Denise O’Hagan

Denise O’Hagan in conversation with Amanda McLeod

Amanda McLeod writes and makes art. She loves everything about creativity, which is why she is also Managing Editor of Animal Heart Press, and Art Editor at FERAL: A Journal of Poetry and Art. Short fiction and poetry hold a special place in her heart, but she’s also written a novel and desperately wants to learn the art of creative non-fiction. You can see her body of work on her website. Amanda’s ground breaking flash fiction collection Animal Behaviour is due from Chaffinch Press on July 3rd.

This article was originally posted on The Blue Nib.

Denise: Good morning, Amanda, and thank you for joining us. You write fiction as well as poetry, run your own publishing house and have a family, so the first question I’ll put to you is: How do you manage it all? 

Amanda: Hi Denise, thank you for having me! How do I manage it all? That is indeed a great question! I am famously organised, which I think helps a lot – my equal-in-command, Eli, is always in awe of my lists. I also don’t have a traditional nine-to-five – I have a child with additional needs, which means I need to be able to change course quickly if his support needs require it. I treat my creative work as my ‘full time job’ – I take it very seriously and guard my time. I think scheduling writing and artmaking into my day is important – it reaffirms its value to me, and also to others. I’ve also become adept at maximising the efficient use of my time. Recently I came across an amazing podcast series called Efficient Creativity, which has me looking at how I structure my days in new ways – I’ve learned a lot about how to allocate my mental energy to get the best from myself. Of course, the recent upheaval has resulted in my having to rethink my ‘normal’ and the balancing act is still a work in progress.

The one piece of advice I wish I’d received earlier, and which I now pass on every chance I get, is ‘take your creative work seriously’. Especially, don’t let other people write it off.

Denise:That’s excellent advice, and you obviously practise what you preach!Animal Behaviour is an impressive debut of flash fiction – a series of shortish stories melting the barriers between humans and the animal kingdom in a way that both delights and challenges. I am curious – what was your inspiration for this unique book?

Amanda: The very first story I wrote in this collection was ‘Bears Can Navigate In The Total Absence Of Anything Familiar’. That one was born (albeit, with a different title) in a Kathy Fish workshop (hi Kathy!). Once I settled on the animal I wanted to bring into the story, I did a little research and figured out the connection between the bear and what my character is experiencing. It came out in one massive stream and I think I only made a few tiny changes after that. Ellipsis Zine published it, and Steve Campbell nominated that story for a Pushcart Prize in 2018. The idea stayed with me and when Ellipsis Zine announced their themed flash contest in 2019, I thought I could write a whole collection around things animals do that are reflected in human behaviours. And that’s how Animal Behaviour was born!

Denise: I can believe that, as the stories run seamlessly. I particularly love their titles, and how they flow into the narrative that follows; for example, ‘A Shrimp’s Heart Is In Its Head’ or ‘Butterflies Taste With Their Feet’. How did you come by your impressive knowledge of such fascinating facts about the animal kingdom?

Amanda: I did a lot of reading and documentary watching. I established that I wanted to divide the collection into water, land and sky dwellers quite early on. Each time I learned something new I asked myself, ‘what might that look like in humans?’ I now have quite an extensive repertoire of animal facts in my head – if you need someone at a trivia night, I could well be the one you’re looking for! It helped, too, that my youngest child has an absolute obsession with non-fiction books. We read a lot of those together and it benefits us both.

Denise: Reading with children is wonderful, and helps us see things through their eyes. And now I would like to turn for a moment to poetry. Your prose is so fluid and poetic, that it will come as no surprise to your readers that you have published poetry as well. How would you characterise your style of poetry? 

Amanda: Poetry came to me when I had some ideas that weren’t working as fiction pieces. My poems tend to be free verse or quite loose in structure. The first traditional poetic structure I learned about was the sonnet, and I come back to sonnets and sonnetypes, but I do enjoy prose-style poetry and I’m starting to experiment a bit more with form as a way of adding layers of meaning to my words. I have some amazing poets at Animal Heart Press that I work very closely with and I feel like I learn something new every day. 

Denise: Yes, as writers, we are learning all the time, finding new themes and approaches.A love for nature is obviously a recurring theme in both your prose and poetry. Was this always the case, or did in grow in response to a particular experience?

Amanda: I love the quiet. I’m not a city girl. I’ve always loved the beach, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve found myself more and more drawn to the sound (or silence!) of nature. I’ll often listen to nature sounds when I’m writing – if I have anything with lyrics on, I just end up writing down the lyrics instead! I find water very soothing and love spending time near rivers, creeks or lakes – and fortunately, I live near a lot of them. A spot on the river where I can trail my legs in the water? Bliss.

A lot of the art I love is also landscape and nature art – I love Claude Monet’s impressionist landscapes, and some of Vincent van Gogh’s too. The art I make myself rarely contains buildings or manmade structures – perhaps I am averse to straight lines!

Denise: Well, as a friend once pointed out to me, there aren’t many straight lines in nature!Now, you published your first publication when you were thirty-eight; can you tell us about how you came to writing and publishing?

Amanda: I wanted to be a writer from a young age, but it wasn’t considered something you could make a living doing unless you were a journalist and that wasn’t the kind of writing I enjoyed anyway. I’ve always been an avid reader and knew fiction was the thing for me. I ended up with a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in English, but sidestepped into a career in the jewellery industry where I stayed until my children were born. 

When my first child was diagnosed with additional needs, I was drawn down a different path, studying child development and education so I could best support and advocate for him. I couldn’t escape the pull of books though – he was an early reader, just like I was, and I found myself fascinated by children and literature. I studied writing picture books, and was immediately drawn back to writing. I wrote some picture book manuscripts and just kept going – right on back to literary fiction! I tentatively sent out two pieces, and one was accepted by Sick Lit Magazine. The team there were so lovely and supportive of me as an emerging writer. I credit them with giving me the courage in those early days to back myself.

Fiction writing led into some poetry when I was wrestling with a particular idea that wasn’t working as a story – a poem was accepted by Elisabeth Horan, who was Poetry Editor at Anti-Heroin Chic at the time. After she published my poem, I reached out to her asking about what my next steps should be – study? Find a mentor? Eli graciously volunteered to mentor me herself and I was delighted! A few months after that, she asked me if I’d be interested in joining Animal Heart Press. I don’t even think I let her finish the question before I said ‘yes’. Now our press has had its first anniversary and we’re getting stronger every day.

Denise: That’s a huge achievement! You’ve mentioned that you’re ‘famously organised’, and I wonder, do you have you a particular writing routine or process for editing and polishing your work? 

Amanda: I did have a really solid daily routine, but events of the last year and a half (and especially the last few months) have really made me question it, and forced me to be more flexible. I’ve also been exploring my optimal creative state and how to achieve that more with the time I have. I struggle terribly with sleep but have looked at stopping fighting that, and embracing how I can make my natural pattern work for me.

I’ve found I have two optimal creative times – late morning and late-ish evening. I find I do some really good work after a gym session in the morning, when my blood is pumping and my brain is wide awake, so I’ll sit down from 11.00 and work solidly for a few hours. I usually start to flag around 1:30 so I try and take a nap or a walk, or do something that’s less intense. Then I’ll accelerate again in the evenings from around 7:30 or 8.00 and there will be another good burst of productivity again. 

As to editing – I find the most helpful thing is another set of eyes on my work! I think sometimes I’m so invested, or I’ve looked at it so often I can’t see what to do. I am a member of the most incredible writing group and I would consider them my secret weapon when it comes to editing my work. The other thing I find helpful (although I’m so impatient, it’s agony!) is to put something aside until I’ve forgotten it. Then, coming back with fresh perspective, things I didn’t see before become obvious.

Denise: Most writers benefit, at some point, from discussion and feedback. Who, or what, would you say is your main inspiration behind writing? 

Amanda: This is the toughest question to answer. I think I write because I can’t not. Even on my designated ‘days off’ I find myself scrabbling for a notebook or jotting things in my phone. I think in writing, I can make things up, explore flights of fancy, answer the difficult questions and try things out that would be impossible in real life. There are so many stories to tell and they’re absolutely everywhere. And no two people tell a story the same way. 

Denise: I understand. Few of us make a conscious decision to ‘start writing’ – writing finds us, perhaps.  I hope this question is more straightforward: Which other artists have exerted the most influence over you? 

Amanda: In short fiction, Kathy Fish is my benchmark. I’m so honoured she loved my book.

In novels? That’s harder to answer…I loved Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Avalon series when I was young, and Bryce Courtenay’s The Power Of One. I’m also a Jane Austen fan!

Contemporary poets whose work I aspire to include Elisabeth Horan, Beth Gordon, Courtney LeBlanc, and Christine Taylor. I am also currently learning from reading the work of some local poets – Paul Collis, Penelope Layland and Melinda Smith.

In art (and also a prolific love of nature), Monet and Van Gogh, and Peter Dombrovskis. 

Denise: What a wonderfully rich artistic tapestry! What books are you currently reading?

Amanda: I’m a member of a reading group, as well as a participant in a reading program for writers. So I’ve got quite a bit on the go! At the moment, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe, Marina Kemp’s Nighingale, Penelope Layland’s Things I’ve Thought To Tell You Since I Saw You Last, and Eunice Andrada’s Flood Damages

Please don’t look at my TBR pile, I think you can see it from space…!

Denise: Pleasures to come! Lastly, what advice would you offer to those starting out on their writing journeys?

Amanda: Take it seriously. Surround yourself with people who do the same – join a writers centre, a writing group. Seek out feedback. And develop a thick skin – feedback will make you better. Look for ways to improve. A good mentor is always helpful. Edit hard. And submit, submit, submit – guaranteed nobody will read it if it sits on your hard drive without seeing the light of day!

Denise: This is great advice at any stage, I must say! I’ve learned much in talking with you, as I’m sure our readers will too. Thank you so much for your time, Amanda.

Amanda: It was a pleasure!

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