Amanthi Harris

Tell us about your novel, Beautiful Place and what inspired you to write it?

Beautiful Place is set in a villa by a remote beach on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, and follows the lives of its owners, their friends and the guests who arrive to stay as the villa opens as a guesthouse.

The novel was inspired by a holiday many years ago when I returned to Sri Lanka and travelled along the south coast, staying in small guesthouses in peaceful rural locations that transported me back to the houses and gardens of my childhood in Colombo. When I returned to the UK I started to write a series of short stories exploring ideas of home and belonging, with characters returning to Sri Lanka full of nostalgia and longing to reconnect with their past. These stories were all set at a fictional villa and after a few stories I began to explore the lives of its owners, which was when I saw that I had started writing a novel.

It’s a gorgeous book with lush prose. What was it like taking the leap and writing a novel?

The novel grew out of a series of short stories about the guests at the villa, and the main narrative about Padma and Gerhardt, the owners of the villa, developed slowly in the background, so it felt very natural to grow the story into a novel. The initial stories were not altered significantly, merely absorbed into a new and fuller story about Padma and Gerhardt opening a guesthouse that wound around and through the existing stories, eventually dictating the structure of the whole.

Tell us more about the novel writing process. How long did Beautiful Place take to write and what kept you motivated throughout?  

I started to write the novel while at art school, during which time I discovered that I was pregnant! I rushed to finish a draft before my daughter was born, then edited in spare moments while she was sleeping. The main focus for me was structure; I had a lot to learn, having only successfully written short stories until then. Progress became a lot more rapid when my daughter started school which gave me a few hours a day of complete concentration! All in all it took around ten years.

The story is set in Sri Lanka. What research went into capturing the beautiful landscape? 

I relied on memory for most of the book, drawing on the home of my grandparents in the suburbs of Colombo, where I grew up, and various other houses and gardens of the past. For the Guidebook sections I checked dates and various historical facts online.

You explore many threads and themes in Beautiful Place from friendship and love, to family and belonging. What did you want your reader to understand through your observations?

I wanted to explore how a place of safety and hope and beauty can console and inspire. I was trying in a way to recreate the warm, loving creative household that I grew up in, in Sri Lanka – certainly I enjoyed immersing myself in the world of the villa! The characters in the novel are striving for community and connection, and trying to find their way to a life of pleasure and ease and purpose. I was keen to believe in such a mission myself and to create this place for myself and for readers!

We first worked together when you were shortlisted for The Asian Writer Short Story Prize in 2012. Have you written more short stories recently? 

My story ‘Rock Temple’ which was shortlisted in The Asian Writer Short Story Prize 2012 was one of the first stories that I wrote about two guests at the villa, and it was something of an experiment, so it was a fantastic boost to have it acknowledged by the prize. 

I went on writing short stories while working on the novel and started to explore the possibilities of longer short-fiction. My novella Lantern Evening won the Gatehouse Press New Fictions Prize 2016 and was published in 2017 by Gatehouse Press. A recent commission for the BBC was my short story ‘In the Mountains’ which was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and is due to be published in The Best British Short Stories 2020 edited by Nicholas Royle (October 2020).

You’re published by Salt, an indie press. How was that experience for you and how did it come about?

It has been a great pleasure to work with Salt Publishing, and also Pan Macmillan India who publish Beautiful Place in South Asia. It has been so wonderful to have enthusiastic editors and I am incredibly grateful to them for being so supportive of my work. 

In the UK, the manuscript found its way to Salt Publishing via another indie press, Gatehouse Press, whose director Andrew McDonnell asked to see my novel after my I won the Gatehouse Press New Fictions Prize. He also helped to connect me with my agent, Philippa Sitters at DGA, thanks to whom my novel found a home at Pan Macmillan India. Pan Macmillan too have been amazing, and thanks to them I was invited to attend literary festivals and readings around India earlier this year, a truly wonderful experience. I am still incredibly touched by the warmth and kindness and support that my novel and I have received – sometimes so much more than one thinks is possible, which, in a way, is what I was trying to write about in Beautiful Place!

What advice would you give to anyone who is working on their first novel?

What I found hardest at first was staying in control of the plot of a novel, so for me it helped to keep track of the structure as it developed. I used small rectangles of cut-up paper to write down each plot point and to arrange them in sequence so as to get a sense of the story. I found it helpful to see the plot as something malleable, with the events and characters open to being rearranged or altered as required to create the best story. I carried my scraps of paper around in a matchbox, laying them out wherever possible and telling myself the story over and over again until it felt right!

Is there anything else you would like to mention?

I have found it incredibly helpful to pursue other creative activities alongside my writing and to find new ways in which to show and share work. I have an art practice and am part of various groups, both online and in the mountains of Spain where I am currently living, with whom I can exhibit and receive feedback. 
Some years ago I discovered the wonderful world of storytelling and found that my writing benefitted hugely from working with ancient tales for oral storytelling and for devising art and story workshops with my ACE-funded community project StoryHug. I would definitely recommend other areas of creative practice as a source of inspiration and a way to nurture your writing. 

Amanthi Harris was born in Sri Lanka and grew up in London. She studied Fine Art at Central St Martins and has degrees in Law and Chemistry from Bristol University. Her novel Beautiful Place is published by Salt Publishing in the UK and Pan Macmillan India. Lantern Evening, a novella, won the Gatehouse Press New Fictions Prize 2016 and was published by Gatehouse Press. Her short stories have been published by Serpent’s Tail and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Her most recent short story, ‘In the Mountains’ was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and will be published in Best British Short Stories 2020. She also runs StoryHug, an Arts Council England funded project making art and stories in the community.