Author photo – Amanda Hodgkinson
In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Amanda Hodgkinson, author of 22 Britannia Road and Spilt Milk.
Born in Somerset but raised in a village on the Blackwater estuary in Essex, Amanda has childhood memories of shingle beaches and mudflats, grey-green heather, salt marshes, messing about in boats, gangs of rowdy kids playing all day along the sea-walls, and the ever-present cries of seagulls.
As an adult, she moved inland to Suffolk. She took an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia and after the MA, she and her husband, with two young daughters, upped sticks and bought a property in south west France. She intended to write a novel but spent the first few years of their new life mixing concrete to fix their house. She also had to learn French, settle her daughters into school and deal with the ups and downs of living in a country miles away from friends and family. Finally though, the family made a home in France. And she finished the novel…
22 Britannia Road became an international bestseller. Spilt Milk came out in February 2014 (Penguin Books) and a novella Tin Town (Grand Central Penguin US) will be published this summer. Meanwhile Amanda has begun work on a third novel. You can find out more about Amanda at her website, www.amandahodgkinson.com
Which came first, story or location?
With Spilt Milk, I was inspired by a location. I was visiting friends in rural Suffolk. It was late October, that lovely, damp time of year when the smell of leafmould is everywhere in the country. We went walking and ended up on the banks of a small river. I knew there and then that I wanted it to be the location for my next novel. I was amazed by the stillness of the place. The river had a timelessness to it. I suppose the slow moving waters suited the themes I was interested in writing about – the passing of time in families, the stories we keep and the ones we allow to slip away from us. By the time we’d walked back home, I had the beginnings of the novel in my head.
What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?
When I am writing about a time and a place I find evoking colour, smell and the sounds of that place help create mood. I know it’s considered old-fashioned to use landscape to create mood and emotional intensity but I not only love writing which evokes emotion in that way, I also believe there is a strong connection between our identities and the geographic landscapes we inhabit.
Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
All those but also I find the light is important. I adore Edward Hopper’s paintings for his use of light and I find writing can experiment in a similar way with light, creating mystery or clarity and deepening character.
Can you give a brief example of your work which illustrates place?
In the following passage set in 1970, Nellie, who is a very old lady, watches her family as they picnic together by the river that she has known since she was a small child.
Nellie sat in the shade of summer-green willows, watching the procession of men, women and children making their way down to the riverbank, one after the other, their hands drifting through the day’s fragile bloom of field poppies, all the new-born crimson petals falling at their touch.
Slowly, the murmur of voices, the greetings and talk turned to seasons remembered, harvests and ploughing, days long gone. They discussed winters whose legendary harshness were in retrospect to be marvelled at and even doubted a little, particularly this deep in the year when the barley fields were pale gold and in the distance beyond the farm, the village with its church spire shimmered into the vagueness of a heat haze.
Black and white farm dogs lay low, eyeing Tupperware boxes of sandwiches and sausage rolls. The transistor radio announced cricket scores. A tartan rug was spread out by the bulrushes, and a baby in its frilly white knickers and matching bonnet wriggled and laughed while the women cooed over her. Sunburnt men sprawled in the grass with bottled beers, straw hats tipped low across their brows. Oh, heavens, Nellie thought, eyeing the new baby. And how did I get to be so old?
How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
A place can inspire a novel but I don’t think it is necessary (at least not for me as a writer) to know a place intimately before I begin a story. It is a starting point and as both my books have been set in the past, my research has also been looking at photographs, old films and reference books.
It feels liberating to be able to know a landscape physically and than allow it to become a place of the imagination. I recently wrote a historical novella for an anthology and spent a day exploring an old World War Two airfield which I then used as the basis for the story. While I stuck very closely to the layout of the airfield in the story, I still had to imagine how it must have been back in the 1940s. As in my novels, the landscape was a starting point for my fiction.
Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
Lots! Thomas Hardy, DH Lawrence, Toni Morrison, Annie Proulx, Paul Harding, Marilynne Robinson, John Steinbeck, Robert Macfarlene, Tracy Chevalier, Jane Smiley, to name a few.
Author bio and photograph from Amanda’s website
Next month’s Location, Locution: Jill interviews Andrea Cheung, whose Hungarian/Chinese heritage informs her multicultural prize-winning children’s stories.
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JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.
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