Amanda Berriman: “Writing the darker bits, I felt physically sick for weeks.”
We gave Amanda Berriman’s debut novel Home a rare ★★★★★ rating on Those Precious Stolen Moments, for “A humbling dose of empathy.” You can read the full review here.
The story is told from the perspective of four-year-old Jesika, whose life is uprooted when her mum and little brother get sick, thanks in part to the mould-ridden, dilapidated flat they’re forced to rent. At the same time, Jesika meets a new friend at preschool, Paige, who tells her a disturbing secret that neither of them really understand.
Amanda Berriman took the time to talk to Those Precious Stolen Moments, and explained to us her original aim with the book:
Amanda: I was trying to explore what ‘home’ is to different people and how it can look one way, but be something else. With the comparisons between Jesika and Paige: Paige lived in the nicer house, but Jesika lived in the safer house. I was deliberately trying to set up that idea of getting people to think about what ‘home’ actually is.
Those Precious Stolen Moments: Jesika’s housing situation, though, is still shocking, and painfully realistic. Are you coming from a political place with this book?
A: I am quite political, but I try to keep that out of the book. I didn’t want it to be this big sledgehammer. What I actually wanted to do with it, was just get people to think about the reality of what people live through. I think my biggest frustration is tabloid headlines that talk about 'scroungers' and 'benefit cheats' and all of that — the stuff that sells the papers — but it never really gets to the heart of the real people, living their real lives, in real poverty. And what that actually feels like. I wanted to give a human side of that.
T: Did you ever worry about having the authority to tell this story?
A: So, I grew up in a single parent family, and there were financial struggles along the way, there was a lot of difficulty, a lot of emotional trouble. It was complicated. So I have drawn on a lot of that, in terms of trying to get across the idea that children do experience things, they do have memories. I mean, I remember times as a child when things were happening around me that were hugely emotional. I was experiencing those emotions but didn't know what they were, and I wasn't having them explained to me properly. So I was trying to get some of that through in the book as well.
But having said that, I was very lucky, in that we always had a roof over our heads — a safe roof — so I've not experienced living in accomodation like Jesika does.
“Tabloid headlines never really get to the heart of the real people, living their real lives, in real poverty. And what that actually feels like. I wanted to give a human side of that.”
T: Talking of growing up in a single parent family, I loved that the single mother character, Tina, was perfect— or obviously not completely perfect — but that she isn’t a scapegoat.
A: Yeah, she’s not absolutely perfect, and obviously she gets it wrong, and she makes mistakes, and she loses her temper sometimes, but there was a bit of stubbornness in me there when I was writing Tina. Because I get so fed up of this stigma attached to single parents. Single parents are seen as lesser in some way, and they're seen as not as good at what they’re doing, and they’re not educated enough, or they're neglectful ... and it’s just such a load of rubbish, isn’t it? I mean, obviously there are parents out there like that, but there are also parents who are a couple out there like that. I just really, really wanted her to be a single parent who was actually doing a really good job of it, despite the circumstances that she’s in.
T: And, what about the bits that went beyond your experience?
A: I spent a lot of time on websites like Shelter, and places like that, reading huge numbers of case studies and watching videos. Because what I didn’t want to do was exaggerate it, if that makes sense? I was probably more worried that I exaggerated it, and made into something that is not, than I was in taking on a story that doesn’t necessarily belong to me. But then what I've found since writing the book is that more and more of these case studies and stories are coming out, and every single one I'm thinking 'Wow, maybe I didn’t write it bad enough.’ Because some of the conditions people are living in are just horrendous.
T: As an author, perhaps you’re in a unique position to communicate that.
A: Which is why I'm so pleased at how many people have got the book! Because hopefully the more people that read it, the more people will talk about it. And obviously these people aren’t real [her characters], but they represent people that are real, and they represent real struggles that are going on right now. I suppose I really want people to realise that there are people out there who have nothing, and who manage to somehow exist on this kind of nothingness. And they need every help they can get.
“I don't plan writing at all, I just have a very strong idea about something then I'll start writing and see where it goes.”
T: Poverty and the housing crisis aren’t the only issues you’ve tackled; the book also goes in a darker direction.
A: It was kind of the way the story evolved. I don't plan writing at all, I just have a very strong idea about something then I'll start writing and see where it goes. So, to begin with the story idea was Jesika, living in this house that to the outside looked horrible, but to her was her home; and then wondering about what somebody else's house would look like if it was flipped the other way around, where it looked really nice, but actually something really horrible was happening in it. And I actually had a completely different idea of where the story was going, but I was writing the scene where she meets Paige for the first time in preschool and the way Paige was behaving ... there was something … I think my teacher training was kicking in and I'm going: 'This isn't right, the way she’s behaving, this isn't right...' And then Ryan walked into the story, and immediately I knew immediately that that was exactly what the story was. I was never truly in charge of the story, I just went where the story took me and that's where I ended up.
There were times when I didn’t want to be writing it, but I thought: 'No, I need to just scrap this, start again, do something else.’ But it was just too strong, it kept calling me back and it needed to be written.
T: Did you not want to go there? Did you resist it?
A: Oh definitely, yeah. There were times when I would try and write something else, but it just came out so rubbish, and I would think: ‘This isn’t what I'm trying to write.’ And there are times when I'd have to leave it. Some of the scenes of book, the darker bits like the bathroom scene, I just remember feeling physically sick for weeks while I was trying to get the balance of that right, and write it the way I wanted it to be, but allowing the story to lead me. And there were times where I could see where the story was going and I'd think 'No, no. I don’t want it to go there.’ Yeah, it's quite an emotional experience. And it’s quite difficult to allow yourself just to go along with it.
I think a lot of the people who've said comments to me about how they’ve had to shut the book — put it down and walk away and come back to it — that’s exactly how I wrote it. That's the exact experience I had. I had to just put it away, leave it for a week, and come back and just take it a bit at a time, because it was really really difficult to write.
T: I was really scared reading it, and I think half the tension came from what might be happening in the story, and half the tension, for me, came from hoping you didn't make it gratuitous or you didn’t take it too far. I was so relieved that you didn't!
A: That was my biggest worry. I absolutely did not want to make it some horrible kind of … I don't know ... voyeuristic. And actually, I often ended up with it being too little, in my effort. Someone else would be reading it, and say: ‘I don't really know what you’re saying here.' And I'd have to give a bit more detail, because I wasn't giving enough. But trying to strike the right balance was important, and hopefully I have.
T: For all the issues and questions in Home, it is the main character, Jesika, at the heart of this book. One of my favourite aspects of Jesika was the joy she sees in everything. The situation she’s in is really terrible, but she doesn’t know any different does she?
A: Children are incredibly resilient and they adapt to whatever situation they're in. But the things that are important to them are not always what you expect to be important. So, it wasn’t important to Jesika that she lived in a horrible flat, because that’s not how she saw it. What she saw it as was her home, where she lived with her mum and her brother. So when that was taken away from her she just wanted to go back there, even though every adult reading the book was going: ‘You don't want to go back there!’ But for her, that was her home where she felt safe, even though technically she wasn’t actually terribly safe there because of all the other circumstances that were beyond her understanding.
“Writing the darker bits, I just remember feeling physically sick for weeks. I could see where the story was going and I'd think: 'No, no. I don’t want it to go there.’ … I had to just put it away, leave it for a week, and come back.”
T: I found it amazingly vivid how well you’re inside her head, how did you manage that? Were you listening in to conversations? I’m imagining you setting up playdates just so you can eavesdrop...
A: I'm a teacher and I've always taught the younger age group, so I've taught a lot of six and seven-year-olds. But also, when I started writing the book my children were three and five and I used to listen to the way they phrased things; particularly my youngest child who was three at the time, he has a very particular way, a lot of the words that she [Jesika] says wrong were stolen straight from him. So I don't know if I was always consciously listening to them, but obviously I was immersed in that environment while I was writing the book.
There was one point when I was editing and I was trying to think if I got something right, and - do you know the 'Secret Lives of Four-year-olds'? That Channel 4 programme where they put cameras in a preschool? Basically what they're trying to do is observe children without the children realising they were being observed, so that they got a really true idea of how children interact with each other. And so I watched a few episodes of that, and that was really interesting as it chimed in really well with the way I was writing Jesika. I borrowed a few ideas from that as well! For some of those preschool scenes, the dialogue has come from variations of things that children said on that programme.
T: So now Jesika is out in the world, what is the next project in the pipeline?
A: I've written about 20 thousand words of a new book, and I'm quite excited about it. It seems to be coming together really well, but it's such early days. All I'll say is that it takes some of the minor characters out of Home and it's telling their story. These characters that I’m working on, when I was writing their chapters I had such a strong feeling that there was something else going on there. Obviously, it just didn’t belong in this book so I scribbled a few notes and filled a notepad with different ideas and things, and then put it away and forgot about it. I've come back to that now, and I'm just working through that and making a start at it to see if it does have legs. But early days yet, so whether it comes to anything I’m not sure. But I'm enjoying it anyway.
Home was released in hardback by Doubleday on the 8th February 2018. Read Those Precious Stolen Moments’ ★★★★★ review here.