Interview – Jessica Andrews | Living North

Interview – Jessica Andrews

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We catch up with Portico Prize-winning author Jessica Andrews, from Sunderland, about growing up and making art in the North East

Do you think enough is being done to encourage young people into a creative career path?
I went to school 10 years ago, so maybe it’s changed now, but definitely when I was growing up there wasn’t much emphasis on the creative side of things at all. The options were you either did something practical, like working at Nissan or doing an apprenticeship, or, if you were clever, then you could apply to university, but even that was vague, I thought. For me personally, I didn’t have much help when it came to choosing a uni, or a course, I just sort of guessed. But when I was growing up, everyone seemed to be in band, music was really big and that was a big creative outlet. Well, loads of boys played in bands anyway, so there was a big music culture but it was very masculine.

Have you always been a writer?
I’ve always written, but I didn’t start taking it seriously until I finished university, because I felt there was nothing else that I loved in the same way. I think that’s also to do with careers and aspirations, I didn’t really know much about what jobs you could do, so I worked in bars and wrote.

Your style is quite experimental. Where would you say the inspiration for that came from?
My favourite writer is Eimear McBride, she’s an Irish author who writes as if she’s trying to capture something that’s almost pre-language. She deconstructs all of her sentences, and I found that the most revolutionary thing I’ve ever read. I also read a lot of poetry, so it probably comes from there as well. 

You live just outside Barcelona now, but roots are an important theme in your Portico Prize-winning book, Saltwater. Is there a reflection of yourself within the book?
Yeah, definitely. Saltwater is pretty close to my life and I’ve been quite honest about that. I think one of the things that Lucy is trying to figure out, and one of the defining problems of my life, is that you run away from something – when I was younger I felt like I didn’t want to live in the North East, I wanted to move away – but then what happens is, or what I’ve found at least, you have this feeling of un-belonging. I guess that’s what Lucy is figuring out, and what I’ve been figuring out. When you leave a place that was once your home, it’s not the same when you come back because you’re an outsider. I’ve moved around a lot sort of searching for a home, but what I explore through the book is that home is inside of you – you take your roots with you.

Would you ever move back to Sunderland?
I think I would in the future. I would love to be close to my family again, but if I’m going to move back to the UK with my partner, who’s from Nottingham, I feel like we’d need to move somewhere neutral.

The North/South divide is another big theme in the book. What would you say is the biggest difference between the two?
Money, obviously. But culturally, I feel like there’s a really different attitude to life, which is a class thing. There’s a lightness that I find in the North East. The best way I can describe it is when you go on a night out and everyone’s just up for it, there’s a looseness, a kind of joy, and it’s a bit less careful and precious than what I found when I’d go on a night out in London. It’s hard to describe exactly what it is, but I’ve also seen it in Liverpool and Manchester, it seems like a very northern thing, a northern spirit.

Who were your biggest role models from the North East?
When I was growing up, I went to a drama club in Washington and I met lots of my very close friends there. A lot of them have gone on to do very creative things – one is a dancer, another is an actor – and the woman who ran our group, Sarah, opened our minds up to things that, otherwise, we’d never have found. The creativity that we were lacking at school, we found it there. She’d teach us about weird avant-garde theatre techniques that we would never have been exposed to. So it was almost an opportunity for us to live in a completely different way.

I did some workshops in some schools in Sunderland last October, and I framed it around who gets to make art and why. We did an exercise where we thought about everyone from the North East who have made films or wrote books, and it was interesting because lots of the kids didn’t know what the North East was – they were talking about films that had been set all over the country, thinking that they were set in the North East. They didn’t have a sense of what their cultural identity was, and I couldn’t help but think, is that because they don’t really see much of it?

What could we do to help them understand that identity more?
I think it’s about empowering young people and helping them realise that their lives are as important as anyone else’s, which is maybe easier to understand if you see your life reflected in art. But also, we could spread the knowledge about their opportunities more. I feel like, in some ways, I wrote Saltwater from a sense of anger, because I moved away from the North East and, when I did, I felt like people didn’t regard my life as important as theirs. But what if it also came from a place of empowerment? I think when I was writing Saltwater, I had this fear that the things I was writing about were really trivial and uninteresting, and no-one would want to read about them. But I think that’s because you don’t really see them that often, you have this idea of what literature is about – big metropolitan cities or stormy beaches – you forget that it can just be about what your life is actually like and the ordinary things that you do.

You do some work now to help promote underrepresented authors?
A friend and I run an online magazine called The Grapevine. We set it up because we were both writing, and we had lots of friends who we thought were really talented writers and artists, but they were all having to work in other jobs to support themselves, and still weren’t getting their writing published. We just thought, well, we could always just do it ourselves. When you’re working lots of jobs and trying to make art it can be really demoralising, because you feel like you haven’t got a community around you, or that you’re working really hard and not getting anywhere. So we decided to focus mainly on organising events, because then writers can meet people interested in the same things they are.

The Portico Prize is especially great because it puts the spotlight on Northern writers. How did you feel when your book won?
I feel actually emotional about it, because the story doesn’t just reflect my life, it’s also about what it means to be a young teenage girl growing up in the North East, or a single mother dealing with all of these things. I wish I could show this to my teenage self – she didn’t think that she was worth very much, or that her life was very interesting or had much poetry in it – and be like:look! You do have power to do things, and your life is important and interesting. This prize just helps validate that, in a sense

Published in: February 2020

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