I have to admit, there were a couple of moments in Claiming Noah that brought me to tears.
The novel tells the story of Catriona and Diana, whose fertility challenges are just the beginning of a rollercoaster ride into motherhood. The novel explores the issue of embryo donation, but in fact asks the central question – what does it mean to be a mother?
Claiming Noah is a compelling debut novel from Sydney author Amanda Ortlepp, who kindly agreed to a Book Birdy Q and A in which she talks about how, when and why she writes.
What made you want to write about the issue of embryo donation?
It fascinated me. I knew about sperm and egg donation, and surrogacy, but until it came up in conversation with my sister one day I had no idea that embryo donation existed. I felt that if you went through an entire pregnancy and childbirth then that baby would automatically feel like it was yours, even though it is in no way genetically related to you or your partner, And I also wondered about the people who agreed to donate their embryos – would they spend the rest of their lives wondering about the children that may have been born from those embryos? And would they feel a sense of responsibility towards those children? It brought up so many issues to explore – moral, ethical, social, religious, legal – and I knew there was a book in there that I wanted to write.
All of your characters have flaws, and at times, make some questionable choices. How did you establish that line that stopped them from becoming unlikeable?
I think the main reason people have connected to the characters in ‘Claiming Noah’ is because they are realistic. We’re all guilty of making bad decisions every now and again, but, like the characters in my book, we tend to think it’s the right thing to do at the time. Whether or not we show remorse for those actions says a lot about the type of people we are. Most of the characters in ‘Claiming Noah’ do horrible things at some point, but their decisions are (mostly) understandable based on their emotions and mental wellbeing at the time. Combined with the fact that they show remorse for their actions, I think that’s what stops them from being unlikeable.
One of the strengths of this book is the way in which you write about the bond between mother and child. How did you tap into these feelings?
I don’t have children of my own, but I do have two young nephews who I adore and love spending time with. When my sister was pregnant with her first son it shocked me how much I cared for him even before he was born – and that feeling intensified as soon as he came into the world. I knew if I felt like that as an aunty then the love a mother has for her child must be a hundredfold. So I took that feeling and magnified it to write about Diana’s bond with Noah.
Of course the opposite side to the story is that not all mothers feel an immediate bond with their baby – like Catriona with Sebastian – and I thought about how difficult that would be in a world that glorifies the relationship between a mother and her child.
Can you tell me about your path to publication?
I started writing because I was badly in need of a creative outlet. I always knew I’d write a book one day, and a few years ago I realised that day had arrived. I was working full-time so I started writing at night, and on weekends, and it completely consumed me. I joined the NSW Writers’ Centre, attended a few writing courses, read some writing guides, and kept writing. When I had finished the first draft of ‘Claiming Noah’ I hired a writing mentor (through the NSW Writers’ Centre) and she helped me to edit my manuscript and gave me feedback on the areas she felt could be improved. She was also the first person to tell me that my story was good enough to be published (well, other than friends and family, but as nice as their praise can be it can’t always be trusted!).
I knew my chances of getting published would be greater if I was signed by a literary agent first, so I sent queries to three agents who seemed to suit me and the style of book I had written. I honestly didn’t expect for any of them to be interested, but one was. She gave me feedback on my manuscript and I kept working on it until she felt it was good enough to submit to publishers. We received some great feedback from the publishers who read it and Simon & Schuster came back with a two-book deal, which was thrilling.
What are your writing processes and routines?
I wish I had a great writing routine, but I don’t. I juggle writing with freelance marketing and copywriting work, and it’s a constant struggle to find the right balance between the two. I’ve come up with lots of different routines that work really well for a week or two and then inevitably something happens to disrupt it. Perhaps I’ll work it out one day.
I’m better with my writing process. The more I write, the more organised I am about it. While I’m writing a book I put together a scene library in Excel that describes what happens in each scene, whose point of view it is, how long it is, and where it falls in the story. I can understand why some people prefer to write without an outline like this because it does take some of the thrill out of writing, but I like that it allows me to write out of order. I can pick the type of scene I feel like writing that day, or decide whether I feel like writing dialogue or descriptive passages, and find a section to suit. I find writing out of order is especially helpful on the days when I’m not overly motivated to write.
Who are the writers that influenced you?
In terms of sheer skill, writers like John Steinbeck, Zadie Smith, Vladimir Nabokov and Hilary Mantel blow me away. My writing is nothing like theirs and unfortunately never will be, but that’s where I set the benchmark. I’m also inspired by writers who create brilliant but disturbing books that stay with you long after you finish them – two favourites are Ira Levin and Jeffrey Eugenides.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
The best piece of advice I’ve received is from Matthew Reilly (we have mutual friends who kindly offered to put us in touch). I was working on the first draft of ‘Claiming Noah’ and was getting myself stressed about all the writing rules I felt I had to follow. So I asked him how strict he was about following the rules for narrative structure and character arcs. He said, “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.” I thought it was great advice. Of course there needs to be some sort of structure in place but you shouldn’t lose sight of the most important part of writing, which is to tell your readers a great story.
I also love a famous writing quote by Ernest Hemmingway and I think about it often while I’m writing: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” It certainly feels like that sometimes.
What are you working on now?
I’ve finished the manuscript for my second book and will soon start working on edits to it. It’s a story about relationships – friendship, family and romantic – and how those relationships aren’t always quite what they seem. It’s set on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, in a small oyster-farming town. My father grew up on a farm in that area and I’ve based the setting for the book on the town where my grandparents lived for the last part of their lives. We haven’t set an exact publication date for it yet, but it will most likely be in the first half of 2016.
There are so many topics that fascinate me, and writing gives you an excuse to delve into worlds you may otherwise never have experienced. There aren’t many careers where you are allowed to spend all day playing make-believe!
Writing isn’t easy – it can be frustrating, and emotional, and thankless. I could do without the ever-present self-doubt. But there is something immensely satisfying to me about crafting sentences and stringing them into a story. And the sense of accomplishment that comes with finishing a book is wonderful. It makes all those bad days worth it.