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Amanda Jennings lives just outside Henley-on-Thames with her husband and three daughters. In Her Wake is her third novel. She is a regular guest presenter on BBC Berkshire's weekly Book Club, and enjoys speaking at literary festivals, libraries and book clubs. When she isn't writing she can mostly be found walking her dog and dreaming of being up a mountain or beside the sea. She writes a blog and is an active user of social media.
Below is a Q&A withthis author.
1. What was your inspiration for In Her Wake?
I was thinking about the subject of missing children. I wanted to write about it but not from the point of view of a mother experiencing the actual event of her child being taken and I didn’t want any police searching for him or her. As I was considering it, I thought about what, as a parent, you would wish for if this worse case scenario occurred. Of course, you would want your child to stay alive. You would also want them to be unhurt. And you would want them to come home to you safe and sound one day. As soon as I had decided the child was going to be unharmed, cared for, cherished even, I began to look at the reasons why somebody would snatch a child but want to look after them. From that the themes of motherhood, loss, grief and identity took hold.
2. Your descriptions of Cornwall are poetic, detailed and, above all, affectionate. Is this a place you know well?
I do know it well. My mother is Cornish, and her family is all very Cornish. By very I mean they were born, bred and died in the county and wouldn’t have lived anywhere else. My mother slightly broke the mould by leaving in the sixties to study architecture in London, but she has always had a house down there, and now spends much of her time with my father there. When we were children, we spent long stretches of summer in and around Penzance, and many Christmases too. Cornwall runs in my blood and I’m very proud of that fifty percent! My memories of crabbing in rock pools, walking out across the seaweedy causeway, revealed at low tide, to St Michael’s Mount, taking the dogs out on to the windswept cliffs and eating hot pasties after a swim in the icy sea are very important to me.
3. Did you find it difficult to marry such beautifully written prose with such a twisting, turning, chilling plot?
The descriptions of Cornwall, in particular the weather and the sea, helped me to add atmosphere to the book. Bella’s journey is very much mirrored by the sea and as the story approaches its climax, the hager-awal (stormy weather) closes in. The legend of the mermaid that weaves through the story was also something I used to add layers to the plot. As Bella struggles to come to terms with what’s happened to her, she becomes more and more entwined in her flashes of memory and nightmares, and the mermaid tale becomes an escape from her reality, a siren calling to her, offering her another way.
4. There is a central theme of loss in your book – many of your characters, both main protagonists and those with smaller roles to play, have lost someone and you write about grief, longing and the confusion people feel in such circumstances with remarkable authenticity. Have you lost anyone significant? How did you put yourselves in these shoes?
I have been fortunate enough to have not lost any of my immediate family, but I have always been drawn to loss and individuals who have suffered it. Both my closest friends at university had lost important people – one, her teenage brother, the other, her mother – both to cancer. I was very keyed into their emotions and how they coped with such devastating loss. I also grew up with cats, dogs, horses and various furry creatures, and having to deal with the death of a beloved animal exposes a child to the kind of grief that floors you, that you think will never lessen, even though, eventually, it does. I’m quite an empathetic person and feel other people’s emotions keenly. I think this is one of the main reasons I’m drawn to writing, and gravitate to themes of loss and love. Loss is one of those things we all inevitably have to deal with and yet without exception is an unbearable thing to experience. By writing about loss and the associated emotions, I’m exploring these emotions, and in some way preparing myself for the inevitable.
5. There are several strands of the story that are seamlessly woven together to keep the pages turning, and some exceptionally chilling twists. Did you plot these elements of your story in advance, or did the book take on a life of its own when you were writing it?
The book definitely grew. While I’m not a natural planner or plotter, I’m a devoted rewriter. I love developing themes and ideas, and with each rewrite of this book – and there were about eleven – something new would appear. I’m a big believer in solutions and sometimes the best twists come as a result of having to think my way out of a nasty plot hole. I adore developing my characters, too, and they do eventually begin to act independently of the story, shifting the narrative in unexpected ways. The more you get to know your characters and their personalities, the more they begin to make their own decisions. It might sound odd, but often I will start to write a scene, and write a character doing something, and he or she will say ‘come on, give me a break, you know I wouldn’t do that. Of course, I’d do this.’ and off the story shoots in a different, yet more authentic, direction.
6. Many of your characters have performed some unscrupulous, often shocking acts, and yet we often feel sympathy for them. How can you explain this?
Human beings are complex. Every experience they’ve had contributes to their own unique tapestry. I don’t believe that any action happens in isolation. There will always be a reason, a chain of events, that has led up to it. It’s these reasons, the ‘whys’, that fascinate me. Why did the girl tell her best friend the dress made her look fat when it didn’t? Why did the boy make a move on his brother’s girlfriend? Why did the woman steal the loaf of bread? There is always a reason. Not an excuse, necessarily, but a reason. It comes back to empathy. All human beings are capable of doing all sorts of things but to paint these things as merely good or bad is too simplistic. People get interesting when you look beneath their masks. If I can get a reader to question the way they identify or view a character, to question their preconceptions or existing notions of what constitutes plain right or wrong, then I’ll be very happy.
7. Do you identify with any character in particular?
Funnily enough I identify quite strongly with Alice, the mother who is so devastated by the loss of her child that she retreats into herself to a point of absolute silence and withdrawal. It’s one of my greatest fears, that something happens to one of my children and I am so destroyed by it that I fail to be there for my other children. I actually explore this idea in my first book, Sworn Secret, so in a way it’s a recurring theme I’m drawn to. But I also love Phil, the man who works in the coffee shop, who every morning makes Bella a coffee and gives her a lesson in the Cornish language. He is there to provide moments of levity, optimism and hope, as well as consistency. He quickly becomes a rock for Bella. I think it’s important to be there for friends in this way.
8. You’ve had what looks like a Who’s Who of bestselling authors providing incredible endorsements. Were you surprise by the response?
Yes. Absolutely. Authors have been incredibly supportive and some of the emails I’ve had from them have been overwhelming. I feel very honoured to have their support and also very grateful. Writing is an exposing business. You are literally opening up your soul to readers and I suffer from self-doubt constantly. To have the support of writers I hold in such high regard is invaluable for keeping me going.
9. Equally, almost every single early reviewer, men and women, have admitted to crying throughout. What, to you, is the most moving scene and did you cry when you wrote it?
I can’t say without giving one of the final twists away, but if I said ‘Henry and the oak tree at the end’ would that be enough of a clue? I did cry when I wrote it. I think when I’m plumbing my own emotional depths, my experiences, drawing any sad or emotional memories I have – the conversations I’ve had with my best friend about watching her brother pass away, for example, or the funeral I went to of a young university friend killed in a car accident – it’s hard not to be moved to tears. And I need to draw on these memories and experiences in order to write about grief. It’s less the scene I’m writing about that moves me to tears and more the emotion I’m recalling at the time.
10. This is your third book (after Sworn Secret and The Judas Scar). Do they get easier to write?
In a short answer, no. I think, perhaps, the mechanics get easier, but as a more experienced writer you know what lies ahead – and it’s tough sometimes – and I find it can be hard to motivate myself. As I said, I struggle with self-doubt and my first and second drafts are usually so dire that it’s hard not to throw both hands in the air and admit defeat. All writers feel this at times, but you just have to push on through and search for the days when it’s good, when the writing flows and the characters talk to you and you find that twist at the bottom of the gaping plot hole!
11. Do you need much editing after your years of experience?
I love that publishing a book is a collaborative experience. I adore talking through my stories with my editor and agent. These conversation always enhance the plot. My editor didn’t like something I’d written in In Her Wake, for example, because it was too convenient, too much of a coincidence, and though I knew she was right, I’d felt I could get away with it because the book was a work of fiction. But as I walked away from the meeting, not sure how I could address the problem, I had something of an epiphany, and one of the twists appeared. The edit I had on this book wasn’t too heavy-handed, but there were lots of suggestions, all of which I agreed with. Karen Sullivan and I were definitely coming from the same place when it came to thinking about improving this story and I found her input both sympathetic and insightful.
12. What’s next?
I am currently writing the first draft of my new psychological thriller. It’s early days but so far I have a rather beautiful town house with a gorgeous cupola – a small glassed dome – above a winding open staircase with an iron bannister, in either Edinburgh or Penzance, which holds a myriad of secrets. There’s a family who move into the house, and the secrets begin to emerge, past crimes, lingering memories, lost letters, someone obsessively watching the house, and some apparently ghostly happenings that slowly drive the new inhabitants mad … Of course, this is just the first draft. It will all change beyond recognition in the rewrites that await!
May 2018 Book of the Month Sixteen-year old Tamsin envies the life of the Davenports up in the Cliff House. Life is hard for her widowed mother supporting an unemployed brother and a dying grandfather. She craves the life of the rich family she spies on. Unknown to her they are highly dysfunctional. She develops a friendship with the daughter of a similar age and all is good. Of course it is not, and an unfortunate series of events blows their friendship apart. It does sound a bit light and fluffy but actually this is a gripping human drama which deals with real and tragic situations. There is no happy ending, no magic wand to make it all better, no perfect solution but what there is is a well-written page-turner. The flow of the story is well paced and very readable. The characters are damaged and needy but you can understand and sympathise with them. They are real people coping with grief and loss and failing. A very sad, yet thrilling read, highly recommended.
April 2016 Reading Group Book of the Month. A compelling, almost bittersweet read, where a shocking discovery leads to an emotional journey. Two tales fuse into one… while in the present Bella explains how she finds a letter that is set to change everything she believes, we also revisit Henry’s past. Telling Bella’s tale in the first person creates a feeling of familiarity and compassion, Henry’s tale is told on his behalf, keeping you removed, letting you consider, allowing you to ponder. Amanda Jennings encourages Bella to step out of herself, on occasion the words create an almost dreamlike quality, while on others short sharp sentences jolted me back into reality. As shafts of understanding light the pages, shocking moments still lie in wait, ready to trip up your thoughts and feelings. ‘In Her Wake’ is a thought-provoking, dramatic and gripping story and begs the question, just how well do we really know our family? A 'Piece of Passion' from the publisher... 'When talking about my list, there are few books for which words fail me, and this is one of them. In fact, I don’t even know where to start. In Her Wake is a chilling, exquisitely written and evocative thriller that hinges on the abduction of a child, and the effect this crime has on everyone connected with it. It’s also a compelling study of the nature of identity and, indeed, loss, with a series of interconnected, traumatic discoveries driving a complex and deftly orchestrated plot set on the rugged, richly described Cornish coast. It’s dark but at the same time uplifting, and the pages turn almost by themselves. Equally, one of the most moving books I’ve read in a very long time, and there are twists that force you to turn back the pages to check that you haven’t missed something. It’s a book that I knew I had to buy after reading twenty pages, and my second readers returned the same verdict in less than a day. In Her Wake has bestseller written all over it, and in terms of psychological thrillers, I cannot think of even one that matches it. When a host of highly regarded, well-known authors submitted their endorsements, one after one, in a virtual flood, my heart nearly burst with pride for Amanda. This is a book you will never, ever forget.'Karen Sullivan, Publisher, Orenda Books