It came as a surprise to Amanda Prowse that books just don’t come into other people’s heads complete, because she really thought it was the same for everyone, she tells Sue Leonard.
Asked about her book, she turned to the other writers and said: “Well you know how it is. A book comes into your head complete; and then you have to sit down and type it all out.”
The writers looked at her, aghast.
“I really thought it was the same for everyone,” says Amanda, laughing, when we meet to discuss her tenth novel, Another Love.
“And one gentleman said, ‘that’s not how it happens for me.’ All the others agreed with him.”
And if that is different; then so is just about everything else about Amanda’s career. There were no books in her house, growing up.
She didn’t attend university; when she left school she had done cleaning jobs; she had worked in bars; she did data analysis, and babysitting; often doing two or three jobs at one time.
She had tried scribbling down stories, but hadn’t the confidence to pursue a writing career. But then, as Amanda hit the big 40, she was diagnosed with bowel cancer.
“That diagnosis made me realise I was on a timer,” she says.
“It kicked fire at my heels, and gave me confidence. Before that, I was scared that if I wrote a book I would fail.
“Afterwards I didn’t mind the thought of failing at something I thought I might be good at. Nothing was ever going to be as bad as the cancer.”
Life had been going pretty well up to that point. Or at least since the moment the single mum of eight-year-old Josh had met the love of her life.
“I was 28. I walked onto a rugby field to watch Josh playing. This man was watching his son, Ben. I saw him and fell instantly in love. I felt I knew him.”
Her husband is a soldier, and taking the time out to write the book caused the couple financial hardship. So when every publisher Amanda sent the manuscript said no, she was pretty devastated.
“I thought, ‘what now?’ I decided to self-publish — in print and Kindle, and we sold 20,000 copies in a very short time. I thought, ‘this is great. I have done what I set out to do,’ but I thought my dream was over.”
Then fate intervened.
“I managed to get a signing in Selfridges. There was a very glamorous lady in the queue, and she said, ‘I am an agent. I would like to represent you.’ I said, ‘Do I need one of those?’ I hadn’t a clue.”
“She said, ‘for starters we need to re-edit this. There are lots of mistakes, and that’s not good. And we can jazz it up a bit.’ She did that, and within a few days I had a book deal.
Poppy Day was published in October 2012. And my second book, What Have I Done, about control in a marriage, sold 250,000 copies very quickly.”
Writing in a similar genre to Jodi Picoult, Amanda takes an issue, relevant to women, as her central theme. And in Another Love, that issue is alcoholism.
A talented scientist, Romilly can’t believe her luck when David takes an interest in her; he seems way out of her league.
And if she needs a glass of wine or two to become the confident person she thinks he would like her to be, well, as a student, everyone drinks, don’t they?
Once they are married, though, and baby Celeste comes along, David goes on a health kick, and Romilly’s drinking starts to impact on the couple’s happiness.
But she, surely, hasn’t a problem. She loves alcohol, but can kick the habit at will. Can’t she?
As it turns out, she can’t. And Prowse has her on the streets, before, finally, she accepts her situation and decides to improve it.
“I feel that it’s not until you have really fallen that you can start to get yourself up again. And for literary purposes going to the end of the spectrum is the most interesting.
“I talked to 12 women for my research. I always do, and the ones I talked to for this book were all mothers and wives; women who had careers. They were smart women whose lives had unravelled, and it impressed me, deeply that it can happen to someone like that.
Romilly is proud of her academia. The fact that it can happen to her shows that alcoholism knows no boundaries.
“One woman said, ‘I know I am doing a stupid thing. I am putting this poison into my body. I am killing myself. I have lost everything, yet I’m not stupid. I’m clever. I have all the qualifications’.”
The need Romilly feels for alcohol, and the buzz drink gives her, seems set in authenticity.
Yet Amanda has been teetotal since her teens.
“I’m teetotal because I have an addictive personality,” she says.
“Overeating is my drug of choice. I have two settings, full tilt and off. When I describe the way Romilly feels when alcohol hits the back of her tongue, that’s how I feel about ice cold diet-coke. Or eating some fresh bread. I have a need for it.
“When I still drank I did get into a couple of situations. I was too drunk to be able to scream or run for help, and that really bothered me. I thought ‘what if I can’t keep myself safe?’ That is why I stopped.”
Amanda is remarkably easy to talk to. Open and friendly, she’s emotional too.
There’s a lot of laughter during our hour together, and also a few tears. And that emotion, clearly, pours itself into her novels. Books continue to come to Amanda fully formed.
“I do my research when I’m writing the book before. Then I park it. After that they push into my head in about three minutes,” she says.
“They will have the beginning, middle and end with twists and turns, and characters; everything. I see it like a film. I never make notes or a plan.
“I write it, curled up in my pyjamas, on a tiny laptop. I’ll laugh and I’ll cry.
“Sometimes my husband says, ‘what is wrong?’ and I’ll say, ‘It’s so sad!’
“When I go to bed at night, if I have left my characters somewhere precarious or desperately sad, I can’t leave them there. I’ll pop in a few lines, and put them on a beach, saying it was all a dream.
“When I wake up I delete the sentences and carry on.”
With such an unorthodox approach it is, perhaps as well, that Amanda never went to a writing class.
“You mean, it might have been battered out of me? Learning a system that worked for a majority of people might have stifled my natural method?”
Frowning, she says, “That’s a good point. I’ve never thought of that before.”
Amanda can barely believe the extraordinary success she has enjoyed over the past four years.
But she hasn’t changed her lifestyle. She doesn’t own a house, or a car; and she hates shopping so rarely buys clothes or jewellery.
“This is my only pair of boots,” she says, lifting her foot, and showing me her rather battered black pair.
“I’m wearing the same outfit I wore to Ireland three years ago. The main difference is that I have no debt. These days I sleep better.”
Her life, she says, is a fairytale. But what if it were all to end tomorrow?
“I’d go back to other jobs,” she says, shrugging nonchalantly. “Cleaning or bar work.
Head Zeus, €19.99; Kindle, €12.55
Published in The Irish Examiner, Saturday, April 23, 2016
© Sue Leonard. 2016