A report by Judy Raymond for Trinidad’s Newsday.
Amanda Smyth once shaved her head for months, learned to dance like a monkey, and had a lead role in the hit British police TV series The Bill.
You wouldn’t guess any of this from meeting her now, a quiet person whom you’d expect to dodge the limelight—for instance, she remembers years ago meeting a writer who was one of her literary heroes, Richard Ford, and being so overwhelmed she couldn’t say a word.
Now Smyth herself is an established writer, finishing her third novel set in Trinidad.
Her first, Black Rock (2009), won a French literary award, was an Oprah Winfrey Summer Read, and was shortlisted for an NAACP award and the McKitterick Prize.
Her second novel, A Kind of Eden, came out in 2013. She’s also published numerous short stories and a children’s book, The Blessing of Charlie Sand (2014).
Smyth has always written, but originally wanted to be an actor, not a writer.
Her mother (née Rosalind Fernandes) is from Pointe-a-Pierre, and was sent to boarding school in Ireland, where she met Smyth’s Irish father. They married young, but it didn’t last. They separated in 1970—a time of unrest in Trinidad, with the Black Power movement. So Smyth, her mother and older brother lived in Yorkshire for years, though they returned to Trinidad every summer and sometimes at Christmas.
But one year her mother came home and stayed, so Smyth went to live with her aunt in Leeds. “She was a very interesting woman,” Smyth says, “empowering—but not motherly. [But] that was my only stability.” Her life over the next decade wasn’t particularly stable. She had wealthy boyfriends, but turned down their proposals. She joined a theatre company after school, shaving off her waist-length hair when the company voted that all its members should. She tried puppetry, but couldn’t master it, so decided to “become” the monkey instead of merely working the puppet. She worked in television, commercials and film, toured Europe, played the Edinburgh Festival and got her Equity (actors’ union) card. She got a place at drama school, but no grant to cover the cost; instead she went to the Actors Studio in New York. But she didn’t make it big.
So eventually Smyth came home to gather her energies to begin again— but couldn’t, and spent three years here instead.
Her aunt paid for her to go to writing workshops taught by the late poet and columnist Wayne Brown, who was highly regarded as a writing coach.
“He changed everything, really,” Smyth says. She went to Brown’s classes at the Hotel Normandie for about nine months. They didn’t hit it off at first: after one class she swore she wasn’t going back. But after the second, she told him whatever homework he gave each week, she wanted three times as much. Brown said she should start writing seriously, though he thought she was more of a poet than a fiction writer.
Then she had to leave Trinidad, because her father, a musician, was dying. She got a job at a literary agency in London, and showed her work to an agent there. He suggested she do a master’s degree in the prestigious creative writing programme at the University of East Anglia, where she was taught by Andrew Motion, then poet laureate, and novelist Ali Smith, who became a mentor (Smith has called her “a born novelist.”). Smyth left university in 2001 with an agent, a collection of short stories, and three publishers interested in them. But they weren’t published, and her agent told her, “You’re going to have to write a novel.” “I felt sick,” was Smyth’s reaction.
“Fear gets me to my desk,” she says. “I’m not good at plotting.
I write and rewrite the whole thing many times, and read, and read the whole thing.
It’s exhausting…The plot seems to show itself through the writing, and characters, but even when I know what has to happen, I find it hard to structure it.
“It feels initially like a lump of wood. Then I start hacking bits off, carving more carefully, chiselling the shape, the instruments get smaller, little carving knife, tiny metal pointy files, until I blow away the final woody dust and there it is.” Slowly, she started the book that would become Black Rock, and wrote poems that were published in the Times Literary Supplement.
She worked at the Barbican arts centre and wrote on Sundays, then got an Arts Council grant that let her concentrate on writing for a year.
By now she’d met her future husband, film producer Lee Thomas. In 2007 they moved to Leamington Spa, a pretty, quiet town in central England.
Smyth writes while her five-year-old daughter is at school, making extra time when she can. She teaches writing for the Arvon Foundation, and later this year will begin teaching at Coventry University.
When she finished Black Rock, she says modestly, it “did well for a first novel.” Set in the 1950s, it’s the story of Celia, who flees her Tobago village after a traumatic event, and for a while it seems the world may open up for her. But as another character tells her, “I believe you follow your life, Celia.
You don’t lead your life. It’s a mistake people make.” Once the pattern of painful events begins, it’s repeated— unless Celia can finally break the cycle. “I wanted her to be as damaged as possible,” Smyth explains, with a gleeful ruthlessness that belies her gentle exterior.
Smyth’s second novel, A Kind of Eden (2013), is told from an outsider’s viewpoint: a British man, in Trinidad to work with the local police, brings his family to visit and they become the victims of a shocking crime in Tobago. Though set in a different period, it has similarities with Black Rock: the arbitrariness of fate, the contrast between the natural beauty of these islands and the brutal realities that are facts of life here. Smyth has a knack for seeing ordinary objects from a fresh, intense perspective. In Black Rock she records, with typical, minute attention, Celia’s curiosity about her mother, who died in childbirth: “And what colour exactly were her eyes? You say black but were they woody black or black like those African bees that once flew out of the rotten silk cotton tree or black like pitch that comes from the lake in Trinidad?” Smyth’s writing has won high praise. Diana Athill, brilliant memoirist and former editor of VS Naipaul, wrote to her about Black Rock: “On the very first page the quality of the writing grabbed me, and I spent the whole day reading it with the greatest pleasure.
A novel really does have to be the real thing to do that to me, and this is.” The novel in progress, Fortune, is based on the story of the December 1928 explosion at the Partap family’s Dome oilfield in Fyzabad, in which 16 people died. Smyth started writing a year ago, after spending three years gathering information: she researched early oil-drilling in Trinidad, and talked to oilmen, and to the late history enthusiast Angelo Bissessarsingh.
The book is now a “workable draft,” but finding the right structure was difficult because she wanted to use a lot of voices: “There were so many people who died.” Re-reading Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient was helpful, “because it’s so broken up, and I was trying something very fragmented.” Among other writers whose work she admires are Jean Rhys, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Edwige Danticat, Jamaica Kincaid, Shiva Naipaul, Andrea Levy, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and poets Derek Walcott and Tony McNeill.
Smyth doesn’t believe that being based in England necessarily makes it easier to get one’s writing published than being in the Caribbean, although she acknowledges the importance of making and using contacts in the industry. Confessing to a thin skin and self-doubt about her writing, she says nevertheless, “I’m not intimidated by the business side of writing. I was pushy. I gave my work to whoever I thought could help.” She also feels having a “strong voice” as a writer goes a long way, as do the opportunities offered nowadays by regional literary festivals and writing competitions publicised online.
Smyth comes to Trinidad at least once a year, and would like to come more often. She doesn’t know what she’ll work on next—“It takes as long as it takes,” she says, explaining how sometimes events in her own life are slowly transmuted into fictional events in another time and place. But she will go on writing books set in TT: “The English landscape doesn’t excite me.” She admits to being upset by the bitter argument among regional fiction writers and poets a couple of years ago about who did and didn’t qualify as a Caribbean writer. But, she points out, “My family has been here for generations. There isn’t a drop of English blood in me at all.
Nobody,” she says simply, “owns this place.”