The Spirit of the North 


Interview by Alice Beazer 

The Portico Library is a 213-year-old independent subscription library and exhibitions space in Manchester City Centre. Once described as ‘the Booker of the North’, The Portico Prize awards £10,000 to the book that best evokes the spirit of the North of England. Jessica Andrews has won the 2020 prize for her debut novel Saltwater; a story of self-discovery by a girl from Sunderland who heads to university in London, taking her northern roots with her. Alice spoke to Jessica about her coming-of-age novel, the writing process, and the challenges of working-class writers breaking into the (often elitist) world of publishing. 

“There is more freedom in fiction and that gives you power… You aren’t bound by the truth.” Image Credit Seth Hamilton 

First and foremost, congratulations on winning the Portico Prize. Did you anticipate that your debut novel would achieve what it has (so far)? 

Thank you. No, not at all. I am constantly surprised and moved by the ways in which small feelings or ideas that start inside of you have the power to go out into the world and do things. I write about class and gender often and try to interrogate what kinds of things we regard as worthy of poetry or ‘literature’ and winning the Portico feels like a real validation of that. 

What inspired you to start writing Saltwater? Given that Saltwater shares many parallels with your own life, why did you choose the format of fiction, as opposed to memoir?  

I was trying to write a novel for a while, but I was scared to tell my story. I kept writing around it; from a 3rd person perspective, at different points in time, at one point I even had a male protagonist – but it just wasn’t working. 

Saltwater came when I sat down and stopped trying to write a novel and started being honest with myself and writing what I felt like writing. The story rushed out of me with a kind of panic and urgency.  

It is close to my life but lots of parts are fictional – certain scenes or characters are invented. There is more freedom in fiction and that gives you power, especially if you are a person who doesn’t hold a lot of power in the world. You aren’t bound by the truth and you can manipulate things in order to show the world from your own perspective.  

I read that you wrote sections of the novel in Ireland – how did you begin the writing process? Was the idea there for a long time? And when you started writing, did you write to a strict routine? 

I am still learning my process, but I think it goes like this: I have a set of themes that I want to explore that are generally rooted in my own life. I write around the themes for ages, avoiding what it is I really want to say, over-complicating everything and trying to find the voice. Then there is this open, honest space that just feels right – and once I calm down and give myself a chance to find that, then it all comes quickly.  

In Ireland, the novel was the only commitment in my life, which was very good for focus. I worked on the first draft for about 7 months. I cycled to the library and wrote there for a few hours every day. I think having some kind of routine is important, but if you get too strict, trying to fulfil a certain number of hours or words each day, then it becomes restrictive and paralysing, as you are constantly letting yourself down. 

Your novel is split between three very contrasting locations – how do you go about evoking a sense of place in your writing? 

I think that in order to write about a place it is useful to be outside of it, because then you can see the whole shape of it. I didn’t really plan to write about Ireland, but it was so smoky and peaty and wild, and had such a looming power, almost like a character in itself, that it leaked into my writing. I actually edited the sections set in Ireland most when I had left it – because I could see it more clearly when I wasn’t there. 

Gallery including: 

Jessica holds the Portico Prize Award trophy – a unique piece of artwork entitled SCRROLLS by North West artist Barry Anthony Finan. Behind her is the Portico Library. Open to the public six days a week, it’s filled with exhibitions, unique book collections, archives that are centuries old and much more. Definitely well worth a visit! Image credit: Andrew Brooks 

Turning to class: as a writer, do you think the publishing industry deals with exclusion (in terms of class, and ethnicity, gender, etc) in the correct way – are things moving in the right direction? Is enough being done? What were the main issues you faced in accessing this industry? 

I really do feel that the publishing industry is pushing to give space to voices that aren’t often heard, but I think it is such a complex problem that begins much earlier than having written a book. It begins as early as childhood – the kind of dreams and education that are accessible to you.  

My novel got published quite quickly, but the process of being able to write it was much more difficult. I studied English Literature at university and had a difficult time – it felt very elitist and I worked lots of jobs to get by. I graduated and spent a couple of years working in bars and writing crap poems and feeling like I couldn’t do anything. My grandad died and I put his savings towards an MA in Creative Writing, which was through the University of Kent but the course was in Paris. I lived in an attic room with no shower and had to wash at the swimming pool down the road. I taught English in the mornings, cycled to my seminar, picked the 3 children I nannied up from school and looked after them for a few hours then cycled across Paris to make dinner for another 2 children.  

After my MA, I moved back to London and juggled bar, café and tutoring jobs. I wanted to write a novel, so moved to Ireland to live in the empty house my grandad left when he died – because I wouldn’t have to pay rent. It is very remote, and I can’t drive. I had about £200 saved up from my bar job. I tutored a local student and lived on €20 a week for 7 months. 

These things were hard, but they were privileges, too – and I’m not sure I would have been able to write Saltwater without them. 

Within the publishing world, I think there should be guidance or support in the form of something like a mentoring scheme. There are so many different strands to being an author – giving interviews, doing events, managing money, interacting in a professional context – and they can be daunting if you don’t know anyone outside of that world to ask for advice. 

What advice would you give to young working-class people (including me!) who might want to write in the future? Or, what advice would you give to a younger version of yourself? 

If you haven’t seen it written about before, that doesn’t mean it is trivial or not ‘literary’ enough – it means it has not been given space before, and so you should write it. I would tell my younger self she is powerful and she would laugh. 

Are you working on any new fiction?  

I’m working on a new novel about desire and denial and that’s all I can say about it – for now! 

Given that this is the book to screen issue, which novels would you most like to see adapted for the big screen? 

I’m very excited about the upcoming adaptations of Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians and Sally Rooney’s Normal People. I think the Edge Chronicles series by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell would be amazing films. 

Jessica Andrews’ Saltwater was published as a hardback in 2019. The paperback edition is due for release on 2nd April 2020.

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