AN INTERVIEW WITH AMANDA BOULTER
"I'm a lecturer. So I spend my time talking about James Joyce, Henry James and heavy novelists so when I came to writing I was doing it as light relief. Around The Houses started off as a bit of a joke really. I'd read it to my partner and it grew from there."
Bethan Marshall Interviews Amanda Boulter
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3AM: Serpentís Tale sell you at the frothy end of their list. Why is that?
AB: They do. Well, Iím a lecturer. So I spend my time talking about James Joyce, Henry James and heavy novelists so when I came to writing I was doing it as light relief. ĎAround The Housesí started off as a bit of a joke really. Me and my partner, Iíd read it to her and it grew from there. Suddenly I had ten chapters so I wondered whether I should send it to somebody. So I did. I sent it to a handful of people Ė Pete Ayrton at Serpentís Tale being one of them Ė and it went from there. He asked if I had a manuscript. I said no but I will have. Iím always grateful to him because I wouldnít have got a novel without him. If he hadnít asked Ė letís see it all. I did it. Sent it to him. And he came back and said this is great.
3AM: Why were you writing it?
AB: Itís light. It does have its message but its not finger pointing. If I wanted to say something about, say, gay parenting, I could have written an article about it, some journalism. Or I could have written something entertaining about how people live. And itís not what people say but itís about getting people to ask questions about assumptions theyíve got about the issue. Because I think when gay people get together with children there are all sorts of assumptions being made.
3AM: So how did you avoid the polemic? It could have been very polemical.
AB: Making a character. Interaction between characters. I think in one sense itís got a classic format with all the friends going round together and it's centred on a family. But normally itís a straight family with all the colourful gay characters round the edge. But this is a gay family Ė and itís a serious centre. And there are all these straight characters round the edge. The first straight character you see is in this bizarre situation going on Ė and sheís your normality, sheís your normality as a reader you identify with her against the weirdness. And so because sheís your sense of normality, life becomes ordinary. Youíre drawn through that perspective. Itís comic. Her work, her environment and her wanting to just get on with things and not get labelled. Although the gay characters are at the centre and they are, and I do have things to say about that, itís not just about that, there are all sorts of other people involved here, but thatís the issue thatís been focused on. Iíve been invited to discuss loads of things but never medical breakthroughs or stuff Ö.
3AM: Well, I read it and it never occurred to me that this was a gay novel until I read your article.
AB: Good. I never wanted to be on the gay and lesbian ghetto shelf. Itís a fiction book. I see it basically as womenís fiction basically. Iíve got two sisters. One of them is quite radical. The other one got married at sixteen and so on. They both read it and they liked it. Itís womenís fiction. Men enjoy it too. Straight men. So itís a mainstream fiction piece, not gay writing! Itís not saying anything new to gay people, but it might be to others. Itís about marriage, and how you relate to people, being pregnant, how people see you, middle aged anxieties like Pearl who is facing life-changing decisions. Like Ruby who is forty but she still comes out on top. Sheís not humiliated. Itís about the choices that women make. And hopefully you donít have to think about it you can just enjoy reading it. And thatís great.
3AM: It does fit into a genre that might encompass things like the TV show Friends, Sex and the City and so on. Is that what you think?
AB: Yes. My family are both biological and non-biological. There are all sorts of people around my children as role models and itís really great. Itís better than being just in the nuclear family with just you and your partner and your kids. There are advantages in having a looser structure. Even though me and my partner are clearly the parents we incorporate other people into the family. We donít have any models that we go into to where the edges are. So people can be accommodated. I think itís about friendship because maybe thatís the new type of extended family. As people meet up its traditional moving out into new communities Ė its not just about being gay itís a general thing Ė I think perhaps we need that, we need that extended family to stop relationships been worn out, without you being turned into a mother of three Oh my God! And thatís whatís happening. I think thatís probably why it's about that. There is that need for an extended family around you. Itís creative. You start form a base and you find your own way.
3AM: Were you consciously drawing on other writers as models for what you were doing?
AB: Yes. Armistead Maupin, his Tales of the City novels. I really enjoyed those books. I read them on a Greek island and thought they were fantastic. Basically they were entertaining and the characters were really winning. You really liked these characters with a passion. You were drawn into another world and they made you smile. It might be crass and superficial but I think itís important.
3AM: You teach creative writing. Do you think you would have written it if you had been teaching creative writing at the time?
AB: I think the only thing I didnít read were things like ĎHow to write a novel.í I think I was afraid it would lead you away from your own way of doing things. Youíd read something and realise that youíd done it all wrong and then you wouldnít do it. I didnít have any confidence in my ability to write this stuff. I was at the very beginning of writing. I donít know what Iíll be like in the future, you know, two years down the line. When Iím writing in my journal. My exercise for writing every day!
3AM: Your teaching then, will it get in the way?
AB: No. The thing is, the way Iím teaching creative writing is about critical and creative writing and emphasising the way in which you read and have a critical faculty and you bring that to your own work. So I teach it through this critical awareness of how something is working and how it isnít working. So when I came to write that sort of editing and that critical idea is always there. It's not just about producing itís also about being critical. Itís about writing as well. I think if you can read other peopleís work and you can see how itís working and where itís working you can bring those sorts of things to your own writing. It might not help you with the initial splurge of inspiration but it can help to shape it. To communicate it to somebody else you have to have the splurge but then you have to shape it too. Or else you end up writing and deleting, writing and deleting and at the end of the day you have just a blank page. The inspiration needs to be there but then the shaping has to happen too. I write academic articles and I have to really focus on the words and language Iím using that get rid of that sense of that academic language. To write for The Independent was quite hard at first but I enjoyed writing it. I want to do it again. When I was writing this novel I was just writing for myself and if nothing happened that was fair enough and if something happened that would be great. But thatís not where I am now. When I come to write the second one there are expectations and deadlines. The experience is completely different. A shift of gear from that aspiration maybe to now where people are waiting for something. The same kind of thing. So there are quite a few things that Iím learning along the way. Itís a different kind of discipline. Iíve switched over from being an aspiring writer to just another writer. Iíd like to go half time with my day job. Iíd like to keep teaching but Iíd like to spend more time with my writing. You know. Iíve got two small children, a full time job, just moved to Dorset living in a ramshackle house. But the transition from being an aspirational writer and now is really interesting. If I stop to write for myself then the whole thing will cease to be worthwhile. And itíll cease to be worthwhile for the readers. If I canít enjoy it at that third stage when Iím reading it to people then it will lose something. I think itís because of that fact that itís genuine, itís not cynical, that it works. If Iím thinking Ė here we go again Ė then itís going to be very tired. It wonít work.
3AM: Did you learn things about yourself doing this?
AB: No. I suppose I learned I could write in a way in which Iíd always wanted to write. I always thought I wanted to have a go at that. And when I started it I really enjoyed it. I suppose at the end of it I realised that I could write a novel. Not just the first thirty pages but the whole thing. I could see it through to the end. And I suppose I learned how I did that too. How I plotted it all out before, so it was very episodic. Use very small chapters. Iíd focus on each chapter. I didnít have to worry about what happened in the next chapter. Iíd focus on the one I was working on. Then when Iíd finished it Iíd go back to my plan. So I learned how I did it. And I know that itís different from how other people do it. They just go with the flow. But my flow gets interrupted so many times! I learned that.
Buy Amanda Boulterís novel Around the Houses from Serpentís Tail.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bethan Marshall is a lecturer at Kings College, London University. Her book English Teachers Ė The Unofficial Guide
was received to great critical acclaim. She is to feature in an interview with Diane Coyle exclusively here at 3am