Interview: Amanda Hodgkinson reveals the inspiration behind top debut 22 Britannia Road

30 Apr

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of meeting David Nicholls at a Book Slam night. He was the first ‘real life’ author I’d ever met. Combine this with the fact that I am somewhat socially awkward and ridiculously easily starstruck, and you’ll be unsurprised to discover that my conversation with ‘Dave’ consisted of a chewed up ‘ohmygodilovedyourbookitwasamazing’ slur followed by the kind of smile only a mother could love.

The next time, I was prepared. I had realised that authors are in fact real people, and not the mythical creatures surviving on words and rainbows that I’d built them up to be.  So when I meet Amanda Hodgkinson at the Penguin Bloggers Night, an author whose debut novel I LOVED and have shouted about numerous times (try here and here for starters), I’m aware of just how lucky I am to actually meet the person who spent months squirreled away writing a story that made me get more teary-eyed than I ever thought was possible.

Her story of a young Polish couple trying to reconstruct their family in post-war Ipswich broke my heart, and I’m not alone in my admiration – the book has gone on to win the Orange New Writer’s award and was also chosen by Waterstone’s as one of 2011’s must-read debuts.

Amanda Hodgkinson interview 22 Britannia Road

Luckily for me, Amanda is the sort of lady who instantly puts you at ease – warm, approachable and easy to talk to. She’s also hugely inspirational – she wrote Britannia Road in the midst of a move to the south of France, where she’s currently living the dream with her family. But what inspired her to write Britannia Road, and what can we expect from her future work?

We wade through historical research, French philosophy and Second Book Syndrome to find out…

22 Britannia Road was one of my favourite reads of 2011. What inspired you to write it? 

I’m really chuffed it was one of your favourites. Thank you!

It’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly what inspired me because I think ideas swill around in the head and form other ideas.  But I do remember I had been writing poetry and I found myself imagining a woman in a wood. I had been listening to the radio and heard a woman talking about surviving during the Second World War. She described a forest and that was a catalyst too.

I wrote a poem about the woman standing in a birch forest and questions started to pop up in my mind. Why was she there? Where was she exactly? Why did she look so lost?

As I drafted the poem, a boy appeared beside her, holding her hand.

The two of them were so intriguing. I felt like I cared about them in some way. That was when I realised I had to write more to find out who they both were. That was how the novel began for me.

The story is set between war-torn Poland and post-war Britain. What kind of research did you do? 

I read a great many oral histories of displaced people arriving in Britain and what their lives were like, starting again in a new country. I studied the social histories of the immediate postwar period – how people came to terms with peacetime. I was very interested in the experiences of men and women and children who had been separated during war and then had to come together and find a way to live ‘normally’ when obviously everybody had changed. I wanted to write a book about war but I wanted to look at the after-effects rather than the actual fighting and battles.

I also read a lot of Polish literature. I find the literature of a country is a great way to get a real flavour of its culture and of its people. I really focused on what life was like in the 1930s in Poland and also listened to a lot of music from that time and watched wonderful old films on Youtube. I was really moved by the histories of Polish soldiers who came to Britain and fought alongside the British and equally of the women and children who came to Britain to start new lives when their country became under Soviet rule.

As far as historical research goes though, I was always very clear in my head that I was writing a novel – a work of fiction, not a history book. I like the complexities of writing a novel set in the past – but I am aware  that I am creating imaginary characters and a fictional world –  I like a quote from French philosopher Paul Ricoeur: ‘from the mere fact that the narrators and leading characters are fictional, all references to real historical events are divested of their function of standing for the historical past.’ (Ricoeur. Time and Narrative)

When we met at the Penguin Bloggers Night, you said Aurek’s voice just came to you. Was it the same for Silvana and Janusz? Were any characters or plot elements difficult to craft? 

I remember you asking me about Aurek and and I remember thinking, I must not look emotional when I talk about him!

But I do feel emotional about Aurek. I don’t know why he came to me so easily. Perhaps because I am a mother myself. Perhaps also, because I have read so much about the effects of war on children. It makes me feel angry and utterly heart broken to think that children are suffering every day through the direct and indirect effects of war.

Janusz came to me far more slowly. I had to feel my way with him. He came to life for me when he was mending things in the house and creating a home. When he was digging over his garden or fixing a dripping tap. He had such a desire to make a home for his wife and son.

Silvana was different again. I gave her a free rein in the novel because I felt that she was very driven by her instincts. I let her develop as she wished. All through the novel, I kept in mind that she believed herself to be a survivor. That even in peacetime, she was at war with what had happened in the past.

I think every story has at the very least, two sides to it. And a story of war, where loss and forgiveness feature, has many more.  I was very aware that none of my characters were perfect people. I’m not sure a novel should ever be about perfect people in any case. Silvana and Janusz, Tony and even the next door neighbours were all good people and yet all flawed in their own ways.

Did any other elements of the story ‘write themselves’, or evolve in a way that was different to how you anticipated in early drafts?

Really, Aurek’s chapters flowed the most easily for me. And Tony developed the most over the writing of the novel, probably because when he knocked on the door at 22 Britannia Road in an early chapter, I didn’t quite know what he was doing there at first. His friendship with the family changed and I went back and forth with him a bit as I wrote the final draft of the novel.

By the time I was at the 85%  mark in the novel, the ending just flowed in a really exciting way. I think that’s what makes writing so thrilling, when you get those moments where the story unfolds in your head just a little quicker than you can type it.

22 Britannia Road was chosen as one of the Waterstone’s top debuts of 2011, and was more recently voted Orange New Writers book of the month. What do accolades like this mean to you? (PS- I think you were robbed of a place on the Orange Prize longlist!!) 

Well, I am glad you think I should have been on the longlist! I think awards are so important for writers and for books and publishers. It’s a way of getting your work known and it’s the most wonderful validation for a writer.

Photo property of EADT

After a long line of jobs, you decided to follow your dream and start an MA in creative writing. What kind of an effect did the course have on the way you approach creative writing?

I think validation is really important for a writer. Well for me, anyway. So getting a place on the UEA MA course was a validation of sorts. It was a way of coming out and saying I was serious about being a novelist.

Writing-wise, I think I learnt a huge amount from the other writers on my course. We all had to critique each other’s work all the time. I saw that there were many, many ways of writing a story. I’d say the course gave me confidence to experiment with literary form.

You told people you were writing a novel in the hope it would ‘force your hand’ to write it. Obviously it worked! Looking back now, would you still recommend this approach to wannabe writers? What other advice would you offer?

I don’t know if telling everybody you’re writing a novel is a good idea or not. It worked for me but I wouldn’t suggest it’s right for everybody. I sort of painted myself into a corner and I knew I had to work hard to get the book finished because friends kept asking me about it… And maybe, by telling everybody I suppose I felt I was sharing the lonely  writing process a little too.

I think it depends on you as a writer whether you are happy telling people what you are doing or whether you like to keep quiet and then surprise everyone.

The other advice I would give, and I tell myself this most days, is that to complete a novel you just have to keep adding to it.  One sentence leads to another. I like that small way of looking at a novel. It feels manageable to me.

In between all the rave reviews, book tours and general amazingness, you’re currently writing your second novel. In the light of 22 Britannia Road’s success, do you feel more of less pressure on your next novel? 

I think second book syndrome, like second album syndrome, is very real. You put all your love and care into the first novel. It might take years to write. You have no idea if it will be published so you have no expectations. But then,  if the first book does do well, you suddenly worry that the second book has to do well too.

Usually the writer has to write the second book in a certain amount of time. That puts pressure on too. You begin to worry. What if they don’t love this book like they loved the last? What if I can’t write another book? I don’t believe there are any writers who don’t have these kind of worries. I’m full of them!

But, creative doubt is part and parcel of writing. It’s helpful to understand that and to know that the second novel seems to be something that focuses these doubts particularly well. The best way to get past the pressure is to finish the second book and get started on  the third!

Amanda Hodgkinson Penguin Bloggers Night

Amanda reads at the Penguin Bloggers Night, London

Internet rumours suggest your next novel will also be set in Suffolk… What else can we expect?

Well, yes, it is set in Suffolk, though the village it is set in is a mix of different landscapes in the county. It’s a story of a family through several generations. And as I write this, there is still a lot of work to be done on it!

Finally, if you could have written any book, which would you choose? 

I think when I read a book, even if I think it’s the most brilliant book I have ever read, it never occurs to me to wish I had written it. I think what I love most is hearing another voice.  I read a book by a French writer the other day. Beside The Sea by Veronique Olmi. It is a very slim, very powerful novel and I was amazed and shaken by it. It’s quite brilliant and terrifying too. It’s a very human novel and I admire it enormously. I might not wish I had written that novel but I admire it so much.

Another novel, Tinkers by Paul Harding, an American writer fills me with admiration. It is an achingly beautiful book. I’d like to carry a suitcase full of copies of it around with me and give them out to everyone I meet.

Thanks Amanda, and best of luck with the next novel – can’t wait to read it! 

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4 Responses to “Interview: Amanda Hodgkinson reveals the inspiration behind top debut 22 Britannia Road”

  1. Claire 'Word by Word' May 1, 2012 at 8:14 am #

    Brilliant conversation/interview and her book sounds amazing, I love hearing how the characters manifest themselves and develop, the boy knocking on the door reminded me of that scene in ‘Vera Drake’ when the police come knocking and during the improvisations the husband/actor really didn’t know why they were there, so the experience is all the more authentic. I think there is a link with creating characters and using that element of the unknown when the writer stops controlling theoutcome and allows the story/characters to lead. Thanks for the recommendation, I must add this to my list.

    • proseandconsbookclub May 3, 2012 at 8:57 pm #

      Hi Claire, thanks for your message! I think it’s amazing how characters can become their own destiny-controlling entities.. I guess it must be a sign you’ve created a great, believable character if it starts to take on a life of its own.

  2. savidgereads May 11, 2012 at 10:59 am #

    Great interview indeed. This has made me want to get a copy of the book from the library asap. So I shall pop to it later and see if I can get myself a copy!

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