Super Brain Blog – Season 4 Episode 7
Life is not a sentence with Amanda Smyth
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Books by Amanda Smyth
Amanda Smyth is Irish Trinidadian, and author of three novels. Her first novel, Black Rock, won the Prix du Premier Roman Etranger, was nominated for an NAACP award, short listed for McKitterick Prize, and selected as an Oprah Winfrey Summer Read. Black Rock was chosen as one of Waterstones New Voices, and translated into five languages. Her second novel, A Kind of Eden, set in contemporary Trinidad, was published in 2013 and optioned as a TV series. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in New Writing, London Magazine, The Times Literary Supplement, Harvard Review and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Fortune, her third novel, is based on the tragic Dome fire in Trinidad,1928. Amanda teaches creative writing at Arvon, Skyros, Greece, and Coventry University. She lives in Leamington Spa with her husband and daughter.
Over to You
I don’t really believe in luck but I do believe in working hard being ready to recognise opportunity and being prepared to take advantage of it. I also acknowledge that some people have the capacity to recognise and take advantage of opportunity even when they do not work hard and are not technically ready,
Amanda’s latest novel, Fortune, is about seeking fortune and taking advantage of fortunate circumstances and the role that chance played in her own life.
Have you ever experienced fortunate circumstances.
Don’t forget to share the episode on your social media.
Dr Sabina Brennan 00:01
Hello, and welcome to Super brain, the podcast for everyone with a brain. My guest this week is Irish Trinidadian author, Amanda Smith.
Dr Sabina Brennan 00:11
Amanda Smith, thank you so much for joining me on the Super Brain podcast, your most recent novel is called Fortune, which is a really interesting title, the connotations around luck and chance and fortune. But then also, there’s obviously the double play on your book. It’s about making a fortune. And I have to say, I love a book that takes me to another place. Well, this does two things, it takes you to another place in time. So the 1920s, but also it takes you to another place physically to another country, Trinidad. And it’s another culture very interesting for me reading this book, actually, is the realization about how little I knew about Trinidad. We’ve all heard of Trinidad and Tobago, and I would hear of it in the context of sports or in beauty pageants. But I actually realized reading this, I knew really feck all about the countries. You know, I like a book also where I go and look something up. And that’s really kind of around the flora and fauna you talk about under the shade of the African tulip tree, and it’s lovely to kind of be transported to a place like that, where you can create new images of things. And there’s another insect, actually, that’s relatively early on in the book isn’t there that somebody gets, I don’t know that she gets stung. Does she ingest the insect or goes in her ear…
Amanda Smyth 01:29
down her throat
Dr Sabina Brennan 01:30
down her throat.
Amanda Smyth 01:31
Dr Sabina Brennan 01:32
And very scary
Amanda Smyth 01:34
Jack Spaniards, they’re worse than wasps. They’re a bit like a bee and a wasp, but they’re worse than a wasp. So they’re nasty.
Dr Sabina Brennan 01:39
I had a look at them online. So the book is kind of filled with those, you know, it works on multiple layers, you get transported. And then of course, there is a riveting story. And this podcast on Mondays I love to interview people about surviving and thriving in life. I think it’s kind of relevant to the book and to your own life, because I think your life and your work and your writing are kind of interlaced and related, but I’ve just going to read a little passage because I think it’s so relevant. It’s just a kind of conversation here, but it’s a to me, it’s a big, kind of, almost existential kind of piece just snuck in there, and I don’t want to spoil the book, really, in a way but Eddie Wade has returned from the US to Trinidad and is hoping to make his fortune by striking oil. He has no money really. And he needs an investor and he has one of these fortuitous, so here’s where fortune comes in again. A fortuitous meeting with someone who goes on to become his investor, Tito. So Eddie is sort of speaking here. He’s talking about his father “and they tell me he was on the mountainside when a stone fell next to him. Then the stones fell thicker, one or two were big, too big to be thrown by anyone’s hands. Then he must have seen it was the mountain pitching stones at him. He ran towards the sea bawling for help, ash and steam pouring out, lava trickled down and buried the crops and houses. Volcano came like that, and no one knew it spewed for days. He’ and he being Edie ‘explained how his mother died soon after, because her big heart was torn right. out of her. There was nothing inside to keep her alive. At 55 years old, she fell asleep one evening and didn’t wake up. It occurred to Eddie that he was talking to Tito like he hadn’t talked to anyone in years. It felt good, like putting down a heavy suitcase he’d been carrying. Mother was full of tears, nothing worse than dying when you’re alive. I’m glad in some ways she’s gone.’ And then he kind of goes on to say, ‘Well, no, that’s not really true. A day didn’t pass when he didn’t think about his mother Tito listened and nodded, dying while you’re alive is a terrible thing. A lot of people live like that. He told Eddie, he was brave, you’re a fighter, you’ll do okay? Most people live their lives like a sentence. You know what you want. And I’m sure you’ll get it. And he goes on to say I know what I want. I died twice and talks about that. But I mean, that is just filled for me with such insights that so many people do live their life like a sentence. And there is nothing worse than a living death where you’re not doing that. I do love that line.putting down a heavy suitcase he’d been carrying. And you know, that’s about the importance of sharing and speaking with others, the weight of whatever it is that’s weighing you down instantly becomes lighter. It’s a wonderful piece. I hope I’ve kind of interpreted it.
Amanda Smyth 04:21
Yeah, no, that’s exactly right. And I think that is probably at the core of the book. You know this. It’s about being alive. It’s about reaching for things and in some ways it’s about overreaching because they don’t they go for something bigger than they can handle all of them in their own way. Yeah. over reaching Eddie is very much about feeling alive and being alive and seizing your life and making something of it.
Dr Sabina Brennan 04:44
Yeah, and interesting in that passage. He goes on to explain that he died twice once malaria and the other time…
Amanda Smyth 04:51
in a plane crash.
Dr Sabina Brennan 04:52
Yes, I knew it was something very dramatic. And I think that’s also really interesting. You know, again, from speaking to people and reading about people who survive and thrive in life. It’s rather unfortunate. I think there are some amazing People that I have come across who have had something devastating happen from the brain injury, to going blind, to tragically losing all family members, to suddenly find a purpose and a meaning. And they grab life by the balls for want of another phrase. And I always think it’s somewhat sad. It’s amazing that people, and they’re the survivors, that’s generally how people survive these terrible things. And as humans, we’re very adaptive, and we have that capacity. But what strikes me is the sadness that we have to wait for something terrible like that to happen.
Amanda Smyth 05:41
Yeah. And we think we have time, we think we have so much time and we don’t we don’t have that time. You know, it’s when something like that happens. And you think, Oh, my God, we don’t have all the time we thought we had and then it’s now we have to seize the day. Seize the day
Dr Sabina Brennan 05:54
Yeah. And I wish I say it over and I’ve said it lots of times, I’m at the age where I’ve lived longer than I’ve left to live. And thankfully, I see that as a positive a little spur to kind of go, go on girl, you got to go for it. You make the most of it. I just wish we understood that at an earlier point in our lives, that we kind of appreciated what we have. so Fortune Amanda Smyth is a fabulous read. It is set in Trinidad, as I believe Well, your other books are Tobago. Trinidad.
Amanda Smyth 06:22
they’re set in that in that region. Yeah, I put my characters in both places. And it’s a place that I’ve loved and wanted to write about.
Dr Sabina Brennan 06:28
So I should explain then to listeners, you have a very strong connection with Trinidad, your mother was Trinidadian. And I read one of your interviews and you said that your mum took you to Trinidad for long summers when you were a child. And in one interview I read and I thought it was really quite interesting was that every time you arrive in Trinidad, it’s like coming home, but when you’re there, you still feel like an outsider.
Amanda Smyth 06:56
Yeah, no, that’s very true. I felt like almost as if when I live here. So I think when I was young before I found my tribe, you know, I was living in Yorkshire, which Yorkshire is a wonderful place, but I never felt much of a sense of belonging or I didn’t have any family there or really, friendships grew, but they weren’t people I stayed in touch with. So it was a bit like living in black and white, you now, and then when I arrived in Trinidad, it was Technicolor,
Dr Sabina Brennan 07:22
Amanda Smyth 07:23
Everything was alive, and everything was lit and everything was saturated with color. And big things seem to come from that place. For me my strong relationships with family and the landscape itself really affected me, I found it, it moved me
Dr Sabina Brennan 07:39
you do write about it, like throughout the book. And there is that sense, in every scene of the country teeming with life, every part of it, the soil the ground, this is around Eddie hopes to find his fortune drilling for oil. So there is not this passive drilling the land, the ground, the earth fights back in certain ways. It’s almost like a tug of war And there’s a lovely weaving of different cultures within Trinidad. So as I said, At the start, I had very little knowledge of Trinidad and so I went and educated myself a little bit more about the indigenous populations which was, I believe, the Caribs and the Arawaks. But now you really have like a third of the population stems from the East Indies, and about a third from African descent, and then the rest very much mixed. And I love that you said a few moments ago that Trinidad is Technicolor, often it’s called the rainbow country because it has such a diversity of demographic cultures, religions, and tell me do they all live harmoniously? No, this is a podcast and you can’t really see faces, but there was a raising of the eyes and an opening of the mouth. But I’m curious and I’m putting my hands up to my ignorance. So I would imagine there’s poverty, economic divides,
Amanda Smyth 09:03
as you know, kind of rich and poor. It is very complicated place because on the surface of things Trinidadians just get on with everybody. You know, they do seem to have a they’re a harmonious people. They are religious people. They have strong faith. For whatever their beliefs are, it is in some ways it’s a very united country in some ways, and in other ways. They’re also very patriotic. So when you get trinnies who live, I call them trinees you know, you get trinees in in England who get together, you know, there’s a real strong connection and bonding. You know, I met a Trinidadian friend this morning, hearing that accent, just getting into that kind of everything is easy, cool, breezy, you know, there is a sense of it being very laid back. And they all kind of laid back people in some ways, but there are….. politically there’s a very strong black leadership, and then a strong Indian leadership.
Dr Sabina Brennan 10:03
And so they’d be like, the two majority groups by 33% in each.
Amanda Smyth 10:06
Yeah, and 1%. White, you know, there’s a real mixing now, I think, when I was growing up, there was a sort of the whites probably kept more to themselves. Now, I feel there’s much more of a kind of mixing in of people, but there is a strong, there’s a lot of poverty there to some very wealthy people. There’s a lot of corruption. So you know, I don’t always feel so safe there.
Dr Sabina Brennan 10:30
Right. Okay. And you do you actually have written about that in one of your other books..
Amanda Smyth 10:35
A Kind of Eden
Dr Sabina Brennan 10:37
Yes. And it’s… was it a friend of yours, or a relative of yours was attacked?
Amanda Smyth 10:41
Yeah, we have that in our family. So my great grandfather was murdered,
Dr Sabina Brennan 10:45
he was murdered. So that’s what you’ve used for the topic of your first novel, Blackstone, which I like, there’s so many things. So your first novel was recommended by Oprah as one of her reads, which just is incredible in itself.So that’s incredible endorsement. How did that make you feel? First of all, because this was your first novel,
Amanda Smyth 11:06
that was my first novel, that was it. So it was an Oprah Winfrey summer read,
Dr Sabina Brennan 11:09
Amanda Smyth 11:11
It was one of the 25 books you can’t put down for that summer. Which was great. And it was. And it was also at the time it shortlisted for the, you know, outstanding literary work for the NACP, which was things you know, because I’d probably never write that book. Now, for all kinds of reasons. It was a mixed race voice. It’s appropriation.
Dr Sabina Brennan 11:31
I do find that very, very interesting. I mean, that’s what writers do, full stop, they appropriate other people’s stories, they have the gift to tell, and even if they do make mistakes, or tell things in a different way that starts a conversation.
Amanda Smyth 11:48
Yeah, I agree with you to a point but i think you know, I’m doing that from a place of privilege. You know, I’m doing a very different place than that and I can in some ways, you know, I used to work as an actor. in terms of inhabiting another character, you know that that’s what you do as an actor, but I can see that I wouldn’t choose to do that in writing a novel from that,
Dr Sabina Brennan 12:07
Amanda Smyth 12:08
if somebody mixed race I don’t think I have any right Actually, I wouldn’t feel good about it. I still stand by the book because I think it’s well written and of its time it was you know, was a strong piece of work. And I felt that I had all the ingredients and the right at that point in my life to write about that because it’s about displacement. It’s about a young woman who didn’t really know where she belonged. It was about the way she used her beauty as a kind of currency, it’s written in the first person so I think that if I wrote that in third person now it would be acceptable,
Dr Sabina Brennan 12:48
Amanda Smyth 12:49
And I got into some discussing this recently with a friend who said that there was a when I wrote A Kind of Eden, you know, the way that I described some of the characters who weren’t white, and you know, I was describing them in a way that wasn’t generous, or I got slated for that.
Dr Sabina Brennan 13:06
I just wonder how can we explore issues? How can you write about a fiction character, if all your fiction characters have to be politically correct? Because we don’t have a world where everybody is politically correct. So in order to even highlight those issues, you have to have a character who’s not politically correct. You have to have a character who describes people, disingenuously, in this book Fortune, you have people from all callings and walks of life. And if you’re writing from a voice perspective, you have to give that character’s perspective not yours. And you can put caveats in all the time.
Amanda Smyth 13:41
But I think that’s also to do with the reader. I know when I wrote this book, I was very mindful of something that the editor said to me when he initially read it. He liked it. But he said that it’s almost as though I’d written it in a colorblind way, right? Because the characters that weren’t the non whites, so the Grace character who becomes Eddie’s helper, yes, made that a call them a maid at that time, but she was much quieter when I wrote her. And I was also very mindful of, even though I understand and can, I think reasonably well, I can write the dialect. But I wrote it in sort of straight English because I was worried about getting it wrong. So okay, been very careful. And, and he said to me that you have to, and it was very helpful, because it was almost a sort of story where those voices needed to be heard a bit, and I had to do it with some sensitivity. So I wrote the Indian character, the Changi character, I really, I read around some strong Caribbean Indian authors, and tried to kind of really get that, right. It’s a minefield i. So I did get that right, I think in the end, and I was very careful, I was careful with all the black characters that like, I just had to be really sensitive. But what we’re dealing with right now, and there is a conversation to be had, because we’re even talking about that now. You know, that that I got it right? That there’s no controversy here. And I haven’t had any backlash. There’s been no trouble. But you know, even my agent, my own agent said to me, you’re going to have a job getting this published in America, and you probably won’t get it done, because no one will be interested in reading a book about the Caribbean by a white writer. You’re going to struggle. And I expected some even now expected some kind of backlash. And it hasn’t happened.
Dr Sabina Brennan 15:30
It’s interesting I alluded to the fact that your own life story influences your writings and the choice of the subjects that you write about. and your mother was Trinidadian, your father was a jazz musician from Sligo. And you grew up in the UK holidayed a lot in Trinidad. And so that impacts hugely on your sense of identity. And what I think is interesting is that you spoke about kind of alluding to, you’re talking to your Trinidadian friends that you just met up with how they’re fabulous. And you know, their very particular spirit. And what I was thinking at the time was you were saying that, you know, we have a huge diaspora of Irish people across the globe. And what I found my own siblings left and went to live in the States. And I remember thinking, I literally lived 400 yards from where I grew up, I travelled for work, but I have not. I have not explored the world. My parents are both Irish, I’m going back very long way. I mean, one set of great grandparents did emigrate and spend time, you know, live in Argentina, around the time of the famine, but then they came back, so I’m very Irish, true and true. So that part of my identity I’ve never sort of struggled with and I actually don’t see it as a huge part of my identity. I don’t particularly see myself as an Irish person. I’m more into the humanity of people and connecting with people. It’s easy for me to say because I have no conflict of identity. And what I have found with a lot, and I am generalizing here, so forgive me, but I certainly found it in my own family. But as soon as Irish people move abroad, they become more Irish than the Irish themselves. And it’s a sense of identity comes in, I would imagine that happens with trinidadians, with people, you know, across the globe. And so I was very conscious, sort of going into reading this book of my own biases, my own stereotyping of trinidadians. And I think we all have that. And I think that books like these are fabulous. That’s why I love them. They helped me explore and highlight my own biases that I may not have time to just oh, I read about that culture. But because I’m reading this book, I go, Oh, I didn’t know that. Oh, I must read a little bit more. And I think that does really well. Anyway, talk to me a little bit about your identity. And your rather, I suppose it’s a colorful kind of beginning in life really isn’t. Your mom came to university in
Amanda Smyth 17:57
she came to boarding school in Dublin which people did you know, in those days, you sent your children away. And you may not see them for some time they come back home as
Dr Sabina Brennan 18:08
when are we talking about in terms of your mother having come to boarding school in Ireland?
Amanda Smyth 18:12
I guess she would have come there in 1960.
Dr Sabina Brennan 18:16
Amanda Smyth 18:17
So she went to boarding school in Dublin, and I think she was not thriving in Trinidad. I think she was quite naughty. So my grandmother would have wanted her to come here and maybe get the nuns to straighten her out a bit.
Dr Sabina Brennan 18:29
Yeah. And obviously, I mean, just the fact that she’s been sent to boarding school. She was from a relatively well-off family.
Amanda Smyth 18:36
I mean, I think they were okay. They weren’t particularly well off. They were okay. But they did travel, you know, so they had enough money to travel. I think my grandfather who worked on the oil refinery in Trinidad, he had a certain number of trips, I think, or passages that was part of his salary was Yes, to England. Every year on the boat on the ship. Yeah. So he would, they would have done that. But then she came to boarding school and she was there. But only in the summers. Could she go home, so she would go with her friend to slideshow during the holidays. And that’s where she met my father. My father who was 10 years older than her.
Dr Sabina Brennan 19:13
Right? And so she was only a teen.
Amanda Smyth 19:16
Yeah. So she was 16, 15, 16 when she met him.
Dr Sabina Brennan 19:20
So he was 25 / 26. Again, something that would be hugely frowned upon now.
Amanda Smyth 19:24
Yeah. And then she married him at 18 and persuaded my grandmother that that was the right thing for her. They came over and they went to Sligo and they saw her get married and wished her well and she stayed in Sligo town, you know, lived above the chemist, her father in law’s shop, and she lived there with my dad. But of course, she started to miss home before the Irish weather got to her.
Dr Sabina Brennan 19:51
I’m not surprised in Sligo
Amanda Smyth 19:54
so she would go home, but you didn’t really just go for a couple of weeks, you know, you go for a few weeks, which were then an entire months. And then she stayed longer and longer, longer. And I think she found you know, she’d had my grandmother would whisk her up, take the children off her and you know, she’d have help at home. So my mom could just go to the beach and go to the pool or
Dr Sabina Brennan 20:14
a young woman again, a young mother, I suppose you know, it wasn’t that unusual to be married at 18 back in the day.
Amanda Smyth 20:22
Sometimes I stop and think that my mother’s missed so many moments of my life, because she went to live there again when I was just 17. So she went back after living in England for a chunk of time. And in fact, her story was Tito’s, you know, I use that in the novel where I describe the shape of the island, you know, being like the tiger skin. That was actually my mother when she was…. I remember. She was living in England. She was quite unhappy here. And she went see a handwriting expert. You know, these people who can interpret your handwriting?
Dr Sabina Brennan 20:54
Yes, yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah,
Amanda Smyth 20:55
let’s see this person. She You know, my mom’s good fun, you know, she’d be up for doing something like that. She went along, and the lady who was interpreting looked at it and said, I cannot get anything from your writing anything at all, apart from this drawing of an apple core. And my mother said, That’s not an apple core. That’s a map of Trinidad.
Dr Sabina Brennan 21:12
Oh my goodness.
Amanda Smyth 21:13
And then you know, so she was always in her to go back, wanting to go back and stay and stay and stay. And so when I was 17, I just turned 17. We were there on holiday and she just didn’t come back.
Dr Sabina Brennan 21:24
So this is something I wanted to ask you. But just to backtrack for our listeners. So your mum met your dad who was a jazz musician at 18. They married obviously she was homesick he was traveling a lot and decided that family life wasn’t for him. So the marriage didn’t work out. So your mom then moved with you and you have a sibling,
Amanda Smyth 21:43
Dr Sabina Brennan 21:43
Dr Sabina Brennan 21:44
and over to the UK and so you did the bulk of your growing up in the UK, so she’s only about 25 at this point, and then rather strikingly, as you said, well, all I had read now I understand you went to Trinidad and she didn’t come back. So I had read it as your mum went back to live in Trinidad And so what I wanted to ask you was, did you have a choice in that matter? Was there an option for you to stay in Trinidad? Did you actively choose that you wanted to go back to the UK? What way? Did that work? Clearly your mom in her head, because she was so independent at 16 obviously figured, well, you’re old enough now?
Amanda Smyth 22:20
Yeah, yeah, the baton gets passed on, you know, and it’s right. And I think I was quite grown up. And she had me at 22. So we have a good relationship. We’re like friends,
Dr Sabina Brennan 22:30
Amanda Smyth 22:30
was a young mum and I daughter, so we’d go shopping and do nice things together. And I think I was probably quite grown up for her. Her sister lived in England. So her sister lived in Leeds. And I knew that I wanted to do my A levels at an A level college. So I said to her, I’m going to be going to do that. And I will stay with your sister while I do those A levels. And she was kind of well, you know, I don’t really want to come back. But she didn’t really talk to me about it
Dr Sabina Brennan 22:58
Wow. So you made the decision, and you made the arrangement that you would make you would stay with the aunt who is described as a very liberal and so how did that play out? Did that make you more mature? Or did it make you take advantage?
Amanda Smyth 23:14
I liked having freedom, but I think my aunt was she wasn’t maternal, right? Not particularly nurturing. She’s much more she’s got older she is but you know, she had her own challenges. I mean, she was gay. You know, at that time, that was quite difficult.
Dr Sabina Brennan 23:29
Amanda Smyth 23:30
Yes, When I was young, I remember I was about 13. And when we used to go and see her again, she was only 16 years older than me.
Dr Sabina Brennan 23:30
So would she have gone to boarding school with your mom
Amanda Smyth 23:40
different boarding school
Dr Sabina Brennan 23:41
But did she go to boarding school in the UK?
Amanda Smyth 23:43
Dr Sabina Brennan 23:45
Amanda Smyth 23:46
Yeah. She was a high achiever. And she was my mum’s baby sister. And they were very, very close. So my brother and I, when we were little in Ireland, she would come over from boarding school, and they would just have a nice time. And we were very close to her. You know, I’d see her a lot when we lived in Yorkshire.
Dr Sabina Brennan 24:03
So you were her family when she was so far from Trinidad. So Easter holidays, Christmas holidays, those things were developed and spent? Yes, your mom and you.
Amanda Smyth 24:15
And she was impressive. You know, she rode a motorbike. I mean, she, Ali, she was very fine boned and slim. And so she’s not sort of doesn’t look big and strong. But she’d had a big match. Like, you know, I remember when I was about 13 going to her house one day, and she said, I went into the kitchen, and she one of her friends was there. And it was a very sort of quite hippie dippie kind of liberal. And she was quite political, much more so than my mother, and a real feminist. And this woman was typing in the kitchen. And the woman said to me, what’s your name? And I said, my name is Amanda. And she said, um, what do you want to do when you grow up? And I said, Well, I don’t, I don’t know. But I want to be an actress. Okay? And she looked at me in a sort of shadow must have passed over my face. And I said, but I’m worried that I won’t be very good at it. And she said, Well, if you’re not good at it, you probably won’t want to do it because we tend to not like doing things that we’re not good at.
Dr Sabina Brennan 25:09
That’s very astute.
Amanda Smyth 25:10
Yeah, it is very astute and she was spot on. Now, that woman was Jeanette Winterson. She was typing up Oranges are Not the Only Fruit.
Dr Sabina Brennan 25:17
Oh my goodness.
Amanda Smyth 25:18
And I didn’t really know who she was at the time. But my aunt had people coming through her house that were interesting, that challenged me, you know, she would always challenge me, which meant that she wasn’t necessarily the kind of mum that would wrap you up in blankets and make you feel safe and yummy. And baking cakes, you know, she would tell me to go and travel and do things and push me to be adventurous. In a sense, she was really good for me and I adored her but I think in those years when I was 17 It was tough not having my mom I didn’t have that safe mommy place. You think when you’re that age that you’re old and you could do anything
Dr Sabina Brennan 25:55
Yeah, but then something happens and the first thing you want I mean all you need is a bout of diarrhea and you want your mom
Amanda Smyth 26:02
You want your mom mum and I think as my aunt thought of me as being sort of more like a friend that when I did I remember once crying you know after Christmas just like you know wish my mum wasn’t so far away because you’d have one phone call, it would be 60 pence a minute to phone Tinidad
Dr Sabina Brennan 26:19
This folks is way before mobile phones and I remember when my own siblings emigrated to the United States You know, it would be a phone call a week and that there was a delay on the line and it was just really impossible to have any sort of meaningful conversation because you kept echoing and talking on top of each other.
Amanda Smyth 26:37
Wait for the letters, the blue Airmail letters I remember once getting upset and my Aunt said to me, don’t make your mom feel guilty. And I remember thinking but she’s my mom, you know and and now I have a nine year old You know, that I cannot imagine at 16 being that far from her, you know, but because I guess, as you said, you know, my mom had been a far from her mother at 16 and had become a mother very young in 19. She didn’t really see it in that way. And I thought look, you know, I was full of it. You know, I was like, Oh, I’m fine. I’m cool. But actually, I wasn’t.
Dr Sabina Brennan 27:10
So you had this, your mum gone? Did you make 10 contact with your father at all? Or was he just gone out of the picture or it and
Amanda Smyth 27:16
he was nearby? I mean, he was around,
Amanda Smyth 27:19
was he in the UK?
Amanda Smyth 27:20
Yeah. And he lived. I mean, there’s a certain point where we lived about 15 minute walk from each other’s houses, which was great. So he was there, but he was just not a father that, you know, he wasn’t my idea of a good father. You know, he was a rebel. You know, he was a bit of a hippie. He didn’t want responsibilities. Particularly, he was free spirited. You know, it wasn’t even about what he could give me. I remember when I was in my 20s. And I’ve been living in New York for a while I got back to England and I, I called him and I said, I don’t even have keys for your house. You know, I don’t even have a set of keys to get in your house. You know, you haven’t given me a home. Yeah. He sent me the next day keys to his house,
Dr Sabina Brennan 28:04
he probably just never even entered his head,
Amanda Smyth 28:06
never entered his head. But what it meant was that neither myself or my brother had a place that we could feel. And your brother stayed here in the UK. Yeah. So we could go back to that we could leave our stuff. If we went on a trip. Yes. Where we knew we could have Christmas where we knew we could return, you know, where we could you
had no home? inosanto home in that way.
Dr Sabina Brennan 31:40
And when your mother went and stayed in Trinidad, did she live with her family? Or did she have a home there? Or was it ever made clear that this will be your home?
Amanda Smyth 31:49
Yeah, no, she absolutely did. And then, you know, she did meet somebody who she’s still with, you know, who’s she’s been with for 30 years, who she’s happy with? And absolutely, she gave me, she would always always might, her home is my home. There have been periods of time when I’ve gone back and lived with her again, right? Um, I’ve had three years or two years of living back in that place again. But I think when I looked back and said, probably really terrible kind of basic psychology, but I can see where the holes would have been in the early years, that later there’s a price and those holes, I have to go back and fill them however I can. Where I may have slipped through. And you know, you find your tribe, don’t you? You know, at some point, I found my tribe,
Dr Sabina Brennan 32:33
you said that twice. So who is the tribe that you have found now,
Amanda Smyth 32:38
all I think I was quite lucky there when I was 18 / 19, I found a small group of friends that were very, you know, strong, I’m still in touch with them now. And that just when I was doing my levels, and they were very kind of interesting crowd. Then when I moved to London, I then found another group of people, again, through acting and through other things I’ve and those people are still in my life. So I think people who will have a strong connection with them, perhaps who were a bit lost as I was, you know, who had similar precarious beginnings and found their way.
Dr Sabina Brennan 33:13
yeah, do you think that because you lack those foundations, it actually makes you treasure and value and nurture friendships more carefully, than somebody who perhaps has a secure background. And so they become your family, your family are those who you live with. And I know I even have one friend who, every year I say to him, you know, he says, Oh, I will spend Christmas with his family. Now his mom is still alive, and he has siblings, but as a gay man who’s now in his mid to late 60s, where being gay was criminal in his early youth, his family are his other gay friends. And they spend Christmas together because so many of them had families who rejected them, etc. So they have become their family. And I think that’s kind of a really interesting perspective. Personally, I’m completely alienated from my blood relatives, I have absolutely no contact with any blood relatives other than my own children. And that’s good for me. So I do think it’s interesting, you know, when I come across, it’s a choice I wouldn’t have liked to make but it’s a choice that I came to a point in time where I go, okay, for my family, for my health. This is the only way that this can work. And it has worked very well for me. And then there’s other people Lemn Sissay, was a guest on the show. He spent his whole life searching to find out who his mom was. And I had a sister in law whose mom died when she was three and the father didn’t know what to do with the children. So he put them all in a home at school and went to the states to send money back. And I remember her saying to me, I thought there was nothing worse than having no parents and then I met your family however perfectly middle class, you know, from a socio economic perspective, it all seems perfectly fine, but it actually wasn’t. So I think probably books and things like that. And films, they can put forward this myth that everybody has perfect families. And that’s the best way to grow up. Or else they can actually open the door to and provide comfort by sharing those other kinds of stories. And that’s what I love about podcasting is that, while we can chat about your book, we can really explore everything more because I’m always interested why writers write certain things, I want to come back to your acting at some point on what you did until you eventually became a writer. You based your central character, on your great grandfather, who was an investor in the original dome oil well, which really is ultimately a tragedy that this book belongs to. So obviously, that was your mother’s granddad. Yeah. And I’m interested to know, so how far back does your heritage in Trinidad go?
Amanda Smyth 35:58
I think that probably from the about the 1850s. So there would have been a kind of, there was a Scottish contingency. So the Scottish I think that he was from barrack would have come, I think in 1840 or sometime around there. And then my grandmother was Portuguese. So there was some Scottish, Portuguese, French. So my mother’s mother and father, both for Nadia and their parents were Trinidadian, and then I think it would have one was anyway, some came from the Caribbean. And then before that, they came from France, a real mixture, but the character that I based this on was Tito is based on my great grandfather, who they called him Allah, the his nickname was Allah because he thought he was God, you know, he was a real entrepreneur, and he was quite successful, had a supermarket had the hotel, he was a very good business mind. And he did well for himself. But he did put money into this, you know, at the time there all these exploratory
Amanda Smyth 36:58
Amanda Smyth 36:59
down in the south for now, so he put some money in there. And on the night of the dome explosion, he was out of town. So he missed it. So otherwise, he would have been there and he would have died. You know,
Dr Sabina Brennan 37:11
it’s interesting, the evolution of this book, you wanted to write about an explosion, and you were looking at the seven seven bombings in London, and then your mom told you this story. And so yet again, then you were drawn back.
Amanda Smyth 37:29
Yeah, yeah, that’s right. And she, because her partner, it was his uncle was also very involved in the dome. And there was a connection, then again, they were family members who were lost in the fire. So right.
Dr Sabina Brennan 37:44
So this is very close to home. Really? Yeah, there was
Amanda Smyth 37:47
these personal connections, and they’ve been character started to what I don’t know about them, I would then imagine the writer does, you know, you kind of build a story around an idea of somebody and then I start to imbue them with all kinds of characteristics. And then they become real to me, I guess they were. I had a few of them in place. And I was working also on if I had a photograph, which I’ve used in is actually included in the back of this book. Yes, there’s some photos in the back of the book is a woman walking with a man with a white hat and a white suit. So he is my great grandfather, in fact, right. And the woman next to him is his daughter, but I kind of when I was writing it, I imagined him to be Tito. And I imagined her to be ADA. That’s where I began writing the ADA sections from that photograph face.
Dr Sabina Brennan 38:35
Yeah, it’s fabulous. You know, and it’s interesting to see that process about how it’s just a little germ of an idea. I mean, I wonder where your idea dries, basically, an explosion came from the nose. That’s the one that just kind of exploded into your consciousness. So you alluded to it there that you had made friends through acting. So you’re 17 1617 you do your a levels. You’re living with an aunt, you’ve no sort of Central home, where do you go to next? What happens next in your life? Because it’s a long way until your first novel?
Amanda Smyth 39:09
Yeah, I mean, I think the other thing that even as I’m talking to you that occurs to me is that it wasn’t even so much what I didn’t have was and sometimes these things aren’t good, but I didn’t have a sort of father figure or strong directive force in my life. I had nobody guiding me particularly so my aunt would sort of trust me that I knew what I was doing and didn’t want to interfere too much. So the age of I did my a levels in English and drama, and then I applied for drama school, and I got in but then I couldn’t get a grant.
Amanda Smyth 39:43
Which drama school.
Amanda Smyth 39:44
It was the academy live and recorded arts. Okay, which I wanted to go to because they did film. It was yes, that did film so
Dr Sabina Brennan 39:53
I joined a theatre company. And I traveled around Europe with them for about a year. And then I joined another theatre company who will becoming an equity company. So they gave me an equity card, which was the big thing
Dr Sabina Brennan 41:07
really important because there’s certain theatre houses etc. and films that you can’t work on unless you are a member of a union. But it’s one of those catch 22 things you can’t become a member of a union till you show that you have worked professionally as an actor. So as a starting actor, I remember they start it’s this dilemma, how do I get this thing you think it’s so huge to get your equity card, and then sure you think all the parts will flow?
Amanda Smyth 41:32
When I look back, I can see that I was quite focused. So I, I left, I was living in Yorkshire that time, and then I moved to London. And then I got bits and pieces. I then met and fell in love with somebody who was a he was much older than me, obviously looking for a father figure. You know, it’s so obvious, you know, and I was looking fro a father figure
Dr Sabina Brennan 41:52
know in hindsight, I presume it’s obvious, not all the time. Yeah. And
Amanda Smyth 41:56
at the time, he was a director, in fact, an underwater filmmaker, director, so he did lots of adverts for Do you remember those sort of British Gas swimming underwater? The baby swimming under? Yes, I do. Remember?
Dr Sabina Brennan 42:08
Amanda Smyth 42:09
Anyway, so that was his work. And at the time, I was going for lots of castings. I was doing commercials,
Dr Sabina Brennan 42:15
yes, which is bread and butter money for actors basically seeing
Amanda Smyth 42:19
that kind of thing. And then, and then there was a couple of jobs that came in, and he was quite controlling them, and really steered me away from there was a couple of big jobs that came in and I remember not doing them, you know, that I anyway, that’s another story altogether, but a very big character he was you know, and I think at the time, that was another sliding door moment where I was offered a big job, you know, an acting job, a TV job, and I didn’t take it because I thought it would sort of jeopardize the
Dr Sabina Brennan 42:48
Dr Sabina Brennan 42:50
Now you’ve got a taste, which is interesting. Now you’ve got a taste of what it’s like having parents who want to control your life and dictate your life. I think that’s rather interesting that you had this freedom that perhaps you didn’t see as a freedom you saw it as a no, I don’t have any support, I don’t have any. And then you go for this one where Oh my God, I’m totally constrained. And it’s so funny, you know, it’s a form of rebellion. You know, so after that, then what do you think sort of helped you sort of survive through these kind of years because you’re on your own you don’t really have you’re not totally on your own you have friends I suppose
Amanda Smyth 43:37
I had a very strong network of friends and I lived in Notting Hill gate I lived in a great flat with a friend you know, hardly paid any rent I had a really lovely few years of lots of just fun, great and by then I was sort of single and and then there was a certain point where I did a TV show. It was the bill I remember doing the bill and I did another TV show which is called all in the game. It was a TV drama, and I saw myself and I thought, oh my god, I am terrible. Doing this, I should not be doing this. I need to get some training. So I basically I left London and all my lovely friends and people and I went to New York to train I need to go and do some training. And I did I went and I learned you know I worked with a really good drama teacher and I did get better because I would get the jobs because I look good. But then when it came to doing anything now and again I did it really well but there were times when I just thought I should have gone to drama school Why did nobody tell me you know, everything on in instinct, and sometimes it worked
Dr Sabina Brennan 44:48
and sometimes that work but you do have done so so when I turned on drama school I had already trained from the age of eight with the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and I had a qualification as a drama teacher. So I’d been Learning about all of those things for my entire childhood really, and loved it and all the rest, but I want to spend all my time learning more and kind of doing it. And it does help to go to a drama school because that can give you work and jobs can spring from that.
Amanda Smyth 45:17
You get better at your craft. Yes, yes. Unlike writing, you can write without anybody and basically need, you know, a notebook and a pen to write and practice your craft. But with acting, you need to be
Dr Sabina Brennan 45:28
Yeah, yeah, you need to be working. I mean, you can practice scenes and stuff at home. But you learn so much. That’s why I did initially I did an awful lot of student films, to learn my TV craft because I was trained as a theatre actor, which is very different. They’re different skills. So your book is called Fortune. And I know there was something else on page 71 that I wanted to refer back to in the book. I thought it was a very astute comment is about Katherine. And it just says in those early days, she was tough in a way that people who are hurting sometimes can be. And I underlined because it just kind of went Oh, how true is that? And I wonder did life toughen you up early life? Did you know In that, no, it didn’t?
Amanda Smyth 46:13
I don’t think it did. And I don’t think it did. And I think I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve felt most of the people that I’ve had around me, I’ve managed to meet some very lovely people and been loved and been looked after, you know, in friendships and just today I said to somebody that I’m a softy, you know, he’s not hardened. And I know I haven’t hardened. And I’m glad that I yeah, that’s good. I think I’ve got stronger through this. I’m definitely haven’t got hard.
Dr Sabina Brennan 46:46
Yeah, strength and hardness are kind of two different things are just brettler actually. And you know, if that kind of breaks, then what’s behind, you know, whereas stronger, you know, something that can bend and flex with things. But you’ve said you’ve met some really lovely people. And given that the book is called fortune, and talking about chance. And face. You met your husband on a tube?
Amanda Smyth 47:09
I did? Yeah. We’d actually met each other many years before. In fact, when I was with the director, really? Yeah. When I was 24, I was only 24. And he had come to the house to talk to this chapter about working with him because he worked in the business as well. So we met them. And then we saw each other a couple of times after I’d broken up with this man. And you know, we liked each other, but we were offering different things. He went to film school and it was off. I went off to New York, and we lost touch. And it was by chance. I remember I had a hangover, and I was supposed to be at work. It was the 23rd of December and I thought I should get to work but actually my head was pounding and I thought I hadn’t vouching for Waitrose the shop to go for 25 pounds. And I thought I’m going to my answer, Christmas, same art. And I’m going to go and buy some Italian biscuits. I had it in my head that I wanted some Italian biscuits some you know those little round sort of amoretti to do
Dr Sabina Brennan 48:12
you were craving sugar after your hangover.
Amanda Smyth 48:15
So I jumped on the cheap and instead of going to the waitresses that I would usually go to which is in Marlboro, I went to a totally different one in Finchley road. So jumped on the train went up there got my tin of biscuits, a big red tin, ran down to get on the train. And a woman was trying to chat to me, she was kind of annoying. She sort of chatting in my ear. And as the train pulled up, I thought I’m not getting on that train with her because my head is hurting. And I ran down the track down at the end of the train jumped in the last carriage. I looked up and he was there. That’s mad. Yeah, it was mad. And I had a black hat on and I was wearing a black hat with a red question mark on it. So he saw the hat and he saw me and I was wearing a long green. It was a beautiful coat. Actually, it was an emerald green velvet coat. It was quite dramatic. Wow. And he looked at me and he put out his arms. And he said, I’ve looked for you know, yes.
Dr Sabina Brennan 49:09
Oh. Oh my goodness, my heart.
Amanda Smyth 49:15
He doesn’t remember it this way. But this is what I remember. It
Dr Sabina Brennan 49:17
doesn’t matter yourtruth is your truth badly.
Amanda Smyth 49:20
And then he came over and he gave me a hug. And then he said, we’ve got the train together up till Oxford Circus. And then he gave me his card and he said, Let’s speak later today. And we did and then that was that Really? Wow. How does he remember? He remembers it that I think I looked up and he said Amanda and I said Lee and that’s how he then came to write but he did say I’ve looked for you because he because he knew I’d been acting but I also had a different acting name. Ah rice you’ve been googling me but on on me and that, you know, it’s 2003 I guess you know those, but he had a photograph that he kept with me all those years. Wow. We’ve met And gone for a walk with friends and it was just him a knives this photograph and I also had the same photo. Ah, yeah,
Dr Sabina Brennan 50:05
there you go. So interesting. And so now, so you became a mum then at the other end of the scale to your own mum. And was that sort of by design or just the way life panned out that you met and fell in love later than your mom will say, or Yeah,
Amanda Smyth 50:21
I didn’t have even when I was with Lee, I didn’t have any interest in having a child at all right? My mum used to say, Oh, I hope one day you will experience what I experienced. And I think you’d be lovely my life just are Please go away. You know, I had no interest whatsoever. And then when I was 40, I just absolutely made a beeline for boots, and I wanted to buy folic acid. I just thought I have to have a child. It wasn’t even an emotional decision. It was a biological. It took my feet from London. I mean, it was so strong. And I came home with these mum to the tablets and I put them on the kitchen sink. And he came home that day. And he said, Do you think we should have a chat about
Dr Sabina Brennan 51:12
Amanda Smyth 51:15
And then he would have been okay without my thing without having a family. And then I think I was 40. And I thought I have to do this? Well, it was not negotiable. I ended to become a bit of an obsession, I think in the sense that I have a real white coat syndrome. So I was in any sort of medical procedures, I would just get very jittery very nervy around doctors. And I remember I was unpacking something and a box. I can’t remember how long I’ve had it. But I was looking through a box of papers. And I found this card that my aunt had given me the same amount, you know who’s been getting really all this time. And this card said every day. Do something that scares you. Yes, yes. Yeah, never remember that. So I picked up the phone that minute, picked up the phone and I rang the doctor and I said, I’d like to talk to you about fertility. Can I come and see you? And that was that. And within three years. I mean, it took three years I was pregnant, then I knew I wouldn’t have IVF I knew I wouldn’t do anything invasive. And then I was fortunate enough to get pregnant naturally when I was 43. And do you have a
Dr Sabina Brennan 52:18
boy or girl? Yeah. A girl. He’s nine. Wow. Wow. Lovely. I’ve talked to you for so long. Actually, the time just flies by but I can’t leave without because I’ve alluded to it so many times. I can’t leave without finding out when and how you then became a writer.
Amanda Smyth 52:35
Okay, I’ll try and make this quite tight. Yes. Yeah. So after being in New York, I felt quite battered. So I went back to Trinidad, which is what I did every year I go to Trinidad and I’d spend a month with my mum. And she’d always nurture me You know, when I went back she’d always give me the best you know, lots of fruit and really look after me encouraged me to rest. She’s brilliant like that my mom very, very caring and nurturing. So I went back typically to do this again to get fit to get brown to get feeling great. Come back to go for the castings that now I would had some training and a bit more confidence. Anyway, I got there and I was exhausted. And I stayed for a month. And then I delayed my ticket my state another month. And then I delayed my ticket. I said another month. Wow, I was sad. You know, I’d broken up with a boyfriend who was a kind of Irish boyfriend who drives, you know, take me back to Ireland a lot. And I was very, very sad. So I was probably slipping into a depression. And my mom was brilliant cuz she never said a word. She never said, When are you going? Your tickets expiring? Yeah, she just gave me the fruits gave me place to be and I stayed three years did you really, I stayed three years. And it was during that time I started writing. I had a laptop that somebody had given me to write some stories. And I’d always been writing I just started writing a bit more seriously. And around that time there was a guy who was running workshops in Trinidad creative writing workshops. He was a journalist, poet, creative writing teacher, and just a brilliant, brilliant writer. And he was running workshops, and my aunt came for Christmas. And she said, I think you should go to these workshops. There is about writing you should go. And as a gift, I’m going to pay for them v Oh, lovely. So Off you go. So I didn’t really want to do it. I think I was very down in the dumps.
Dr Sabina Brennan 54:36
And I asked you what kind of age you were at this point.
Amanda Smyth 54:39
I was not young. I was 28
Dr Sabina Brennan 54:43
at that young 39 Yeah, that’s still very young
Amanda Smyth 54:47
2829 and I went to the workshops and he was a brute. You know, he was a very direct, super smart, you know, he tore apart somebody his work in the group and I came out and I said to my mom, I am Never going again. He was such a brute. And when I went back the following week, and I said to him, whatever home would you give everybody, triple mine? Give me three times as much. So he said, Okay, so I would do the work. And then I would see him before class, and he would go through it. And he became my kind of mentor. Wow. And he sat across from me one day, and he said, Listen, kid, he said, you have the thing. Oh, wow. Now if you have the thing, you must use the thing. But you haven’t been using the thing. So in another few years, you think that you should get married, have a family, get your fancy car, get your matching towels, he said, but you know what you’ll do your mash it up, you’ll do it and your mash it up. And then you’ll get married again, and you’ll have a bigger car and a bigger house, you’ll have more kids. And then when your looks have gone and you’re in your 50s everybody will want to run from you at parties, because you will be annoying and exhausting. So I suggest that you buckle down and you use the thing, and you start working
Dr Sabina Brennan 56:05
very interesting. Now I don’t like what he said about being your 50s and nobody, or what he’s getting at is when I call it finding your joy, you know, you haven’t found your passion. So therefore you really have very little to talk about and you become very your world becomes very small. I do think that’s what a lot of us are suffering from in the pandemic in a way as well as not being able to
Amanda Smyth 56:28
do but the other thing he also gave you was what he said that in his mind. I’m not saying that he was completely right. But he saw me as a sort of wave that I was untethered. You know, I had no home I had no sense of roots and no sense of real belonging. So for him, he said, If you make the stories and your work, the thing that becomes your home Yes, that thing that will make you feel good and safe. It’s not a man it’s not a house. It’s not those things
Dr Sabina Brennan 56:59
from within you. Yeah, I think we found I was going to end by saying you know, what piece of advice would you give people on surviving and thriving in life? I think you’ve just done it there.
Amanda Smyth 57:10
You know, it’s about you know, making bounce strong this your core, isn’t it? I mean, people talk about exercise to get your core strong. But it’s there’s another core, you know, there’s Yeah, absolutely all as the, the central view that it’s not about the things outside, it’s about building that and making that strong so that you can then have your place in the world, you
Dr Sabina Brennan 57:28
have your place within yourself, I say it over and again, you got to lose yourself to find yourself. So I’m sure you lose yourself in your writing. And that’s actually when you’re most connected to yourself. And I think we do tend to look outwards far too much for happiness, and for reasons for living. And yes, having children as a reason for living, but at the end of the day, at the end of your life, there will always just be you. And that’s not a lonely thought. I mean, you can have all the other things. But if you have found something within you within which you connect, that can be a very fulfilling life. Thank you so much for speaking to me. I didn’t even get to talk to you about your wonderful relatives in Sligo. But it’s been a real pleasure speaking with you, Amanda, thank you so much. The novel is fortune by Amanda Smith. I’ve said this before as well. I love when I get to speak to other creative people whose work I’ve never come across before it because it’s wonderful. Then I have a back catalogue. It’s like discovering your own little treasure.
Thank you so much.
Amanda Smyth 58:32
Thank you for having me.