Comparative Literature and English

Professor Amanda Dennis on Her First Novel, Her Here


Professor Amanda Dennis

Amanda Dennis is an assistant professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and English at The American University of Paris. Her Here is her first novel.

Tell us about your work at AUP and your research background.

I’m a professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and English but my specialty is creative writing, which I teach at both introductory and advanced levels. I’ve been writing throughout my career, but I started as a philosophy student. I wrote my dissertation on the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who was responsible for a movement known as French phenomenology. He’s best known for the idea that the self, or the subject, is not some “thinking thing” divorced from the world, but is the body itself and the way it interacts with its environment. This semester, I’m also teaching about modernism and fragmentation, thinking about the changing relationships that modernist writers – like Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin – have to the body.

What made you decide to become a novelist?

When I was a postdoctoral fellow in Madrid, I had this revelation: I’d been working on a novel all along, and I thought, if I’m ever going to finish this, I’ve got to do something drastic. I applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It was an incredible experience. I learned so much about what it takes to be a writer, to live a life where you do this strange thing every day – you consecrate time to worlds that don’t exist. I’m grateful for and amazed by the things I learned at Iowa, which informed the revisions I later made to the novel.

How does the novel play out?

Her Here is the story of Elena, a woman in her late twenties, trying to find her place in the world. On a research trip to Paris, she meets Siobhán, elegant and bizarre, a friend of her late mother’s. Elena and Siobhán strike up an unusual friendship, and Elena learns that Siobhán has lost a daughter, Ella, who disappeared six years earlier. Elena finds herself agreeing to work on the missing girl’s journals, kept before she went missing in Thailand, in the hope of uncovering where Ella is and why she disappeared. As Elena begins to rewrite the journals, she starts to take on the characteristics of the missing girl. She starts becoming Ella, which is both frightening and invigorating. She soon realises not all was well with Ella.

You’ve described the work as an “existential detective story.” What do you mean by that?

I was interested in the twenties as a time of life. One of my protagonists is in her early twenties, the other in her late twenties. The twenties are a time when we can ask with urgency, how do I live? We can go on adventures, explore, get a little lost, and try to figure out what we’re doing on Earth. I was particularly interested in Elena’s experience of this space: she’s in her late twenties, and she’s feeling like she’s running out of time. I wanted to capture her sense of searching, but without making the book lag. There’s this negative side to the existential search, because there are no clear answers. In order to make Elena come to life I needed to give her a concrete objective – a task she could become obsessed with to the point of losing her identity. That’s where the detective element comes in (I’ve written more about that here). But behind the missing person plot are deeper questions about identity and the self. In that sense, the novel is a coming-of-age story.

How did the use of multiple narrators influence your style of writing?

Each protagonist tells a story in the first person, and their sections are rendered in different fonts. Elena has a particular way of describing what she lives and sees. But Ella has a different voice – we only really get her through her journal entries. The tricky bit is actually the novel within the novel, because Elena starts to reconstruct Ella’s experiences in Thailand. She creates this new story, which was the hardest part to write, because it’s a blend of both of voices. It has the vitality and naivety of Ella’s journals, but with a more reflective, narrative quality.

As the story progresses, Elena becomes more engrossed in the story she is telling. Is writing a means of survival?

It’s complicated. I think writing can be survival, but it can also plunge us into places we are probably, for our mental health, better off not going. I think this tension is alive in the book. In a way, writing gives order to things that aren’t orderable – to a certain chaos of sensations and experiences. But I also think there is a danger in writing. In order to write powerfully, you have to go into the eye of the storm. Writing, like so many things, is the poison and the cure. In the case of Elena, what’s important for her is the encounter with Ella, the “other.” Elena can relate in some ways, but ultimately Ella is another person whom Elena can’t fully understand. That effort of imagination awakens an energy in Elena. We do that too, as readers: we access another person’s intimate experience.

What experience from your work as a novelist do you bring to your teaching at AUP?

It’s important to have a sense of how one’s readers will experience things. In a creative writing class, you have this opportunity to have 15 people experience what you have written. You’ll learn which parts move people, and you’ll use that to develop muscle memory. It helps you learn where the vital parts of your writing are. One of the invigorating things about teaching for me is the sense of experimentation and playfulness that students have. It’s a gift to be in touch with that – it’s a rewarding, generative experience. When students take a prompt and run with it, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But keeping that creative imagination alive is an important part of my classes. I aim to stimulate and deepen creativity.