Second Acts: Amanda Bell
This May's launch of her children's book, The Lost Library Book, is the culmination of Amanda Bell's decades-long love affair with the written word. For a long time, family came first, now, creativity has carved out its rightful place in her day. And so begins the Second Act.....
The story so far: family as a creative force
Up until the birth of my first daughter twenty years ago I was working in publishing, and starting to submit my writing to journals and broadcasters. At that time I was focusing on the short story, and had just completed a ‘Writing for Radio’ course with Patricia O'Reilly. During my pregnancy I had planned to put the baby in a crèche and return to work, but when Elizabeth arrived I wanted to make the most of her early years, relax into breastfeeding without having to worry straight away about weaning etc, and so instead of returning to work after my maternity leave I joined the Association of Freelance Editors Proofreaders and Indexers, and began to work freelance on a very part-time basis. I also continued to write but without putting much - or any - effort into submitting work for publication. The fact that Elizabeth didn't sleep until she started primary school explains a lot of this.
Grace was born nearly three years later and I found being a stay-at-home mother an intensely creative activity. I also got interested in textiles and spent a few years doing a City and Guilds certificate and then a diploma, but continued to write.
Writing for children
I have always loved children's books. I did a Library and Information Studies postgrad in UCD in 1993 because it was the only place in Ireland then offering a module on children's literature. I joined Children's Books Ireland several years ago, and always found their conferences a great stimulus to write. I started reviewing for their magazine Inis a few years ago, and last year was poetry section editor of their reading guide. When my kids started school I drafted a novel for adults called Dinner at Jammet's, but didn't finish it, deciding instead to start a children's storybook with the unwieldy title Albus B, Emile Sesame and Tamburlaine the Great. It's a story that I still like very much, and would love to see published one day. To polish it, I did a course in Writing for Children in UCD with Ann Carroll, then sent that manuscript off to a couple of publishers – neither of whom have replied, seven years on – and started a novel for older children, Wolf Mountain. In the middle of writing Wolf Mountain I felt that I needed to sharpen up my critical skills, and decided to do a Masters. I vacillated between studying Children's Literature and Poetry Studies, and eventually opted for the latter, leaving Wolf Mountain on hiatus.
Setting non-negotiable targets
You ask whether writing is a discipline or a pleasure for me, but I think of it more as a necessity, as I am so cranky when I'm not writing. I like to write first drafts in longhand, transferring to the screen for rewrites, for both poetry and prose. When I was finishing Wolf Mountain I set myself a non-negotiable target of 500 words per day six days per week, minimum. Frequently I would spend the morning researching, then be busy in the afternoon, and end up writing in bed in a semi-comatose state because I wouldn't let myself go to sleep before meeting the daily target, and in fact some interesting plot twists arose out of those somnolent sessions.
My writing space
I have a lovely south-facing upstairs room with a desktop computer, which I use for editing and indexing work as well as writing. I never travel without a notebook, and if I'm out cycling I use my phone - an ancient Samsung Galaxy Note 3 - to write on.
I write the kind of books the teenage me would have enjoyed
I'm not a fan of prescribed age ranges - I love books with young protagonists which can be read by adults, e.g. To Kill a Mocking Bird, The Catcher in the Rye, His Dark Materials, Harry Potter, but if you're trying to sell a book you have to be conscious of how it is to be marketed. The Lost Library Book - which is nonfiction - is structured as a simple story for 4-8 year olds, but with extra information at the back aimed at older children and adults. With Wolf Mountain I set out to write YA, but decided along the way that it was more suitable for 'middle-grade' (8-12) or younger teenagers, though it is exactly the sort of book that I would like to read myself, both now and as a child/teen. I think that poetry and children's books are quite similar in that they each requires a deep sense of emotional honesty in order to work.
Writing and confidence
I have always had massive confidence issues - as recently as 2015 I asked a festival organiser not to describe me as a poet in his ad for a poetry reading I was participating in, due to paranoia that someone would ask ‘who do you think you are?' For a long time I didn't admit to anybody that I was writing, and was in a permanent state of frustration. There were two big turning points for me – the first was having the privilege of spending a few months with the poet and architectural historian Maurice Craig when I was editing his collection of photographs, the second came shortly afterwards when I joined the Hibernians – a group of talented writers who have inspired me on many levels. I think the fact that I've been writing for so long without submitting is of value, because I have been able to look back with an editor's eye at work written so long ago that I no longer have a sense of ownership over it, and say 'actually that's really good'. And it's important to remember that if work is rejected it is most likely because of suitability and timing rather than a reflection of quality, and that it is perfectly acceptable to believe in yourself rather than needing external validation - I think this is an issue for a lot of women.
The way the book trade and publishing industry are going, more and more people are self-publishing, and there is some really high quality work being made available in this way, so perhaps that has made it easier for people to have the confidence to fight for their space in a crowded market.
This year is looking like a maelstrom because I am trying to promote The Lost Library Book, finalise and publicise First the Feathers, continue to sell Undercurrents while doing readings and workshops, look for an agent and publisher for Wolf Mountain, start Return to Wolf Mountain, and continue to write new poems and haibun. I also want to make poetry films to promote First the Feathers. So I'm going to try to enjoy it as much as I can, do my best to keep well, and not entirely abandon my family...
Advice for want-to-be writers?
For aspiring writers, write, write, write, and when you have a body of work you're happy to stand over then focus on submitting it.
Advice for mid-life women: love the ageing process
Midlife women should be spearheading a revolution. We are at a juncture where the rest of our lives, as Lucy Kellaway recently wrote in the Financial Times, 'instead of being frighteningly short, may be even more frighteningly long’ – either way, it's a valuable stimulus to either start new careers or reap the rewards of groundwork already laid down. We must be conscious – every minute of every day – of the vested interests determined to ensure that we never feel happy in our own skins because we don't look like 25-35 year-olds. The same pressure is put on girls and young women beneath this magic demographic window, and we owe it to them to fight back.
I am 49 this year. If, as my grandmother used to say, I am spared, it is quite possible that I have more adult life before than behind me, and I don't intend to waste an entire lifetime agonising over the fact that I don't look like a 30 year old. Why should I? I aspire to a society in which wrinkles and grey hair are seen as a sign of wisdom and experience and – yes – being happy. Sharon Olds has some very beautiful poetry in her recently published Odes about trying to love the ageing process : 'So the language of aging/ the code of it, the etching and the scribbling/ and silvering, are signs, to me, of getting to live out my full term,/ enduring to become what I have loved.' And the more of us who get wise to this, the happier, and freer, we will be. (Not to mind wealthier – I calculate that I have saved over €10,000 by not touching up my roots for the last twelve years.)
Your Mantra for mid-life?
Apart from the above? Probably to treat yourself like you would treat one of your children - with kindness and forgiveness but always expecting them to try to be their best selves. Set short-term goals: hundreds of them.
And stick-it-to-the-man at every opportunity.
The Lost Library Book
will be launched in Marsh’s Library on 20 May. The book is a full-colour hardback and is being printed on demand, so the publisher is offering a reduced price in advance of the publication date. To pre-order a copy, visit