Weaving the Past into the Present
by Angela Petch Views: 829
Amanda Hodgkinson is the author of 22 Britannia Road, an international and New York Times bestseller. She has also written Spilt Milk and a novella, “Tin Town”, featured in Grand Central, a collection of stories of love and reunion.
“22 Britannia Road” is her remarkable first novel and has won numerous awards, as well as being picked as an Editor’s “spotlight” book on Amazon.com. She has been published worldwide and her books translated into 15 languages.
Angela Petch: Amanda, welcome to Mash Stories. Thank you so much for agreeing to share a few insights behind your writing. I loved “22 Britannia Road” from start to finish. The opening chapter is very clever, telling no lies about the events that are to unfold. It hooked me immediately: “How is it that love and death were so close together?” Without giving anything away about your wonderful story, how did the idea for “22 Britannia Road” come to you?
Amanda Hodgkinson: Thank you for inviting me here—I am delighted to share my thoughts on writing. One of the hardest things to explain is where an idea for a novel really comes from. I think there is much overlapping of ideas, thoughts and questions that go into the beginnings of a novel. For me, I have always been interested in the complexities of relationships and how family dynamics change during wartime. I thought I would try to write about the Second World War but in such a way that looked at ordinary lives: how people go about their days when war is over and they are expected to return to normal again, when clearly, the boundaries of what can be judged as normal have changed.
I feel strongly that the effect of war on private lives is something that is as relevant today as it has ever been and this made me want to use the 1940s as a way of looking at our contemporary attitudes to war, immigration and the effects of trauma on a society. I also wanted to write a love story, but a love story which looked at ideas of love between couples, of mother love, and of the renewed love between a father and his son.
So I had an idea of the themes I wanted to explore. When it came to the novel, I began with an image—a woman in a birch forest. I decided to write a poem describing her. When I started writing, a small boy appeared in my text beside her. The woman was holding his hand very tightly, as if her life depended on his closeness. It was the strong sense of the emotional possibilities contained within this scene that started me on the path to “22 Britannia Road”.
Angela: I read somewhere that you’ve always written, ever since you were a little girl—on scraps of paper, shopping lists, whatever you could lay your hands on. Did you always know you would one day see your books for sale? How was it that Penguin came to publish you?
Amanda: A well-known writer once said that you should write a book because you want to and not with any idea of getting it published. That’s to say, I think, that as a writer, you need to concern yourself with plot and characters and the job of writing rather than daydreaming about success. When I was writing my first novel, I really tried to remember this advice. When my agent sent my novel out to publishers, there was a lot of interest immediately which really shocked me (but in a good way!). The manuscript went to auction and I finally decided to go with Penguin. At this point I have to admit that while I try to follow my own advice about just getting on with the writing and forgetting about publishing, during the writing of “22 Britannia Road”, of course I had a burning desire for it to be published, too.
Angela: You depict vivid scenes of Poland during the Second World War and its aftermath and include Polish phrases throughout the story. You also weave in many details about post-war Britain: the clothes, food, houses of the era, shop names, etc. How long did you spend on research?
Amanda: I love doing the research for my novels. I like to find the details of everyday life that give the period I’m writing about a real flavour of how it must have been. I spent about a year looking into that time period for “22 Britannia Road”, and then did more research when I needed to. I really wanted my research to be thorough enough to do justice to the subject matter. I read Polish literature and poetry (in translation) and listened to the music of the time. I also interviewed and talked to people who remembered those war years, all in order to create a world the reader could believe in and also to help me really feel my characters and their lives.
Angela: I so admire your writer’s voice. Your imagery is captivating. I found myself re-reading passages to taste them again because they are so beautiful and poetic; the images are ordinary but somehow fresh. Some I particularly loved:
“the sky is chewing-gum grey”; “rough-coated, long-snouted dogs that nipped at each other’s heels and wagged their tails so busily they knocked shards of silver frost into the air like tiny snowstorms…”; “the stars looked sharp enough to slice the black velvet sky into icy ribbons…”.
Do you have any tips for “netting” images?
Amanda: I think that for me, images are great for really immersing the reader in the world of the book. They create mood and a sense of place and time, deepening our understanding of the people and the places in the novel.
I tend to start with a character and try to imagine how they see their world—how they think about certain events.
Janusz, when he sees those hunting dogs, is in a place he has never known. He notices every tiny detail around him. He is amazed by the dogs and the snowy forest. I hope that his way of seeing the dogs and the way the snow powders and catches the light allows the reader to identify more closely with Janusz and his personal vision of the landscape he finds himself in on his dangerous journey across Europe to England.
Angela: The past and the present are a recurring theme in “22 Britannia Road”:
“Soon the past would be behind them and England would become their present. There she was sure they would be able to live each day with no yesterdays and no memories to threaten or histories to follow them…”.
The viewpoints of the three main characters—Janusz, Silvana and little Aurek—are skilfully lobbed back and forth between the war and its aftermath. There is a sense throughout that the past threatens to unravel the present. How did you keep track of where you were when switching times and locations in this book?
Amanda: As you say, I really wanted a strong sense that the past was constantly treading on the heels of the present, that there was a tension between the two which would lead us to the revelation within the story. I began the novel chronologically but I realised very quickly that this structure did not address the real theme of the book—that Janusz and Silvana and their son have been separated for six years and that those six years will continue to haunt them long after they are over. So the movement between the past and present seemed to me structurally the only way to go.
To keep track of everything, of the three characters’ viewpoints and of the movement and relationship between past and present, I wrote notes and more notes. I kept going over and over the manuscript, trawling through every single word, sentence, paragraph and scene, making notes as I went, mapping out the story lines again and again. It was obsessive work but I knew it was the only way to get the story right.
Angela: Do you believe in writer’s block?
Amanda: I do. I think writer’s block is a terrible thing. It can’t really be explained but you know when you have it.
Angela: What is your writing regime?
Amanda: I try to keep to the 500 words a day regime and then begin to up that to 1,000 words a day as the novel progresses. I’m a slow writer and I hate the anxiety I feel when getting a first draft done. But once I have a draft then I love to work on it as much as I can, starting in the morning, having a couple of hours off in the afternoon, then working through to early evening and going back to it for an hour or so before bed.
Angela: You live abroad, in France. As a “long-distance writer”, how important is the internet to you?
Amanda: It is very important for research, though I also make trips over to the UK to do library research and interviews when I need to. And I love the internet for the community of writers that I’ve found there and also literary blog sites which help me keep up with new books coming out. But the internet is such a curse too. The other day, a friend asked me what I do on the internet when I should be working. She admitted she looked at expensive designer shoes and I had to admit that I waste time playing boggle! Because of this, I often write at a friend’s very basic little holiday house in the middle of French fields where there is no phone or internet. I get on with my work there because there’s no distraction. So yes, the internet is useful for me to keep in contact with other writers and readers but it’s also a distraction.
Angela: I’d like to personally thank you for writing this special book. There are so many wars raging in our world at present and your harrowing story of these three young war immigrants is traumatic but uplifting at the same time:
“What is your profession?” the British soldier asked her, checking the identity papers she put before him.
“Survivor,” she whispered.
Angela Petch is the author of Never Forget, written for her Italian mother-in-law, and winner of the Ip-Art Short Story Prize. With her three grown children flown from the nest, she uses her newfound “me time” to write short stories and read in the Tuscan Apennines, where she lives half of the year.