First novel breakthrough for former UEA student

It's thrilling to hear the Penguin empire is publishing your first novel, and tremendous to be among a bookshop chain's '11 debutants to watch'. It's been an amazing year for former UEA student Amanda Hodgkinson. STEVEN RUSSELL reports.

Dreams have a habit of marching to the beat of their own drum, however much we want them to move faster.

Nearly a decade ago, her imagination ablaze after an MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, Amanda Hodgkinson and her family upped sticks for the Midi-Pyr�n�es.

Thoughts of fiction were relegated to the backburner. 'When we moved, I had this idea — you know, I'll move to the south-west of France and sit in the sunshine and write a novel, but in actual fact we bought a really lovely old house that was just falling down and hadn't been lived in for about 10, 15 years. So I think probably the first four years I spent mixing concrete!' she reflects.

Writing wasn't totally squeezed out, though, amid the clanging, banging and squelching. Amanda wrote columns for France magazine and other publications. She taught English, turned her hand to waitressing and tackled flower-arranging and translation work, alongside the construction work and getting her daughters settled.

'Then, finally, I said 'I'm here for a reason. I really do have to get down to it.''

Fast-forward four years or so and Amanda's about to see her first novel published by Fig Tree, part of Penguin. In January she was named one of 11 new writers tipped for success this year by Waterstone's.

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Heady days, n'est-ce pas? 'It's taken me long enough, though, hasn't it?' she chuckles.

Amanda's first book is 22 Britannia Road, which examines how massive upheaval such as war changes people — sometimes dramatically.

At the end of the Second World War, Silvana and eight-year-old Aurek board a ship to England, where her husband is waiting. However, after years living wild in the forests – simply surviving, and also nursing a dreadful secret – Silvana is no longer sure quite who she is inside.

Meanwhile, in Ipswich, Janusz prepares to greet the wife and son he hasn't seen for six years. After fleeing Poland and the conflict – as a deserter – he has secured a home for his family. He's planted a lovely English garden to cheer them...and to take his mind off his own secrets.

The author has always been interested in the war, having grown up hearing the stories of people who lived through it – 'tales like 'This woman had a war baby and it was adopted'.'

'I've always felt a real empathy with that generation, and seeing how people coped. What you do when you're suddenly told you can go back to 'normal' – how you pick up the pieces – has interested me.'

Long ago, too, she heard a woman on the radio. 'She had a lovely voice and said that during the war 'we were so hungry we ate the bark off the birch trees'. She said she was humiliated by her hunger, and that really touched me and I wrote some poetry and just put it away. I think that must have been in my head for a long, long time. It (the story) sort of came out of that, really.'

After a few false starts, on other potential novels, she started on 22 Britannia Road, then. 'It felt like a story I had to tell.'

It's set in Suffolk because the writer loves the region, having spent much of her life here. It also has a significant Polish community.

'Living in France and writing it, I had a kind of mythical Ipswich in my head. I've never actually been to Britannia Road but the title, with its sense of place and pomp and circumstance for a foreign family, has a level of irony I really liked. It's a poignant address.'

Writing the novel took about three years, and then Amanda scoured Writers' & Artists' Yearbook to find an agent specialising in her kind of literature.

Her eye lit upon a Cambridge-based agent who represented, among others Annie Proulx (The Shipping News and more). Amanda signed with Sayle Literary Agency in the October and worked on the novel over Christmas.

In the middle of February it went out to prospective publishers and a couple of days later one made an offer, followed by another, and another.

In the spring of last year it went to auction – 'exciting and terrifying' – and was fought over by four big publishing houses. The

rights have also been sold for America – there's a promotional visit booked for May – France, Italy, Greece, Hol-land, Australia, Brazil, Romania, Spain, Germany and Israel

A second book is underway – 'going fine' – and is again set in Suffolk: about two families and human relation-ships.

t 22 Britannia Road is published by Fig Tree, priced �12.99.