Amanda Ortlepp has recently published her first book, Claiming Noah, with Simon & Schuster Australia. It is a story about parenthood, biology and love, set in the inner west of Sydney, where Amanda lives and works.
She has attended several courses at the NSW Writers’ Centre and took part in the Mentorship Program where she worked on an early draft of Claiming Noah with published author and editor Louise Wareham Leonard.
Amanda is currently working on her second novel, which is set on the remote Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. It will be published in 2016.
You can follow Amanda on Twitter: @AmandaOrtlepp
You’ve got a marketing and communications background, was it always your intention to one day become an author and write a novel?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but once I became an adult I assumed it was a dream that would never happen – it felt like saying I wanted to be an astronaut, or Prime Minister. So instead I headed towards a corporate career that would let me write and be creative. That’s how I ended up in marketing. I only started writing fiction after I turned 30, as a creative outlet, and once I started I knew I’d never want to stop.
Tell us a little bit about Claiming Noah – how did the idea come about and what interested you about this topic?
My sister told me over dinner one night that two people she knew were planning to adopt a donated embryo so they could have a child together. Until then I didn’t know that embryo donation existed – and I certainly didn’t know that it has been around for about 10 years. The topic fascinated me because of all the issues I could explore with it: legal, ethical, moral, social, religious. I was already about 20,000 words into a different story at that time, but my imagination started to buzz and I knew that was the story I had to write. I couldn’t wait to get home so I could start writing it.
How much research went into Claiming Noah for you to make it such a real read? Did you do a period of research followed by the drafting of the novel or was it quite an intertwined writing process?
Definitely intertwined. I don’t have the discipline to do all my research before I start writing. Once I get excited about an idea I want to jump straight into it, so I research as I go.
Not having been through IVF myself, I had to do a lot of research into infertility and embryo donation. That type of information was readily available, but researching postpartum psychosis was much harder. I didn’t want my character’s experience to seem clichéd, or over the top, so I spent a lot of time reading firsthand accounts from women who had experienced this incredibly scary disorder.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given?
I was fortunate enough to be put in touch with Matthew Reilly through some mutual friends while I was working on some rewrites for Claiming Noah. I was stressed about whether my story had the right narrative structure and character arcs, so I asked him how strict he is about following a set formula for his books.
He said to me, ‘Don’t worry about all that. Just hook your readers early, keep them hooked, write the most exciting story you can and do it better than anyone else.’
Did you learn anything during the writing process of Claiming Noah and how is that influencing the writing process of your second novel?
I’ve learnt to trust my writing instincts. One of the great benefits of having been an avid reader from a young age is that you have an inherent sense for how a book should flow. If a scene doesn’t feel right then I keep rewriting it until it does.
Aside from writing your second novel, are you reading anything at the moment?
I’m reading On Beauty by Zadie Smith. I love her writing style; she writes such epic, offbeat stories. Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be much point to them other than immersing yourself into the lives of her quirky characters, which is fine by me.
The best book I’ve read so far this year is The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna. It’s funny, clever and heartbreaking, and I was so pleased to see that it made the 2015 Stella Prize shortlist.
Author? Ira Levin. His stories are dark, deeply unsettling and completely unique. He is a master at creating suspense.
Book? Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov because the first page is the best opening of any book I’ve ever read. After about 200 words you know what happens in the story, you can tell exactly what type of person the narrator is and you’re filled with dread for Lolita. It’s extremely important to nail the first page and that’s the book I measure all first pages against.
Time of day? My mind works better late at night. I’ve solved most of my plot problems and written some of my favourite paragraphs while lying in bed with the lights out.
Music? Anything by Jack White.
Location? Anywhere you can watch people. I try to make my stories realistic, and real people are more flawed and interesting than any characters I can come up with on my own.
Excerpt from Claiming Noah
Catriona soon found herself in a relentless loop of feeding, cleaning and settling her son that made her long for the days when she finished work at six and didn’t return to the office until nine the next morning. The books she had read spoke about the joy of motherhood, the bond between a mother and child that made the misery of pregnancy and childbirth a distant memory, but when she looked at Sebastian all Catriona thought about was how long it would take before he started crying again.
She thought about how her friends had seemed around their newborns – how they gushed about motherhood and their love for their child – and questioned why she didn’t feel the same way. She spent hours staring at Sebastian while he was asleep in his cot, her hands clenched around the bars as if they were on opposite sides of a prison cell, and wondered why looking after him felt like a burden rather than a joy. She would lie in bed after Sebastian’s midnight feed, her chest tight and her pulse racing, filled with dread as she thought about what the next day had in store for her.
Catriona wasn’t used to feeling like a failure but the more she thought about it, the more she realised that having a child may have been a mistake.