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Monday 26 October 2020

All our squandered beauty: novella by Amanda Huggins

Today’s guest is one of my favourite writers, Amanda Huggins. She joins us to chat about her forthcoming novella ‘All our squandered beauty’ from Victorina Press. My review follows at the end of the interview …

Amanda Huggins is the award-winning author of the forthcoming novella All Our Squandered Beauty, as well as four collections of short fiction and poetry. Her travel writing, fiction and poetry have been widely published in anthologies, textbooks and travel guides, as well as newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Telegraph, Wanderlust, Reader's Digest, Writers' Forum, Popshot and Mslexia. Her short stories have also been broadcast on BBC radio.

She has won a number of awards for her travel writing, most notably the BGTW New Travel Writer of the Year in 2014, and has been shortlisted and placed in numerous short story and poetry competitions including Bridport and Fish. In 2018 she was a runner-up in the Costa Short Story Award and her prize-winning story 'Red' features in her latest collection, Scratched Enamel Heart. In 2019 her novella, All Our Squandered Beauty, was shortlisted in the Best Opening Chapter Competition at York Festival of Writing and this year she won the Colm Toibin International Short Story Award, was included in the BIFFY50 list of Best British and Irish Flash Fiction 2019-20, and her poetry chapbook, The Collective Nouns for Birds won the Saboteur Award for Best Poetry Pamphlet.

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


Kara's father died at sea – or did he? She has spent her teenage years struggling with grief and searching for answers. When she accepts her art tutor's offer to attend a summer school on a Greek island, she discovers once again that everything is not what it seems, and on her return she faces several uncomfortable truths. Could Jake, a local trawlerman, be the key to uncovering the past, and will Kara embrace the possibilities her future offers or turn back to the sea?


". . . a beautifully told coming-of-age story which will capture your heart and deserves to be a classic." Sarah Linley, author of The Trip.

"This is a wonderful read filled with tenderness, charm and hope." Gail Aldwin, author of The String Games.

"Amanda writes with empathy, an eye for vivid detail, a sense of adventure, and great charm." Alison Moore: Booker-shortlisted author of The Lighthouse.

Q. How did All Our Squandered Beauty come into existence? Can you share the inspiration and motivation behind writing this novella?

Hi Tracy, thank you for inviting me to talk about my novella – it’s lovely to be back chatting on The Literary Pig again!

All Our Squandered Beauty started life as a short story – in fact it was the title story of my first collection, Separated From the Sea. Several readers said they wanted to know what happened next, so that was my motivation! 

The inspiration came mainly from my love of the sea, particularly the North Yorkshire coast where I was brought up. Much of my work has the sea at its heart: the way it gives and takes, its strength and cruelty, its transformative power, its untameable beauty. There is a strong sense of living on the edge when the place you call home is bordered by something as immense and unforgiving as the sea. My novella is set in the 1970s, when this fragility of existence, a certain otherness, was often compounded by the fact that coastal village livelihoods were precarious and wrapped up in danger – fishing, mining, the local steelworks.

All Our Squandered Beauty is also set partly in Greece, and I loved writing about the contrast between the two locations and the way these differences affect the characters and their decisions. I have always been interested in how we are formed and moulded by our environment, in the ways in which the places where we are brought up and where we live influence our personalities and perspectives, inform our actions. 

I also took inspiration from a story I read on the internet which explored the near-impossible dilemma when a loved one is presumed dead without their body ever being recovered, and how incredibly hard it is to hope and grieve at the same time. This was the case for thousands of people after the Japanese tsunami in 2011, something I first touched on in my story, ‘The Last of Michiko’ and which I have now examined in depth in the novella.

Q. I love all the myths and folklore that you've woven into this story. Where do these come from and why do they fascinate you?

My parents used to read me a bedtime story every night when I was a small child and I was always drawn to otherworldly tales of elves, goblins and mythical lands, of unusual rituals and local folklore. I grew up being aware of many myths and fables surrounding the fishing communities on the north east coast and I’ve always been interested in the way traditions and rites are religiously observed, passed on from generation to generation, anchoring and binding communities, offering a spiritual comfort. There was no deliberate plan to weave quite so many of these elements into my novella, but my imagination took over! 

In the book, Kara’s late father, Ged Bradshaw, was a trawlerman from a small fishing community, and therefore folklore, ritual ceremony and superstition would have been a part of his daily life. I wanted to explore the way Kara is shaped by these traditions herself, how they become an intrinsic part of her and of the way she navigates her way through the world. 

Q. You write across several forms, including short stories, flash fiction, poetry and now a novella. How did you approach writing a longer piece of prose, did you do anything different in your writing habits? 

When I started writing All Our Squandered Beauty, instead of trying to finish a complete draft I kept editing the first chapter as though it was a short story – a complete waste of time, as the original opening chapters didn’t make the final cut anyway! In the original draft I tried to cover too much ground, so there was much more about Kara’s childhood and early teens than there is in the finished book. I realised I should concentrate on the events of a pivotal summer in Kara’s life, and that the rest was back story. 

When I started re-drafting I found it necessary to bulldoze through the whole manuscript for a continuous period each time – I couldn’t seem to work on it bit by bit in the evenings. Luckily, M and I often go away for week-long cottage breaks, and I also go on a yearly writing retreat with my friend, so I was able to get to the finish line by way of these longer writing sessions.

Q. And do you have any writing superstitions that you can share with us? (For example, I create a specific playlist to listen to when I'm writing a long piece of fiction and dare not listen to anything else.)

I always enjoy hearing about other people’s rituals and good luck charms – I love the idea of a playlist, though it wouldn’t work for me as I need silence when I write! I’m quite superstitious in everyday life – I’m always wishing magpies’ wives well and I avoid walking under ladders – but I don’t have any writing superstitions as such. There is one thing I always try to do though – I stop writing when I still know what will happen next. That way I’m never stuck when I start to write again the next day. 

Q. Do you have any other writing projects in progress or planned?

I’m currently writing my third novella, An Unfamiliar Landscape, set in London and Japan – while still tinkering with the final draft of my second novella, Crossing the Lines. I’m actually hoping this new one might be a full length novel, but we’ll see! Other than that I’ve been busy writing a short story course for Retreat West, which will be up and running soon, and I’m also concentrating on another short story collection.

Q. Most importantly, where can we buy a copy of All Our Squandered Beauty?

All Our Squandered Beauty will be out mid-January 2021 and can be pre-ordered from Victorina Press. 

Thanks again for having me as a guest on The Literary Pig, and for asking such interesting questions!

My review:

‘All our squandered beauty’ is the wonderful new novella by Amanda Huggins (Victorina Press) and my only wish is that I could have kept on reading as I didn’t want it to end. Huggins writes with heart, intuition and a genuine understanding of what makes her characters tick. Her prose is fluid and compelling, woven through with passages of such lyrical beauty that this often felt like a love letter to the North Yorkshire coast (where the author grew up). Kara is seventeen in 1978, a talented artist who is struggling to cope with the aftermath of her beloved dad’s death. His fishing boat was found deserted at sea, his body never recovered, so Kara is stuck in the nightmare stage of her grief, believing he’s not dead but simply lost, or worse he’s abandoned her. These thoughts are damaging her relationships with her mum, best friend and boyfriends. 

The Yorkshire coastal setting, and the Greek island, are enigmatically brought to life by Huggins’ skilful imagery. I particularly enjoyed how local folklore and legends were integral to Kara’s inner world and the significance of beach pebbles and glass became almost magical. Immersed in Kara’s 1978 of cheesecloth and flares I felt completely at home, and didn’t want to leave. She finds passion and romance in Greece, then maybe real love and understanding when she returns to Yorkshire. It’s through the love and kindness of others that Kara finally begins to heal and realise how to balance loss and love, and still achieve her ambitions. For me, the ending was mesmerising and magical, making this a truly fulfilling read.

Friday 9 October 2020

Seventy Percent Water by Jeanette Sheppard

We have a very special guest for you on the Blog. LitPig welcomes the multi-talented, writer and artist, Jeanette Sheppard to talk about her creative life and debut flash fiction collection SEVENTY PERCENT WATER (published by Ellipsis). Her journey to publication for this collection is truly inspiring and confirms that no matter what life throws at you don’t give up on your writing. 

You can read my review of SEVENTY PERCENT WATER at the end of this post …

Jeanette Sheppard
is a writer and artist living in the UK. Seventy Percent Water is her debut collection and was published in July. Her manuscript won the 2020 Ellipsis Zine Flash Fiction Collection Competition. Jeanette's short fiction has been published in the Bath Flash Fiction Anthology, The Lonely Crowd, Reflex Fiction, Mslexia and in four National Flash Fiction Day anthologies. One of her flash fictions pops out of a vending machine in Canada. Her novella-in-flash, Mother Jellyfish, was Highly Commended in the 2019 Ellipsis Zine Flash Fiction Collection Competition. She is currently redrafting this ready for submission to publishers. 

As an artist Jeanette began by sketching in live situations. More recently, people are asking her to create images for their book covers. She is artist-in-residence for National Flash Fiction Day — her images appear on the 2019 and 2020 anthologies, and she provides images as prompts for the annual Write-In. Her work also appears on the front cover of Diane Simmons' flash fiction collection, Finding a Way (Ad Hoc Fiction) and she has recently completed the front cover image for Alison Woodhouse's novella-in-flash, The House on the Corner (Ad Hoc Fiction).

Seventy Percent Water - Someone or something is missing from their lives.

The collection is made up of a range of small forms, including hermit crab flash, one breathless paragraph, prose poem, micro-fiction told in a handful of sentences, and fragmented flash — some spanning a lifetime. Familial, social and romantic relationships are explored through a sense of who or what is absent. Several of the stories evoke the theme through magical realism — the title story about a woman who tracks down her ex-lover in a hospital corridor takes a fantastical turn of events impossible
to see coming (Han Clark, Lunate Fiction); a woman who accidentally buys trumpet arms on the internet seeks to understand what has gone from her relationship when her human arms are replaced; a young girl struggles with her brother’s lack of love until a buzz begins in her ear; in the opening story, collective fear takes over an ancient village when a missing woodcutter returns physically transformed into a giant creature. Other stories are firmly anchored in the every day — a daughter challenges a medic’s lack of compassion as she conveys powerful images of her mother before she fell ill; a woman with Alzheimer’s asserts her sense of self; a child longs for her jelly-making Dad; a mother, whose adult children have left home, confronts the absence of self-belief when she decides to take up drawing; after the death of her father, a photo on Twitter causes a daughter to reflect on the gender bias in her childhood.

Q-  Can you tell us how this collection came to be written and then published?

Hi Tracy, thank you for inviting me to do a Q&A. It’s great to be here. Some of the flash in the collection was published over several years, but the thread that runs through wasn’t something I planned in a conscious way. I guess that needs some explaining.

Last summer I was working on a novella-in-flash, but I knew Ellipsis would be running their annual flash fiction collection competition in early 2020, so I gathered together my published flash with the intention of creating more at the end of the year. My schedule flew into the air in October when my mother fell and broke her hip. Her dementia meant I needed to be involved at the hospital, rehab, and I had to find her a new nursing home. In February life settled, but I had other creative commitments which would take me through to the end of March — the day Ellipsis closed their submissions window. I made the decision to enter the competition the following year instead. 

Then Covid-19 landed.  

On the day of the closing date, aware of the spin that people were in due to the Coronavirus and lockdown, Ellipsis posted on social media that there would be a week’s extension. Straightaway, I looked at the list on my phone of all the published pieces I had gathered together. At the same time, like so many people, my head was full of thoughts about who and what I would be missing in the months to come. The wires fused together and I came up with the tagline — ‘Someone or something is missing’. I could see that the theme of ‘missing’ wove through my published flashes. I didn't have enough flash for the word count though, and the rules stated half of the collection must be unpublished. Many writers at that time didn’t feel able to write — I was one of them, but redrafting, editing and polishing existing pieces felt possible. I trawled through rough drafts, partially finished drafts and unpublished pieces I’d sent out once or twice, to see if any might fit. I knuckled down to editing and pulling things together. Then, the night before the submissions window closed, the nursing home rang to say that the virus was in the home and that my mum needed to be tested. I was in shock. I belong to a group of flash writers on Facebook where we cheer each other on and I drafted a note on my phone in the evening explaining that I wouldn’t be entering the competition. In the end I told myself finishing what I had started might be the best way to distract myself from the impending test result. There’s no escaping the fact that fear ran through me too — the threat Coronavirus posed in a wider sense. If any of my family or friends contracted the virus how long would it be before I felt able to work on a collection? I wasn’t immune either. There was a real sense of my own mortality—if I don’t do this now, I may never have the chance. I sent in my collection to Ellipsis around fifteen minutes before they closed the doors. A few days later, to my huge relief, my mum’s test result came back negative. 

To my utter shock, I ended up winning the Ellipsis competition. The prize was publication. I worked through lockdown to meet the publication date of early July. I wouldn’t want to suggest for one minute that it takes a pandemic to put a collection together, but I can’t deny the impact of the circumstances. In this case things came together when I least expected it. I hope people take heart from that. There isn’t a single route to publication. Most writers I know are chipping away whenever they can, busy with so many things in their life. 

Q- Seventy Percent Water is a flash fiction collection. Is this a favourite genre of yours to write, and what keeps you coming back to flash fiction?

Yes, I adore flash fiction. In hindsight, I was writing it before I knew what it was called. When National Flash Fiction Day came along nine years ago it was a ping moment, I felt I’d found a home. Since discovering my love of flash it’s never gone away. It’s been great to see it grow in popularity over the years and to watch how it can expand into other forms like a novella-in-flash. 

I’m an experimenter, I guess, and flash is the perfect form in that sense. I can create something surreal like a story about someone with trumpets for arms and then I can write a realistic story about a father buying watermelons.  People have commented that one of the strengths of my collection is the variety, which is thrilling to hear. I keep a notebook of quotes about flash and one I keep coming back to is from Randall Brown, in Rose Metal Press’s excellent ‘Field Guide to Flash Fiction’ — ‘No one way of flash exists’. Variety is important in my life and that feeds into my writing. I can’t mention variety without mentioning Kathy Fish though, it was in her workshops that I learnt about forms like segmented flash, hermit crab flash and one breathless paragraph. There have been many ‘ping’ moments in Kathy’s workshops. I’m a fan of a central image and this can work well in flash. I also love small details, and subtext, which are key to flash. The fall of my gaze in life tends to be close up rather than wide angled. Having said that, there are some flash in my collection that span many years. Randall Brown’s quote is in my head again. 

I think of flash as miniature paintings — something contained within a small space, but there is much more going on beyond the borders. We hear a lot about white space in short fiction, that’s something I’m drawn to. I studied for a degree in theatre studies and then I worked in TV Production — I was looking at scripts full of white space every day. Maybe that’s where the attraction comes from. Not only does flash appeal on a creative level, it has enabled me to continue to write during the years that I looked after my parents. I didn’t have emotional space to write longer fiction and it was difficult to carve out guaranteed time to write — my life was constantly interrupted through necessity, sometimes for months on end. I could snatch moments while sitting in a hospital corridor or in a doctors’ waiting room to put a sentence, a description, or a thought onto my phone. 

Q- A number of stories in the collection felt (to me) very personal, possibly rooted in your own experiences. Is this intentional in your writing? How do you shape and control a story which evolves from something deeply personal to make it ready to publish?

Yes, some of my flash are based on personal experience — Rattle and Spin and Kindling are the closest to memoir, but they still contain elements that I’ve made up. Ha! I think my previous answer about disruption shows intention doesn’t come into a first draft! Having said that, I’ve always thrown down words on the page in the first instance. The less thinking time the better. 

Leaving things aside is especially important with flash rooted in personal experience. It’s impossible to achieve distance in the thick of things. There’s a wonderful flash fiction community out there and sometimes I ask friends for feedback on later drafts, but never on a rough draft because I enjoy rootling around in the mess of words. If it’s something I’ve created in a workshop, writers will sometimes pull out aspects I hadn’t spotted in the flurry of putting down words, and I’ll make notes, but I’ll leave it some time before I come back to the rough draft. I need to feel what I’ve written doesn’t belong to me and think of myself purely as an editor. Putting first words on the page is about heat, passion — a sense of I need to get this down! With a cool editing eye on something inspired by personal circumstances I’m able to see better what serves the story, which usually means making things up. The editing eye usually comes in more than once, of course. In the last few years it’s been necessary to let drafts of my work rest longer than I would have liked, but my life has changed now because my mum died in July, so I’ve yet to establish any kind of pattern for how long I might leave a piece of work before coming back to it.

Q- I love the cover of this collection, which is one of your paintings. As a talented writer and artist, how do you balance the two in your life? Do they both clamour for your time and how do you decide if an idea is best represented by a story or a painting?

Thank you for ‘saying’ that Tracy and I’m thrilled that you love the cover. People have said some lovely things about it. 

Writing has always been my focus and priority, but a few years ago, when I felt unable to form words into any kind of shape, around the time of my mother was first diagnosed with dementia, I began on-location sketching as a way of switching off. On-location sketching is about capturing whatever is in front of me, I’ve never had to fight for time with that — if I’m in a train station, or wherever, I whip out my small square sketchbook, along with my ink pen, waterbrush, and field box, to capture what’s in front of me, or at least I did before Covid-19. I’m delighted to say now though that commissions for book covers are coming in, so I carve out time for that artwork. Diane Simmons saw my sketches and asked if I had anything for the cover of her collection, Finding A Way. That cover has led to other covers. Any commissioned artwork is a delicious bonus, it was never something I intended. 

At first, I wasn’t sure about creating the cover for my collection. I’ve never linked my artwork to my writing, and I find it impossible to create visual images, other than on-location sketches, at a time when I’m writing or editing. That’s partly due to wanting to keep focus, but it’s also about pragmatics. I’m lucky enough to have the back room in our house for all things creative, but it’s a small space, and I have to clear the decks to make room for painting. I’m a messy painter. As with words, in the early stages it’s about getting something down. Ellipsis offered me the chance to create my own cover image, but with publication at the end of July, the schedule was tight.  Steve and I isolated a week when I could focus on the visual side of things. Now that I no longer have caring commitments, there is likely to be time to create more personal art alongside on-location sketching and commissioned work. There is a novella-in-flash to complete first though! 

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

Thank you for asking, Tracy. I seem to be answering questions before you’ve asked them! Just in case anyone is reading this question before any others — yes, I’m redrafting a novella-in-flash which I aim to complete before the end of the year. I also have a second flash fiction collection in the corner of my eye. As ever, I don’t know what the collection is about, but that’s fine — I think it’s clear by now that a sense of discovery appeals to me.

Q - Where can we buy a copy of Seventy Percent Water?

My collection is available in paperback, on Kindle and in digital format from Ellipsis. If anyone would like a signed copy they can buy that from me, at the same price. Thank you again for having me on your blog. It’s been a wonderful opportunity to think about how things have evolved for me. 

You can find out more about Jeanette from her website.


Seventy Percent Water is the debut flash fiction collection from Jeannette Sheppard (Ellipsis). These stories have pathos, heart and humour. I particularly loved the mix of pathos and comedy, along with the splashes of surreal imagery which really make this collection stand above others. 

Some of these stories will wrench your heart as their characters wrestle the emotional challenges of seeing a beloved parent deteriorate. Whatever the topic, Sheppard writes with sensitivity and conviction, at times the emotion is overwhelming. Her language literally dances as she suddenly surprises with a burst of comedy reminding us there is always something to smile about, like sunshine glinting through gathering clouds.