Literary loves: the bestselling author shares a few of her favourite things.

Amanda Craig is a novelist, short story writer, journalist and critic. Born in South Africa, she grew up amidst the glorious rolling Tuscan hills, where her parents worked for the UN. Her education, meanwhile, was a British affair, starting at Bedales and concluding at Clare College, Cambridge.

She spent a decade as the children’s books critic for The Times, as well as for The Independent on Sunday, alongside writing for The Sunday Times, the Observer, The Daily Telegraph and the Independent. In 1995, she won the BPA’s Young Journalist of The Year Award and swiftly followed that success up in 1997, when she scooped the Catherine Pakenham Award. It was a fitting tribute, both to her exceptional skills as a writer and her unerring taste; Craig was amongst the first to spot the Harry Potter books, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Twilight, How to Train Your Dragon and The Hunger Games.

Concurrent with her award-winning criticism, Amanda was also busy writing the first of her bestselling novels. A Vicious Circle was published in 1996 and promptly declared a masterpiece in the Evening Standard by A.N. Wilson. It was the first of a series of eight interconnecting state-of-the-nation novels that deal with contemporary British society; the satiric wit and drama contained within the pages have invited comparisons with the greats, from Antony Trollope to the mighty Charles Dickens. Her new novel, The Three Graces, is set in a fictional Tuscan village and was written across the lockdowns. It will be published in spring next year.

Here she tells us about her time with Mother Teresa’s refuge in Calcutta; her ambition to one day tackle the fiendishly difficult art of writing a children’s book; and why Dickens is her ultimate hero, flaws and all.

Favourite place in all the world?

I am deeply in love with three places, London and Devon, where we live 50-50, and the part of Italy around Cortona, where I grew up and where my parents lived for fifty years.

Right now, Italy is winning because all through lockdown I have been writing a new novel, The Three Graces, set in the fictional Tuscan town of Santorno.

Dream holiday?

See above. Any European country is beautiful in May, but Tuscany is a kind of earthly paradise, partly because there are so many wild flowers and animals, and because even the smallest town is an aesthetic and gastronomic delight. Also, I am very fond of Italians who have beautiful manners even to the most oafish tourists.

Most coveted item right now?

What I always covet, is another painting by my beloved friend Emily Patrick. She ought to be even more famous than she is (and she's collected by connoisseurs from Mark Rylance to the art critic Rachel Campbell-Johnson.) A figurative, Impressionistic painter of exquisite tenderness and aesthetic sense, she excels at still life, portraits, landscapes and close observation. I love her for the beauty of her vision, and her resolutely unfashionable approach to art.

Proudest professional moment to date?

As far as my own career goes, I’m not sure it has happened. I’m always having to correct interviewers about being a ‘prize-winning novelist’. But I am certainly proud of all the other authors I have helped, in a tiny way, from JK Rowling and Philip Pullman to Robert Macfarlane and Clare Chambers.

Your dream future project?

One day, if I have grandchildren, I’d love to write a children’s book – which unlike adult literary fiction, is fantastically hard to do really well – and which have a far greater legacy and longevity.

Who has been your most inspiring mentor, professionally or personally?

I have never had a mentor, but one or two senior writers were very kind to me early on as a novelist. One was Muriel Spark, whom I met briefly in Italy. She gave me a couple of pieces of advice: 1) Everything you write must have at least one sentence in it that only you could write and 2) always spend some of your advance on a piece of jewellery, otherwise it will all go on boring things like groceries. The other was Iris Murdoch, whom I met at a party soon after having had my debut Foreign Bodies panned because critics, distressingly, mistook its snotty teenaged narrator for myself. She told me that I should always have the next novel written before publishing, ‘so that you can be a moving target.’

Where would you live if you could live anywhere?

If I had untold millions, I’d quite enjoy the Ducal Palace in Urbino. It’s one of the most beautiful Renaissance buildings ever designed. Failing that, Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill Gothic mansion is pretty cool.

What book is on your nightstand/ kindle right now?

Vesna Goldsworthy’s third novel, Iron Curtain (Chatto & Windus) is a treat. It’s a reworking of Medea, narrated by an Eastern Bloc ‘princess’ whose privileged life under Soviet rule in the 1970s is thrown away when she falls in love with an upper-class English ‘Jason’. The contrast between her life behind the Iron Curtain and pre-Thatcher London is hilarious. Goldsworthy is a Serbian who has previously reworked The Great Gatsby (Gorsky) as a Russian oligarch and Anna Karenina (as Monsieur Ka) in post-war London, and she is both brilliantly intelligent and deeply entertaining. This one deserves prizes.

Best film you’ve seen recently?

Sorrentino’s The Hand of God. It’s about family love in all its passion, comedy, tragedy and lunacy, and its portrait of life in Naples is actually more convincing than that of Elena Ferrante – albeit from a purely masculine point of view. We only discovered Naples quite recently, after years of believing it was a dangerous place infested by criminals (the Tuscan view, alas). We discovered instead a Baroque dream of fabulous architecture, art, seafood and the kindest, most helpful people.

Best binge-watched TV show?

We have revelled in every episode of The Great, Tony McNamara’s deliciously rude and ruthless historical comedy based on the life of Catherine the Great. It combines some of the most beautiful costumes and settings with a riveting account of the battle between Catherine’s Enlightenment ideals vs Peter (and Russia’s) brutish pragmatism. It’s also hilariously foul-mouthed and frank about sex.

Top podcast of the moment?

Backlisted by Andy Miller and John Mitchinson is a delight. I very much approve of getting people to read and reread overlooked books. A particular high note was the one on Proust. I also recommend this year’s Reith Lectures on the future of A.I. by Stuart Russell, which are witty, reassuring and terrifying.

Your hero?

It has to be Dickens, a mighty man if also mightily flawed, and an endless inspiration to me in my own work. He is a great artist, a great entertainer, a humanitarian and a human dynamo. It gives me pleasure to know that he probably walked down my street in Camden Town on his peregrinations.

If you were an animal, what would you be?

I’d like to be a dragon – not the greedy, hoarding Smaug sort but the beautiful life-bringing, art-inspiring Chinese kind that dances in the sky. With this proviso: I reserve the right to breathe fire on a shortlist of annoying people, most of them critics.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

A doctor. I liked the idea of healing people. Nothing pleases me more when readers tell me that my novels have helped them through a bad time. I write to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted – and I’d rather do the latter, mostly.

Worst job you’ve ever done?

Probably looking after dying lepers in Mother Teresa’s refuge in Calcutta, briefly. I was terrified, and I’ve never forgotten the horror, and the courage of the nuns and medics.

Favourite dish to cook?

Pasta puttanesca, because it’s quick, tasty and I hate cooking. Also, I enjoy it being called slut’s pasta.

Favourite café/ restaurant?

As of this week, Bocca di Lupo in Soho. It’s a proper Italian restaurant, I can give it no higher praise.

What tune always makes you want to dance?

Too many, but one favourite is Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Are Made For Walking. It’s the wittiest, most defiant song ever, and I love her gutsiness. I am devoted to Doc Marten’s, personally.

Favourite website or app?

Because my health is always dodgy, the most useful one I discovered during lockdown is Echo, that reminds you when medication is getting low, nags your GP relentlessly and delivers it to any address in the UK.

Most useful thing on your desk?

The sign that says JUST SAY NO. Obviously, as you see, I ignore it.

Which five people, dead or alive, would you find most interesting to be stuck in a lift with?

I can’t imagine anything nastier, so obviously one would have to be Houdini. But the others would probably all be children’s authors like Cressida Cowell, Anthony McGowan, Philip Pullman and Lissa Evans because they are the kind of people who would not just think of a practical way out but be wonderful at keeping my mind off claustrophobia. Alternatively, my husband.

Favourite building?

I’m very fond of the Wallace Collection, which is a small but perfect art collection, and which also has a charming covered courtyard restaurant. I can also get to it on the bus from the end of my road.

Favourite Instagrammer or tweeter?

Mostly, I only follow friends on Instagram, but Tweeters I enjoy include Elizabeth Day, India Knight, Helen Joyce, Nina Stibbe and Lissa Evans. And Helen Lewis and Sarah Ditum.

Your screensaver?

Botticelli’s Primavera.

What would your biography be called?

Opposing Thumb.

What would be your epitaph?

Here Lies One Who Told The Truth.

By Nancy Alsop
April 2022

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