An existential detective novel

  • April 27, 2021
An existential detective novel

Amanda Dennis talks about her debut novel which has already garnered enthusiastic reviews from the likes of The Washington Post.

The Gates Cambridge community reminds me of what’s possible...To write a novel, you have to believe with so much force in something that doesn’t exist - until it does.

Amanda Dennis

Amanda Dennis‘ first novel Her Here, published in March, tells the story of Elena, who has lost her mother and is suffering from memory loss caused by the trauma of finding her dead. She is asked by her mother’s friend to search for her daughter Ella, who went missing in Thailand six years earlier, through rewriting the journals that she left.  Described as an “existential detective story”, the book deals with themes of identity, loss and desire, with Elena finding her identity merging with Ella’s.

The novel has already been reviewed by the Washington Post, which describes it as “spellbinding” and says: “This hypnotic and deeply cerebral exploration is a seductive escape. Through Ella and Elena’s efforts to reconstruct a sense of self – outside family, beyond academia and expectation- through language, Dennis confronts the various ways we try to understand ourselves and others.”

Amanda [2005] did her MPhil at Cambridge in European Literature followed by a PhD in French. She is currently assistant professor of comparative literature and creative writing at the American University of Paris, where she is researching the influence of 20th-century French philosophy on the work of Samuel Beckett. Here she talks to Gates Cambridge about her novel.

What inspired the main themes of the book – the exploration of identity, loss, the mother-daughter relationship and desire?

The novel’s first scenes – Elena reading Ella’s journals, growing obsessed – weren’t part of a plan to write about identity or loss or desire; the themes emerged as I wrote. But I was reading a lot of 20th-century French thought as I was beginning the novel, and I was never rational enough to be a philosopher; it was difficult for me to hold ideas at arm’s length. Derrida’s description of an “other” at the heart of the self, the idea that we’re made up of unknowable pockets, that we’ll always be partly opaque to ourselves, unsettled my sense of selfhood. I was interested in how these ideas matched up with an experience I’d had in my twenties – of “committed” travel, where you really engage with a place. This sort of travel can put us in touch with a feeling of an extended self; we shift with our context – at least I did – and grow as a result of our encounters and interactions. In my writing, I began to experiment with the Elena-Ella dyad, the paradox of a woman coming into her own by inhabiting another’s life – or by letting other lives and other contexts work through her.

Similarly, mother-daughter relationships are everywhere in the book, but that emphasis came as a surprise to me. Elena is drawn to Ella’s biological mother, Siobhán, because Siobhán reminds her of her own mother, and she’s desperate to make sense of what happened to her mother – an investigation she can’t bring herself to undertake on her own terms. Once the relationship between Elena and Siobhán was established, mother-daughter pairs began proliferating in the novel-within-the-novel, the one Elena writes based on Ella’s journals. It’s a symptom of Elena’s obsession, but also, like many obsessions, a way for her to (iteratively) work through her own losses.

When did the germ of the idea for the book emerge?

When I lived in Thailand in the early 2000s, I was always writing, taking notes, making sketches of scenes, keeping journals, which I consulted years later for specific smells, sensations and details of place. After Thailand, I had all these fragments that didn’t add up to anything, but I couldn’t forget about them. It wasn’t until I moved to Paris that the novel’s outlines took shape. I was new to the city, didn’t know many people and was daydreaming a lot. That’s when Elena emerged – and Siobhán and Siobhán’s backstory: her history with Elena’s mother and the daughter she gave away. Once the germ of the novel emerged, it swiftly eclipsed what I’d written in Thailand.

How closely entwined do you think your academic and literary writing are?

My academic research focuses on embodiment. It explores how the body is involved in a “material agency” that emerges in the work of Samuel Beckett and it draws on 20th-century French thought, particularly phenomenology, to make these claims. I used to say that my academic and creative work had very little to do with one another. Then, about a month ago, I was talking to my editor at Bellevue Literary Press, Erika Goldman, about doing a panel on Beckett’s importance to contemporary literature. She read an academic article I’d written about aporia in Beckett’s The Unnamable (a book that utterly changed my vision of literature and my sense of what is possible in fiction). Erika pointed out connections: the article addresses the necessity of moving through situations of difficulty, it describes an uncomfortable – possibly enriching – blending with one’s surroundings, and it explores ties between embodiment, creativity and horror (in the novel, both Elena and Ella lose their sense of self, their discrete identity, with very difficult results).

So, there are links between my academic and creative work, but I’m probably not the best person to find them! One point of overlap I’m more attuned to has to do with phenomenology’s emphasis on sensation and embodied perspective. Phenomenology inspired parts of the novel when Elena figuratively moves into Ella’s body, adopting her perspective as she might inhabit an avatar.

What influenced the hypnotic style you used – both the language and syntax – and how does that relate to the theme of identity?

It’s difficult to consider one’s own voice as distinctive, so I’m surprised and pleased to hear the novel’s style described as hypnotic. I put a lot of energy into crafting the novel’s different voices: Elena’s present-tense sections should sound different than Ella’s journals, and the novel-within-the-novel, which Elena writes under Ella’s influence, blends the two styles. Distinguishing Elena and Ella voices, and then blending them, was definitely the most challenging part of this project! But if the novel’s syntax in general has a hypnotic effect, it wasn’t planned. I wrote, then honed, trimmed frills and tried to make the most impact with the least number of words. My favourite writers have a way of quickening sensations with their language, heightening our sense of aliveness, and I care a lot about language in relation to the body and senses (voice, after all, comes from the body).

In the novel, Elena is affected physically and emotionally by Ella’s words; she’s able to access and imagine so much from books alone. In part, the book is about the experience of reading, and how it’s possible to lose the self in another person, another voice, or another world. But I wasn’t aware of crafting a style to enact the slippage of identity that is such a major theme of the book. I’m delighted, though, to think that the novel’s language is related to its thematic obsessions.

How important was the setting – the contrast between the narrow stone streets of Paris and the Thai landscape?

Setting is everything. It establishes mood, and it blends into character, since both Ella and Elena are porous to their surroundings. They aren’t shaped by their surroundings in typical ways, since both are foreigners to the countries they inhabit, but they’re highly attuned to what’s around them – sometimes too much so. One of the first things Ella does when she arrives in Thailand is carve in the wood of a cabinet. She’s afraid of blending into her surroundings and wants to leave a mark, to act back on the world, even in this innocent way.

Details of setting also allowed me to bridge Elena’s France and Ella’s Thailand. As she is reconstructing the journals, Elena tries to collapse the two worlds, travelling to the Normandy coast to better understand Ella’s island episode. She buys jasmine at a flower shop in the dead of winter to experience Ella’s fascination with the smell, and she confuses a man on the street with Ella’s crush in the journals. Because of its importance, I wanted to get setting right, which was easy enough when it came to Paris (at times, I had only to wander around my neighborhood to fill up on specific details). Thailand was harder because I hadn’t been there for many years. Going there for research wasn’t an option, and there was an interest in preserving the distorted-yet-specific Thailand I remembered, since Elena creates this space on the basis of Ella’s journals alone. I found myself returning to my own journals from that time – very different from Ella’s – to access certain sense memories and details of place.

How disciplined did you have to be in your writing process?

During a writing phase, my minimum is two hours a day. Two hours doesn’t feel too intimidating to me, since even on a day when nothing’s coming I can muscle through. And if it’s a good day and I want to go on, there’s that possibility. Even in stuck phases – when I have to step back and restructure or solve a problem – I try to keep up momentum by working on another part of the book. For me, a daily routine is necessary to make real progress, and if I slip out of the world of the novel, it can take me weeks to find its pulse again.

Writers are different, but I write best after waking up, in a half-dreaming state where I’m less guarded and haven’t quite entered the world. Keeping those hours unencumbered (without thinking about what else I have to do that day) is challenging, given the demands of full-time teaching and academic research. There were definitely times – often long stretches – when I had to put the novel aside. But these long stretches between drafts often helped me see the book from a new angle. Elena’s world in Paris and the novel-within-the-novel in Thailand resonate, echoing each other, and I needed a panned back perspective to be able to do that.

Did you plan the ending early on or was that something that the narrative drove towards?

Some part of me must have known that this story could end in only one way, even from the very first drafts. But I couldn’t admit it to myself. I needed the suspense to keep going. It was an honest search on my part, like Elena’s search – and the reader’s. And it wasn’t until after I wrote the ending that I realised it was inevitable, that no other ending would have made sense. But all that was hidden from me – at least consciously – until I got there.

I remember being surprised as I was composing some of those final scenes – surprised at what they contained and at how easily they came, because there were also phases when I worried about how on earth the novel would end.

The book has won a lot of attention, including from the Washington Post. That is quite something for a first novel. Do you feel under pressure for your next book and can you describe where you are in the process of writing that?

External pressure hasn’t kicked in (yet!), but there’s internal pressure. I spent this past year writing an academic book that is coming out in July, so I’m eager to return to a draft of what I’ve been calling the “energy book” (no title yet) – a novel about an energy commune set in the present. I have a third of a rough draft, which really isn’t much since most of what is interesting in my writing happens in revision. But the characters feel alive to me, and I’m desperate to return to the novel even as I feel challenged by how much the world has changed since I put it aside. As I often tell my students, writing isn’t efficient, and if I need to toss 150 pages, then I’ve cleared ground for what comes next.

How did your time at Cambridge influence your writing or passion to write?

In a practical way, Cambridge made my move to Paris possible, which had a direct influence on the novel. But Cambridge and Gates Cambridge also put me in touch with a global community of talented, engaged scholars from vastly different disciplines and as many nations. It’s a community I still feel close to – though we’re geographically dispersed – and whose values I share: internationalism, a commitment to bettering the world through engagement and passion for a “trade”, whether it’s gene programing, big data, resource management, neuroscience or writing. This community reminds me of what’s possible, and I carry that with me – this sense of the “possible”.  As you get older, it gets easier to be swayed by voices of cynicism saying, oh, is it really worth it? Change is so incremental, not in our lifetime, etc. But then there are these people working at the vanguard of their fields, improving living conditions for others. This replenishes my sense of the possible. To write a novel, you have to believe with so much force in something that doesn’t exist – until it does.

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