Interviews / Novelists

Interview with Amanda Jennings: “My way of coping was to open my book, hide under a blanket, and read.”

Amanda Jennings was born in London in 1973, and her family moved to a village in rural Berkshire when she was young. She accepted a place to read architecture at Cambridge University, but it soon became clear it wasn’t for her and after a year she changed course to History of Art. 

After she finished university she set up a company with a friend writing copy for a variety of small businesses and then a year or so later was offered a job as a researcher at the BBC. But when she had her first child she found it hard to juggle home life with working, and could no longer ignore her yearning to write. When she became pregnant with her second child, and encouraged by the success of a shortlisted sitcom script in a BBC writing competition, she took the opportunity to be at home with her children, and grabbed every spare moment she could find to write. 

Sworn Secret, her first novel, was published in the UK in August 2012. On kindle it was #4 bestseller in the UK, a Top 100 bestseller in the US, and reached the #1 spot in Italy in translation. It was also published in Taiwan in translation.

Her second book, The Judas Scar, was published in May 2014, and shortly after was optioned by a film and television production company. In Her Wake, her third, was a WHSmith Fresh Talent pick and will be published in Germany, Sweden, Turkey and Italy. The Cliff House is published by HQ, an imprint of HarperCollins, in hardback, audio, ebook, and paperback, as well as internationally. HQ published The Storm in July 2020 and The Haven in March 2022. 

Amanda enjoys appearing at events, is a regular guest on BBC Berkshire’s Book Club, and is a judge for the annual Henley Youth Festival writing competition. She has been involved in the WoMentoring Project, which offers mentoring support for talented female writers with women who work in the literary world, and runs writers’ workshops. 

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Hi Amanda, great to have you on Famous Writing Routines. For those who may not know, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself? 

I am a British writer of dark suspense novels and have also had a number of short stories published. I was born in London and we moved out to a picturesque village on the River Thames when I was three. I am fascinated by the dynamics within a family unit, the secrets that lurk beneath the surface, and the emotional chaos and consequences of keeping these secrets buried, and, of course, what happens when the secrets reveal themselves.

My stories concentrate on the journeys of my characters as they negotiate the fallout of their complicated histories. I’ve always been interested in people and what makes them tick. The ‘whys’ behind their decisions they make and the wide-reaching effects of these decisions on the people they interact with. Nothing in life fascinates me more than people.

Every person has their own story – a rich tapestry of their experiences – and I am always aware of these stories running through them like veins of gold. Perhaps it is this that draws me to interacting with the people I come across. My children know a ‘quick trip to the post office’ can take a lot longer than it should as their mother will end up chatting to a variety of strangers. 

Before writing my first book I worked at the BBC as a Researcher, but stopped when I had my first child. I adored being with her. I was young and she wasn’t part of the grand plan, but being in her company was wonderful. However I needed something else. It was then that I began writing in earnest to give my mind somewhere to escape to.

I am fortunate to come from a long line of independent women – my great-grandmother was the first female optician to qualify in the UK, and my grandmother, also an optician, would always tell me how important it was for women to be educated and financially independent. But I was torn because every part of me wanted to be at home with my child. I think I turned to writing in the hope I could do both.

Trying to write while being a full time mother led to some almost ridiculous moments where she would fall asleep in the car and I would pull over and write furiously before she woke, trying to make the most of that gifted hour. I figured it was easier to drive with a crying baby than write with one! I recall wheeling her into the house after a walk, careful not to wake her and rocking the pushchair with my foot as I desperately tried to get more sentences out. An upside of these early years means I am able to write in snatched moments whilst family life rages around me. 

When I’m lodged in a new book writing overtakes me and like many writers it becomes a compulsion. There is nothing more satisfying than reaching that point in the writing process where time ceases to exist and the words flow easily.

At times it is almost a trance-like state. When I’m not writing or with my family – two more daughters came along to make three – I spend as much time outdoors as I can. We have dogs and horses, chickens and cats, and caring for them is calming. My personality is quite frenetic and animals have a soothing power over me which I thrive on. I adore the sea and the mountains. I have skied since I was a small child and this is a great passion of mine.

There is nothing like the Cornish sea – colours and power of it, the rawness. One day like a tropical island, the next grey and angry with white-tipped waves hammering the blackened rocks. My mother and generations before her are from Cornwall, which I call the ‘land of my mothers’. One day this is where I want to live, on a farm, surrounded by animals, a short walk from the cliffs. For the time being I will satisfy this love by setting my books in this unique part of the world. 

Can you take us behind the creative process for your latest novel, The Haven

The Haven is my lockdown book. I started it just before the pandemic struck and it was written in the most-part during our first lockdown. The weather in England at this time was sensational. Warm and sunny with blue, cloudless skies. The world fell quiet. The hum of traffic faded to nothing. There were no planes in the sky. It felt almost otherworldly.

I was involved in coordinating the local support network for those who were isolating due to health conditions. My family were at home – three daughters, husband, my eldest daughter’s boyfriend. My daily routine looked very different to normal. The Haven became somewhere to retreat to – my space, away from the family, away from the news, the responsibility of looking after those vulnerable members of our community.

Fiction in many ways mirrored reality. Themes emerged of isolation, of desiring a better world, of communal living, the concept of living in a smaller supportive community cut off for the bigger cities and towns, of growing your own food, making bread, caring for livestock, adjusting to a world cut off from technology.

At the time my husband planted a vegetable garden, the children experimented with making pasta and baking. We were preparing and eating three meals a day together. We were, in fact, living a life that wasn’t a million miles away from the life my characters had carved out for themselves in that imposing farmhouse on the wilds of Bodmin Moor.

Though the story changed in the rewrites (we took out the present day threads and I set the entire book in the past in the commune), the first draft was my usual type of story, a secret – in this case the body of a child in a lake – uncovered twenty-five years after the main events and one of my characters was living a hermit’s life in an off-grid ramshackle cottage.

It felt very representative of the loneliness of some of the elderly people I was shopping for and checking in on. Of all my books this is the one which is most closely tied to the external environment it was written in. It also draws from my past more than perhaps the others. Tara and Kit are around the same age as my husband and I when they have their first daughter.

There are elements of me in Tara, my daughter in her daughter, and Kit is very similar to my husband. Perhaps this is due to not being out and about, but spending most of my time in the house with my family as my inspiration, and being awash with quiet time to think about the past and the future, what we want out of life, and, of course, what we value. Facing the threat of an unknown virus, of having the world change so dramatically, witnessing the impact on everyday life, meant I was drawing creative energy from a greater degree of introspection than usual. 

I’m curious to know how the process for your latest novel differed from your first novel? 

My first novel was written while we were in Boston. We moved to the city for my husband’s work and lived there for a year. It was a magical time. I gave myself permission to have a holiday from myself. I was a quieter version of me. Didn’t throw myself into school life with such vigour. Didn’t seek out friends and social groups.

Instead I dropped my children at school and nursery then returned to our apartment and spent the day writing. I had no concept of whether or not the book would get published. There were no pressures to deliver to a deadline. No concerns about how readers might react. It was writing purely for the love of writing.

I look back on those months and am envious of that young woman. I wish I could write like this now. But I am so painfully aware of my words going out in public. Of the reviews. Of the sales. Of the reactions not only from those buying my books but also those working on them, my agent, editor, marketing team. I am plagued with self-doubt. I call it The Fear. I have no idea what fuels this fear, or indeed what I’m afraid of, but it’s there and it’s constant.

The process of writing The Haven, and the three books before that, was far more structured than my first two. I’m not a planner, and never have been, but I write for a few months in notebooks, working on character sketches, vignettes, isolated scenes that come to me with considerable clarity.

I know my characters reasonably well before I start, though not in the way I know them at the end – at the end of the book if you ask me what my character ate for breakfast I wouldn’t hesitate. I know what their favourite subjects at school are. What their first kiss was like. If they had any pets. Their personalities develop over numerous rewrites. Hardly any of this knowledge makes its way into the story, but it’s there, the foundations of my characters, informing their decisions and emotional reactions.

At the outset, as well as a reasonable sketch of the characters are the scenes I have developed in my notebooks. These act as stepping stones through the story. I know the vague direction we’re going in, but the details of the journey come as a surprise as I write. I love this. It means the story keeps fresh in my mind. It excites me when something unusual happens. I enjoy putting my characters into a variety of situations and seeing how they react and these reactions help direct the narrative. It’s as if I’m giving them the freedom to write their own story.

Though this has always been my method, practice has made the process sleeker and more efficient. I wrote maybe eleven or twelve drafts of my first book, The Haven was nearer six or seven. My first drafts are without doubt cleaner and more polished now than they were. I’d be mortified if anybody ever got hold of the first draft of my first two books! 

What does a typical writing day look like for you? 

As I’ve gotten older, I wake earlier. So now I wake around six but will stay in bed until a little before 7. I go downstairs and greet my two dogs – Leo and Saffie – both rescue large rescue dogs who are always so pleased to see me. It’s good to start the day with that much pleasure and love.

My husband and I will have a cup of tea, then I’ll get my youngest child to school. My eldest two are away at university so the house is quieter. I will feed the chickens, give the horses some hay and check them over, then walk the dogs. I try to walk for an hour at least. Sometimes I go for longer. This should be my thinking time but it’s so tempting to check my phone and answer emails, call my sister or best friend, or scroll the news.

But when I’m in the throes of a book I will pace and think and picture the scene I am to write that day. It helps to walk through the scene like this before I face the blank page. Sometimes if a great line of dialogue comes to me I’ll stop and write a note on my phone. I am constantly worried about forgetting these moments of inspiration. I keep a notebook beside my bed and one in the car for the same reason. I will then tidy the kitchen and at around 10am I’ll sit down to write.

I am horribly distractible so I battle with myself for a while, flitting on to Twitter, getting enraged by something some dreadful politician has done. This is one of my worst attributes – my ability to anger so quickly at the behaviour of those in charge. If I perceive an injustice I feel it viscerally and am absolutely no good at moving on without lancing the angry boil with a pithy tweet or lengthy rant on Facebook. I usually have to publicly sign out of social media when I’m trying to get a first draft out. First drafts are my nemesis and any distraction becomes infinitely more attractive, so removing my phone and committing to a few months away from social media helps. Not to mention that it clears my mind.

My phone is another addiction and though I know it is detrimental to me I still keep it in my pocket. I will write until my daughter comes home from school. And then, when my husband gets home, while he is with our daughter and the dogs, or pottering in the garden after work, I will read through what I’ve written that day, make any small edits and fix typos, then print off those days’ pages and push them under his nose. He is my first reader. I care deeply about what he thinks and as he reads the pages I will watch his face for any reaction. He will make the odd scrawl on the paper and I will feel myself bristle – what criticism has he made? How dare he?! – and then he will hand them back and invariably say ‘good stuff. Keep it coming’. He is an integral part of my first draft and the only person who is allowed to read at this stage.

My agent and best friend both read the second draft and are then involved in subsequent drafts, giving me their feedback and reactions. I will often then write for another hour while my husband does whatever he does, then we will sit down together and watch an episode of whichever box set currently has our avid attention. I read in bed every night, but as I get older the time between opening the pages of a book and closing my eyes is getting shorter. 

Do you have a word count that you like to hit each writing day? 

When I am writing a first draft I like to write a minimum of 1500 words a day. When I’m redrafting or editing I tend to try and do it in chapters, so a chapter a day. If I am having one of those days where the words are flowing then I can write up to 3500 words in a day. These are good days! 

Do you consciously do anything to improve your craft? Or is it more a matter of continuing to write regularly? 

I am a chronic editor. I cannot read a draft of anything without wanting to get my red pen out and improve it. If I ever have to read from one of my published books at an event I will even edit the passage before I read. For me my writing can always be better. I won’t let it go into the public domain until I’m happy with it, of course, but I can always see how to improve it.

My agent is very good at saying “step away from the book now, Amanda”. I learn from the books I read and I think there is much to learn from the very best television writers. Especially when it comes to adding tension or making dialogue work. Reading used to be a pleasure, a total escape from reality – as a child if something scary was happening, for example when we were out on a small boat on holiday in Greece and a storm blew in and I could see how worried my father was as he tried to get us back to shore as the waves grew and the wind picked up and the sky turned charcoal.

My way of coping was to open my book, hide under a blanket, and read – but now it’s hard to read without analysing the text. Why has this hit me in the gut? How would I have written this? What observation could have improved this scene? I feel sad about this but there’s no going back now. Instead I live for the day I find a book – those magical books – which speaks to me so intently I lose myself in the story, and for a while I am not a writer any more but a very contented reader. 

What does your writing workspace look like?

I write in a room overlooking our garden, which is handy for drifting away! I have a desk with my computer and usually a horrendous mess. There is always a tea cup – usually full – I have a big tea habit. Maybe 6 or 7 cups a day. I think this is more to do with having a break to make the tea rather than a desire to consume litres of the stuff!

I will give my desk a very good tidy up between books. I can’t start another book without a brand new notebook, new coloured ink pens – purple ink is my preferred – and a tidy desk. By the end of the first draft you can barely see my desk for accumulated papers, notes, tea cups, and goodness knows what else! Right now it is tidy as I am about to start on Book 7. 

Photo of Amanda’s writing office (courtesy of the author).

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