Here, Amy talks about her fascination with the Arctic - "I seem to incline to wilderness" - not minding about messy first drafts and the importance of reading at breakfast ...
PJ: The details of Edward's Arctic expedition are so vividly imagined - the goggles, the anorak, the diary entries, food rations, bears, sleeping conditions etc - did you have access to a collection of objects or records of such an expedition?
AS: No, but I spent many hours reading and researching historical accounts and contemporary texts, as well as collecting images of the Arctic. The first book I read was Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams, which fed into my fascination with the region and my first imaginings of the ice and the light as they change through the seasons. Several incidents in the novel are modified versions of real events lifted from various turn-of-the-century accounts - I restricted my historical reading to that period for the most part, for the sake of accuracy and also to get a sense of the tone for Edward's diary. Nansen's Farthest North, which is cited as an immediate influence on Edward's journey - he sets out to emulate and better Nansen using the same techniques - was essential reading, both for borrowed detail and for his style, wistful and ambitious by turns.
PJ: The Arctic sections are powerful; this feels like 'necessary writing' - what is your relationship to such a landscape?
AS: I regret to say that I have never been there. I am interested in imagined spaces, in mental landscapes. I was drawn to the region, initially, as a space which resists mapping - which shifts and deceives - and the idea of two different responses to that, embodied in the dreams of a couple - a feeling of liberation and awe opposed to frustration and fear. So Simon and Julia's characters, from very early on, were conditioned by those fundamental, opposing frames of mind.
The only comparable
experience I have to draw on is of being in the Alps - a very different
landscape, of course, but it certainly helped to have a sense of how snow
behaves, how light behaves when reflected by snow and ice.
PJ: Your omniscient narrator is necessary in order to hold in view and move between past and present. How did you settle on that voice?
AS: That voice emerged from a short piece
of writing, an experiment with the notion of the omniscient narrator, in which
the reader was invited to observe a couple sleeping, at close range. It was
when I worked out that the couple in that story were the same as the couple I
had been thinking about in relation to the Arctic material that things began to
click into place - much of that experimental piece went into the first chapter,
including the opening line. As the story developed, the narrator became, as you
say, an essential element, allowing me to move between time periods, between
perspectives, and also through the empty house; but it was really an
instinctive impulse in the first instance. The voice enabled the story, rather
than it being a process of working backwards from the material to find a way to
PJ: Did you ever consider making the narrator a minor character or one of the main characters retrospectively telling the story?
the workshop [the MA at Goldsmiths] people asked if it might be Edward's ghost.
I did hear it as a male voice. It's quite domineering and intrusive at the
start but once that's established it phases out and, at times, overlaps with Julia
imagining Edward's story. Also, given the historical element of the novel, it
made sense to draw on the 19th Century tradition of addressing the reader.
Towards the end there are things that the voice doesn't know, the voice admits
that there are things that are unknowable. One of the first thoughts when
writing the book was the idea of how we know each other, the extent to which
its possible to know each other; and the way we tell stories about ourselves
and each other. I wanted to find a way to tell the story that addressed
PJ: You finished the MA in 2008 - was the novel finished at the end of the course?
AS: I started the novel at the beginning of the course, and it was substantially
finished by the end. It takes me a while to get around to writing, but once I
do, I write quite quickly; I think I do a lot of the composing in my head. Once
I'd worked out two key elements - the circadian structure in the present day on
one hand, and Edward and Emily's story, on the other - the details of the plot
came easily for the most part. So by the end of the course, all the notes were
more or less there, but not necessarily in the right order. The hard part was
the structure, and that was what I worked on with my agent and editor for
almost another year after the course ended - it took several edits to get it
right, to ensure that the balance between past and present was working, and the
shifts between them. It was difficult at first to tear the whole thing apart -
it was initially in three big sections, and has been cut up and reshuffled into
six. But every time I took the plunge and made a massive structural change, I
had a feeling of drawing nearer to a pre-existing shape, a rightness that I was
trying to discover rather than create. It can never be perfect and perhaps
there are other ways I might have done it, but I'm more or less happy with
where everything is, now.
PJ: How did it feel to finally realise the project?
AS: I don't
remember having a moment when I thought 'it's finished!' I had the last
paragraph written quite early on, and when I got to the point of pasting it in,
I knew there was so much still to be done on the book that it didn't feel
complete. And then it went through so many rounds of editing and proofing that
when I came to the last check on the page proofs, it felt quite detached from
me. Having said that, I saw an advance copy for the first time this morning,
and am still having trouble believing that it exists at all and isn't just an
unusually substantial hallucination. It has a map. I'm very pleased with the
map. And the design is absolutely beautiful. Portobello have been fantastic
throughout the process and I'm delighted with how it's turned out.
PJ: Given your academic studies [MPhil, Modernism, Exeter College, Oxford], obviously key Modernist writers - Joyce, Woolf, Nabakov - are your 'mentors'. How did you make the shift from critical, academic writing to such a fully imagined piece of fiction that is so strikingly your own?
AS: I have
never found reading other writers while I am in the process of writing to be an
impediment - quite the opposite; I find it invigorating to return to texts that
I love. I went back to T.S. Eliot again and again while I was writing, I wanted
to work in references in an organic, instinctive way. In some ways my academic
training is helpful; I turned to that way of thinking as I read over what I'd
written, to clarify broad thematic concerns and realise implicit connections
that are not overtly stated (the role of women in the book, and the importance
of surrogate feminine relationships, for example). But I also have to put this
analytical part of my brain to sleep while in the process of composition. When
the book is a finished thing, it goes out into the world to be subject to a
hundred different critical and ideological interpretations. If I attempt to
anticipate and answer every one of those interpretations while I'm writing, to
approach my own work from an academic perspective before it's finished, I'll
drive myself mad.
PJ: So, for you, reading is an organic part of the writing process? Can you say a bit more?
AS: I'll sit over breakfast and read for half an
hour, an hour, before writing. If I didn't read I'd be alone with what I'm
trying to make and I'd lose sight of what the point of that is. Largely it's a style thing, partly
reminding myself why I want to write in the first place. I go back to key
passages I've read hundred of times, to remind myself what writing can
do. Also, reading on a daily basis
everything feeds in, regardless of whether its directly relevant. It's
interesting how those random choices affect what you are working on.
PJ: Life after MA - the framework has gone - what new framework have you constructed for your writing?
AS: I am still in contact with my fellow students from the MA; we meet
monthly to exchange and discuss work. This for me is one of the most invaluable
things to have come out of the course. Aside from that, I fear I haven't yet
found a new, entirely successful framework. Completing The Still Point imposed
one - there were deadlines, and specific tasks to be achieved. Now I'm trying
to start something new, and to find that rhythm again, the discipline and
courage to create from scratch, which is so different from the last editing
stages where you're honing what's already there. I have always kept a journal,
where I think through what it is I'm trying to achieve, and that is useful. I
still use the techniques I learned in your seminars; working in short bursts,
creating exploratory fragments which I may or may not use, and remembering not
to not beat myself up if I don't get it right first time.
PJ: Has getting published changed the way you see yourself as a writer?
AS: Absolutely. Perhaps it shouldn't, but I'm an insecure soul and I need validation. I'm also quite career-minded, so when I gave up having a full-time job a few years ago to focus on writing, it was a scary decision for me that I can now feel is justified. But I'm also now feeling the pressure to write another one.
PJ: What surprised/delighted/shocked you about the process of getting published and getting the book to readers?
AS: I worked in publishing so the process of actually making a book was quite familiar to me in some ways. My first meeting at Portobello was a rather overwhelming experience - before going in, I think I had sort of been expecting to have to convince them of my worth, so I was somewhat taken aback by their enthusiasm, and by suddenly being the centre of attention.
The idea of strangers reading my work terrifies me. The idea of my family and friends reading my work terrifies me. The idea of critics reading my work terrifies me. I am considering becoming a hermit.
PJ: Are you still working in publishing? How does the day job fit in with the writing?
AS: No. When I worked in publishing it was a small company so I had a hand in everything from commissioning and devising new book projects, sub and copy-editing, proofreading, working with designers, picture research, occasionally contributing bits of text where needed... I learned a lot about how a book is made, but it was hard work. There was no way I could do a job like that and have space left in my head to create something of my own. Since then I've worked in various part-time temp jobs, mainly doing general administrative stuff, and mainly in the third sector. It keeps me in pocket, means I don't spend all my time alone with myself, and it's something I can leave behind at the end of the day. I also started teaching Creative Writing this year with the Open University, which I'm finding really useful as a way of staying engaged with the processes and techniques of writing; and it's hard to go on at your students about discipline if you don't have any yourself, so it keeps me working. I'm hoping eventually to move into more teaching and leave the temping behind.
PJ: Can you tell us a bit about the new book you are working on? Does it have a title yet?
AS: No title - I didn't have one for The Still Point until very late, when it suddenly seemed blindingly obvious that that was what it should be. So I'm not too worried about that. It's very early days, but I think it will be very different - which is making me a little nervous. It's first person, there's no historical element, it's a much narrower focus. And it's set in Orkney - I have a grant from the Arts Council to go up there for a research trip. I seem to incline to wilderness.
PJ: What are you reading at the moment?
AS: I'm reading Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,
which was a Christmas gift - I don't know her other work at all. It's wonderful
- a memoir of sorts, drawing on her observations of the natural world and her
reading and all sorts of apocrypha and philosophy. Her descriptions are
beautiful, accurate, startling - she describes a gibbous moon as being 'softly
frayed, like the heel of a sock.' I love that.
AS: I'm not sure I'm qualified to be dispensing advice, but I suppose I would just say, you will get bored and frustrated and you will have stodgy patches and days of self-doubt and despair, but remember what it's like when you find just the word you wanted, when you write a line that sings, and keep going - and remember it's easier to work with something than with nothing.