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The Interview : Amanda Huggins

(Rachna Singh in conversation with Amanda Huggins)


The Wise Owl talks to Amanda Huggins, an award-winning poet and writer from Yorkshire. Amanda Huggins is the author of the novellas Crossing the Lines and All Our Squandered Beauty, both of which won the Saboteur Award for Best Novella, in 2021 and 2022 respectively. She has also published three collections of short fiction – Brightly Coloured Horses, Separated From the Sea and Scratched Enamel Heart, and a poetry collection, The Collective Nouns for Birds, which won the 2020 Saboteur Award for Best Poetry Pamphlet. Scratched Enamel Heart includes her Costa short Story award prize-winning story, 'Red'.

Her travel writing has won her several awards, notably the British Guild of Travel Writers New Travel Writer of the Year Award in 2014, and she has twice been a finalist in the Bradt Travel Writer of the Year Award. Her flash fiction has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and the Fish Prize and was included in the 2019/20 BIFFY50 list of the fifty best UK flash fictions. In 2020 Amanda won the Colm Toibin International Short Story Award, in 2021 she won the H E Bates Short Story Prize and was a runner-up in the Fish Short Story Prize and the annual Writers in Kyoto prize. Amanda's work has been published in fiction and poetry anthologies, travel guides, textbooks and literary magazines, as well as in The Guardian, The Telegraph, Reader's Digest, Take a Break’s Fiction Feast, Traveller, Popshot, Mslexia, Wanderlust, Tokyo Weekender and Writers' Forum. Her work has also been broadcast on BBC radio.

Her new short story collection, An Unfamiliar Landscape, described as ‘exquisité’by author, Gail Aldwin, will hit the bookstores this month.

RS: Thanks Amanda, for taking time out to speak to The Wise Owl.

First up, I’m sure our readers would be eager to know a bit about your creative journey as a poet and a writer. Do tell us how you started writing and a bit about people who encouraged your creativity and were your creative mentors.

AH:  I was a voracious reader when I was a child, and this inspired me to write stories and poetry of my own, always encouraged by my parents. My debut publishing success came when I was eleven, with an embarrassing love poem dedicated to my first love, the footballer George Best, which won third prize in my grammar school’s literary competition! I’d like to say I never looked back, but a few years later, after writing a glut of angst-ridden sixth form poetry, I put my literary ambitions aside for quite a while.

Ten years ago, I started writing again with serious intent. I began with narrative travel pieces and was lucky enough to achieve success in a number of competitions and to see my work published in national newspapers. Then one day I noticed a fiction contest in a magazine and decided to write something for it. It didn’t get anywhere in the competition, but it rekindled my love of writing short stories. I sent an early story to a women’s literary fiction magazine, The Yellow Room, edited and published by Jo Derrick. To my delight (and surprise) it was accepted, and Jo subsequently became a good friend and mentor. Having my work accepted so early on was a huge boost to my confidence and everything followed on from there.

RS: Do you have any favourite writers and poets you turn to for inspiration?

AH: I have been inspired by so many authors and poets that it’s hard to know where to start!

The earliest memory I have of wanting to be a writer myself was when I read Enid Blyton’s House at the Corner. My ambition was to be just like Lizzie, inventing stories and getting them published. When I started to read Agatha Christie novels, I immediately wanted to be a crime writer, and then a few years later I wanted to be Marilyn French or Alice Hoffman…

I still read a wide variety of books and continue to be inspired by countless poets, novelists and short story writers.

I have a huge collection of poetry books – recent favourites include work by Kim Moore, Angela Readman, Patti Smith, Helen Mort, Hannah Lowe and Lavinia Greenlaw. Short story collections on my shelves include those by William Trevor, Lucy Caldwell, Tessa Hadley, Helen Simpson, A L Kennedy, Miranda July, K J Orr, Ernest Hemingway, Taeko Kono, Haruki Murakami, Richard Ford, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, Anton Chekhov, Annie Proulx, Isaac Babel, and A M Homes.

Kazuo Ishiguro is one of my all-time favourite authors, and 'The Remains of the Day' is certainly in my top five favourite novels – the story of a life sacrificed to duty; beautifully written and heart-breaking. Other all-time favourite books include 'Jane Eyre' by Charlotte Bronte, The 'Little Prince' by Antoine de Saint Exupery, 'The Siege' by Helen Dunmore, and Hemingway’s 'A Moveable Feast'. More recently I’ve loved 'Strange Weather in Tokyo' by Hiromi Kawakami and 'The Housekeeper and the Professor' by Yoko Ogawa. And this year’s favourite novel so far is 'Trespasses' by Louise Kennedy – intense, honest and heart-wrenching.

As you can tell from some of my choices, I’m a big fan of Japanese writing. Japanese literature is often poetic, quiet and unhurried, and that way of writing suits the short story and novella forms. Sparing and effective use of language, subtlety and nuance, a certain elusiveness, all demand the stories are read slowly, and that they are re-read and savoured. These are qualities which draw me back again and again, and the tales of yearning and loss, of not quite belonging, all resonate with the themes I explore in my own fiction.


RS: You are a poet, a writer, an editor as well as a creative writing tutor. Our readers would be curious to know which role is closest to your heart.

AH:  I enjoy writing in many different forms, but short stories and poetry are undoubtedly my first loves. Since writing my novellas, I have found that my stories are becoming naturally longer, and I rarely write flash fiction anymore, but I can’t see me ever writing a full-length novel – though I’ll never say never.

I am lucky to work in publishing and I do enjoy editing and promoting other authors’ novels and collections – but I’d still rather be working on my own books!


RS: I enjoyed reading your novellas, Crossing the Lines as well All Our Squandered Beauty. What inspired you to write these books?

 

AH: Thank you – I’m glad you enjoyed them both!

'All Our Squandered Beauty' is a coming-of-age novel set on the Yorkshire coast and in Greece, and was developed from the title story of my first short story collection, 'Separated From the Sea'. My second novella, 'Crossing the Lines', was based on my story ‘Red’ which was a runner-up in the Costa Short Story Award in 2018.

The original idea for the short story ‘Separated From the Sea’ came from an even shorter story, a piece of flash fiction based around a sea myth I’d conjured up from somewhere in my imagination. I had the urge to write more about the girl in the story and the fishing village I could picture in my head. I’d recently lost my own father as well, so the theme of long-term grief was something I subconsciously wanted to explore.

I can’t really pinpoint where the idea came from for ‘Red’. Like most of my work, it is firmly entwined with the landscape in which it is set, and sometimes a vision of a place can be enough inspiration for a story to take shape by itself. In both cases, several readers said they wanted to know more about the characters and what happened next, and so I had to write the novellas to find out…I was very lucky to have both of them published by the fabulously supportive Victorina Press.


RS: A lot of your stories and your books have a strong connection with the ocean and sea and refer to losses and tragedies that happen in fishing villages or coastal towns. Could you please throw some light on this.

AH: I was born and brought up on the North Yorkshire coast and return to the sea whenever I can. In the reviews for All Our Squandered Beauty, many readers commented that the book felt like a love letter written to the sea. Although this wasn’t intentional, it was probably inevitable! Much of my work has the sea at its heart: the way it gives and takes, its strength and cruelty, its transformative power, its untameable beauty, the myths and folklore that surround it. Although I live inland at the moment, I find that being near the sea always proves to be the most inspirational place to write. In fact, two of the drafts of All Our Squandered Beauty were written mainly by the sea. 


RS: I enjoy reading your stories with their blend of sensitivity and intricate detailing. I especially loved ‘Separated from the Sea’ which you later developed into a novella. But I have observed that fewer writers are writing stories & I’m told that getting publishers to take on stories is an uphill task. Did you face any such problems when trying to get your short story collections published?

AH:  There has been recent talk in the publishing world of a short story renaissance, but I’m not sure how true that is. I read a lot of literature in translation, and certainly the Japanese are still in love with writing short fiction. But the traditional paid markets for shorts, such as women’s magazines, are definitely shrinking even further.

Even though short fiction is suited to the pace and attention span of the modern world, some readers say they don’t read shorts because they can’t lose themselves in the story the way they can in a novel. It is true that they demand a fine-tuned focus, that they seek to be read straight through, and every sentence weighs in heavy because it has to earn its place. Yet all these things bring their own rewards. A cracking story will repay your time and attention by leaving you with something to think about for days after you’ve read it.

I was fortunate to find a publisher who believed in short stories – Amanda Saint at Retreat West Books – and my forthcoming collection, An Unfamiliar Landscape, was commissioned by Valley Press. But I’m aware I’ve been very lucky. Agents and major publishers aren’t generally so keen on taking on collections of shorts.


RS: Please share with our readers your creative process from the time an idea for a story or poem strikes you to the time that you give the finishing touches to your book and send it to your publisher.

AH:  Confession time – I don’t really have a process! If an idea pops in my head, then I get something down and take it from there. Sometimes a poem becomes a story and vice versa. I tend to find that if I can complete the first draft of a story all in one sitting then it’s more likely to end up being a finished piece of work. I’m a very slow writer and I’m always amazed at some other writers’ output. I also edit continuously as I go, and I never feel a story or a poem is finished. Even when I do live readings, I find myself editing the excerpts I’ve chosen to read!


RS: Your collection of short stories 'An Unfamiliar Landscape' will hit the bookstores this month (October 2022). This collection has been described as ‘exquisite’ by Gail Aldwin. Do tell us something about your book.

AH: 'An Unfamiliar Landscape' is a collection of pieces written mainly over the last three years or so. It includes a few recent prize-winners as well as some older stories I have completely rewritten. The best way to give you an overview is to share the blurb:

Stories from the city, the sea and the forest; stories from places where everything is not always as it first appears.


This collection takes us on a journey from rain-soaked Berlin to neon-bright Tokyo; from mid-west North America to the back streets of Paris; from a suburban London kitchen to a Yorkshire fishing village. Yet wherever the characters live, and wherever they travel to or from, they are all navigating unfamiliar ground in their search for answers.


In ‘The Names of the Missing’ Kara walks the streets of Berlin, photographing the homeless and the displaced while looking for her own missing boys. Sam and Isla’s familiar world is irrevocably altered ‘In the Time It Takes to Make a Risotto’, and in ‘Waiting to Fall’ Gina is unsettled by the wild landscape when she stays at remote Ragwood Hall. In ‘Something in the Night’ an urban forest plays tricks on Anna’s perception of reality, and in the title story, Sophia moves through Tokyo almost unseen; simultaneously freed and trapped by her apparent invisibility.


These are stories of the yearning to belong and the urge to escape; tales of grief and alienation, loss and betrayal, love and truth, change and hope.


RS: Please tell us something about your ongoing projects. I believe you are working on a poetry collection which is likely to release in 2023. Please tell us about it. Your last poetry book 'The Collective Noun for Birds' was published some years back. What made you go back to poetry after publishing fiction (Novellas & short stories) in the last few years?

AH: Yes, my first full-length poetry collection, 'Talk to Me about When We Were Perfect', will be out in early 2023 from Victorina Press. I haven’t really gone back to poetry as such, I’ve been writing it continuously ever since I started work on 'The Collective Nouns for Birds'. I was absolutely amazed at the brilliant response I got when my poetry was first published, and that gave me the impetus to work towards a full collection. There are two or three poems in The Collective Nouns which readers have contacted me about to let me know I made them cry – that’s my job as a writer done!

Now I’m moving on to my next book, which is a collection of all my stories set in – or heavily referencing – Japan, with accompanying essays on Japan, poems, and journal entries from my travels. I’m currently working on several new stories for the collection, as well as having the (pleasant!) task of going through all my Japan journals to select excerpts. That will be out in early 2024 from Victorina Press.

RS: You are a writer, a poet as well as a creative writing tutor. What advice would you give our budding writers and poets about how to hone their craft. Any tips about how and when to approach publishers with a book would also be welcome.

AH: Here are some random tips and thoughts which I hope will help:

You need to read a lot. This is something which may sound obvious, but you’d be amazed how many writers don’t read the right things. For example, when I ask would-be short story writers who are their favourite short fiction writers, they often look at me blankly and say they don’t really read much short fiction!

As a writer you are always learning one way or another, and there are many inexpensive or free courses which can help hone your craft. The internet is a vast resource for writers. If you’re in doubt about a point of grammar or style, then chances are you can look it up quite easily – so don’t be lazy about it!

Check out Toby Litt’s invaluable short story course for beginners:

https://tobylitt.wordpress.com/2019/03/01/starting-to-write-a-free-10-lesson-course-on-writing-short-stories/

I would never make sweeping statements like “write every day even if you’re not inspired”, as people can feel so pressured by this type of advice that it ends up hindering instead of helping. But what I would say is that you should only write if you really love doing it and would be diminished by not writing. Fame and riches are hard to come by and are not the best motivator.

Networking is always useful: talk to other writers at events and festivals, join a writing group, follow writers on social media. It’s a lonely business, and your partner and family will probably soon get tired of hearing about your writing. Also, never expect friends and family to actually read your stuff – they probably won’t. And they’re not the right people to ask for feedback.

Feedback from fellow writers, tutors and editors is invaluable and hard to come by – so when you get some don’t dismiss it in an angry huff. Read it, digest it, leave it alone for a while and then read it again. Nine times out of ten you’ll probably end up thinking “Ah yes, they’re actually right”. And if you really disagree with it, then fine, it’s your work. But always be prepared to kill your darlings…

When you start out, submit to lots of places at once – that way you’re not waiting on tenterhooks for one response. When a rejection hits it won’t feel as bad if you’ve got another ten other pieces out there. Though I think this actually matters less when you’ve had a few things published and have become accepting of the high rejection rate!

As regards approaching publishers: don’t hang on to your work forever – it will never be perfect, but don’t send it out too soon either – edit and proofread and edit and proofread again. The worst thing that can happen is that they say no – and as the Japanese say, fall down seven times, get up eight…

The Mslexia Indie Press Guide is a great resource for discovering new UK publishers: 

https://mslexia.co.uk/shop/indie-press-guide/


RS: You have won innumerable awards for best novella as well as best poetry collection. Your books attract literary appreciation and also appeal to the masses. Does this blend of popular appeal and literary flavour come to you naturally or do you consciously work towards it?

AH: I don’t consciously work towards appealing to a specific audience – I’m just thrilled when people want to read my work. I write about what I want in the way I want, and I’m not really aware of striving towards a particular style. When people ask me what genre I write in, I usually say ‘accessible literary fiction’ as that’s the label I seem to keep on being given!


Thank you so much Amanda for taking time out to speak to The Wise Owl. It was lovely interacting with you. We wish you the best in all your literary endeavours. Hope your book 'An Unfamiliar Landscape' wins you accolades and awards.

Thank you, Rachna! And thanks for inviting me over to The Wise Owl – I’ve really enjoyed talking with you.

Works of Amanda Huggins

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An Unfamiliar Landscape

(Releasing October 2022)

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All Our Squandered Beauty

Saboteur Award for Best Novella, in 2021

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Crossing the Lines

Saboteur Award for Best Novella, in 2022

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The Collective Nouns for Birds

2020 Saboteur Award for Best Poetry Pamphlet

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Scratched Enamel Heart

(A collection of Short Stories)

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Separated from the Sea

(A Collection of Short Stories)