Third time lucky

Amanda Smyth's third novel, Fortune, will be published on July 1. -  Courtesy Lee Thomas
Amanda Smyth's third novel, Fortune, will be published on July 1. - Courtesy Lee Thomas


My name is Amanda Smyth and my third novel, Fortune, will be published on July 1.

I come from Pointe-a-Pierre. My family were in South. And then Valsayn North, where my mother now lives.

But my longing for Tobago, where my grandmother lived, doesn’t go away.

My dad died in 1999. My mother, uncle, cousins, people I love and hold close, still live in Trinidad.

I’m half-Irish, and also feel close to family over the Irish Sea, in Sligo, Yeats’s country.

My husband Lee Thomas, our daughter Amelie and I live now in Leamington Spa, an hour from London, half an hour from Birmingham, the Cotswolds on our doorstep.

It’s a pretty Georgian town with lots of green spaces.

My brother and an aunt live in London.

I’d never wanted children until I was 40. And I found myself staring at babies in prams.

I met Lee when I was 25 (but) lost touch. Ten years later, we met by chance on the Jubilee Line at Bond Street. I was wearing a velvet green coat and a hat with a question mark on it. I heard him say, “Amand-ah!”

We went out that night and that was it.

At my lovely little primary school in South Milford, a little village between Leeds and York, I felt nurtured and supported.

My secondary school, a huge comprehensive school, was rough. I remember kids making snowballs by packing fistfuls of snow around stones and lobbing them at teachers.

I didn’t do well there.

I’d come back from long summers in Trinidad with a suntan. My spiky comprehensive schoolteacher told my mother, “Not everyone can afford Caribbean holidays.”

I remember saying to my mother, Why can’t we just go on holiday to Bridlington or Scarborough, like everyone else?

No, BC Pires, I didn’t really want to go to Bognor Regis instead of Maracas Bay. But I wanted desperately to belong!

Amanda Smyth: "My longing for Tobago, where my grandmother lived, doesn’t go away." - Courtesy Lee Thomas

In Trinidad, my mother was much happier than in Yorkshire. (She went) to a woman in Leeds who read your fortune by your handwriting.

The woman said she couldn’t get anything from my mother’s scrawl, “apart from this.” And she drew an apple core.

My mother said, “Ah, that’s not an apple core, that’s a map of Trinidad.” It was in my mother’s bones and blood, so it makes sense it was in mine, too.

I used that story in Fortune, in Tito’s chapter, and it works.

Trinidad teenage summers were the best. I loved the Pelican, JB’s, Jolly Roger.

In my late teens as I began to find my tribe (at) a higher-ed college in Leeds, I started to feel more connected to England. I had super-cool arty friends who wore black and listened to Joy Division, Sisters of Mercy. Those parties were fun, too. But more grimy, boozy.

Ireland wasn’t imprinted on my being until I was older. My Irish family offered a different kind of restoring belonging. Acceptance, love. They were able to fill in the gaps (left by) my pretty absent father.

When my brother was married in Tobago, (I saw) the stark differences between the two countries.

Our Irish and Trini relatives took turns to sing. The Irish songs were full of sorrow, the Trinis’ brimming with joy, humour.

My deeply spiritual Trini grandmother talked about God as if God was electricity, something you could connect to whenever you wanted. She encouraged me to ask this invisible presence for guidance, help, direction.

I suspect there’s a long cold sleep for us all (rather than an afterlife). But I’d love to think I’ll be reunited with loved ones.

In my 20s, I shaved my head and toured Europe, then worked with an amazing puppet company to get my Equity (theatrical workers’ trade union) card. They wanted me to operate a monkey puppet. I said, Why don't I just be the monkey? I studied how they moved and communicated.

And off to Edinburgh Festival we went.

In my 20s, a Danish fortune-teller, recorded on a cassette, told me I must become like a glassblower.

“Take the raw sand and, through the power of the breath and fire of the spirit, make beauty.”

Two years later, auditioning for a role as a Danish model in a TV series, I listened to the cassette to imitate the accent. I was filled with self-doubt about acting and unsure of my way but I got the job and flew to Barcelona.

The day before filming, on (an impulsive) walk, I got lost. The area was rough, the light was going and my Spanish was very bad. The kind man in his 70s who helped me find my way to the subway could pray in seven languages.

I asked him what he did for a living. He said, “I’m a glassblower.”

I still have his card.

As an actress, I did TV commercials, some TV and one film.

But when I saw myself acting, I thought I really wasn’t very good. I turned down a substantial role in a TV drama.

I just got hold of the tape of my film. My God! Seeing yourself at 26 is so strange.

The best book I’ve read, only a couple years ago, is James Salter’s Light Years. It’s so finely written. Those sentences. I literally gasped.

I’ve loved Richard Ford. Jean Rhys, Marilynne Robinson. David Means’s stories are something else. And of course Raymond Carver.

When my first novel Black Rock was published, I felt mostly relief. I felt happy when it was selected as an Oprah Winfrey summer book.

It took four years, an Arts Council grant and a lot of faffing about. It was lovely seeing Black Rock (translated into) French, German, Portuguese, Dutch, Russian.

A Kind of Eden was a better book, I think. But it didn’t sell as well – bad cover, and less marketing, perhaps. It was almost made into a TV series if it hadn’t been scuppered by Death in Paradise. It’s still possible down the road. I was disappointed in AKOE, though people I valued and trusted liked it a lot, which was reassuring.

But I was taken up with a new baby, so it wasn’t so centre stage.

Fortune feels like a bigger, bolder book. I switch points of view, take on a big story, did lots of research into early oil drilling, Trinidad in the 1920s. I’ve worked more intuitively with this book than any other. My characters – Eddie Wade, Ada, Tito – felt absolutely real to me.

I came to the story after my mother told me about the Dome Fire. My great-grandfather put money in the well. He’s like Tito.

In 2016, Angelo Bissessarsingh took me to the site. I was captivated.

Ultimately, Fortune is a story about greed, longing, passion, over-reaching.

I hope people like it.

A book has its journey, and I’ve done my bit. You water the root and hope for fruit.

Author Amanda Smyth says she misses everything about Trinidad – the sun, heat, family, friends, hot and spicy KFC, Carib beer, the Queen's Park Savannah and walking Chancellor Hill, Port of Spain. - Lee Thomas

I miss everything about Trinidad. Sun, heat. Family, friends, hot & spicy KFC, Carib beer, walking Chancellor. The sight of the Savannah in late afternoon. That feeling on the tarmac on the way out to the Tobago plane. The heat is blasting down and you can smell the fumes of the aircraft, and you’re carrying your bag filled with sunscreen, books for the beach, with the promise of rest ahead. Behind you is your mother, your cousin, all of you sucking Diana mints as the plane lifts off.

To me, a Trini knows how to find humour in the worst-case scenarios.

These islands, Trinidad and Tobago, are a piece of my heart.

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