Amanda Fleet - an interview - Stuart Lennon
Regular readers will be aware that I have a writing buddy. Amanda Fleet recently published her debut novel ‘The Wrong Kind of Clouds’. I reviewed it here. If you would like the chance to win a free copy, then scroll to the bottom of the page and sign up for my newsletter. (Offer open until midnight on July 30th 2016. You will automatically be signed up for Amanda’s newsletter too.)
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The following questions were batted to and fro over the last few weeks, when Amanda was in the midst of launching the novel, both virtually, and in person at Waterstones St Andrews.
Congratulations! You have published your debut novel, ‘The Wrong Kind of Clouds’ and very good it is too. How long was it in the making?
A number of people have asked me this. I had a look in my notebook to see when I started writing it and naturally, I haven’t written the date in there at the start, but chasing through the notebook, it would seem that the first draft took about a year from first notes to first full draft. I then left it alone for a while but had finished the first edit by six months later. It went off to beta readers towards the end of 2011 and I did some more editing, based on their feedback. I then left it alone while I wrote two more books! I was only meaning to write one more, but then the inspiration struck and I didn’t want to lose it!
It went to Dea Parkin, my editor, in spring 2015. More editing after that. Although I technically started writing it just over 5 years ago, I think the total time spent writing and editing it would be about 20 months. I’ve written a number of other things since, which are hopefully going to come out in within the next year or so.
An extensive process. Which are your favourite elements?
Oh, by far the initial planning and sketching out of the plot and writing character notes. It’s a period of discovery and imagination and the ideas come thick and fast – so fast I get scared I won’t manage to trap them all and they’ll evaporate. Once the planning is done, I think writing the first draft is my next favourite part – there’s still that buzz of creativity going on.
And the least favourite?
Editing. I know of some writers who love editing – checking every word and fine-tuning it all until it’s humming – and I admire them for it. That’s not how I find editing!
Part of the novel is set in Malawi. Why there?
I went out to Malawi with work (University of St Andrews) many times, working on a project with the College of Medicine in Blantyre, Malawi. While I was in Malawi, I met Mac Nkhutabasa – a man working with homeless children, helping them to return to education and get off the streets. A significant strand of the book developed from working with him to set up a charity – Chimwemwe Children’s Centre – to help the kids. The charity in the book – Samala – is loosely based on Chimwemwe, though Chimwemwe is 100% above board!
I love Malawi. It is a beautiful country that steals your heart but can also break it. It’s a country that few people seem to know about or visit and I wanted to let people see a bit of it.
Are you still involved with the Children’s Centre? What does it do?
I am still involved. Chimwemwe works with homeless and disadvantaged children in Blantyre, Malawi, helping them to remain in education or to return to it. For many families, it is a financial struggle to send their children to school – the cost of uniforms and stationery and textbooks can be more than they can afford – and so the children get pulled out of school to work or beg. Chimwemwe helps the families by buying the uniforms and stationery for the children and paying the school fees for those in secondary education (which is not free in Malawi). For those children who have been orphaned, we help them into foster care and support the foster families as well as the kids (buying food for them so that taking the children on doesn’t mean that the foster family is pushed towards poverty). We’ve also just finished building a centre where the kids can go to do homework and get life-skills lessons. For those older kids who are about to leave school, we help them to get apprenticeships or training so that they can build their own businesses and also give them a start-up grant to help them to find their feet.
You are Dr Amanda Fleet. You held a permanent post at the University of St Andrews lecturing on Physiology, a post which you have given up to become a full-time writer. Not a small decision. Why did you make it?
Well… I’d been writing and working full-time for a few years, spending evenings and weekends scribbling away. That wasn’t sustainable! Or compatible with staying healthy, and so I moved to part-time work at the university – three days a week – and wrote at weekends and on the days I wasn’t working. Then, finally, a serious heart condition made me reassess my priorities in life and I decided to have a career change. Writing made me happier than working at the university did and trying to fit too much into too little time was having a significant and detrimental effect on my health. I miss some aspects of working at the university (not least the pay cheques!) but it was the right move and I haven’t regretted it so far.
What was it like getting from an idea in your head to a printed, published book?
Surreal. It genuinely feels like it’s happening to someone else! Everyone says I must be really proud of my achievements and delighted to see the book in print… I am delighted, but it feels as if I’m delighted for a friend rather than for myself. Maybe it hasn’t sunk in yet or maybe I live too much of my life in a fantasy world in my head, but it doesn’t feel mine to be honest.
You explained that there are two more books already written. Do the characters from “The Wrong Kind of Clouds” feature in them?
No. Actually, there are more than two written, because The Wrong Kind of Clouds wasn’t the first book I’d written, it was the first to get published. I have a bit of a back-log building up! People keep asking me whether there’s another book with Summer and LB going to happen and I have ¾ of one written with them in it. I think I’ll need to get that one sorted out soon since everyone seems to want more of them.
When can we expect the publication of number two?
Hopefully within the year. I’m editing at the moment and that book will go off to my editor at the end of June, for her to make it better.
What advice would you give to anyone considering writing a book?
Be sure that you have the time. You’re not writing the book yet, but you fill every minute of your day with something. What gets replaced in order to write the book? Do you stop watching TV? Stop playing sport? Stop seeing friends? You need to think what you’re going to have to give up in order to have the time to write, because there are 24 hours in the day and no more. Just because you decide to spend 2 hours a day writing, doesn’t mean the day is now 26 hours long! You need to know where you’ll get the time from. To have a head full of ideas and no opportunity to scribble them down before they vanish, is hell. Believe me, I know.