and there were many times that I remember experiencing something and then noticing that the adults around me either dismissed my experience or minimised it or fudged it with an explanation that didn’t fit the emotions I had just experienced. As a teacher, and later a parent, this became something fascinating to me: that there are many layers to a child’s understanding of the world and that they are often underestimated because their understanding is measured by the words coming out of their mouths rather than the sophisticated thought processes that they are capable of but not necessarily ready or able to communicate in ways we can easily understand. But I’m not sure I could have written Home drawing on my memories and my teaching experience alone. My children were three and five when I started the novel – either side of Jesika’s age. Life with children that young is exhausting, non-stop and all-consuming, but it also turned out to be the perfect environment to observe and soak up everything from their language and the way they behaved and reacted to how they saw things compared to me and their priorities versus my own. It was a constant exercise of putting myself in their shoes – at times literally when I would get down on my knees and observe what the world looked and felt like when you’re that small.
Why did you choose the voice of a very young child to narrate this story? Or was it just that it was Jesika’s story so it needed to be in that voice? What were the specific advantages and disadvantages?
Jesika chose me! That might sound odd but what I mean is that after I had that thought about what homelessness looks like to a child, she was just there in my head and I didn’t have to work out what her voice was or how she would sound. She started talking immediately and I had to type fast to keep up with her! One of the disadvantages was being limited by her access to the world. There were things that, as a child, she wouldn’t or couldn’t see or hear or experience so I had to find another way for her to tell that part of the story. It was very useful, however, that she is such an inquisitive child who often listens in even when the conversation is nothing to do with her – not too dissimilar to both my children! One of the advantages was that I was able to write about some subjects that aren’t comfortable but were easier to tackle through the prism of Jesika’s innocent view of the world – it created a distance that made it possible for her to comment on these issues without the novel becoming too dark, though I know there are moments when it teeters on the edge.
Did you have in mind books like To Kill a Mockingbird with child narrators? Did you explore how other authors had approached this or was it very individual to you?
As I mentioned above, I had very recently read The Night Rainbow by Claire King, and I’d also read My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher and Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls, so I was aware of the idea of a child narrator and I thought all three of these books immersed the reader so completely into the world of the child – in fact A Monster Calls is the only book I’ve ever had to stop reading because I was crying so hard I couldn’t see the words anymore. But when Jesika arrived in my head, I didn’t go back to these books or look for any others in a similar vein because Jesika’s voice was so clear to me and I didn’t want any other voices in my head in case it broke the magic, or in case I became too daunted by other people doing it better. Strangely, although it was a book I had loved as a teenager, I had not remembered To Kill a Mockingbird having a child narrator – though when I re-read it last month for the first time since school, it all came back to me and I suddenly remembered a discussion in English class about the power of using Scout’s innocent view of the world to tackle difficult subjects – and as that’s exactly what I did with Jesika, I have no doubts that there was a subconscious influence there as well.
Home is at times playful and whimsical but there are some very serious and dark themes explored. How emotionally difficult was it to tackle these themes during the writing and editing? How did you cope with that throughout the process?
I found some of the darker scenes very difficult to write – especially as I am not a planner so I didn’t have a clear idea of where the story was taking me and that meant I would sometimes stumble upon a dark scene without realising it was coming, which could be overwhelming. Generally, if I become too overwhelmed by something I’m writing, I put it away and do something else – walk, cycle, watch telly, read a book, meet up with friends – but sometimes I make myself write on and confront whatever it is that is difficult because some of my best writing has come from doing that. Although it doesn’t always work like that because I also have a bad habit of trying to control the direction of the story too much in order to avoid the difficult stuff! When I realise I’m doing that, I make myself leave it, do something else and come back to it another day. But however difficult it feels writing the dark stuff, I always feel better afterwards when I’ve reached a point where I’ve written it well and done it justice.
Why are these issues important to you? What did you most want to communicate through writing Home?
I grew up in a single parent family experiencing financial and emotional struggles but the biggest difference between my experiences and Jesika’s was that I always had a safe, habitable home. Safe shelter is a basic human need but the poorer you are, both in terms of finances and support, the fewer choices you have, and when your choices are restricted, nothing is easy or straightforward. That’s the story I set out to write but it also became a story about control: Who has it? Who doesn’t? How do you regain control over your life when you have lost it, or never had it in the first place? The answer to that last question is largely, I believe, education and community, and that’s what I wanted the story to communicate: education is transformative and empowering and we are all stronger together.
On the subject of those issues, did you intend Home to be a political book in any sense? Beneath that simple sounding title word there are a lot of layers of meaning, not just of what home means to different people but the sheer difficulty people increasingly have of finding somewhere to live. Did you intend any specific messages for readers to take away?
There is a housing crisis and it’s getting worse but I didn’t intend this book to be a commentary on why there’s a housing crisis or whose fault it is or who should be doing what to solve the problem. I wanted the novel to tell an honest story about something that real people in our country deal with every day. There is a place for arguing politics, of course, but it’s also important to recognise that while politics are being argued, people are still living in terrible conditions and dealing with terrible situations. The housing crisis is complex and the solutions will be complex but we should never lose sight of the ultimate aim which is to ensure that everyone has a safe roof over their heads and the autonomy to make decisions about their lives. That’s the message of the book. Which possibly is a little bit political!
How much was this influenced by the Stories for Homes project, given that the first time readers got to meet Jesika was the opening story of the first Stories for Homes anthology?
In Stories for Homes, A Home without Moles gave readers a snapshot of Jesika’s life and what her family were dealing with on a day-to-day basis. I wanted to preserve that as the background to the novel (and those who have read the story will probably recognise odd paragraphs and details that have made it into the novel) but I wanted to take the story further: if this is where Jesika and her family live now, what happens when they try to change it? Who or what helps them? Who or what obstructs them? What happens when you have no choices left?
Have you any plans to write another book in same vein? What future projects are you working on? And what do you hope to work on when you get the chance?
I’m working on an idea at the moment which overlaps a little with Home but takes up the story of a couple of the minor characters. It’s early days so that’s about as much as I can say right now! I’m not sure what will come after that but the inspiration for this second book hit me while I was mid-draft with Home, and that’s usually what happens for me. So hopefully as I get deeper into this second book, the next idea will appear. I also love writing short stories and use them as breaks from novel writing when I need it. I have one on the go at the moment, featuring a minor characters from book two and it’s being very useful in helping me to understand my main character, but it’s had a few false starts so I don’t think I’ve let the idea brew for long enough.
Amanda, thank you so much for your time and these amazing insights into the writing of Home.