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About Amanda Craig

I was born in South Africa in 1959.  My parents covered the Sharpeville massacre as journalists, and gave up their careers there because of their loathing for apartheid. They moved to Italy for a year, and then to England.

We lived in Primrose Hill in London, then a shabby, rather Bohemian area where many other writers including Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Fay Weldon and Michael Frayn gravitated because it was relatively close to Fleet St and the West End. Here we lived until 1965, when my father went to work at the United Nations in Rome (FAO).  

Expatriate life was not something I adapted to happily, though I learnt to speak Italian. My childhood was multicultural and multiracial, but effectively stuck in the 1950s in many attitudes towards “abroad”. My parents disliked both the usual expatriate attempts to recreate American suburbia/Little England in Rome, and the British Embassy circles; despite leading conventional lives within a bureaucracy, they liked artists, writers, journalists and people who thought for themselves. Italy was still a place in which people such as Muriel Spark and Graham Green could be encountered, informally, and I was lucky enough as a child to see something of that culture. But I was also made vividly aware of the suffering and starvation in many countries, both because of my father’s work and because we listened all the time to the wonderful BBC World Service.

Books became particularly important to me, both as a portable form of Englishness and because I was ill with asthma during much of my childhood.  The misery of this was made only bearable by reading.  My favourite authors – CS Lewis, Tolkien, E. Nesbit, Lucy M Boston and Jane Austen - were literally an escape into a world in which I could breathe.  This prolonged period of illness helped develop my imagination. 

Sent to Bedales, a progressive boarding school in England, I became academic as a form of rebellion, and eventually read English at Clare College Cambridge with the intention of becoming a novelist. I had an interesting time at university, especially enjoying Adrian Poole’s outstanding lectures on Greek tragedy and Tony Tanner’s on the novel, but a very unhappy one shortly after, and I was poor, getting chilblains on all my fingers and toes because I couldn’t afford heating. I had no idea how I was going to be able to support myself writing. Like many aspirants, I did a variety of jobs, from a year working in advertising (which I loathed) to cleaning houses.

By this time, I had met my future husband Rob, who was exactly the kind of person I needed, and a trainee merchant banker in the City. Unfortunately, the week we fell in love he gave up his job to do a Phd on energy economics at the LSE. I often write about what it feels like to have to watch every penny of what you spend on food etc because I had years of knowing what that is like. However, I at last thought to try writing journalism. My first article for The Times (about Oxbridge) was immediately taken up as controversial, and I found that a parallel career in journalism could be used to explore aspects of the contemporary world which interested me as a novelist.

There is a lot of snobbery about journalists turning to fiction, which I find ridiculous, not least because many of those who appear to do so are, like myself, supporting the latter through the former. Almost all the greatest novelists (bar those on private incomes) have also been journalists. Dickens, Henry James, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh – it’s an obvious way of earning not just a living but experience. One of the most important essays I’ve read as a novelist is Tom Wolfe’s Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast, in which he points out that what is wrong with modern fiction is that it’s not being written by people who, like Dickens, bother to investigate the world around them. As a journalist, I went down London’s sewers and up in private helicopters; I’ve spent hours talking to some of the most wretched people on earth, and some of the most fortunate; and above all I’ve heard stories that have led me to believe that there is no such thing as someone who is dull or ordinary. I find almost everybody interesting – apart from those who think they are.

I continued to rewrite my first novel, which was a comedy about a spoilt, snobbish young woman discovering Italy and love. Along the way, I won a couple of prizes for my journalism (Young Journalist of the Year and the Catherine Pakenham award)  each of which had the effect not of advancing my career but getting me fired from staff jobs I desperately needed. I led a very hand-to-mouth existence, cycling everywhere, reading newspapers in libraries and shopping in street markets. The Pakenham prize brought me to the attention of a well-known literary agent who asked to see my novel. I sent it to her, and she promptly lost it.  Unfortunately, it was my only copy as I could not afford the photocopying costs.

So I sat down to write it all over again, and that novel became Foreign Bodies which was bought by Hutchinson, and published in 1990 to disastrous reviews. The second, A Private Place, was published in 1991. Its slightly more positive reception led to me becoming a critic on various national newspapers including The Independent. Since then, I have continued to combine writing fiction with reviewing it.

Here I should say a few words about what I try to do as a book reviewer, because reviewing itself was the subject of my third novel, A Vicious Circle. Ivo Sponge’s advice to the heroine, Mary, that it “works by the fear or favour market” is still true, but I try never to let personal feelings, either positive or negative, affect the review.  I will not lie to be kind, but I am very aware how daunting it is if a critic chooses to show off at an author’s expense. Almost every novel ever written is flawed. It can still, however, be enjoyable, interesting, moving or aesthetically pleasing, according to its author’s talents. I see my job as not to advise people on how to get published or to support a marketing team, but to serve the reader by describing a novel accurately, and by giving an estimation of its achievements, according to my personal taste and aesthetic judgement.

A Vicious Circle was supposed to be published by Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin.  Writing it took far longer than the previous books, as it was composed between two pregnancies, utter exhaustion and a new editor who had not originally commissioned it. The novel, which was modelled on Balzac’s Lost Illusions, attacked the collapse of British social conscience under the Conservatives, and the corruption in the literary scene. A scandal erupted when an ex-boyfriend and real-life critic, David Sexton, read the proofs and tried to have it stopped by claiming that he had been libelled as the villain. A Vicious Circle was cancelled by Penguin and Clare Alexander, who claimed in print that it was “unpublishable”; but as soon as I paid for it to be read by a libel lawyer, it was bought after an auction by Fourth Estate, and published three months later in 1996. More eccentricities followed. AN Wilson hailed A Vicious Circle by saying that “the greatest novelist under the age of fifty has now stepped onto the stage.” He then promptly gave his own job as Literary Editor of the Evening Standard to Sexton, who remains there to this day.

Being paid twice for the same book meant that we were able to move house, to our present home in Camden Town. Life became easier on a number of fronts, and I was able to concentrate more on fiction while still writing features and columns for newspapers such as The Sunday Times.

My novels, which are always set in the present, carry a cast of imaginary characters on from book to book. I am influenced by Balzac and Trollope in this, and also by contemporary novelists such as Alison Lurie. Apart from this, they are each different in tone, subject and mood. Some, like In A Dark Wood (2000), are about “difficult” subject such as manic depression, while others such as Love in Idleness (2003) are pure comedy modelled on an inversion of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I am not interested in writing as a form of self-expression but my work often explores aspects of creativity, and moral development through adversity. I love very different writers, from Jane Austen to Angela Carter, and from Dickens to EM Forster. Both my novels and short stories tend at some level to be intertwined with fairy-tales, a form that, alongside the Victorian novel, continues to fascinate me. They are in effect a parallel universe – like most fiction – which looks very like this one but where justice and the possibility of happiness is a little more in evidence.

Hearts and Minds (2009) is to some extent a sequel to A Vicious Circle in being another big novel, about high and low life being interconnected. It took six years to write, largely because I became seriously unwell. It was while I was recovering from multiple surgery that I was asked to be the children’s critic for The Times, which is the only regular job in journalism I have ever been truly happy doing.

Illness also made me dependent on a series of foreign helpers, and I realised that the lives of immigrants, both legal and illegal, is one of the great untold stories of our lives. I am sympathetic to those who feel anxious about the considerable rise in immigration, and the economic and social effects this is having. I love traditional English culture as only an expatriate can do, and I am aware of the economic consequences, both good and bad, of allowing in a million or more adults who may be alien to that culture. However, I also feel that what is special about Britain is its mixture of races, and its international reputation for fairness and justice. Like Polly, I am descended from refugees, and not really English. It is this tension that, within the structure of a complex detective story, I explore in Hearts and Minds.

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© Amanda Craig 2009
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