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Today, we’re delighted to welcome author and publisher Amanda Saint to The Literary Lounge. Amanda is the founder of Retreat West, a creative writing organisation and independent publisher. Her dystopian climate change novel, Remember Tomorrow, was published earlier this year.

 First of all, welcome, Amanda. Thanks so much for joining us.

 

LS: Amanda, you’re a journalist with a focus on environmental sustainability, can you tell us a little about what led you to set up Retreat West and how your background impacts, if it all, on that?

AS: I started Retreat West in 2012 when I left London to move to Exmoor. I’d been going to one-day writing retreats in London once a month, the Urban Writers Retreat to write my first novel, and looked around for something similar in Devon. When I couldn’t find anything, I decided to start my own. I was still very much a beginner writer then and wanted to carry on learning but there were no classes to go to locally; online courses weren’t that common then and I couldn’t afford the ones that were on offer. So I decided to start running residential writing retreats and inviting authors I’d like to learn from to come and teach.

None of this was driven by environmental sustainability but when I started Retreat West Books in 2017, this was a guiding principle for how I wanted to run it. All the books are print on demand so that none end up getting pulped; and the first charity anthology I published was a collection of climate-fiction stories raising money for an environmental action group.

 

LS: What made you decide to publish other writers? And how has this changed your opinion of the publishing industry, if at all? Has it changed the way you yourself write? 

AS: Deciding to publish other writers was in part driven by how hard it is for writers to get published in the traditional industry and because a lot of what gets published is not what I enjoy reading. As to how it has changed my writing – it hasn’t. I would never write to trends. Writing novels is hard and you have to spend a long time in the world you are creating and if you’re not doing it from the heart, what ends up on the page reflects that. Although my latest novel has accidentally turned out to be very current as between writing the first draft in 2015 and it being published this year, what I thought was a dystopian vision is fast turning into the UK’s reality! It’s pretty terrifying to watch. Someone said to me the other day to quickly write another book where everything turns out OK instead! That said though, I like to think Evie’s story ends on a very positive note.

It’s hard to get sales at Retreat West Books and we are firmly in the red at the moment, but I will carry on publishing the books I love and believe in. Otherwise there’s no point in doing it. I believe that the quality of the work will find readers in the end.

LS: Well said.

 

LS: You’ve said that you wanted to offer a print on demand service as a more sustainable way of publishing, do you think this is a viable way forward for traditional publishing houses?

AS: I think in reality, with the sustainability issues the world is facing, it has to be the only model for the future. As to whether the big publishing houses would ever adopt it, who knows. But surely it has to be a more viable option than printing loads, hoping they sell, and pulping them when they don’t?

LS: Yes, it surely does.

 

LS: You publish books highlighting important issues, such as the centenary women’s rights anthology, which we loved, and you donate quite a lot of money to charity. Was this part of the plan when you originally decided to establish a publishing wing?

AS: Yes. I always planned to publish charity anthologies. The first story I ever had published was in the Stories for Homes anthology raising money for Shelter. It’s important to me to do something that helps other people, the planet and the creatures we share it with. Plus, it gives emerging writers a chance to have their words alongside more established authors. For several writers who have appeared in our anthologies it’s been the first time they’ve been published at all, or the first time in a paperback.

 

LS: Has Retreat West impacted on your own writing?

AS: Everything I do at Retreat West helps me to get better as a writer. I’m always learning more about what makes a story work and why it doesn’t. I didn’t write anything new for about 18 months after launching Retreat West Books as what little time I had for my own work was spent editing Remember Tomorrow. But this year, I have made myself make time and it’s been so good to get back to it. I am focusing on flash fictions and have had several published and been shortlisted for a competition and it feels great to be part of the writing community in that way again.

 

LS: Are you the kind of author who plans out her books or do you let the plot unravel through the characters?

AS: I teach a workshop called Plotting for Pantsers, which is based on my experience of writing the first novel with no planning or thinking at all in advance. It’s not something I would recommend! So when I wrote the second one I changed my approach. The first draft of my first book took nearly two years to complete. The second book took eight months. But still my plotting and planning is very loose and a lot of it unravels between the guidelines I’ve given myself to write to.

 

LS: Remember Tomorrow, your latest novel, is very of its time, a dystopian work dealing with issues central to our world – climate change, equality, women’s position in society and fear of the Other, among them. Is it a story that came easily?

AS: I wouldn’t say it came easily. I started it and wrote 15,000 words which I then threw out. I changed the time it was set in and the point of view I was telling it from and then the first draft did come a lot easier. The character that became Evie had been in my head for several years – but just as a vague ‘woman living in the future being persecuted for witchcraft’ and it wasn’t until I started planning it properly that she became more real to me and I knew why this was happening.

I chose 2076 as I often think about what life is going to be like for the children being born today, so in the book Evie is born in 2018. I really hope the vision I presented in Remember Tomorrow isn’t what the future holds for the UK, but I do believe that many elements of it will come true. In some cases, they already are.

 

LS: Did you have to do a lot of research into witchcraft, herbalism, old faiths/religion?

AS: Yes loads. I visited bookshops in Glastonbury and came home with lots of books about green witchcraft and herbalism; and I read a ton of stuff about witch trials of the past. A lot of the knowledge about old faiths and religion is embedded in me from my childhood. My Nana was a Catholic and I was brought up in the Church of England. But I still did a fair bit of reading of the bible to find the angles I wanted. Modern day off-gridders and preppers who are getting ready for the kind of future I predict were also a great help in my research.

 

LS: Is Woody Bay an imagined or real locale?

AS: It’s real and about a five-minute drive from where I live. I walk down to the beach by Evie’s house often. It’s as cut-off as the book describes and I knew when developing Evie’s story that it would be the perfect location for the isolated community she ends up living in.

 

LS: The subject matter of Remember Tomorrow has led to comparisons with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (although we kept thinking of John Wyndham who we also love), is she an author you admire? Which writers have influenced you?

AS: Well that’s flattering indeed! Thank you so much. She is my writing hero. Although I enjoyed it, The Handmaid’s Tale is not one of my favourites. I love the more recent MadAddam trilogy and also the Blind Assassin and Cat’s Eye. My reading tastes are eclectic and I love so many writers, all of whom have influenced me over the years. Favourites include Maggie O’Farrell, Damon Galgut, Tim Winton, Marian Keyes, CJ Ellory, Erin Kelly, and Barbara Kingsolver.

 

LS: You’ve written a lot of short stories, do you prefer that form to the novel?

AS: I love writing shorts, especially flash fiction. At the moment I much prefer them to writing novels. I am having some time off novel writing as I have spent the past decade writing my two novels. Short fiction writing can be more playful and fun, depending on the subject matter. And as I am so busy, writing short stories doesn’t require the same headspace that a novel does.

 

LS: What does the future hold for you?

AS: I have a collection coming out next year, Flashes of Colour, so am writing and editing the flash fiction stories that will appear in that. I am also going to write a novella-in-flash so will be starting work on that soon. At Retreat West, we’ll carry on with the courses, competitions and publishing. I’m delighted that Gaynor Jones has recently started working with us and she is coming up with lots of exciting and creative ideas that we’ll be launching soon. Mary-Jane Holmes, who is Editorial Director and Course Tutor at Fish Publishing, has also recently joined us to run courses. We’re co-designing and co-teaching a short online flash fiction course; and Mary-Jane is just in the process of putting together an online memoir-in-flash course.

I also work closely with Jericho Writers for a year-long online course I co-designed and co-teach with the author, CM Taylor. The Ultimate Novel Course launched this year and the first one starting in September 2019 has sold out, which we are very excited about. It’s a great course and we’re looking forward to working with lots of new writers over the coming years to develop their work and help them find the right way to get it published.

LS: That’s fanastic. We’re amazed at your energy!

 

LS: Finally, if you could give new writers one piece of advice, what would it be?

AS: It’s actually two pieces of advice combined into one. Keep writing and learning as it’s the only way to improve; and don’t compare yourselves to other writers as that way madness lies.

LS: Great advice, indeed.

Well, Amanda, huge thanks for spending time with us. It’s been an utter pleasure. We can’t wait for what comes next.

 

Amanda Saint’s Remember Tomorrowis published by Retreat West in both paperback and ebook formats.

To find out more about Retreat West, its authors, membership and courses.

See reviews: ‘Looking to the future: Amanda Saint’s Remember Tomorrow’; ‘The Word for Freedom

Please support independent bookshops and libraries

 

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Amanda Saint and Retreat West. Photo of author © Amanda Saint 2019. Book cover Retreat West.

 

Also of interest:By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept’; ‘Permission by Saskia Vogel‘; ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised‘; ‘Helga Flatland’s study of A Modern Family’;  ‘The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone’; ‘Call Me Star Girl’; ‘Blood Orange’; ‘Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, Dialogue’s brilliant debut; ‘We should all be feminists‘; The not-so-invisible woman: 150 greats in their own words’;RW Kwon’s The Incendiaries’; ‘Beauty in translation – Roxanne Bouchard’s French Canadian noir‘; ‘How Penguin learned to fly – Allen Lane and the Original “Penguin Ten”‘; Dorothy L. Sayer’s Busman’s Holiday – Romek Marber for Penguin Crime (book covers we love).

Select Q&As/interviews: ‘Ausma Zehanat Khan’;‘Charlie Laidlaw’; ‘Lilja Sigurðardóttir’; ’Tom Cox’; ‘Vanda Symon; ‘Gunnar Staalesen’; Some like it hot – the joy of Carole Mortimer, award-winning novelist‘; Gina Kirkham;John Fairfax’; ‘Ian Ridley’; ‘David Stuart Davies’.

Film: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) – a Billy Wilder classic?; Night Mail (1936), changing the face of British film; A Colour Box by Len Lye (1935); The Splendour of George Stevens’ Giant (1956).

 

This Q&A is © 2019 by The Literary Shed. All rights reserved. All opinions are our own. We welcome your feedback and comments. If you wish to reproduce this piece, please do contact us to request permission. Thank you so much.

 

 

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