Jessica Andrews: ‘I didn’t feel like I deserved to speak’

The debut novelist on her struggle to open up literary life to working-class women, the north-south divide, and the intensity of mother-daughter relationships

Jessica Andrews was born in 1992 in Sunderland and has spent time living in Santa Cruz, Paris, Donegal and London, and is now based in Barcelona. She co-runs an online literary magazine, the Grapevine, which gives a platform to under-represented writers and artists. Her powerful debut novel, Saltwater, tells the coming-of-age story of Lucy, moving between Sunderland, London and Ireland, and explores identity in relation to place, class and the body. Author Daisy Johnson says the book “dares to be different, to look in a different way. Andrews is not filling anyone’s shoes, she is destroying the shoes and building them from scratch.”

So much of writing this book has been about “making space in places where there is not enough”, you note in the acknowledgments...
As a young, working-class woman, I didn’t have much space to say what I thought or to feel like I deserved to speak. Writing the book and unspooling experiences helped me to see my position in the world – it’s about trying to find your place. I haven’t read many contemporary working-class stories written by young women and writing the book has opened up spaces for me in that it’s given me a voice and a sense of self-worth. I wanted to open up space for other working-class women too.

How did the novel develop?
For a while, I wrote in a third-person voice and was trying to distance myself from the story – I felt my story wasn’t deserving and was afraid to write it. Lucy goes to live in Ireland in the novel and I also went to live in Ireland; I was in London working in cafes, bars, tutoring, then my grandad died and left this empty house in Donegal and I quit all my jobs and moved there as I didn’t have to pay rent and it was my chance to write a book.

The novel evocatively contrasts cities with wild landscape...
The west coast of Ireland is beautiful but I went there out of necessity; I wasn’t expecting to write about it. I guess it leaked in. I moved there from London, where I was feeling squeezed and shut out. I was nervous to go to Ireland but there was actual space to occupy – all those wild, empty beaches. Having time to think, read and write felt like such a freedom compared to how my life had been.

Did you draw on your own experience of a north-south divide?
Yes. Once I left Sunderland and went to London, going home was never the same as you change yourself to fit in, in ways like dialect and accent. I feel that the cultural divide is vast.

Did moving away give you the perspective to write about home?
Definitely. Something I’ve learned is that it’s hard to write about a place when you’re in it. You have to leave somewhere to have perspective. When I was in Ireland I mostly wrote the other sections and when I came to edit, my editor said: “You have hardly any description of Ireland.” A lot of what Lucy’s doing and I have done, is about searching for a home, for that feeling of belonging, but what I’m learning is that actually it’s not [necessarily found] in a place.

You write forcefully about the body throughout the book, particularly about the changes in Lucy’s body from birth through adolescence into adulthood...
I experience the world in an incredibly visceral, bodily way. I feel this is linked partly to gender; being a woman, you can never forget the fact of your body. Also, Lucy’s little brother is deaf in the novel and my little brother is deaf and I’ve been thinking how sign language is a language of the body. We see language and the body as separate things; what I’m interested in is, how you can write in a bodily way.

Mother-daughter relationships are movingly explored...
I feel the mother-daughter relationship has the same intensity as a romantic relationship – a really heightened emotion. You get some friendships like that in which the emotions are so strong; you can love them and hate them. I wanted to explore this. Writing the book was good as it meant I could ask inquisitive questions – I asked my mum to write me an account of what it was like to have a baby with a disability. We were able to spend time with important questions. It’s about making sense of your position in the world.

The novel is structured in bitesize, poetic chapters. How did you find the right form?
For me, the only way to write about bodies is in a fractured, fragmented way, because that’s my experience of inhabiting a body; it’s something quite dissonant. I also wanted to create a sense of life happening to you if you’re someone who doesn’t have a lot of power. It’s non-chronological to create a sense of how experiences are existing in linear time but also all at once within the psyche.

What was your writing process?
I wrote the book in three separate strands: Lucy’s childhood to university, the Ireland strand, then the body strand. I printed it out, then physically cut it up. My neighbour was away and I had the key to their house in Ireland with a very big kitchen, so I spread the whole thing out on her kitchen floor and made little piles of themes that went together.

Why did you choose fiction rather than memoir, and did you feel any pressures as a woman writing autobiographically?
I feel there’s a lot more freedom in fiction, which is why I write fiction even though it’s autobiographical. With fiction, you can take an image or symbol further. You can shape things the way you want them to be. I hope people aren’t discouraged from writing autobiographically because there are so many things that are real and true that need to be addressed. As a woman, you’re conditioned to protect people and it’s important to be honest about the autobiographical elements as it’s breaking that cycle of feeling you need to protect people or don’t have the right to speak. I’m still overcoming that all the time.

What writers do you most admire?
My favourite ever is Eimear McBride – bodily writing is what I love to read as it speaks to me from a really deep place. People who write about theory in an accessible way – Maggie Nelson, Rebecca Solnit, Claudia Rankine. I love Adrienne Rich’s poetry.

What books are on your bedside table?
I read lots of poetry – the Rebecca Tamás collection, Witch, is brilliant. I’m also reading Raymond Antrobus, who won the Ted Hughes award. I really loved Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi and Peach by Emma Glass.

What books have stayed with you since childhood?
I was a very avid reader as a child. I loved Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree books. When I was a teenager I read Once in a House on Fire by Andrea Ashworth and loved it – it’s a working-class story and she writes so well about the ordinary.

What classic novel is overrated?
The classic working-class book is Down and Out in Paris and London and I really don’t like it. I did my MA in Paris and it’s ironic as I was down and out in Paris. There’s so much focus on poverty and it’s important, but it’s not just what class is about – it’s complex.

You co-run Grapevine magazine. What made you start it?
It’s to do with struggling in London. Me and my friend were feeling like we have so many talented, hardworking friends who are brilliant artists and it’s so difficult to have a platform; when you’re trying to make art and working lots of jobs and not getting anywhere, it’s so demoralising. Doing lots of DIY stuff with small presses really keeps you going and reminds you that writing is meaningful.

• Saltwater by Jessica Andrews is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£16.99). To order a copy go to or call 0330 33 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Anita Sethi

The GuardianTramp

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