Q. Welcome to the Book Club, Amanda, tell us about your new novel, Spilt Milk and the inspirations behind it...

Spilt Milk is about two sisters who live an isolated life by a river in Suffolk in the early 1900s. In 1913 they meet a travelling man who changes their lives forever. The novel follows their lives and the lives of their families through the main part of the twentieth century up to the late 1960s. The sisters are incredibly different women (as sisters often are) and yet they share a bond which is finally unbreakable despite all they go through.

Q. Spilt Milk is set in a beautiful part of England, why did you decide to set the novel there, and is getting the right location for the story vital to you?

Location is really important to me. And in Spilt Milk the landscape is central to the characters’ lives. I first began thinking about the novel when out walking along a riverbank. I realised the landscape I was looking at probably hadn’t changed much over the years. A woman standing there a hundred years ago would have seen the same river yet she would surely have been a very different person to me. That was the starting point for Spilt Milk. The river in the novel turns out to be central to the character’s lives. It connects them and separates them too. So yes, in this novel, I’d say the locations are really part of the story.

Q. Any plans to move your settings to another area or country?

My next novel is set in Fance where I live and I am really enjoying writing about a place I love.

Q. How did you handle the research of the period?

I tend to read a lot of oral histories. I also adore folk history which says so much about the lives of people and their beliefs. I read widely and study photographs and newspaper archives. I also try and get a sense of the way people spoke and their attitudes, hopes and expectations in life. I suppose I research until I feel I have an kind of instinct for the characters. Then I really concentrate on the story.

Q. Why was the examination of family generations so important to you and were you drawing on any personal experience?

As a child I spent a lot of the school holidays with my great grandmother and my grandmother. Sometimes my mother, when she came to take me home, would point out that we were four generations in one room. I remember feeling amazed by this. I used to look at the four of us and though I knew we belonged together, I also felt their lives were mysterious to me. That they belonged to the past in some way. I am still curious about the closeness and the distance between generations. Then, while I was thinking about writing another novel, my eldest daughter went away to university and I realised she was about to grow up and find her own way in life. It got me thinking again about that movement between women and generations, the paths we take, the similarities and the differences. In that respect, yes, I think Spilt Milk came out of my own interests in family dynamics.

Q. In a Desert Island discs style, if you could only keep three books with you for life, which would they be?

That is a very hard question! I’m going to ask for poetry books. I’d like the collected works of Elizabeth Bishop, the collected works of Raymond Carver and the collected poems of Les Murray. 

'Book Club.'


Q. Your debut novel, 22 Britannia Road, received great reviews and was highly acclaimed. Were you surprised by its huge success?

I was surprised yes, but at the same time, when I finished writing the novel, I really I believed in its strengths and I hoped a publisher might think so too. Of course so many writers, including me, spend years resigning themselves to rejections so that when things finally happen there's always an element of surprise!

Q. Are there some parallels between the small fishing village in Essex you grew up in and the tiny cottage in Suffolk that is the setting for Spilt Milk?

I grew up in a village on the mouth of the Blackwater estuary and I think the marshes and seawalls of my childhood village were much more akin to Charles Dickens' Great Expectations really. Lots of marsh grasses, sea lavender and thick black mud. My novel Spilt Milk was inspired by rural Suffolk landscapes. Parts of Suffolk and the Essex coast share the same wild kind of beauty that I adore.

Q. What inspired the relationship you created between the two sisters in Spilt Milk?

I am fascinated by sibling relationships. Brothers and sisters can love and hate each other. They suffer jealousies and can betray and attack each other. Siblings can also defend each other against the rest of the world and give undying loyalty. I was interested in writing about two sisters who end up living very different lives and yet maintain a bond between them. Nellie and Vivian are incredibly close growing up. They make a pact to be spinsters and to live together forever in their cottage by the river. Both have desires that go against their promise and they find themselves carrying a secret which will impact on generations to come.

Q. Which character from Spilt Milk do you most identify with?

I don't think I identify with one character more than another but I do feel a great deal for all of them. They all have strengths and weaknesses. Vivian is romantic at heart and yet she ends up helping other women in a very practical way. I felt a great deal of empathy for Birdie who tries to be the perfect wife and mother at the expense of her own dreams and hopes. I think I was most fond of Nellie. She is always surprising and there is simple honesty in her acts even as she makes mistakes. She is like the river she lives beside, solitary and yet full of the elemental powers of life. I love her belief in magic and folk lore. And I have a soft spot for Charles. He is a very quiet man but his love for Birdie is deep and uncomplicated.

Q. Your children are growing up in a very different age to the one you experienced, with many saying that the advance in technology means young people will read less and tablets, computers and TV will take their place. Does this worry you?

It doesn't bother me particularly because I have absolute faith in our enduring need for storytelling. Novels will still be read, no matter what technology delivers them to us. Saying that, I think we still have much to learn about the way we use new and evolving forms of communication and the effects it can have on our identities and ways we see others. But while I feel we should be asking these questions, I don't think we should be afraid of change.

Q. Before finally following your dream of becoming a writer you tried many different career paths, which were you most unsuited to?

I've done so many different jobs. I really enjoyed my time as a riding instructor and I still love horses. I also enjoyed singing in rock bands and my stint as a location finder was fun too. I was however, absolutely hopeless as a sales person selling telephone systems, photocopiers and fax machines. I was in my early twenties and only did the job because it came with a company car and I needed the car to cart our band equipment to gigs.

Q. What advice would you give to those who long to become an established writer but are fearful of giving up their steady job for a venture which may not pay off?

It is really difficult to balance a job, a family, and a desire to write. I took a year out to finish my first novel, 22 Britannia Road. I was full of doubts but in the end it paid off. Any creative endeavour involves a risk of failure but you have to do it anyway. Henri Matisse said 'creativity takes courage,' and I think that's right.

Q. If you could start a book club with any author, dead or alive, who would they be?

I'd invite Joyce Carol Oates. She is such a prolific writer and a fascinating woman. I feel sure the book talk would be lively and wide-ranging.

Q. Which role do you prefer - hostess or guest?

I like both but I suppose I'd prefer being a guest because it's more relaxing and you get to talk to people. Being a hostess often means you spend a lot of time saying hello to guests and then later, you spend a lot of time saying goodbye to them, wishing you'd had more time to chat.

Q. What would be your top tips for hosting a successful book club?

The book clubs I have been part of were fantastic because they were a real mix of people and I got to read books I might never have read. There were so many different literary tastes in our group and I think that makes for some really good discussion – the most rewarding book clubs for me are ones where you learn to look at a book from many different angles. It's also really important to make sure everybody gets a chance to speak at a bookclub. The other thing every good bookclub needs is delicious food and drink!

Q. What book is on your bedside table at the moment?

The Bird Artist by Howard Norman.

Q. What would you say makes a great book?

A great book is a book you can read more than once and which improves with each reading. With a great book, you just know you have to have a paper copy of it. Something to hold in your hands and keep on your bookshelf with your other favourites. It is the kind of book you find yourself reluctant to lend to others in case it doesn't come back. The kind of book you take down from the shelf at your local bookstore, flick through its pages and find yourself still standing there much later, reading your way through it.

Q. Would you ever want any of your works to be made into a film or would you feel too protective over the characters you created?

I'd love my books to be made into films. I like the idea of somebody else interpreting my characters – I would love to see how a film director might see the worlds I depict in my novels.

Published in 'The Lady Magazine.'