All Our Squandered Beauty with Amanda Huggins

Apr 22, 2021 | Reviews

I introduce you to this book with the great news that All Our Squandered Beauty has been shortlisted for a Sabotuer award for best novella! Head here to give it your vote and to look at the other great writers and collections up for awards.

This is another case of a book that properly swallowed me up. There was something so familiar about the characters, so evocative about the places, that I read it in just a few sittings.

We meet Kara staring out to sea in North Yorkshire, watching the birds (you can see why this book won an award for its first page). She knows she doesn’t quite fit in, but isn’t yet sure where she could go. Her future is further darkened by the past disappearance of her father and the looming presence of male attention that she’s not quite sure what to do with.

I wanted to find out how Amanda made her leading voice so authentic, and what it was about the choices women have to make that drew her into writing about them. Read on to find out more.

Your novel is firmly rooted in the 1970s. There are lovely details of things, places and experiences that make it feel authentic. How did you go about researching and placing the book in this time and why did you choose it?

I chose the late 1970s as that was when I was a teenager myself – and so the research was relatively easy! It’s a decade that receives a lot of bad press, yet despite strikes and power cuts, high inflation, and roads cluttered with turmeric-hued Austin Allegros, there is much to celebrate. The 70s are often labelled as the years that bypassed good taste, but I loved my platform shoes and Oxford bags, and had a Saturday job in Woolworths to help pay for my Chelsea Girl addiction! As well as the crazy fashions, it was a brilliant era for music, from glam rock to punk rock, and ordinary people were experiencing things their grandparents could have hardly imagined. Foreign travel was opening up for more and more people, and the world was beckoning. Anything seemed possible back then, and I still have a great deal of affection for the decade that shaped me.

Another strength of the book is its places. There’s a wonderful contrast between the wild sea of the Yorkshire coast and the calm waters of a Greek island. How did you go about creating these places so vividly?

I love writing about place – I was a travel writer before I was a fiction writer – and location is one of the most important elements in my work. I’m a strong believer in the idea that we are shaped in many ways by the places we inhabit, and that landscapes and cityscapes influence our personalities and life decisions. I grew up on the Yorkshire coast, and so the sea is still a huge part of who I am. A number of readers have said they feel All Our Squandered Beauty reads like a love letter to the sea, and although that wasn’t intentional it was probably inevitable. Greece is somewhere I loved at first sight when I visited Corfu and Paxos with my parents in the mid-seventies. In more recent years my partner and I have travelled to Paxos every summer, and so it wasn’t hard to conjure up the fictional island of Lyros with its shimmering bays and olive-clad hillsides.

Your themes explore the difficult choices that young women had to make at that time, but they echo through to older women, and indeed to those alive now. What drew you to these ideas about women feeling constricted, as though they have limited possibilities in life?

In the late 1970s, only a minority of people went on to university – somewhere between 10 and 15% – and only around 35% of those undergraduates were female. As this was also the main escape route for young people wanting to leave their hometown behind, it meant that many of the teenage girls I went to school with ended up staying put and marrying young.

Scarborough – on which I based the fictional town of Hayborough in the novel – is a fair distance from the nearest motorway or airport, and in some ways this has always made it feel a little isolated. It also has a reputation as being a place which is hard to leave behind! All of these things were in my mind when I explored the choices Kara has to make in the novel – the pull of the sea and the security of everything she’s always known versus the lure and excitement of the big world that is opening up to her – if only she’s brave enough to grasp it. The pressure from her boyfriend to settle down and marry young is echoed in the choice her friend Louise makes to do just that. And she also sees and evaluates the choices her mother and grandmother made in the past – and understands that neither of them achieved their full potential.

There are undoubtedly more choices for young women today, but in some ways things haven’t really changed since the 1970s. The latest figures show that more women now enrol at university than men, but there is still a long way to go – we haven’t even achieved equal pay yet, despite the Equal Pay Act being over fifty years old! In the early 1980s, Shirley Conran told women they could “have it all”. But in reality this translated to “do it all”. Ambitious women have always had to juggle a career and a domestic role, often doing twice as much work as men. This appears to be one reason why women in Japan are increasingly keen to avoid marriage, choosing independence and freedom instead.

The voice of the novel feels authentically seventeen. How did you go about immersing yourself in this character to make her so believable?

Because the novel is set in the decade when I was seventeen myself, and the fictional location is based on my hometown, it became quite easy for me to immerse myself in the character. Although the story itself is purely fictional, there are elements of Kara’s teenage years which reflect my own life, and in many ways it was almost as though I was re-living an altered past.

What advice would you give to writers at the start of their career?

Read a lot and write a lot. It sounds obvious, but so many new writers are frightened to put the words down on the page and don’t take the time to learn their craft. Don’t get hung up on perfection or you’ll never get a first draft written. Editing as I go is one of my faults, and so I know how it can hold you back. And please don’t be coy about sending your work out into the world. You will get rejected, but the more work you submit the less those individual rejections will sting, as you’ll always have something else out there. And try to connect with other writers so you don’t feel isolated – I have always found writers to be really generous with their time and support. Join a writing group or enrol on a course where you get chance to interact with the rest of the students. I have just finished tutoring a short story course, The Heart of the Short Story, which I created for the Retreat West Creative Writing School, and the feedback the students gave each other was amazing.

Amanda Huggins is the award-winning author of the novella All Our Squandered Beauty,and 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 in newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Wanderlust, Writers’ Forum, Popshot, Tokyo Weekender 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, Bath 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 in 2020 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.

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