Amy Jeffs is an art historian specialising in the Middle Ages. In 2019, she gained a PhD in Art History from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, having studied for earlier degrees at the Courtauld Institute of Art and the University of Cambridge.
During her PhD Amy co-convened a project researching medieval badges and pilgrim souvenirs at the British Museum. She then worked in the British Library’s department of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts.
Her writing is often accompanied by her own linocut and wood-engraved prints, a sample of which may be seen here: www.amyjeffshistoria.com
Amy is a regular contributor to Country Life Magazine.
Wild is out now and published by Riverrun, an imprint of Quercus.
Tell me what inspired you to write your (debut) book?
The delightful, fascinating, often politically urgent manuscripts and stories I was exploring for my PhD in History of Art.
What came first the characters or the world?
The characters existed already, but became real to me through the medium of linocuts and wood engravings, which is how both Storyland and Wild began. In both cases, the medium of monochrome print helped my visualise the world of the texts and define its atmosphere.
How hard was it to get your first (debut) book published?
Once I had an agent (Georgina Capel), it felt quite easy, but I had been interested in writing for a general audience and getting to know other writers for a good five years beforehand. For a long time, it seemed out of reach, but the fact of the matter is that I was lucky enough to receive an excellent undergraduate education, which helped me to gain further qualifications and find work in places like the British Museum and British Library. This all helped me build an inventory of ideas and a network of like-minded colleagues. While I had found my place in a writing community more or less incidentally, it was that community that taught me what to do and who to speak to once an idea had crystallised in my mind.
How long did it take to write?
6 months for a draft, 1 year for a finished and illustrated manuscript, building on material I had gathered for my thesis.
Do you have a writing playlist? If so do you want to share it?
Nope. I forget to listen and anyway they are never long enough!
How many publishers turned you down?
My proposal was submitted to various publishers by my agent, Georgina Capel. I remember getting 3 or 4 offers, which she whittled down to two, who then bid for the book. I don’t remember it as clearly as I would like because I was in a state of high nervousness and excitement.
What kind of reactions have you had to your book?
At festivals I’ve spoken to teachers introducing British myths and legends to their year 7s with myths in their curriculum. I’ve met students, artists and lecturers interested in the relationship between research and creativity. I’ve met children with strange, insightful questions about truth and teenagers full of ambition and wisdom. The only negative encounters I’ve had have been online, which probably says something!
What’s the favourite reaction you’ve had to your book?
I met a 15 year old in Nottingham who told me about how her school had invited its students to dress up as characters or in costumes from their cultural backgrounds. ‘My parents are Indian’, she said, ‘so I wore a sari, but loads of my British-heritage friends were like, “oooh we don’t know what to wear. We feel too guilty about colonialism and imperialism.” She shook her head and said, ‘I told them they weren’t looking back far enough – they have so many stories to choose from that are much older than the British Empire.’ I was so grateful to her for sharing this anecdote with me and so impressed that a 15 year old had taken herself to a book event on her own.
What can you tell us about your next book?
My first book, STORYLAND, retold myths that were shared and popularised in medieval Britain. Mostly, they post-date the 12th century and have a strong political dimension. WILD looks further back in time, to 650-1000, and tells stories inspired by surviving texts and artefacts from or contingent to Britain in this period. As in STORYLAND, commentaries come after the tales in WILD, to bring readers into a corpus of amazing sources (and some really are like mazes) that sheds light on an old idea of the wilderness. The main body of the text is followed by beautiful new translations by George Younge, which capture the vivid, often stormy, natural setting of the originals, along with their psychological urgency. This is a less overtly political book. To me, it’s about hope, craft and harmony.
Do you take notice of online reviews?
I do, though I’m not always sure it’s wise to draw confidence or otherwise from things like online ratings. Some of my most beloved books – books that seem to me works of undeniable genius – have very low ratings online. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, for instance, scores 3.8 on Goodreads and he wrote that from Monkwearmouth Jarrow in 8th-century Northumbria and influenced practically every Western historian who has come since.
Would you ever consider writing outside your current genre?
What did you do before (or still do) you became a writer?
I was doing a PhD, which involved teaching as well as writing. I also worked in the British Library and British Museum, with manuscripts and medieval badges respectively.
Which author(s) inspire you?
Mainly Laurie Lee, Max Porter and Suzannah Clark.
Which genres do you read yourself?
I love reading medieval monastic chronicles and saints’ lives for the magical realism. I also read quite a lot of poetry and shorter novels with a tendency towards the strange.
What is your biggest motivator?
Can I give three answers? If yes, then: the need to earn a living, the desire to do something I love devotedly and the hope it will bring people joy.
What will always distract you?
I can’t really think of anything. I love writing and carving Lino and find myself disappearing for hours and hours, given the chance. Maybe food?
How much (if any) say do you have in your book covers?
Quite a lot, as I produce the prints that are used for my book covers. However, I’m no graphic designer and feel very grateful to be able to defer to the expertise of the Quercus design team when it comes to broader issues of layout and typography.
Were you a big reader as a child?
Yes. I am an only child and we travelled a lot. I read and drew and read and painted…
What were your favourite childhood books?
John Seymour’s The Forgotten Arts and Crafts, which I found in the school library when I was about 8 and used to read voraciously. I read a lot of fantasy, including The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, Harry Potter and the like. I also loved encyclopaedias of birds and animals. They make such good bedtime reading.
Do you have a favourite bookshop? If so, which?
Hunting Raven in Frome. It’s my local and always so warm and full of ideas (and maps).
What books can you not resist buying?
Anything containing wood engravings.
Do you have any rituals when writing?
Completely clearing my desk, except for a pint of water and a mug of coffee.
How many books are in your own physical TBR pile?
I’m afraid I’m quite a chaotic reader…probably about thirty and, apart from the audiobooks, they are hidden all around the house.
What is your current or latest read?
Henry of Huntingdon’s History of the English People.
Any books that you’re looking forward to in the next 12 months?
Max Porter’s SHY. Kate Rundell’s THE GOLDEN MOLE.
Any plans or projects in the near future you can tell us about?
The audiobook for WILD is illustrated with songs, which I wrote with a friend called Robbie Haylett and recorded with a band over the summer. Well be releasing them on Spotify in time for Christmas and are looking forward to playing together at events next year. In the meantime, I’ll be writing and carving Lino for book three (following the form and scale of STORYLAND), which I’m hoping the publishers will give me permission to talk about soon!
Any events in the near future?
Waterstones York, Thurs 3rd Nov
Push the Boat Out Festival, Edinburgh, Sat 5th Nov
Brendon Books Festival, Taunton, Mon 14th Nov
Frome Society for Local Study, Frome, Sat 19th Nov
Waterstones Salisbury, Thurs 24th Nov
Sherborne Literary Soc, Wednesday 30th Nov
and finally, what inspired you to write the genre you do?
I think it was a love of stories and their genealogies. I want to get lost in a story through fiction and illustration, but I also want to know about its history and its impact. Tracing such things as art and literature into the past can help us acknowledge our debt to our heritage; it is a huge inventory, an ocean of ideas in which to cast our nets.