Amanda Coe on how her writing challenges the notion of female characters as victims
What links the trio of novels by the author is a desire to disrupt the traditional thriller to portray the untold stories of women’s lives
Tracing a writer’s path from youthful literary daydreamer to mature literary practitioner can be tricky. Take English author Amanda Coe, both an award-winning screenwriter (she won a Bafta for adapting John Braine’s Room at the Top, and more recently scripted the hit drama, Apple Tree Yard) and a respected novelist: her new book, Everything You Do is Wrong, is a typically disconcerting and unconventional thriller circling around a woman seemingly left for dead on a stormy English beach.
When I ask Coe how her career began, she mentions a screenwriting course at London’s prestigious National Film Theatre. “It was really interesting – the idea you could learn how to write. You also got used to your work being criticised. I really remember the first experience of people criticising my work – trying to speak with so many tears in my voice. I got over it very quickly. The thing you need as a screenwriter is the ability to take criticism.” And yet, in an offbeat twist worthy of her fiction, Coe’s education actually began earlier than this formal course of study. Having graduated from Oxford University, she temped for a while before landing her “first proper” employment.
“I had a very odd job which was editorial assistant to Will Self when he worked for a contract publishing firm. This consisted of him and me initially, producing the in-house magazines for places like Rentokil and the supermarket Safeway.”
The mind boggles at the multi-syllabic prose that must have been used to describe pest control and the latest deals on pasta.
Was he, I ask, “Will Self” by that point – meaning the lugubriously brilliant, if controversial personality who writes novels and story collections like Cock and Bull, which reconstitute the experiments of Franz Kafka and William Burroughs through a mincer of his own devising.
“He was in the course of becoming Will Self,” Coe confirms. “The thing about Will is he has always been Will Self. Back then, he was working on his first book. He used to come in early to use the office computer. It was the late ’80s, when it was quite a big thing to have a Mac. I think he only had an Amstrad at home.”
Coe, by coincidence, was doing exactly the same thing: arriving before the working day began to work on her own stories. “I was playing around – seeing if I could write. Will gave me very good advice: ‘You need to leave this job because you will get stuck. And I need an assistant who is not coming in early to write.’’’ Self also revealed “very sweetly” that he had read a story that Coe had left on the office computer. “He told me it was good and I should carry on.”
If Will Self was Coe’s “accidental first reader”, plenty more have enjoyed her three highly-praised novels: Getting Colder, What They Do in the Dark and now Everything You Do is Wrong. What links the trio is a desire to disrupt the traditional thriller to portray the untold stories of women’s lives. In doing so, Coe prods expertly at a reader’s preconceptions – a skill that seems hinted at in her latest title. “It’s actually a quote from The Simpsons,” Coe reveals. “It’s Thanksgiving and Marge’s mum arrives with terrible laryngitis. ‘I won’t be able to speak so I’ll just say one thing: everything you do is wrong.’”
The line also prepares the reader for a novel that is intensely concerned with the fraught relationship between mothers and their children. The most obvious example is teenager Harmony Ansholm and her profoundly depressed mother, Dawn, who goes by the more glamorous name of Aurora. Harmony is present when Coe’s main plot kicks into gear. The body of a young girl washes up on a beach in North Yorkshire, and is found by a middle-age woman walking her dog. The girl claims amnesia, and is nicknamed Storm by her nurses after the weather conditions. The dog-walker, Mel, is a dance teacher whose personal life proves more absorbing than the secrets surrounding Storm: an uncommunicative brother who is Aurora’s partner; three uncommunicative sons, each of whom have their own problems; her clever, but fragile niece Harmony, whom Mel is trying to help pass her exams.
“There are still a lot of mysteries solved in the book. They are just not the mystery you thought you were signing up for when you start reading.”
In both Coe’s conversation today and her new novel, one senses an impassioned critique of a society in which men like Harvey Weinstein abuse their power and female employees, and a literary culture that revels in Gone Girls and damaged Girls with Dragon Tattoos. “What are those stories telling us about what it is to be female in society? Or the way we are interested in consuming stories about females in society?”
Coe expresses disappointment at how few reviewers mentioned the book’s historical sub-plot in which another young woman actually does go missing, with hardly anyone noticing. This is precisely the kind of gap that Coe wants her fiction to address. “Whose stories get to be told? The idea of using the genre of the thriller was a way of immediately dignifying the stories I really wanted to tell with this tease of the stories we seem to tell about women: missing women, young women, abused women. It seems that unless there is some laminated version of damage we are not interested.”
One can find the roots of this preoccupation with the outsider in Coe’s early life. She grew up in Doncaster, a northern English town with a strong identity but something of an image problem. “It feels overlooked by the rest of the world. As a bookish teenager looking outwards, I kept thinking, how was I going to engage with the world? This was difficult before the internet.”
Coe did briefly taste that larger world when her family relocated to Canada for several years. Returning to England and Doncaster, she became the first person in her family to stay on at school after 16. Quickly identified as a bright student, Coe won a place at Oxford University, where she experienced Britain’s class divide first-hand. “I thought it was going to be amazing. I had read Brideshead Revisited. I thought Oxford would be full of beautiful boys swaggering around with their teddy bears. I got there and a lot of it was very unpleasant. It was quite difficult to integrate socially. There seemed quite a stark social divide between state school students and public school ones. I didn’t feel looked down upon; I felt academically secure. It was just a very alien culture.”
Books provided Coe with an escape route long before she studied literature at Oxford. In those formative days, whom she read was less important than the simple joy of reading. “It’s very odd the reading you do as a teenager, because you are not very selective. The internet is an amazing thing, but your experience is so curated. The algorithm of ‘If you like this you may like that’ can be exciting. But just because everything is available, nothing is available. When I was growing up, you would go to a second-hand bookshop or the local library and would stumble onto Vladimir Nabokov or Saul Bellow or Judith Krantz. I picked PG Wodehouse almost at random. I had never heard of him, but it was one of the reading epiphanies of my life.”
While novels also dominate Coe’s writing life, in terms of personal significance at least, screenplays occupy more of her time. “I think I find screenwriting much easier,” she says. Partly because it’s so much quicker. On a good day, if I am writing a draft, I can write 10 pages a day. More on a really good day. I am not going to write 10 pages of prose. That would be an amazingly good day.” When I ask if she has any tips for aspiring screenwriters, Coe says rewriting, which extends from initial meetings with producers all the way to the end of an actual shoot. While such collaboration can occasionally be trying, the pleasure Coe gains from the process is precisely in solving these problems. “Questions are raised, and you find ways to solve them that you didn’t know you were able to do. Writing fiction feels scarier and more uncertain as a process. But the rewards are greater when it’s going well.”
Coe’s next major screenwriting commission is to tell the real-life story of the Profumo affair that rocked British politics in the 1960s. Already immortalised in the 1989 film Scandal, the combination of political intrigue, of powerful men exploiting vulnerable women, and of Russia interfering in western democracy could not feel more current. Coe’s aim is not that different from her novels: to excavate the actual experiences of Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davis, the young women chewed up by the grand narratives of the case.
“They were very young, these women. What must it have been like to have this happen to you when you are 19. You are pilloried. It is a way in to tell this amazing story about class, race, the political establishment and the press.”
Given the allegations surrounding Weinstein and now Kevin Spacey, I ask what Coe made of the disturbing allegations emerging from the centre of the film industry. “No. I wasn’t shocked. I am heartened that it’s a time of speaking out, and there seems some redress. It is shocking it has taken so long. Hiding in plain sight.” In other arenas, however, Coe worries that society is becoming polarised to dangerous degrees. Our speed to enraged invective, she adds, is also addressed by her latest title, Everything You Do is Wrong.
“We are living in an age where the divided political landscape means that two people are sitting either side of the fence saying, ‘Everything you do is wrong.’ There is a sort of glee in the demonisation of the other position. It’s OK to be centrist isn’t it? Isn’t that where human beings interact and form communities? What’s going to happen? It’s just going to be the wrong people and the right people?”
Fiction, Coe argues, offers one effective counter-balance to such blinkered intolerance. Citing a phrase used by George Saunders in the wake of his Man Booker victory, she praises novels for producing “active empathy” in readers. “It gives you access like nothing else into the hearts and minds of others. That is the kind of writing that really excites me.”
Updated: November 20, 2017 10:22 AM