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Monday 1 June 2020

Scratched Enamel Heart: a short story collection by Amanda Huggins

Today I am delighted to welcome one of my favourite writers as a guest on the Blog. Amanda Huggins has kindly returned to talk about her new short story collection Scratched Enamel Heart (published by Retreat West Books). 
Read my review at the end of this post.
Amanda Huggins is the author of Scratched Enamel Heart, a new short story collection which features ‘Red’, her prize-winning story from the 2018 Costa Short Story Award. Her previous short story collection, Separated From the Sea, received a Special Mention in the 2019 Saboteur Awards. She has also published a flash fiction collection, Brightly Coloured Horses and a poetry collection, The Collective Nouns for Birds, which won the 2020 Saboteur Award for Best Poetry Pamphlet.

Her fiction and poetry have been placed and listed in numerous competitions including Fish, Bridport, Bath, InkTears, the Alpine Fellowship Writing Award and the Colm Toibin International Short Story Award. Her travel writing has also won several awards, notably the BGTW New Travel Writer of the Year in 2014, and she has twice been a finalist in the Bradt Guides New Travel Writer Award.

Amanda grew up on the North Yorkshire coast, moved to London in the 1990s, and now lives in West Yorkshire.

Scratched Enamel Heart

The resilience and frailty of the human heart lie at the core of this second short story collection from award-winning author, Amanda Huggins.          

A lonely woman spends a perfect night with a stranger, yet is their connection enough to make her realise life is worth living? Maya, a refugee, wears a bracelet strung with charms that are a lifeline to her past; when the past catches up with her, she has a difficult decision to make. Rowe’s life on the Yorkshire coast is already mapped out for him, but when there is an accident at the steelworks he knows he has to flee from an intolerable future. In the Costa prize-winning ‘Red’, Mollie is desperate to leave Oakridge Farm and her abusive stepfather, to walk free with the stray dog she has named Hal.

These are stories filled with yearning and hope, the search for connection and the longing to escape. They transport the reader from India to Japan, from mid-west America to the north-east coast of England, from New York to London. Battered, bruised, jaded or jilted, the human heart somehow endures.

Animals and nature feature in so much of your writing, is this intentional? What part do animals/wildlife/nature play in your own life, do any of your fictional creatures come from your own experience of animals?

No, it isn’t intentional, however I do have a deep-rooted love of animals and the natural world, so I guess it’s inevitable. My partner and I are members of the RSPB and really enjoy birdwatching, both at nature reserves and while walking on the moors or the Northumberland coastal paths. We also have a menagerie of seven part-time cats – four semi-strays which we feed, and three others which are perfectly well looked after but have just latched onto a good thing!

I always aim to convey a strong sense of place in my stories, and rural landscapes feature regularly in my work. I’m originally from the Yorkshire coast, so the sea plays an important part in a number of my stories – such as ‘Where the Sky Starts’ and ‘Light Box’ in Scratched Enamel Heart – and it is also the all-encompassing theme of my debut novella, All Our Squandered Beauty. I find my characters are shaped by the places they inhabit, particularly in those stories set in the distinctive landscapes of India, Japan and  North America – for example, ‘A Longing for Clouds’ and ‘Red’.

The locations which feature in my stories are always inspired by real life travels – I would never set a story somewhere I hadn’t visited myself. The koi fish and the beautiful garden in ‘A Potential Husband’ were inspired by my travels in Japan, as were the fireflies in ‘Soul of a Fighter’. Nature also features heavily in my poetry, and one of my favourite poems in The Collective Nouns for Birds is ‘At the Kitchen Table’, which I wrote when snowed-in in the North Pennines.

Hal, the dog in ‘Red’, is a creature of the imagination, though I’d love to own a dog like him! Similarly, Jigsaw, in ‘Where the Sky Starts’ isn’t based on a real pony, though I loved horses and horse riding as a child and often pretended that the grey stallion which lived in a nearby field was mine! The only real life creature I have written about is my favourite cat, Duzzy – she was the inspiration for the poem ‘Not-Quite-You’ in The Collective Nouns for Birds.

I am a self-confessed fan of all your writing, Mandy. You are an inspiration particularly as you write across different genres and forms. When an idea first comes to you how do you decide on its final written form, what is your decision process for turning it into a story, flash fiction or poem or longer?

Thank you, Tracy, you are very kind! I’m a huge fan of your writing too!

The truth is that I don’t often think about the final written form when I start to write. As the idea develops, it becomes what it wants to be, but often changes its mind! Poems have morphed into stories and vice versa – as you’ll see from reading The Collective Nouns for Birds and Scratched Enamel Heart side by side – and stories that tried to be something longer have ended up being flash fiction. Also, all three of my novellas are based on short stories of approximately 2000 words – it’s all very fluid. Because my prose leans towards the lyrical and I tend to write a lot of narrative poetry, I find there is a natural crossover between the two writing forms.

How have you found writing during lockdown? Have the words dried (I've struggled to write any fiction) or have you tapped into a flood? Can you share any top tips for surviving lockdown as a writer? (I know this might be obsolete by the time of posting - so I may change the question to how you survived and kept writing (or not) during lockdown).

At the beginning of lockdown I was still heading out every morning to the day job, and I found that incredibly stressful and suffered from deep anxiety and the odd panic attack. I also felt guilty and useless for feeling that way when all around me there were people going to work in much more dangerous circumstances and of course still are.

As a result I struggled to write anything new for weeks – or to concentrate well enough to read – but I did eventually produce a poem and a short flash piece about the lockdown. The latter is published on the 100 Words of Solitude website here.

I think the lockdown experience may inform my future writing in more depth, but it’s too close right now.

I find that walking and communing with nature help to get the words flowing inside my head – I just wish I could hold onto them until I got home! And when I find my mind is a blank, then I look at an old piece of work I’d given up on to try and spark new ideas.

I’m surviving furlough by sticking to a rigid routine. I get up early, go for a walk before I sit down at the computer, and then exercise again before lunch, and take time out to read in the afternoon. My partner and I have also spent more time together watching TV in the evenings – something we would never normally do!

We all have our favourite stories. Sorry to ask you to choose between them but do you have a favourite(s) from this collection and why?

It’s a tough question, but I think my favourite story has to be ‘Red’. It was rejected by several magazines, and failed to reach so much as the longlist in three smaller competitions, before it went on to win third prize in the 2018 Costa Short Story Award. I always had faith in it, and that faith was eventually rewarded!

There are a few other contenders as well, including ‘Part of Sami, Part of Malik’ about the bond between two refugees, which was written for Interact Stroke Support. I had the joy of listening to it performed live by the fabulous actor, Andy Lucas at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston back in February. I’m also fond of ‘A Brightness To It’, the newest story in the collection, and the one which my third novella will be based around, and ‘A Longing for Clouds’, a story set in India that has been around for a good ten years in many guises and versions. The protagonist, Maggie, is one of my favourite characters.

Can you tell us about your next writing project, what do you have in the pipeline?

As you’ll have gathered, I’m juggling three novellas at the moment! I’ve just started the third, and am currently tweaking the second, Crossing the Lines, which is based on the story, ‘Red’. My first novella, All Our Squandered Beauty, based on the title story from Separated From the Sea, will be published soon by Victorina Press.

Where can we buy a copy of Scratched Enamel Heart?

My review of Scratched Enamel Heart:
Scratched Enamel Heart by Amanda Huggins (Retreat West Books) is a collection of 24 stories, and impressively her third collection of short fiction. The prose throughout, whether in flash form or longer, is breath-taking at times, lyrical as poetry and heart-wrenching.
Numerous stories made me cry, purely because they triggered an emotional resonance. I cried at the ending of the opening story, ‘Where the Sky Starts’, not because it was sad or tragic but I completely understood the protagonist and his desire to escape. Each story has an authentic setting which brings it alive, and Huggins takes us all over the world to drop the reader into new and different landscapes. I particularly loved how I didn’t what to expect when starting a story, these stories are as unique and individual as the charms on Maya’s bracelet in ‘Scratched Enamel Heart’. The characters are often the forgotten and overlooked people of our world, the refugees, the abused and those who believe themselves unlovable. Some of them find refuge, home and acceptance, others don’t always get the happy ending they long for.

To pick out a favourite story is tough, one is the Costa Short Story Award finalist ‘Red’, an uncomfortable story where a girl finds a much needed friend in a wild dog. Others include the title story and ‘A longing for clouds’, again about friendship but this time between an employer and her long-suffering loyal employee. The shorter flash stories intersperse their longer siblings, sometimes making you gasp or gulp with their power and never breaking the spell.

A collection to keep and cherish, to read again when times are tough and remember our lives can be filled with love, friendship and understanding. Amanda Huggins is a writer who understands what makes the world beautiful.