Winner of the Portico Prize 2020 for her debut novel Saltwater, writer Jessica Andrews talks to our arts contributor Rebecca Clark about her journey into writing, the joy of podcasts, the importance of space in relation to creativity, representation in the arts for working class northern writers and much more.
I call Jessica on a Wednesday night in January from a cold and dark London. She is in Spain, heading into Barcelona for the evening. The line isn’t great, and the call keeps dropping, but she is warm and insightful, and we end up having a fascinating conversation, despite the distance and the technology.
Starting from the beginning. You were involved in youth theatre when you were younger and have also spoken about how the Newcastle music scene and Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art expanded your creative horizons. But who, or what, inspired you to start writing, and what inspires you now?
I’ve always written, and I read a lot as a child. I’ve spoken before about how I went to youth theatre. It was £2 on a Saturday morning at our local arts centre. It had this amazing drama teacher who ran it, and it was really vital because it gave us access to this whole creative world that we didn’t really have access to at school or in any other way. Of my friends who also went there, one of them is now an actor, another one of them is a dancer. That’s quite unusual for where we grew up. It was really important because it opened our eyes to lots of things.
I’ve always loved reading, and when I was a child I read all the Enid Blyton and Philip Pullman books and loved Harry Potter, but I always think the reason I became a writer is to do with the fact that you can do it anywhere, you don’t need any equipment or money, you can just sit down and do it. Making a film, you have to have all those people and all that equipment. I have moved around a lot, and I often didn’t have any money, so it seemed like writing was the thing that was most accessible to me. It just comes out of your head, you don’t need any other resources. Of course, it was also the thing I loved the most.
I’ve started listening to the podcast In Writing with Hattie Crisell who talks to authors about their own experiences of writing. She always likes to start by getting a sense of the place they write in, and how they structure their writing day. You’ve just said you like how portable it is, but do you have a particular place you prefer to write, and what does a typical writing day look like for you?
It is very portable, but I do think that now writing is serious for me it is important to have the right space. I’m living in Spain at the moment. I was living in Barcelona, right in the city, but I moved to a small, quiet beach town just outside. To write a novel I feel like I need to be in a much slower headspace, and slower pace of life. I found the pace too fast in London to think in the slow way I needed to in order to write. You need to be outside of ‘capital’ time a bit. Partly to live somewhere where there aren’t as many distractions, but also to have a space set out for writing. I am very visual. I like to make lots of notes and stick them on the wall. It is important to have a dedicated writing space where I don’t do anything else, not even check my emails. I have another job as well, I teach English, so my writing schedule fits around that. If my thoughts get a bit stale, I find it helpful to go to the library and work there. It feels a bit like you are going to work, which can be quite useful if your thoughts are getting a bit sluggish.
Sticking with the theme of podcasts – I recently heard Elizabeth Day (of the podcast How to Fail with Elizabeth Day) talk about how she has found podcasts to be very levelling, allowing a much more diverse set of people access to a space that traditional radio or broadcasting did not. I think the same could be said for online platforms and publications such as this one. You also have a podcast, Tender Buttons, and co-run Grapevine,an online arts and literary magazine which particularly aims to showcase work by individuals and groups traditionally under-represented in the arts. Can you tell me some more about these two things, and more generally how important do you feel these online spaces are for cultivating new and diverse talent? Similarly, your thoughts on awards specifically targeted at underrepresented groups like the Portico Prize which you have recently been shortlisted for? (Since the time of this interview Saltwater has been awarded the Portico Prize – many congratulations Jessica)
We set Grapevine up because we were both living in London, working lots of different jobs, whilst also writing, and we had lots of talented friends who were making different kinds of art. Everyone was really struggling, and no one was really getting stuff published. If you are working in a bar or a café it can then be really demoralising if you have to then go home and do your writing, which maybe no-one is ever going to read. So, we thought: why don’t we start publishing things ourselves, and putting on events? Putting on the events was actually my favourite part. You start meeting other people and forming a community. With writing, which you do alone for long periods of time, that is really valuable. It’s really validating to go and read your work in front of people and then chat to people who are doing the same thing as you. We also wanted to give a voice to women, to working class people, and other people whose voices are not often heard.
Tender Buttons is a podcast that I set up with my partner for similar reasons. We know lots of talented people and we want to showcase their work. But it also centred around process. We wanted to demystify the writing process. There is often this view of magic around the writing process: “Oh you have written a book, you must be a wizard!”. But actually it is really important to be transparent about the process and acknowledge that yes, there are some really talented writers, but also it is a skill, and you can learn it, and there are tips and techniques which can help. I think it is very democratic to talk about that. ‘De-geniusing’ the whole myth around it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what the barriers are as a female working class woman to being published. It’s really important to have prizes like the Portico Prize. My publisher, Sceptre, is part of a project called The Future Bookshelf, which is working to diversify publishing by giving advice from agents, authors and editors and sometimes putting out call-outs for submissions of manuscripts from un-agented and under-represented writers. I think that is a great scheme, but the problem is also that, as a working-class person, it can start in your childhood whether you are going to write a book or not. I had a supportive family, and I took lots of risks. Writing is a precarious life. For things to really change you need to change things at education level. It starts so much earlier than prizes or open access publishing. It is not like every working-class person has written a book and just can’t get it published. To even write a book is not always an attainable thing for many people. There is a big movement at the moment for new voices in the literary world. But those voices are a minority already in a minority. You need to think about how you widen the pool even earlier, to allow more people to tell their stories.
…lots of young, Northern, working-class women have come up to me and said that they’ve never read anything in literature that is this close to their lives before. Hearing that makes me feel like that was the whole point – if Saltwater is for anyone, those are the people that it was for.
My mum grew up working class in Bradford, and always says to my sister and I (who were born and raised in London, and are unquestionably north London middle class, with all the experiences and privileges that entails) that, despite the teaching profession and the north west London postcode, there is still a part of her that feels northern and working class. She often talks longingly about the north, about a down-to-earthness and normality that I think she sometimes finds lacking in the streets of Primrose Hill. And she has a strong sense of loyalty to the north, a pride in her roots. In Saltwater Lucy says “I am tough as anything. I have all this north deep in my soul”. Even though my connection to the north is not much more than childhood trips to visit family in Yorkshire, a love of scraps on my chips, and occasionally saying raz-berry and Glaz-gow, those sentences stirred something within me, because I think I have inherited that loyalty and pride from my mum. Saltwater has a northern, working class protagonist, and celebrates much of what I think my mum is yearning for (“people who didn’t give a fuck” and “gentle roughness”). Can you tell me about the importance of this, in a cultural landscape where northern, working class voices can be something of a rarity?
When I was a teenager, as Lucy is, I was desperate to leave the North because all the books I’d read, all the films I’d watched, and all the culture I absorbed, came from London. Or seemed like it did. I was desperate to be part of that and be where it felt like things were happening. But often you have to leave something to see the shape of it, or to see it for how it really is, and I began to see how much the North was my identity. As I have grown older, it has become an important thing for me to reclaim that. But the problem is, and the thing that Lucy is also struggling with, is this feeling that once you have left, you can never really go back in the same way. You are stuck in this sort of in-between space, where you feel like an outsider in both places.
I hadn’t read a book about a girl growing up in Sunderland before, which is kind of why I wrote it. What has been really important to me is that at many of the events I have done, lots of young, Northern, working-class women have come up to me and said that they have never read anything in literature that is this close to their lives before. Hearing that makes me feel like that was the whole point – if Saltwater is for anyone, those are the people that it was for. Hearing from them has been a validation of how important it is to see yourself represented in culture.
You’ve touched a bit on this in the previous answer, but juxtaposed with the feeling of pride at her roots, Lucy also talks about the sense of pride at getting out (albeit coupled with ‘a bruised regret that [she’d] given it all away’) and the allure of London comes across very strongly in the text. You’ve said you feel a sense of longing to ‘get out’ when you were growing up, and, like Lucy (and my mum!) also felt a nostalgia or longing for what you left behind. Do you think that feeling of being torn between different places and different lifestyles is just part of the human condition, or can one single place ever feel like home? Or maybe home is not a place…
I think that is what I am learning as I grow older. I have lived in lots of different places, and never felt like any of them were really home. London feels like a home, but that is because it is where all my friends are. I think I have started to realise, and it does sound a bit trite, that it is about where your communities are, and where your people are. People are different too. For some people it is important to have a really safe, secure space that is your home, for lots of different reasons. That wasn’t as important for me, but as I have got older, I am searching for that a bit more.
Some of my favourite books (Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation) don’t follow a traditional chronological structure, and I liked that Saltwater didn’t either. Although the non-linear structure can take longer to sink into as a reader, I find that they are often the books I go back to again and again, to pick up extra details on second and third readings. I imagine that constructing a novel that jumps around in place and time, but which still reads fluidly and with a sense of narrative and character development (which Saltwater very much achieves!), is difficult though. I read that you wrote it as three chronological strands, then chopped those up, laid them out on the floor of a friend’s house and began to piece together the structure from there. Can you tell me a bit more about that process, and why you chose a non-linear structure?
I was interested in exploring the fact that you are carrying all your experiences with you all of the time, even though you are not conscious of it. You are carrying everything that has ever happened to you. Similarly, all of your family lineage is inside you, and that is particularly true for the women in this book. To write a non-chronological narrative felt like the best way to explore all that and to draw parallels between the lives of Lucy and her mother, and Lucy and her grandmother. It was also linked to memory. Memories don’t work in chronological order either. There are some you can remember with huge clarity from when you were very young, and yet sometimes you can’t remember much more recent things. I guess it also suited Lucy’s character and the bodily aspects of the book too. As a young woman, thinking about things like my body, it was in this fractured, fragmented way. So, it made sense for the form of the novel to reflect that.
The way that we make sense of our lives is to put them into narrative. We are mis-remembering things all of the time.
I want to ask you now about autobiography versus fiction. In a 2018 Guardian article the author Kit de Waal wrote that “…working-class writers, it seems, must endlessly regurgitate their own life stories – or versions of them – whereas middle-class writers can explore the world, the universe and beyond.” I have heard that same thing said, almost word for word, about female authors, about how everything is assumed to be autobiographical (or autobiography is demanded of them), whereas their male counterparts are assigned the space of creativity and imagination. But you have defended the importance of being allowed to write from experience, and not apologise for it, whilst also acknowledging the freedom that fiction writing can give as a form for this experience. How did you balance the two in Saltwater?
Women are definitely asked about this more than men, but most people are, in some way, writing from their experiences. It is quite a complicated one, the relationship between truth and fiction, because it all gets mixed up in your head. There are parts of Saltwater that I now can’t remember whether they are real or not. The bones of the story are close to my life, but some episodes are made up. Some characters are close to people I know, but some characters are amalgamations of other people, because I wanted to protect people. For me now, and my mum too, the book has become the story of our lives, even though it wasn’t necessarily all true. There is a bit in the book where Lucy’s Dad puts on a wig and drives around the streets looking for Lucy’s mum. My mum said to me, “Did that happen in real life or did you make it up, because I can’t remember?” And I couldn’t remember either. Now we remember that that was a truth. But also, does it matter? The way that we make sense of our lives is to put them into narrative. We are mis-remembering things all of the time.
At the beginning I was going to say it was all fiction. But then I felt that I would be doing an injustice to myself and the kind of issues that I wanted to talk about. I felt like I couldn’t talk about class or disability or gender or any of those things if I didn’t take ownership over the parts of the story that are true. It is also really difficult when what you write is rooted in your life because you are worried all the time about exposing people, or not being able to protect people, like my parents for example. But what I have learnt in this process too is that as a young woman, my instinct is to protect people and stay quiet about things, and not want to hurt people. To publish a book that is close to your life and close to your family is an exercise in letting go of that a bit. Maybe protecting people is not the most important thing, maybe instead it is important to say these things that I need to say.
If I write something that is very fictional, for me it doesn’t have the same force or rawness. It just isn’t as good. I am trying to understand that a bit more – why that is, and why I feel like my writing has to be rooted in the truth to feel powerful.
There are very evocative descriptions of physical place in Saltwater. You have lived in both the north and London, and then wrote much of the novel whilst living in Ireland. How important is it to you to have physically experienced a place before you write about it?
It is really important. I don’t think I could write about somewhere I had never been. But I also feel like it helps not to be in the place you are writing about while you are writing about it. I wrote most of the London and North East parts of Saltwater when I was in Ireland. Then I added to a lot of the Ireland parts when I got back. You can’t really feel the flavour of a place when you are there. You have to get a bit of perspective. I could never have written the family parts when I was at my mum’s house. I find it really helpful to be a little bit removed from whatever I am trying to write about. Now I am in Spain, everyone is asking me if I am writing about Spain. And I am not actually. Being somewhere else helps you to have a bit of perspective.
The whole process of publishing a novel has taught me a lot about voice, and space, and what you are allowed to say, and how much space you are allowed to occupy, and how that links to gender and your body.
There is also a lot about space in its theoretical form – more specifically about the space our bodies inhabit, or are expected and permitted to inhabit, particularly as women. There are some incredibly accurate descriptions of being a young woman, trying to cut yourself down to size, aiming to fit and to please, contrasted with the expansive wholeness Lucy begins to feel in Ireland. Can you talk about your intentions with this?
I was living in Ireland writing the book and I started to feel very expansive. My thoughts were more expansive. I felt different being somewhere where there was so much space. It is very rural, there are huge beaches. I was very lucky in that I was living in my grandad’s old house, and I was living alone. It seemed suddenly really stark to me, that a lot of these feelings I had felt of being shut out or having to make myself smaller or struggling in places like London, were to do with the kind of spaces that were available. Actual literal space, but that then becomes a metaphor in itself. If you are constantly having to live on not very much or having to make yourself palatable for a certain space, or regulate your body when you are growing up, then being within a wide-open space, and having more space psychologically, can feel very different. It was an important thing to realise – how much the space you occupy influences you, but how it also becomes a metaphor for the kinds of spaces you have been allowed to occupy in your life or how much space you feel like you have been entitled to. Which extends to writing in general. The whole process of publishing a novel has taught me a lot about voice, and space, and what you are allowed to say, and how much space you are allowed to occupy, and how that links to gender and your body.
We hear about some of Lucy’s romantic relationships, but these are never given names – there is the architect in London and the man in Ireland. I wondered whether this was an intentional move; as in, to make these men shadowy and anonymous, almost irrelevant, when set against the fierce and complex and really rich relationship she has with her family, particularly her mother?
It was definitely intentional. I didn’t want her to be defined by the men in her life. I almost wanted the romantic heart of the book to be the relationship between her and her mum. Not giving them names made them smaller, and allowed them to be experiences that formed her but didn’t define her in the way that her relationships with women have. Some reviewers have commented on it, saying it is strange that these men aren’t very fleshed out at all, did the author just forget? And of course I didn’t, it was intentional!
I think every fan of Saltwater is eagerly awaiting your next book, and you are currently in Spain, working on it. Could you tell us more about it?
I’m not going to say too much about it because it is very sprawling at the moment and it might change. But it is mostly about hunger and denial, or desire and denial. That’s the crux of it. I don’t want to say more and risk fixing it when it is not fixed yet.
Apart from looking out for more writing from you, which writers and / or works do you think our readers should be looking out for in 2020?
The books that I am really excited about are the new Jenny Offill, and Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride. I have been reading a lot recently by a poet called Bhanu Kapil. She is really brilliant. Another good book I read recently was Notes Made While Falling by Jenn Ashworth. That’s amazing. It is very good on memory and memoir, fiction and truth.
You also teach literature and creative writing to both adults and children. Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for any aspiring writers amongst our readership, particularly those from working class or other less represented backgrounds?
I think that the hardest thing for anyone is self-doubt. Especially if you are someone that hasn’t seen your story represented before. Self-doubt can make you feel like your story isn’t interesting, or it isn’t poetic, or it isn’t the kind of thing that books are written about. But if you think that, then it is really vital that it does get told. Self-belief, and feeling like your story matters, even if it doesn’t seem literary to you, is so important. You have to push back against that feeling of doubt all of the time, and keep going.
Jessica Andrews’ Saltwater is published by Sceptre and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops around the UK. Click here for more information about Andrews’ and her work, or follow her on Twitter @jessicacandrews
Feature image: Jessica Andrews by Seth Hamilton.
Lucy Writers and Rebecca Clark would like to thank Jessica Andrews for kindly allowing Rebecca to interview her.