Thursday, May 14, 2020

Amanda Sellet

Debut author Amanda Sellet had a previous career in journalism, during which she wrote book reviews for The Washington Post, personal essays for NPR, and music and movie coverage for VH1. She has an M.A. in Cinema Studies from NYU and spent a year in England as au pair to an actress who has played in her share of period dramas. These days she lives in Kansas with her archaeologist husband and their daughter.

Her new novel is By the Book.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The main title is fairly on-the-nose: By the Book is the story of a girl who lives her life according to the rules of fiction, specifically 19th-century morality tales. The subtitle (A Novel of Prose and Cons) could be construed as either a warning or an enticement, depending on your tastes. It’s like a mapmaker writing “Here be dragons” to indicate uncharted territory. Warning: silly wordplay ahead.

What's in a name?

As befits the offspring of two literature professors, all five Porter-Malcolm kids have names inspired by the life and/or works of Virginia Woolf. The main character, Mary, has always felt drab in comparison with older sisters Adeline, Vanessa, and Clarissa (who goes by Cam), not to mention younger brother Jasper Orlando.

One of Mary’s great fears in life is that like her name, she’s an afterthought – stodgy, bland, and old-fashioned. It thus comes as a considerable thrill when over the course of the story she acquires not one but two nicknames: Lady Mary and [redacted].

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

I fear my teen self would say, “what took you so long?” She expected destiny to come knocking a lot sooner.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Beginnings are harder for me, to the nth degree. I’m very much a forest-for-the-trees writer, who will fuss endlessly over every joke in Chapter One and only then stop to ask whether the story starts in the right place. The number of documents on my computer with some version of the name “By the Book New Beginning” is my personal walk of shame.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Mary’s bookishness and habit of classifying people according to literary types are slightly exaggerated versions of my own youthful proclivities.

At the same time, since I am an oldest child and she is the penultimate member of her large family, I tried to channel my younger siblings’ sociability and openness to making new friends. It would have been inauthentic to make Mary bossy yet reserved, like her creator.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

My large family (see above), the TV series Gilmore Girls (for the quirky small-town setting and slightly magical slant on reality), and a lifetime of watching what one of my brothers dubbed “crumpet movies.” The latter definitely shaped my taste in verbal slapstick and slow burn romance.
Visit Amanda Sellet's website.

--Marshal Zeringue