Write On! regular Rebecca Seaton interviews Jessica Andrews
I’m intrigued to meet Jessica Andrews. She’s a writer whose two novels have earned her the 2020 Portico Prize and a nomination for the Women’s Prize for Fiction Futures initiative. Like mine, her varied career includes teaching; however, unlike me, she’s achieved all this while still in her twenties! In fact, I find myself wondering whether I’m going to feel intimated by a writer who, at just 29, is a contributing editor at ELLE magazine, co-runs her own online magazine and pens poetry and short stories alongside full-length award-winning novels.
But when Jessica appears on my screen – sporting her trademark red lipstick – I find she’s softly spoken, with the undefinable lilt in her voice immediately putting me at ease. Thinking back to our theme of ‘Contradictions,’ I hope I can find a way of connecting the gentleness I sense, with the iron determination that’s seen her named as a ’Future 10’ author: an initiative launched by the Women’s Prize For Fiction and Good Housekeeping Futures programme to highlight the talent of the next generation of female writers.
I decide to start at the obvious place, her first novel, Saltwater. I’m particularly keen to find out how she came to write it and what she wanted to achieve; secretly hoping that motivation and process will give me the initial hook every good interview needs.
Jessica doesn’t disappoint. She tells me she felt lost when she started her Masters in Creative Writing. She’d written 20,000 words but felt it was lifeless, as though she hadn’t truly connected to her voice yet. But then, when her grandfather died, leaving a cottage on Ireland’s west coast, she found the place and space she needed to write.
“I wanted to capture the stories of working-class Sunderland which had been handed down to me through family, but I hadn’t really seen in print before, especially not in lyrical, literary novels. Saltwater is semi-autobiographical and during my time in Ireland, I gave myself the freedom to write what came naturally. Grandad’s world leaked into my writing, bringing with it not just loss but precious family memories. I was able to write my emotional truth, not an idea of what a book ‘should’ look like.”
I can relate. My own novel, Silent Song, is YA fantasy, so quite different, but it’s still inspired by personal truth and experiences. Linked to my own world-building (necessary in the fantasy genre), I want to know whether this was something Jessica had to consider when writing ‘real world’ settings; particularly with the autobiographical element.
Jessica feels strongly that, no matter whether from scratch or in a more recognisable setting, a writer still needs to world-build.
“Even though my work is semi-autobiographical it’s still fiction and I’m essentially building a version of, for example, Sunderland in the 1990s. Evoking a particular feeling or portraying my specific experience of something needs me to string a thread through events so they resonate with the reader. Also, people know my world, so I can be called out on things if I make mistakes!”
I laugh, suddenly glad that my favoured genre is YA and decide it’s time to bring in our theme of ‘Contradictions.’ I dive straight into something I admire about her writing: the use of geography and space she’s drawn from living in different parts of the UK and elsewhere. Is the contrast between countries in Milk Teeth, or northern and southern England in Saltwater, indicative of her own thoughts? Jessica pauses a moment, reflecting.
“Places evoke emotions. They also have a sensory input. Sunderland is damp pavements, sea air and spilled beer, its sense of rootedness drawn from warm browns and dark greens. The places are very much characters in my stories; metaphors for how characters are lost. I’m particularly interested in characters who are lost or dislocated in some way. In Saltwater, I use Ireland as a narrative device, the skeleton I build the novel around. Milk Teeth, though, uses Barcelona as a setting.
I initially tried using this Spanish section for a greater proportion of the book, but it didn’t work. So I chose to flit between different places, as the story needed the contrast of harder-edged cities to work.”
Jessica’s words confirm that contradiction, or contrast, at least, is necessary in terms of her narrative momentum. Showing characters in their home environment and then in unfamiliar settings, allows us to get to know them in very different ways. Something I experiment with in my fantasy worlds also.
Use of place is one thing, but there’s more to the unique, almost poetic prose style I want to uncover: balancing the quiet power of the space between words, for example. And also, her championing of marginalised voices. We start with Jessica commenting on the power of restraint in writing.
“I like to let the reader do some work. When writing about the emotional life of families, the meaning is in the nuances. Milk Teeth is a love story, so it doesn’t need to be spelled out; there needs to be some subtlety.”
I agree with her that readers appreciate writers trusting them to think for themselves. But that can be harder when it comes to representing different groups in writing. There is a responsibility in raising the profile of an under-represented area, like the working class north, for example, which means we might have to be more obvious if we are to make our points clearly.
Ironic, really, as this is the point we start having problems with her computer microphone, the buzzing making it difficult for me to hear her response. However, a quick adjustment and, with headphones now pinning back her long blonde hair, Jessica makes the point that representation shouldn’t be about overstating an issue, as this might alienate readers. Instead, presenting a world the reader might be unfamiliar with by using clear markers allows them to do some world-building of their own.
I agree, explaining that, though my Christian faith is an important part of my work, it’s not something I want to hit readers over the head with. Instead, themes like forgiveness and redemption will be a natural emphasis in what I write, just as a contrast between places and feelings will always be a part of Jessica’s work.
We joke that no one wants to pick up a book that is self-consciously saying: ‘This. Is. A. Northern. Novel’ as this is going back to creating a sense of what is ‘other’ rather than opening up the shared experience. Jessica clarifies.
“I didn’t sit down to write a working class novel, I just wanted to address my own experiences in my writing. We have many types of working class story; mine is one type, but I hope it makes way for others.”
As we go on chatting, we find we both identify with an issue many writers face: how to balance different projects. There’s always a question as to how much to diversify and what to prioritise. I had thought that poetry, short stories and novels would be enough to keep anyone busy, but when researching the interview, I discovered Jessica’s co-editorship of online literary magazine, The Grapevine.
To my surprise, I learn that the magazine pre-dates Jessica’s novels. In fact, it was set up with a friend from her MA course after they realised they had friends who’d written interesting work which hadn’t been picked up. The way they created a space to do that is not so different from the birth of Write On! – coming as it did from a group of writers who wanted to extend their own opportunities and create more for others. Jessica adds that the evolution of the magazine is inextricably linked to her own writing journey; the sense of community and critical elements being particularly useful.
Jessica agrees it’s not always easy to balance what matters, though; particularly when we hit obstacles. Books around technique can be helpful, but there’s no substitute for being part of a community. Listening to other people’s experience can often help us find own solutions. Jessica admits that, for her, the biggest obstacle is often a crisis of confidence.
“I so often find myself asking, ‘Who would want to read this? I wonder. What am I doing this for?’”
She recommends combating this fear by just getting on with it, suggesting getting to 8000 words before reading anything back. You can hear the experience of a creative writing teacher coming out now and I find pieces of advice such as, “Take a break and come back to a piece with fresh eyes,” and, “Keep your writing momentum going by having your next project in mind,” particularly helpful. Jessica also shares that, although there are many other routes to publication, she and others in her circle found using an academic route helpful. “It’s a way of giving yourself the space and permission to focus on your work.”
Although I haven’t taken that leap, I do like to take part in shorter programmes and tell her about a flash fiction course I recently attended, which offered a much-needed change of pace and mood when compared to my current fantasy trilogy ‘Work In Progress’. This resonates with Jessica, and we neatly move on to her own WIP – a non-fiction project and a clear departure from her usual work.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end. As my screen goes blank and I go to make myself a cup of coffee, I find myself reflecting on the conversation. The contrast between our writing styles and experiences are stark, but there are many more similarities. As for Jessica herself, she is a person of innate contrasts: for example, a writer of poetic prose who is both widely travelled and yet steeped in local experiences.
By allowing me a glimpse into her world and the roles and characters she inhabits, Jessica has made me look at her work and my own with fresh eyes. Contrasts, though sometimes surprising, don’t have to be contradictory, but can certainly be inspiring. They are at the very heart of a writer’s personality and, indeed, create the tension needed to make writing happen.
Listen to our conversation on the Write On! Audio podcast here.
Find Jessica on Twitter: @jessicacandrews, on Instagram: @itbeginswiththebody and through her website: www.jessica-andrews.com
This is The Grapvine E-zine link: www.thegrapevinezine.com, and her City University lecturing profile: www.city.ac.uk/about/people/academics/jessica-andrews
And finally the link to the Tender Buttons podcast: anchor.fm/tender-buttons
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I didn’t sit down to write a working class novel, I just wanted to address my own experiences in my writing. We have many types of working class story; mine is one type, but I hope it makes way for others.