Author’s Bookshelf: Amanda Cassidy on the making of her debut novel, ‘Breaking’
Author, journalist and all round wordsmith Amanda Cassidy tells us about her journey to becoming a storyteller, and the words of wisdom that led her to put pen to paper for what would go on to become her debut novel.
Earlier this week, we shared an extract from Amanda Cassidy’s debut novel, Breaking, and today we’re catching up with the author to hear all about the creative, propulsive and freeing process of writing.
Did you always want to be a writer/author?
I’ve always been a storyteller, scribbling in journals and creating magazines when I was a child. I adored writing essays in school and coming up with imaginative stories. Books were always a great joy for me – first through my parents reading me stories (The Faraway Tree, The Railway Children) and then later, whatever I could get my hands on from Ballet Shoes (Noel Streatfeild) to Flowers in the Attic (Virginia Andrews). As an adult, I continued telling stories – first visually when I worked in Sky News and then later, through sound on radio (Newstalk). More recently, as a print/online journalist, telling other people’s stories has been so gratifying. However, I knew during the pandemic, it was finally time to tell my own story.
What inspired you to start writing?
Three things inspired me to finally take the plunge into writing fiction. The first was a good friend of mine, bestselling author Andrea Mara who advised me to start by ‘writing a bad book’. It gave me the permission to just get some words down without having to worry they were the most perfect words (at first). The second was being lucky enough to have a mentor – the amazing Glenn Meade, an Irish writer who has enjoyed great success with his books in the US. He gave me some guidance on books to read that explained plot and screenplay elements that gave me a good grounding in story structure. Finally, the pandemic gave me the quiet space, and the need to escape – both those factors offered me the creative impulse to write the first words of Breaking.
Tell us about your writing process.
I write while my children are at school now. I walk my dogs and then spend a blissful four or five hours writing most days. During the pandemic, I wrote a thousand words a day which usually took me two hours, but now I find myself using the time I have to do a variety of different elements that now make up my life as a debut author – social media, writing articles, editing the book I’m currently working on and plotting ahead to the next. Sometimes I’ll also spend that time reading other books.
When I write, it’s usually the guts of one chapter, and then the next day I’ll edit that chapter and write ahead. The day after that, I’ll edit that new piece and write ahead again. I find that process helps my flow and keeps my head in the story.
Where did the idea for this book come from?
I was sitting on the beach in Spain where we spent time during some of the pandemic. I was watching my children playing in the waves from a beach bar and imagined the horror if something happened to them on my watch. I think there’s a lot of judgement and societal expectation when it comes to motherhood so I decided to play with that illusion of the perfect mother.
The book is about a mother who loses her child on a beach while she’s drinking, and when she’s caught out in a lie, the international media turn on her. I took my son’s home school maths copy and wrote what’s now the opening chapter of Breaking on the back page. I still have that initial scribble, though it’s changed a lot since then, of course!
What did you learn when writing this book?
I never expected to learn so much. In fact, I thought that now I’m in my 40s that I had things all figured about when it comes to who I was, and what I did. To watch this new version of myself emerge has been really fascinating. Mostly I’ve learnt to trust my instincts when it comes to the beats of the story and to lean into my creativity. I’m still learning about how to get the balance right between giving myself to my family (making dinner, pick-ups, homework, being there to listen) and carving out that time to transport myself into a different world – the world of my imagination.
I’m not sure any writer ever finds that equilibrium fully. I find sometimes I’ve one foot in both worlds simultaneously. That’s what I find toughest about being a professional writer now.
Three words to describe your writing process:
Creative, propulsive, freeing.
Do you have any quirky habits when writing?
I remember Marian Keyes saying that she lights a candle when she starts writing and blows it out to signify when she finishes, which is a nice ritual. Mine is usually just coffee-based! Although super boring, I do find I write best when the house is tidy, the dog is walked and I’m organised, so I can literally step out of the world of my imagination and back into the real one without too much chaos on re-entry!
The first book you remember reading is…
Ann and Barry, of course. But I remember being read to as a small child. I think it was the Yellow Book of Bedtime Stories by Enid Blyton which first fired up my imagination. Another one I remember is the story of Mr Squiggle who’d draw things on walls and his pictures would come to life which I loved! Me and my sister loved the Mandy and Bunty annuals and there were always some really dramatic stories in them that stuck with me. After that, I loved all the Pippi Longstocking books. But the book that really got me reading was The Monster Garden by Vivien Alcock which is about a girl called Frankie who takes some living tissue from a lab and grows her own monster. That was my first foray into the sinister, and it had me hooked.
Your favourite Irish author is…
Impossible to say! I love the beauty of the words created by Colm Tobin, Sinead Gleeson and Donal Ryan’s writing, and have a Seamus Heaney poetry book that lives permanently on my bedside locker. but I also appreciate the compelling mysteries of Jo Spain and Jane Casey, tight plots of Tana French and Andrea Mara, Liz Nugent’s tightly-woven family dynamics and the darkness of Sophie White’s creations. Basically Ireland has amazing authors and we are spoilt for choice in all genres!
The book you gift everyone is…
Currently my own! Breaking is just being released so it’s a nervous time and I hope people love it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Three books everyone should read:
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. I loved how it transported me so far from where I was. They are my favourite types of books.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. On the surface is about the author’s observations on grief and loss after the death of her writer husband, John Gregory Dunne but it’s also about the folly of time. Her descriptions are so vivid and her writing so heartfelt.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn is so deliciously sinister and I love how she draws out relationship complexities.
Do you listen to music when you write?
Only if I have to block out sounds. In that case, I listen to classical music – mostly haunting piano or violin music or instrumental covers of more recent songs. I can’t listen to lyrics. I’m quite focused so normally if the house is quiet, I can just write and write.
The best money you ever spent as a writer was on…
My laptop. It’s a rose gold Macbook Air and I’d run back into a burning building to save it.
The three books you’d bring with you to a desert island are…
Jane Casey’s next instalment of her Maeve Kerrigan series. I’d also bring a monster of a book that I could think about lots like James Joyce Ulysses (to try and figure it out) and to pass the time. I’d also bring anything by Maggie O Farrell, Margaret Atwood, Donna Tarte. I know that’s too many but I’d leave some things like clothes behind instead.
A quote you love is…
“She stood in the storm
And when the wind
did not blow her way,
she adjusted her sails”
— Elizabeth Edwards
I admire resourcefulness in others and the ability to adapt to changes around you is something I have always tried to do. Determination is important to me and not being afraid to carve out your own path.
The book you always return to is…
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. It was our school book for our Junior Certificate. It was the first time I enjoyed the pleasure of dissecting a book and seeing what really lay beneath. It was like discovering a secret map. It’s also so dramatic and indulgent – things I think my teenage self could relate to!
Seeing your book in shops is…
Emotional. I cried in the bookshop when I saw Breaking on the shelves. It was the culmination of a long and challenging process and I took a moment to appreciate what it took to get to this moment.
One book you wish you had written is…
The Push by Ashley Audrain, because it did so well and tackled an area of motherhood that I enjoy writing about myself.
How do you use social media as an author?
I try to be creative with it alongside the understanding that as an author these days you do have to promote your books and get the word out there. I try to have fun with it too because well, I wouldn’t be on it otherwise!
Should books be judged by their covers? How did you pick yours?
I think book covers are hugely important. It’s opening the conversation between the reader and the author and telling you what you can expect inside. I wanted a beach scene which is typically the most escapist visual you can imagine, but I wanted to also turn it slowly dark. I was keen that the neat umbrellas contrasted with the chaos of the story within, and a whisper of the turbulence in the waves. I think the designer hit the brief really well and I love the vivid yellow BREAKING that jumps out at you.
Do you find it hard not to procrastinate when writing?
I just love to write. Being allowed to sit and write and then look up and the clock has moved by three hours will never not spark joy. It feels indulgent taking all that time when I’m being creative, but when you have a deadline and difficult edits to do, it does feel more work-like. But saying that, writing is my passion so no, I never don’t want to do it or put it off. (Not yet anyway!)
The best advice you’ve ever gotten is:
“Write a bad book”. It gave me permission to finally start.
Amanda Cassidy’s debut Irish crime novel ‘Breaking’ is on shelves now.