From her childhood in working-class Sunderland, absorbing the stories her mum and auntie told her about tartan trousers and their teenage years, where she used writing as a survival mechanism amidst the fraught relationships and experiences which surrounded her, Jessica Andrews released her debut, semi-autobiographical novel, Saltwater, in 2019, to critical acclaim. Winning the Portico Prize (known as ‘The Booker of the North’) and making it onto both the ELLE List and the Women’s Prize for Fiction Futures shortlist in the same year, Andrews’ lyrical and visceral novel is about the journey of a working-class girl into early womanhood as she moves from and between her hometown in the Northeast, university in London, and a remote corner of Ireland. Continuing this honest dialogue about the working-class identity, the divide between the North and South, and the challenges that come with existing in the female body, Andrews recently released her second novel, Milk Teeth, which was shortlisted for the 2023 Royal Society of Literature Encore Award. In this novel, the perspective of a woman from the Northeast moves us between the inner depths of her body and her romantic relationships to explore desire, shame, and consumption. Writing in an experimental style and centring her novels on an under-represented voice and place, Saltwater and Milk Teeth have redrawn the boundaries of what can be considered ‘Literature.’
In our insightful discussion, we covered how Andrews got into writing, the challenges of navigating the publishing sphere as a woman from a working-class background in the Northeast, her own ambivalent relationship with her hometown, and how she developed her unique and unforgettable writing style.
‘Writing was always just something I had done. I didn’t know what else I was good at. It was the thing that made me excited.’
Whilst her university friends knew what they wanted to do after graduating, instantly undertaking internships and grad jobs, Jessica didn’t and worked in bars for a while. After her granddad died and left behind some money, she decided to do a master’s in creative writing. ‘So that was probably the point where I started to take myself seriously: it takes a lot to start calling yourself a writer and being in a space where people acknowledge you as a writer can be really powerful.’
The power that came with the acknowledgement of her craft resonated throughout our discussion, specifically when we turned to how her complex relationship with her hometown, Sunderland, is infused in her work. ‘I feel like I had this complicated relationship to the Northeast. I had grown up there, and my family still live there, but I had moved away and made this new life. I had this feeling that I had given that up: that was a sacrifice I had made. So then, to write Saltwater and to have it so well-received by the Northeast and to win the Portico Prize, which is obviously centred around Northern writing, it felt like a return for me, like I was able to take that part of my identity back.’
Identity, and specifically the female, working-class, Northern identity, is at the heart of Jessica’s work. Just like her protagonists in Saltwater and Milk Teeth, working through and discovering this identity has been a journey for her. At university, she ‘felt very different from my peers in lots of ways. I didn’t have money and I felt very chaotic. I didn’t really even know that I was working class, and because I didn’t have the language to articulate what I was feeling and externalise it, I just turned it all in on myself. So, I really felt like I was wrong or weird in some way. It wasn’t until I read a lot more that I developed this class consciousness and this language.’
It was particularly through the writing of Saltwater that this language was born. ‘I came to understand that all these complex feelings I felt about how I was wrong was actually part of something systemic and something much bigger than me. Finding a language helped me understand it and externalise it.’
Evidently, writing became a way for Jessica to validate herself amongst the affluent, middle-class circles she had moved in. ‘Another drive to write the book was that I hadn’t read a life that was close to mine before and I hadn’t seen my experiences represented. When I was at university, I didn’t connect to the reading list, nothing about the world of literature felt like it was a space for me. Writing from that perspective was a way of writing myself into it or making space for myself within that. Being from a different background offers an enriched perspective on the world, which is something that took me a long time to learn.’
But, like she said herself, the complexity of her identity was also ‘something much bigger than me.’ The perspective she chooses to write from, not only allows her to write into herself, but also write other Northern, working-class women, and the Northern, working-class world, into the literary space. ‘I think it’s difficult to write about a place that hasn’t been written about a lot. Obviously, there are books written about Sunderland, but contemporary, literary novels by women set in Sunderland, there aren’t a lot of those. You have a lot of responsibility as a writer because your account of the place is one of the only accounts of the place and that carries a different weight.’
However, she ensures that her account remains authentic to herself and her experiences. ‘Sunderland is a complex city and there are so many things that are so beautiful about it that feel very dear to me. But at the same time, there’s loads of things that are really difficult and life is hard, and actually, when I was growing up there, there were loads of things that I found uncomfortable and wanted to leave behind. It’s about finding a balance of trying to be honest about those things without kind of degrading the place and without romanticising it as well, which is a really difficult thing to do.
‘The more people who write about a place, the better: there are thousands of ways to be Northern, or working-class, or from the Northeast, and I can only write one of them.’
Jessica not only had to navigate the literary space from this under-represented perspective, but also had to navigate the publishing industry as a Northern, working-class woman, which, unfortunately, still makes her a minority. I asked what it was like for her to enter that space.
‘Erm, many different things!’ she joked. ‘Genuinely, my experience has been positive. I think I was very lucky when Saltwater came out social class was a big part of the cultural conversation. I guess there is a part of me that maybe felt that the only thing that was interesting about my writing was writing about class or writing about the Northeast and that can feel like a trap, feeling like people will only be interested in what I have to say if I write about those issues, which are my issues, so to say.
‘But I do also think about this a lot: I’ve had this access to the literary world and at times it’s been difficult, but I’ve found my way through it. At the same time, I’ve had this experience of going to university in London, I knew how the city worked, I understood some of the social world of it and I think it would have been a different experience If I hadn’t had that. There’s this huge push for diversity within publishing, which I think is mostly great and well-intentioned, but I do wonder if I would have been able to cope with it had I not already had experiences of that middle-class world. I think something needs to be done to address that for people who might not have had those kinds of experiences.’
With her unconventional writing style, Jessica ensures that her voice is one that stands out amongst others in the literary space. Time is non-chronological and the lines between past and present are blurred. Her work oscillates between chapters and short vignettes. Most characters maintain their anonymity and animate themselves through the language of their minds and bodies. ‘The writing that makes me feel excited as a reader is formally experimental. I’m very interested in language and form and people who do interesting things with it. Work that is formally experimental feels like a new language. For Lucy in Saltwater, this was important for her, trying to find this language. After trying to write a third person version of Saltwater, how I thought you were meant to write a novel, I just wrote what I felt like writing and the form grew very organically from that, I think because that was the right fit for the story I wanted to tell.’
This symbiotic relationship between the narrative and its form is prevalent in all aspects of Jessica’s work. The titles of her novels, Saltwater and Milk Teeth, are testament to this. I asked her how she came up with these names.
‘A title should be a word that holds the book. I guess Saltwater just came to me because it encapsulates so many aspects of the book. It encapsulates bodily fluids like your salt and your sweat. It encapsulates blood and the relationship between mother and daughter. There’s also so much water in the book, moving between the rivers in the Northeast and London and then Ireland.’
In addition, Jessica’s writing is visceral, the fluidity of time and space mirroring the movements of the body. The body is at the centre of her identity as a literary figure, with her Instagram handle being @itbeginswiththebody. ‘The body feels like the centre of my work because it feels like the centre of my life in that way, but also because I’m just really interested in how our bodies mitigate so much of the world.
‘Writing which is very embodied feels like it closes the distance, which I had felt in the novels I had read growing up, between speaker and reader. Embodied writing just felt true to me. For my protagonists, their experiences as working-class women are very much stored within their bodies and in that way they can never escape them. It resists a meritocracy narrative of upwardly moving through the world: their bodies hold all of these complex thoughts and feelings and in that way they never truly assimilate into a different world.’
Throughout our discussion, the one word that I felt encapsulated Jessica’s approach to her work and her life was honesty. She writes from her authentic voice and experience and doesn’t circumvent emotions which are difficult to understand or define. One of the most profound aspects of her novels is their sense of incompleteness and I asked about her journey of writing narratives whilst maintaining this authentic incompleteness. How do you know when to conclude a narrative that remains unfinished?
‘If everything was too neatly tied up the book would lose its emotional resonance. Life isn’t linear and problems don’t get solved: to me, a book is more real when it reflects those things. As a writer, your job is not to solve anything for your character but to show the reader what those problems are. I’m conscious of resisting neatness and linearity. A book is a way of unravelling a knot of questions. When you get to the end of a book you have a different set of questions. Maybe that’s how you know something is finished or close to being finished when you ask yourself something different.’
Image credits: Seth Hamilton