By Ros Dodd
When she was a girl, Amanda Smyth would sit on the veranda of her grandmother’s home in Trinidad and listen to stories of the past. One tale in particular had a deep effect on her – the unsolved murder of her great grandfather.
“It happened in the 1950s. My great grandfather was shot on his way from town to his estate, where he was going to pay his plantation workers. It was a terrible shock for our family, because he was a very strong man and a big person to lose.”
The mystery of his violent death planted the seed for the story that would become Amanda’s debut novel, Black Rock, which has just been published in the UK to popular and critical acclaim. It is a haunting and evocatively-crafted book, written in first-person narrative, which tells the story of the parentless Celia, who flees to Trinidad from her Aunt Tassi’s home in Tobago after being raped by her loathsome alcoholic husband, Roman.
“I decided to write it from the perspective of who I thought might have killed my great grandfather – we had always heard there was a woman involved in the murder. And Celia, the protagonist, was that person. I wanted to find out why she might have done it.”
Except that the novel didn’t quite turn out that way. “The character I started working with developed into someone different; I tried to force her to do something she wouldn’t naturally have done. So I had to change the novel completely. The murder is still in there, but Celia isn’t responsible.”
How did her family react to her writing about such a traumatic event?
“I always thought it was a great story, regardless of it being difficult for the family,” she says. “My grandmother, who died earlier this year, didn’t read the book but my mother said she had turned to the bit about the murder and was quite affected by it.”
Amanda, who will be talking about the novel at the Birmingham Book Festival’s Spring Thing: A Festival in a Day on Saturday, May 29, has travelled a long and sometimes rocky road to get her first book into print.
Now 42, she started writing as a child and in her 20s penned journals “as a way of making sense of my life”, which was coloured by her parents’ backgrounds and their divorce.
Both her parents are white, but Amanda’s mother is from Trinidad and her father from Ireland. “So I spent time living between two countries and not really fitting in anywhere.”
After her parents split up, she came to England from Ireland to live with her mother, but spent two months’ holiday in Trinidad every year.
The exotic backdrop captivated the young Amanda and is portrayed vividly in Black Rock. And it was in Trinidad, while staying with her mother ten years ago, that she decided to ditch her first career as an actor and pursue her writing ambition.
“I went into acting in my 20s. I acted in theatre, did bits of television and commercials: I was in The Bill – though I was terrible in it – and was one of the Oil of Olay girls. Despite going to New York and putting myself through proper acting training, I just didn’t think I was good enough.”
Mentally and physically exhausted, Amanda went to Trinidad for a holiday – and stayed for months. “I did a lot of writing and gradually started to come out of what felt like hibernation. A children’s story I wrote was turned into a film while I was there.”
The turning point came when Amanda joined a creative writing class led by Commonwealth Poetry Prize-winning writer Wayne Brown in Port of Spain, Trinidad’s capital. “He saw something in my writing and really encouraged me.”
So Amanda returned to London and found a job on the reception desk of a literary agency. “On day two I gave examples of my work to one of the agents, who said, ‘I think you should do an MA – go to the University of East Anglia’. So I applied and was accepted, which was great given that I didn’t have a BA. Andrew Motion and Ali Smith were my teachers and they were brilliant.”
After graduating, Amanda found herself an agent and her stories were published in anthologies and broadcast on Radio Four. She then won an Arts Council grant to write a novel.
“An idea was knocking on the door at the back of my mind, but by then I had a full-time job at the Barbican, so the only time I had to write was on a Sunday. I’d write all day and then read it on the Tube on Monday morning.”
Amanda moved to Leamington when her film producer boyfriend, Lee – now her husband – relocated to Birmingham to work for Screen WM. About 18 months later, the novel was finally ready to send off to publishers. “It was rejected by just about everybody apart from Faber & Faber, who told me the first two-thirds of the book were great but the last third needed working on.”
There was no contract, though, so Amanda had to find the extra motivation to rework the novel while holding down a part-time job. It was then that she heard about Tindal Street Fiction Group.
“I started going to the group in Moseley every fortnight and it was fantastic. I felt like I’d come home. They were all published authors and really supportive.”
Fired with fresh enthusiasm, Amanda set about re-writing the book and re-submitted it to Faber. “But they turned it down! I was so disappointed.”
Being knocked back at that point was “like wearing the most fantastic dress and not being able get into the party, but watching all your friends inside dancing away”.
So despondent was she that Amanda gave up asking her agent, Lucy Luck, if there was any news. It was a huge surprise, therefore, when Lucy announced that not one but two publishers wanted it.
The trade version came out last year, with the mass market paperback hitting the shelves this March. Already it’s a great success: after the American version was published, Oprah Winfrey put it on her summer reading list. It’s been translated into five languages and nominated for two awards – the American NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) prize for outstanding debut novelist and the McKitterick Prize, awarded to authors over the age of 40 for a first novel. Amanda was also picked by Waterstone’s as one of its New Voices for 2009.
Amanda has now started work on a second novel and has also won funding from Screen WM to write the screenplay of Black Rock.
“I believe you can mine yourself for stories,” she says. “It’s like taking a big lump of coal, polishing it up as best you can until it’s something of value.”
- The Birmingham Book Festival’s Spring Thing: A Festival In A Day is on Saturday, May 29, 10.30am-5.30pm, at Birmingham Conservatoire, Paradise Place. For more information go to www.birminghambookfestival.org and for tickets call 0121 303 2323
- Black Rock is published by Serpent’s Tail priced £10.99