Author interview: Amanda Huggins

We’re excited to be speaking to Amanda Huggins to celebrate the launch of her short story collection, Scratched Enamel Heart – which includes her 2018 Costa Short Story Award prize-winning story, Red. Amanda’s work has been very widely published; in fiction and poetry anthologies, literary magazines, travel guides and more, as well as in the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Reader’s Digest, Take a Break’s Fiction Feast, Traveller, Popshot, Mslexia, Wanderlust, and Writers’ Forum.

Amanda is the author of Separated From the Sea, which received a Special Mention in the 2019 Saboteur Awards for Best Short Story Collection. She has also published a flash fiction collection, Brightly Coloured Horses, and a poetry collection, The Collective Nouns for Birds, which won the 2020 Saboteur Award for poetry. We caught up with Amanda to talk about how her latest collection came to life, the authors that inspire her most and the power of short stories.

Congratulations on the launch of Scratched Enamel Heart. The stories are connected by the theme of the human heart, in all its frailty and strength. Can you share what prompted you to explore this as an idea in your work?
Thank you! I’ve already received some fantastic pre-launch feedback, and it’s exciting to see my words going out into the world again. 

The truth is that I made no plans at all to explore a particular theme for Scratched Enamel Heart. I realised I had a few stories unintentionally connected by a heart motif, and the collection grew organically around those. My work has always been centred on the vagaries of the human heart – the conflict between the struggle to connect and the need to escape, around themes of love and loss, of not quite belonging.

How long did it takes you to write the collection?
Most of these stories were written over a two-year period, although a few have been around a lot longer. A Longing for Clouds has been kicking around for almost ten years, and has been through many reincarnations. Maggie, the stubborn and recalcitrant protagonist, is one of my favourite characters!

What do you hope your readers will connect with and enjoy most about your collection?
Like all authors, I would like my stories to resonate with people, and to stay in their heads after they’ve closed the book. Reviewers consistently make the comment that my writing demonstrates great empathy, which I consider a fantastic compliment. There is nothing more satisfying than hearing readers say they were deeply moved by one of my stories, that they want to know what happens after a story ends, or they were rooting for a character in a perilous situation. To know you’ve made someone care about your characters as though they were real people is just lovely. That’s my job done!

“Her characters live, breathe and grow, and reading them, we do too.” Judy Darley

Between them, your collection’s characters experience an expansive range of emotions. Did you find the writing process emotional personally?
I do find the process emotional; never more so than in the stories which are loosely based on incidents or experiences from my own life. These tend to be few and far between, however there are a couple in this collection. No Doubt is one of them, and the last story, This Final Perfect Thing, which is based on losing my own mother. I can’t read either of them aloud without crying, and both of these stories have reduced readers to tears too.

You were a finalist for the Costa Short Story Award in the Costa Book Awards 2018; what is it you love most about writing in the short story format? What does it offer readers that novels cannot?
Short stories are perfectly suited to the pace of the twenty-first century, and as a reader you can dip in and out, returning to certain stories time after time as you would with a poetry collection. I know some readers say they don’t read shorts because they can’t lose themselves in the story the way they can in a novel, yet a cracking short story will leave you with something to think about for days after you’ve read it.

Writing short stories is both a challenge and a joy. It’s an opportunity to try and create something as perfect as it can possibly be. When you have a limited number of words, your language needs to be specific, concise, sparing, lean. When you impose restrictions it can result in something surprising. I have read short fiction which has made me cry in the space of a few minutes, that has made me hold my breath until I reached the end.

What isn’t said is as important as what is, and I have a favourite Hemingway quote that sums it up perfectly: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things… and the reader… will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.” 

Which authors inspire you most?
One of my favourite authors is Kazuo Ishiguro. I love all his work, but The Remains of the Day is the book I wish had my name on the cover. I’ve loved it since first reading it in the 1980s. A beautifully written story of a life lost to duty; unsentimental and utterly heartbreaking. 

I’m enjoying discovering a number of new new writers at the moment, and the book I’m currently reading is Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Disapin. It is a haunting and immersive tale set in the bleak seaside town of Sokcho on the North/South Korean border, and tells the story of an unlikely friendship between a hotel receptionist and an unexpected guest.

Unsurprisingly, I’m a keen short story reader too. The collections on my shelves include books by William Trevor, Tessa Hadley, Helen Simpson, Helen Dunmore, A L Kennedy, Wells Tower, Alison Moore, Miranda July, K J Orr, Ernest Hemingway, Taeko Kono, Richard Ford, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, Anton Chekhov, Annie Proulx, Isaac Babel, Angela Readman, and A M Homes.

I’m also a huge admirer of Japanese literature. The sparing and effective use of language, the subtlety and nuance, a certain elusiveness, all require Japanese fiction to be read slowly, to be re-read and savoured. These are the qualities that draw me back again and again, and the tales of quiet yearning and loss, of not quite belonging, all resonate with the themes I explore in my own fiction. One of my favourite Japanese writers is Yoko Ogawa. Like Murakami, her writing is often surreal, and can be unsettling and even grotesque. She is adept at self-observation and dissecting women’s roles in Japanese society. Her novel, The Housekeeper and the Professor, is an all time favourite, and another highly-recommended contemporary Japanese novel is Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami, a quiet and tender love story of the friendship formed between a Tokyo woman in her late thirties and her old high school teacher.

Do you find that you’re inspired by movies and TV shows, as well as written fiction – if so, which come to mind?
I don’t watch a great deal of TV, however I am a big fan of world cinema – especially Japanese films. I’m particularly inspired by the domestic dramas made in the 1950s by Yasujiro Ozu. His films are poignant, poetic, and deceptively simple, and I love the elemental humanity of his work. He evokes a strong sense of the melancholy in everyday life, and the films all unfold at a contemplative, considered pace. 

When you’re reading whether that’s novels, short fiction or flash what is it that makes you fall in love with a story, and want to keep on reading?
I love stories with a strong sense of place, where the location is integral to the story and influences the behaviour of the characters and the choices they make. Strong characters and beautiful language are more important to me than plot – I don’t need a lot to happen. I like to feel slightly unsettled by a book, to feel that things are a little off-kilter and not as they first appear.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
To get as much work out there as possible. When the rejections come they don’t sting as much as they would if you were pinning all your hopes on one submission.

Thanks, Amanda! To find out more about Amanda and her work, check out the links below…


Twitter: @troutiemcfish

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