Suffolk: An author who moved to France puts Ipswich on the map

It’s thrilling to hear the Penguin empire is publishing your first novel, exciting to have set the story in Suffolk, and tremendous to be among a bookshop chain’s ‘11 debutants to watch’ in 2011. It’s been an amazing year for Amanda Hodgkinson, as Steven Russell discovers

DREAMS have a habit of marching to the beat of their own drum, however much we want them to move faster. Nearly a decade ago, her imagination ablaze after an MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, Amanda Hodgkinson and her family upped sticks from Suffolk for the Midi-Pyr�n�es. Thoughts of fiction were relegated to the back-burner. “When we moved, I had this idea – you know, I’ll move to the south-west of France and sit in the sunshine and write a novel, but in actual fact we bought a really lovely old house that was just falling down and hadn’t been lived in for about 10, 15 years. So I think probably the first four years I spent mixing concrete!” she reflects.

“I knew I was going down the wrong path when my husband Guy bought a concrete mixer for me as a present and I was so thrilled!”

The stone farmhouse, on a hill overlooking the historic capital of Gascony and surrounded by sunflower fields and vineyards, certainly needed TLC. There were holes in the roof and the place was full of bats. For the first six months the family lived in one room and “enjoyed” a limited supply of hot water. There was initially electricity upstairs but not downstairs, and it took a good couple of years to get straightish.

Writing wasn’t totally squeezed out, though, amid the clanging, banging and squelching. Amanda wrote columns for France magazine and other publications. She taught English, turned her hand to waitressing and tackled flower-arranging and translation work, alongside the construction work and getting her daughters settled.

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“Then, finally, I said ‘I’m here for a reason. I really do have to get down to it.’”

Fast-forward four years or so and Amanda’s about to see her first novel published by Fig Tree, part of Penguin. In January she was named one of 11 new writers tipped for success this year by Waterstone’s – alongside a former Holby City actress. Heady days, n’est-ce pas?

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“It’s taken me long enough, though, hasn’t it?” she chuckles.

Amanda’s first book is 22 Britannia Road, which examines how massive upheaval such as war changes people – sometimes dramatically.

At the end of the Second World War, Silvana and eight-year-old Aurek board a ship to England, where her husband is waiting. However, after years living wild in the forests – simply surviving, and also nursing a dreadful secret – Silvana is no longer sure quite who she is inside.

Meanwhile, in Ipswich, Janusz prepares to greet the wife and son he hasn’t seen for six years. After fleeing Poland and the conflict – as a deserter – he has secured a home for his family. He’s planted a lovely English garden to cheer them . . . and to take his mind off his own secrets.

The author has always been interested in the war, having grown up hearing the stories of people who lived through it – “tales like ‘This woman had a war baby and it was adopted’.”

“I’ve always felt a real empathy with that generation, and seeing how people coped. What you do when you’re suddenly told you can go back to ‘normal’ – how you pick up the pieces – has interested me.”

Long ago, too, she heard a woman on the radio. “She had a lovely voice and said that during the war ‘we were so hungry we ate the bark off the birch trees’. She said she was humiliated by her hunger, and that really touched me and I wrote some poetry and just put it away. I think that must have been in my head for a long, long time. It (the story) sort of came out of that, really.”

After a few false starts, on other potential novels, she started on 22 Britannia Road, then. “It felt like a story I had to tell.”

It’s set in Suffolk because the writer loves the area, having spent much of her life here. It also has a significant Polish community.

“Living in France and writing it, I had a kind of mythical Ipswich in my head. I’ve never actually been to Britannia Road” – not until we drove her there to take her picture! – “but the title, with its sense of place and pomp and circumstance for a foreign family, has a level of irony I really liked. It’s a poignant address.

“If there was a street in Ipswich that I really had in my mind – and again I haven’t been there for a long time, so it might not be at all like I imagined it – it’s this sweet little road up the hill past Suffolk College (where as a mature student she got a “first” in English and history). I used to park there sometimes.”

My money’s on Myrtle Road, off Bishop’s Hill. Ring any bells? “I don’t know. I sort of don’t want to know, in a way, because I think it’s probably very different from how I remember it. But I do remember standing on that road, a short row of terraced houses with an amazing view. I always felt there was something there. That is where my Britannia Road is – more a feeling I got from that place.”

Writing the novel took about three years, and then Amanda scoured Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook to find an agent specialising in her kind of literature.

Her eye lit upon a Cambridge-based agent who represented, among others Annie Proulx (The Shipping News and more). Amanda signed with Sayle Literary Agency in the October and worked on the novel over Christmas. In the middle of February it went out to prospective publishers and a couple of days later one made an offer . . . followed by another, and another.

In the spring of last year it went to auction – “exciting and terrifying” – and was fought over by four big publishing houses. The rights have also been sold for America – there’s a promotional visit booked for May – France, Italy, Greece, Holland, Australia, Brazil, Romania, Spain, Germany and Israel

A second book is underway – “going fine” – and is again set in Suffolk: about two families and human relationships.

There’s fat chance of the author letting success go to her head, but if she’s ever tempted to indulge in the odd flight of fancy, there’s always family life to keep her feet on the ground. Daughter Katya’s reply on Facebook, after her mum’s post pointing out there were just 60 days to go to publication, said: “But when is it coming out in French? Hahaha.”

What’s that all about, then?

“Since living here she’s become really French and actually said ‘I’m waiting to read it in French!” explains Amanda. “She says it’s a nicer language.”

Katya read the first Twilight story in French and was desperate for the second. “I said ‘I’ll buy it for you in English, and then I promise I’ll buy the third in French.’ That’s my way of keeping her reading in English. Otherwise she wouldn’t!”

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Vive la diff�rence!

IT was during her MA course in creative writing – about a decade ago, in round numbers – that Amanda Hodgkinson and her husband started talking seriously about leaving Suffolk for France.

Guy had worked in Paris a lot, in the advertising business and as a theatrical set designer, and spoke good French. The family later used to go for holidays and found the country nicely family-orientated.

They looked at houses and were immediately taken by an old stone farmhouse at Auch, with an amazing view of the mountains.

“We were so sure that this would be a great adventure that we didn’t think seriously ‘What are we doing moving to France?’” admits Amanda.

“I didn’t speak French and the children didn’t speak French, and we were close to a town but actually on a hill outside. Had I thought more about those things I might have said ‘Oh, I don’t think I can do it,’ but I didn’t! I just went ‘OK.’

“Then we arrived here and, yeah, I did have regrets to begin with, because the house had been empty for so long. It was like you’d driven along a road and found an old barn and said ‘Let’s live there,’ and moved in amongst the rubbish – old bits of tractor and whatever – and put a table in the middle of it all and said ‘Let’s sit down for a meal.’ It was like that.

“It was damp and full of bats. I used to have to get them out of the children’s room at night – and I was really scared of them!”

But, having committed themselves, they worked hard to make it work. Amanda threw herself into learning French and getting the girls settled into school. The only English people in their village, they met “such kindness. We decided, also, we wouldn’t go back to the UK for two years, not at all. We really had to nail our colours to the mast and do this, and it worked.

“There were times when it was really hard and I thought ‘Right, I’m taking the car and taking the girls home,’ and then by the end of the day something good would have happened and I’d think ‘OK, I won’t.’ Then I realised, further down the line, that I was starting to think of home as here, rather than the UK.”

Life in the Midi-Pyr�n�es is much slower than England. “There is a really strong sense of community, which I hesitate to say there isn’t in the UK, but there’s less of it, I find, in England, where people are generally much more interested in their immediate family, and getting on with their job and their day. They don’t know the neighbours.

“Our village is in a commune of two or three villages, with the same mayor, and that pulls you together. There are little tiny local governments everywhere, rather than centralised government, and I think that makes a big difference.”

Amanda feels French life has been far less affected by the global downturn than the UK’s.

“It’s not a society of debt like it is in the UK. It’s a big thing to take out a loan here – and mortgages equally. People don’t buy properties to make a profit out of them. They don’t tend to have a second property; and, if they do, it’s shared between a family and they use it to go on holiday together. They don’t dream of selling it; they certainly don’t dream of buying property to do up and sell on.

“It’s a different society. They don’t have those advanced capitalist ideas. It’s not like ‘I’ve opened a restaurant; I’m going to work really hard so I can open a second.’ It’s more ‘I’ve opened a restaurant; it works really well; I’m going to close over Christmas and new year because I want a break with my family.

“At the same time it’s quite challenging for someone from an Anglo-Saxon viewpoint. The shops close at midday and they don’t reopen until three. And no supermarket’s going to be open on a Sunday. If you mention it, people ask ‘Why would you want to go to a supermarket on a Sunday?’ It took me ages to come around to that kind of thinking.”

Amanda can see France being home certainly for the next five years, because Katya wants to go to university there. After that, who can tell?

Does she ever feel a pull from the UK?

“I think if I ever did move back to England I’d move back to East Anglia. I do sometimes miss libraries; obviously we do have libraries in France, but they are all in French, naturally! I do miss being able to go down the road and sit in a library all day and be able to order books in. That’s the only thing, really.”

To Auch via East Anglia

• Born Somerset in mid-1960s

• Dad was a potter and mum made fabric that she hand-dyed

They were, says Amanda, ‘an optimistic and very young, hippy couple . . . who dreamed of living the good life’

• Moved, aged about five, to the fishing village of Tollesbury, near Maldon

• Childhood memories: ‘the smell of fibre glass and acrid fish-glue from the boatmakers’ yards, the salty tang of seaweed and the slime and ooze of rich, estuary mud’

• Primary school in Maldon

• Secondary school in Colchester

• Parents opened a second-hand bookshop. The house filled with boxes of books

• Aged 10, Amanda fell in love with books and read everything she could. ‘I think it was then that I decided I wanted to be a writer’

• Studied for a diploma in fine art at Colchester Institute

• n Moved to Suffolk with family

Lived near Bury St Edmunds

• Worked with horses – was a riding instructor and did some eventing

• In early 20s met Guy and moved to Stowmarket

• He has a background in model-making and did a lot of work in the advertising industry

Guy worked on ads for firms like Absolut vodka and also directed TV commercials

• They met on the old Elmswell airfield in Suffolk, where he was involved in a shoot. They had made a mock car park of cars buried in tarmac, apart from a beautiful sports car. ‘A friend of mine worked for him and I went to see this amazing ‘car park’, and met him there,’ says Amanda

• Their two daughters went to school at Stowmarket

Nancy is now 20 and studying music in London; Katya is 15

• Amanda signed up as a mature student for a degree in English and history at Suffolk College in Ipswich in the late 1990s

During that period she did some writing for this very magazine

• While studying, Amanda began writing short stories. Some were published in magazines and one won a prize

• She applied for the coveted creative writing course at the University of East Anglia at Norwich – the only MA course within do-able travelling distance of Stowmarket

• Guy has joined a band in France, as a bass player, and has started making and repairing guitars

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