INTERVIEW: Amanda Craig on Twitter, comparisons with Dickens and writing literary fiction for the minimum wage

Amanda CraigWhenever anyone asks whether any good still comes of the battlefield that is Twitter, my first response is always, "books". A steady flow of great book recommendations has come from Twitter, often leading me to titles and writers I might otherwise have missed.

First among equals of these books is The Golden Rule, Amanda Craig’s 2020 entertaining and revealing novel that took the plot of Strangers on A Train and transplanted it to modern Cornwall. There she took her sharpest scalpel and set about dissecting some of modern Britain’s most dangerous and divisive fault lines.

Immediately captivated by Craig’s approach to the state-of-the-nation I spent the rest of the Covid summer working steadily through a back catalogue that takes its mightier-than-the-sword pen through issues from rural poverty and the iniquities of immigration to public schools, publishing, journalism, the class divide, the gig economy and beyond.

At about the same time I discovered Craig’s books I was also making my first forays into Dickens, and the parallels between her work and his that many had recognised before me were plain to see. The Three Graces has also drawn Shakesepeare comparisons. Isn’t that a bit scary, being compared to these luminaries, I ask her during a video interview arranged on Twitter.  

“It's ridiculous,” she says. “And it's enormously ridiculously flattering. I mean, I'm really thrilled if people think that I'm in any way like these great geniuses.”

It really isn’t ridiculous though. Just as Dickens gives us a snapshot of what life was like growing up poor in Victorian London, Craig has painted a rich and detailed portrait of life in modern Britain a couple of centuries later. It’s a world where a mother needs to work three jobs just to keep her child fed, residents of Cornwall have been priced out of the housing market in their own towns and an army of unloved and demonised immigrants are the glue that holds the economy and society together.

"I don't believe in this endless gloom."

The books are beautifully written with that easy flow that disguises the challenge of delivering great prose. They are also acutely observed, funny and, despite dealing with important and sometimes upsetting issues, they are optimistic, a trait she shares with a certain 19th Century novelist, as anyone who has read the endings of Great Expectations or A Tale of Two Cities will know.

“I do very much hope that one of the things readers get from me is a sense of joy and healing and optimism, because I really don't see the point in writing tragedy, unless you have genius of the order of Tolstoy. I don't believe in this endless gloom. I find it terribly dismaying that it remains so fashionable.”

The optimism only tempers the darker themes, however, as Craig doesn’t shy away from conflict or difficult issues in her writing, something she believes led to the creation of an unhelpful dividing line between genre and literary fiction.

“Everybody knows that bad things happen. So the other thing that makes me hopping mad, and I am permanently angry about a lot of things, as you've probably gathered from Twitter, especially to do with fiction, but for much of my early adult life, there was this idea that we won the Second World War. Everything was permanently peaceful and nice. Forever and ever. Amen. And if you portrayed anything violent or horrible happening in your fiction, then you had to be cast into this kind of ghetto of writing, thriller, or crime, couldn't possibly be literary,” she says.

Her work is often described as literary fiction with plot and genre features, and it’s a good summary. Her most recent novel, The Three Graces (my review) primarily explores “age and female friendship” but there is a shooting early in the book which brings a combination of mystery and urgency to the plot.   

"We're all on less than the minimum wage..."

That her books stay on the literary line of the genre divide puts her in a category of writers for whom the rewards of publishing are lower than readers might expect, both for authors and editors, who she says publishers are “haemorrhaging”. This is another theme Craig returns to repeatedly on Twitter.

“I was terribly, terribly lucky in that I began my career as a novelist right at the very tail end of a time when you could just about get a mortgage as a debut writer and you know, a tiny mortgage for the one up one down literally, but you could do it. Now you just can't and that's infinitely dismaying,” she says. “We're all on less than the minimum wage and I think when you say that to readers, they're absolutely amazed. Because from their point of view, the ones who are going into bookshops or buying online, they're paying us a decent whack, but it's not filtering through to the people who are actually producing it.

Craig points to the influence of Amazon – “a disaster for us” – and publishers not passing on enough of their profits to their writers.

That brings us back to Twitter, where the author/reader community is, mostly, an oasis of generosity, friendliness, and calm in a vast sea of rancour, and where books can find support.

“Really, books sell if publishers push them and without that push, you barely have a prayer,” she says. “This is one reason why I'm on Twitter a lot because Twitter I think very slightly improves the odds in your favour. And authors can do that. It's like having a second job.”

"They've sat on this cloud of success..."

Craig is very supportive there of books she has enjoyed, and in particular of female writers. “I'm not supportive of anybody, probably what you see me praising is about a fifth or a tenth of what I'm actually reading. But I do feel that if anybody's good and has talent and originality then you should support them,” she says.

She is grateful for the support of the generation of female writers ahead of her – both Rose Tremain and Penelope Lively gave glowing reviews for The Three Graces - but scathing about the lack of support offered to male writers by their “golden generation” of Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, and Ian McEwan, “who have just sat on this cloud of success”.

Another avenue for finding new readers is television, but despite a style that feels perfect for the intelligent Sunday night drama, and all of her novels having been optioned, her work remain stubbornly untelevised.

When we speak though she is energised by a deal recently struck following a three-way auction for The Three Graces with producer Alison Owen, whose credits include Tamara Drewe, Small Island and the forthcoming Amy Winehouse biopic Back to Black.  “She's absolutely terrific, so I'm very excited about that.”

"I was thrilled to find these recurring characters..."

If the project gets off the ground, it could be the start of a loose series. Craig’s stories follow a roman fleuve style, a “novel stream” in which a minor character in one book returns later as a major character. It lends the books an intimacy and familiarity, while not tying the author down to one narrative direction.

The inspiration for this direction arrived in the most unlikely form of a “ratty, circulating beach library” in Thailand where the least unappealing book on offer was a “relatively pristine” Penguin Classics copy of Balzac’s Lost Illusions, “the ones with those beautiful black covers”.

“I picked up this incredible book about a young poet who comes to Paris and the corruption of the literary world. I was already having a tiny bit of exposure to that, and it absolutely electrified me,” she says. “So, I then went and read The Human Comedy, and I was thrilled to find these recurring characters and this whole life that was not just about the high life, but also the low life of Paris and the provinces.”

This led her to another exponent of the art: Trollope. “I am convinced Trollope learned this from Balzac as he was a prodigious reader and could read French. And so when I started to write I thought I should do that as it’s such an interesting thing and it’s fun for a reader and it makes it more fun for you as a novelist and plotter.”

And suddenly we are back where we started, with book recommendations, as I reveal that for the second time in a week I’m guiltily assessing the life choices that have led to me not reading any Balzac and am gently admonished and told “never to read something because you feel guilty”.

Craig then tells me about the book she has been reading, The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng, a book that has been getting a lot of Twitter airtime and that follows Somerset Maugham - a writer we both admire but whose work is sadly out of fashion -  on tour in Asia in the 1920s. “It’s exquisitely written,” she says, “and I’m just waiting to see how it develops.”

That’s good enough for me and The House of Doors joins my groaning to-be-read pile.

“I just think it’s a wonderful thing to spread the news and the enthusiasm of someone you discover and enjoy,” she says.

And so it is. And once again I’m grateful that Twitter led me to the work of Amanda Craig, and like her, I’m just waiting to see how it develops.

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