It’s been a whirlwind two years for Amanda Hodgkinson – and of course we’d like to put that down to us here at Words with Jam. Since appearing on our cover in April 2011, Amanda’s career has gone from strength to strength. Alas, we can’t take full credit. A New York Times best seller spot for her debut novel, 22 Britannia Road - plus worldwide book tours - may also have something to do with it!
Amanda has reached the giddy heights many writers can only dream about. But how is life under the wing of a huge publisher like Penguin, and has the writing dream lived up to expectations?
Now, with her second novel, Spilt Milk, published this month, it’s probably a good time to be asking those questions.
(See our Reviews for Gillian’s thoughts on Spilt Milk.)
You’ve had an exciting couple of years since we last spoke, how has your life, and your writing, changed since the success of your debut novel?
I’ve learned a great deal about the world of publishing since my last interview in WWJ. Back in April 2011, when I was on the front page of this magazine (still rather proud of my cover girl moment) 22 Britannia Road was just published and I was beginning to understand how much publicity a writer is expected to do.
I’m quite a shy person and I found it fairly uncomfortable initially, having to give interviews and do talks and signings. Now, after book tours across Europe and two extensive tours of America, I think I have gained confidence and have learned to talk more freely about books and the writing life. I have also learned how to use my time carefully. I began work on my second novel shortly after 22 Britannia Road was published and I quickly found I needed to cut down on distractions in order to get it finished. I think I have become a great deal more organised and disciplined as a result.
What have been the highlights of your career since the publication of 22, Britannia Road?
There have been many wonderful moments. 22 Britannia Road was chosen as a Waterstones best debut novel 2011 on publication and an Orange New Writers selected book. Both these accolades made me very proud. The day before I set off on my first US book tour, I found out 22 Britannia Road was on the New York Times best seller list. It had only been out on sale in the US for a few weeks. I was staying with friends at the time and I sat on their stairs, trying to let the news sink in while they ran around opening bottles of champagne!
Have there been any negatives, maybe low points you weren’t expecting?
I think you dive into your first novel without much more expectation than the hope you can finish it. When I began writing my second novel though I was very aware of my publisher waiting in the wings and that felt uncomfortable. I began to stress a lot about the book and that got in the way of writing. In fact my editor was very patient and any pressure I felt was of my own making. I realised fairly quickly that the important thing is to concentrate on the writing and forget everything else.I was also lucky enough to have some amazing friends who are novelists themselves and they helped me to put things in perspective.
Has your love of writing changed since you began your journey?
I’d say my love of writing has got much stronger. I am obsessed by the desire to find the right way to tell a story. And the only way to do that is to write more novels. More than ever, I believe you must write because you are driven to do it.
How do you feel when you read reviews – good or bad – about your work?
I try to remember that reviews are about a reader’s experience of a book and not a comment on the writer themselves. Or at least they should be like that! Everybody has a right to say what they think of a book and it is understood, rightly or wrongly, that writers should not respond personally to reviews. A novel, once it leaves the writer’s hands and becomes a commodity – ie, a book to be sold in bookshops etc., no longer belongs to the writer in the way it did during its writing. Of course a good review feels wonderful. And a bad review, whether you believe it is fair or not, tends to hurt or feel uncomfortable. Happily, books are the most subjective things in the world. One person’s five-star-favourite can be another person’s one star-awful-couldn’t finish-it-novel. I can find an odd kind of comfort in that!
How was the experience of writing your new novel, Spilt Milk, in comparison to writing your first book? Were there differences?
They are two quite different books and so they presented me with two different sets of problems to be solved. 22 Britannia Road was a novel that spanned a relatively short amount of time whereas Spilt Milk tells the story of two sisters over a period of sixty years. The structure for 22 Britannia Road, chapters that moved from the past to the present, felt right for that book. With Spilt Milk I wanted to move more fluidly through time and it’s structured more loosely to reflect the novel’s themes and time spans.
Tell us a little about Spilt Milk.
Spilt Milk is the story of two sisters Nellie and Vivian, who grow up in a small cottage by a river. When the sisters fall in love with the same man, a mysterious traveller passing through their village, their lives change forever. Spilt Milk is a novel about sisterhood and motherhood, and also about the way we live our lives, the stories we pass on to the next generation and the ones we try to forget.
You have some fantastically strong female characters in this book, what makes a perfectly formed character for you? How do you approach characterisation?
I’m glad you find my female characters interesting. I am drawn to protagonists, male or female, who might be filled with good intentions but nevertheless make mistakes. I am interested in writing about the complexities of life I suppose. I take a long time to get to know my characters and I tend to write many more scenes for them than can ever realistically fit into a novel. That way, as a writer, I can be sure about them. I know things are going well in my writing when I begin to care deeply about the characters and they feel real to me.
And so to book three, any ideas bubbling away you can tell us about?
I’m working on the third book now, planning, writing small scenes, getting to know the characters a bit. It is set in rural France and centres on two stories, one that takes place in 1943 and the other which concerns a young English woman in 2002. I am in the honeymoon stage with the writing– it’s early days and everything is possible so the novel might well change a lot by the time I get a first draft done.
Having now experienced all aspects of a writer’s life, do you have any words of wisdom you’d like to pass onto aspiring authors who may be reading?
I am sure everybody knows that to be a writer you must be a reader but I cannot overstate that enough. Read widely and always carry a book with you in case you can snatch extra reading time in your day.
Know that it is normal to hate what you are writing at some point along the way. This is ok. But you still have to keep on writing. Things will get better if you keep writing.
Lastly, write because you have something to say and make sure you have a good support group of people you trust. They will see you through the difficult times and celebrate with you when the writing flows.
Finally, what are you reading at the moment?
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. I’m loving it. Wonderful writing.