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Making Space: Saltwater by Jessica Andrews

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Jessica Andrews © 20 May 2019.
Posted in the Magazine ( · Interviews · Literary Fiction ).

Saltwater is a fictional novel with roots in my own experiences. I have always liked thinking about the tiny details that make up a life; the Kiwi shoe polish my grandad used on his boots before work in the Sunderland shipyards, my gran slicing cod and gutting haddock with a sharp knife, my dad fixing machines in factories in his blue overalls and my mam holding everything together in her coral-coloured Rimmel lipstick. There is so much poetry and power in the lives of the working-class people I grew up with, which is rarely recorded in literary novels.

I’m interested in the relationship between class and lineage; how generations of wealthy or professional families are recorded in documents, properties and bank accounts, but how the lives of working-class people are more difficult to trace and how a sense of inter-generational identity is told through the stories that are passed down through families.

My grandad is from Burtonport in Donegal. When he was a young man, he moved to Sunderland to find work on the shipyards. He lived in a boarding house with other men from across Europe, looking for work, which is where he met my gran, the owner’s daughter. He stayed in Sunderland for many years, until my gran died of cancer. My grandad spent the rest of his life moving between Sunderland and Burtonport, unable to settle, always believing there was a better life waiting for him, wherever he was not.

When I was growing up, my parents separated. My mam sought refuge from her life in Sunderland through long summers in Burtonport, visiting my grandad. My brother and I spent August afternoons running our hands up and down the ropes that tied the boats to the pier, drinking Cavern Cola in the corners of pubs and running wild across empty beaches. It was the first place I understood the notion of space, how it feels to have freedom and to be able to spread yourself out.

My family told so many stories; of the fried fish and boiled potatoes my gran kept warm in the oven, for my grandad to throw at the wall when he came home late from the pub. I learned about my Auntie Kitty, who raised my grandad in Burtonport and cut the heads from any flowers that dared to bloom orange in her garden. I could almost smell my gran’s thick Leichner foundation that she applied at the kitchen table with a magnified mirror, and I could see her tabard hanging on the back of the door, silver from a day scraping fish scales at the market stall where she worked.

My grandad died and left me a little bit of money, which I put towards an MA in Creative Writing. When I finished the MA I was living in London and working in pubs, cafés and as an English tutor. I wanted to write a novel but I didn’t have the time or head space. My grandad’s house in Burtonport was left empty after his death and I decided to go and live there for a few months, so I could write without worrying about making rent.

I took the long coach from Dublin up through the Blue Stack Mountains and it was cold and dark when I arrived. Burtonport is remote and I can’t drive, but there was an old bike in the garden and I fixed it up. I put up posters in the local community centre advertising myself as an English tutor, and I found one student, who helped me survive. I did some copywriting and wrote small articles for magazines. Most days for 7 months, I cycled into Dungloe, the nearest town, and wrote in the library there, which is inside an old church. The roads are dangerous and in the winter I had to leave around 3pm, so I would be back before dark. In the evenings I lit a fire and read. I had never lived on my own in the countryside before, and I learned how to chop wood, build fires and fix the sink. I painted the outside of the house and filled it with dried flowers I picked on my way home from the beach.

My time in Burtonport was transformative. The smoky, peaty landscape leaked into the book and I began to connect with my history. I felt I understood my mother better. I learned the sense of safety and sanctuary she must have felt when she took us there for the summer and turned off her Nokia phone. I went to the pub with my grandad’s friends and they walked me home at night in the rain, just as they had done for him. I developed a deeper sense of the places my family came from, which helped me to think about the kind of life I might want to build for myself.

A short story I wrote during my MA was published in an anthology by the University of Kent, which was circulated to agents and publishers. An agent got in touch with me and I sent him the novel I was working on, then he helped me find a publisher. The publishing world is big and daunting, but it has given me a rare opportunity to speak about the issues that are important to me and to write about the implications of constructs such as class, gender and language.

Living in Ireland and writing the novel deepened my understanding of my position in the world. Through interrogating my recent family history, I learned that although that past is part of my identity, I don’t owe it anything. In crafting and shaping the stories of our lives, I was able to free myself from them. To have a novel published is to be listened to, and to have people listen to stories that are traditionally regarded as ordinary or trivial gives them gravity. Writing Saltwater taught me the power of articulation and illuminated the importance of pushing back against the literary elite and opening spaces for new voices to be heard.

(c) Jessica Andrews

Jessica Andrews writes fiction and poetry. She grew up in Sunderland and has spent time living in Santa Cruz, Paris, Donegal, Barcelona and London. She has been published by the Independent, Somesuch Stories, AnOther, Caught by the River, Shabby Doll House and Papaya Press, among others. She teaches Literature and Creative Writing classes and co-runs literary magazine The Grapevine, which aims to give a platform to under-represented writers.
jessica-andrews.com

About Saltwater:

When Lucy wins a place at university, she thinks London will unlock her future. It is a city alive with pop up bars, cool girls and neon lights illuminating the Thames at night. At least this is what Lucy expects, having grown up seemingly a world away in working-class Sunderland, amid legendary family stories of Irish immigrants and boarding houses, now-defunct ice rinks and an engagement ring at a fish market.

Yet Lucy’s transition to a new life is more overwhelming than she ever expected. As she works long shifts to make ends meet and navigates chaotic parties from East London warehouses to South Kensington mansions, she still feels like an outsider among her fellow students. When things come to a head at her graduation, Lucy takes off for Ireland, seeking solace in her late grandfather’s cottage and the wild landscape that surrounds it, wondering if she can piece together who she really is.

Lyrical and boundary-breaking, Saltwater explores the complexities of mother-daughter relationships, the challenges of shifting class identity and the way that the strongest feelings of love can be the hardest to define.

Order your copy online here.


Jessica Andrews writes fiction and poetry. She grew up in Sunderland and has spent time living in Santa Cruz, Paris, Donegal, Barcelona and London. She has been published by the Independent, Somesuch Stories, AnOther, Caught by the River, Shabby Doll House and Papaya Press, among others. She teaches Literature and Creative Writing classes and co-runs literary magazine The Grapevine, which aims to give a platform to under-represented writers. jessica-andrews.com