Amanda has a PhD in biology; she’s also a literary novelist. The Breeding Season, her debut novel was short-listed for The Courier-Mail People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year Award, and she’s been awarded a Queensland Writers Fellowship for her next novel, Relativity. Please join us for a chat about her transition from science to writing.
How did a girl from Iowa end up living in Queensland?
I grew up in a small town in Iowa on the Mississippi River. I loved writing as a kid but became fascinated by science, so all my formal study was in science. After university, I left Iowa and travelled in South America, lived in Canada, and then came to Australia to do a PhD in 2004. I fell in love with the country immediately. Four days after I arrived, I met the man who would become my husband. Also a scientist, he worked in same research lab as me. We got together in 2005 and now have a 13-year-old daughter.
What field of science did you study?
I’m a biologist. For my MSc, I studied the choices that shorebirds make between staying to raise their babies or leaving on the migration south. My PhD examined the way environmental temperature affects the growth of tadpoles and the quality of the frog they become.
After I finished my PhD, I had a research fellowship from the Australian Research Council to study the energy invested in reproduction by northern quolls, marsupials that live in the tropical north. The males only live for a year – they die after the first breeding season. The females live two to three years, so they hold some energy back for their own survival. I wanted to explore the idea that what we give to our children affects how much we have for ourselves, and that’s where the novel came into being.
How did you come to start writing?
I was attracted to fiction and the freedom to explore prickly or challenging ideas in different ways. But it was a long process. I’m not exactly a patient person – I want to be good at something straight away – so learning creative writing was a challenge. I started taking classes in 2014 and just kept working at it. In 2015, I got my first story accepted for an online magazine (here’s the link for that story).
In 2017, I hit on the idea that became the novel. I’d been thinking about this trade-off between sex and death in northern quolls, but I didn’t find the right human character until I wrote the short story ‘Breeding Season,’ which won the VU Overland Short Story Prize (and here’s the link for that). Elise was a woman I wanted to write more about. But the idea of a novel was terrifying. The short story was only a few thousand words – how on earth does someone write the length of a novel? But I found her so interesting that I was willing to try.
How did you find moving from the objectivity of science to the subjectivity of creative writing?
I relished the challenge. The objectivity of science was always that square hole I was trying to fit into. I love the subjectivity of fiction and considering perspective. It’s important to contextualize science to make it real because otherwise it’s just facts and data. To me, this is a more true way of communicating science.
Can you please share the blurb for The Breeding Season?
The rains come to Brisbane just as couple Elise and Dan descend into grief. Elise, a scientist, believes that isolation and punishing fieldwork will heal her pain. Dan, a writer, questions the truths of his life, and looks to art for answers. Worlds apart, Elise and Dan must find a way to forgive themselves and each other before it’s too late.
An astounding debut novel that forensically and poetically explores the intersections of art and science, sex and death, and the heartbreaking complexity of love. The Breeding Season marks the arrival of a thrilling new talent in Australian literature.
Is Elise like you?
Elise is a scientist who works with the same animals I did, so in her work she’s like me. She has some other elements of me or my husband and my friends – I’ve created a living breathing person from everyone I’ve ever met. It was nice to begin with my own experience but still have the freedom to see the world through another person’s eyes. In the end, Elise and her husband, Dan, are very different from me.
Do you write fulltime?
In a way, I write fulltime, but most of my paid writing is as a grant writer and editor for academics. I’m working on my next novel and other stories and essays, and I teach classes and mentor writers online. My brain likes the variety.
I love what I do. In writing grants or fellowships, I end up using creative writing techniques to help people showcase their ideas and expertise. I get to work with different people and ask all about what they do and what it means, so I learn in a really organic way. I’m always looking for new ideas and new metaphors that I might latch on to.
Everything I do now makes me a better writer in one way or another, so when I have the time I can apply it in my writing.
Did your immigration to Australia influence your writing?
In the book, both the characters came to Australia from the US. They have different perspectives. Elise was born in Australia but her parents had an accident when she was about nine, so she moved from North Queensland to Iowa. I enjoyed paying homage to my origins. The people I went to school with who have read the book connect to those parts of the story. When Elise returns to Australia, she feels like she’s coming home.
Dan grew up in California and this is the first time he’s lived away from the US, so he doesn’t feel the same connection, which causes some friction between them.
For me, I’ll always feel an intense tie to the place I grew up, it’s inside me. My parents still live in the house I grew up in and when I go back to Iowa, I feel connected to it. But in terms of a place to live for the rest of my life and raise my daughter, I love Australia, and it does feel like home in an equal but different way.
Does your Masters in bird migration influence your thoughts about immigration?
I love using science as metaphor, so I’m drawn to the idea or using bird migration as a metaphor for my characters.
Do you have any tips for authors?
Now that I mix with more writers, I meet people who have always been writers and have been writing for 30 years. It’s important for me to remember that although my pathway wasn’t so direct, I haven’t been wasting time. Whatever experiences we’ve had, that’s where seeds of ideas come from. So draw from your journey, there’s so much value that will come out in your writing.
What can you tell me about Science Write Now?
Science Write Now is a website with the goal of promoting creative writing about science. Jessica White and I launched it with help from the Australia Council for the Arts Resilience fund. We want to encourage writers to write from a scientist’s perspective and vice versa. We’re focussing on poetry, craft essays, interviews, fiction and memoir. We’re seeking submissions, so check it out … www.sciencewritenow.com
My next novel is called Relativity. It’s based on physics, which is not my forte, so I’m very much out of my depth in the science, but I’m doing the research. It’s about a mother and daughter who are both at turning points. The mother has reached menopause. The daughter has just finished university and doesn’t know what to do next. She feels lots of pressure. These two women have trouble connecting even though they are much alike. The book explores how they resolve their relationship.
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Next time: meet Michael Cybulski, Literary Agent, New Authors Collective.