“It has had a very long gestation period; I wrote the first draft a long time ago,” says Mandy Sutter whose first novel Stretching It, a light-hearted look at love and relationships set in Leeds, was published earlier this month.
Ilkley-based Sutter is already known as a poet – she has published two collections of her work, teaches poetry workshops and her poems appear regularly in magazines and anthologies.
While she acknowledges that poetry, which she has been writing since she was a child, is her first love, she wanted to set herself the challenge of creating a longer work.
“There is a close myopic focus on detail in poetry,” she says. “And I wanted to be able to expand into the wider world of the novel. You can’t afford to obsess about punctuation marks you just have to get on with it.”
While studying for an MA in creative writing at Sheffield Hallam university, which she completed in 2000, Sutter dug out the manuscript for Stretching It again after it had been lying in a drawer for some time.
“I hadn’t looked at it for a while and I decided that I would submit it for my MA instead of my poetry,” she says. It was very well received by her tutors and on the strength of it Sutter found a literary agent but, although there was a lot of positive feedback, the manuscript was not sold.
In the mid-2000s, Sutter entered it into a competition run by Adventures in Fiction, an Arts Council-funded manuscript agency, and she won a year’s free mentoring.
“They suggested turning the book into a comedy – it was quite serious before,” she says. “The problem was my agent hated it now it was a comedy, so in 2011 I decided to approach independent publishers myself and I instantly had a lot more interest in it – it was accepted in May last year.”
Stretching It explores the highs and lows of one young woman’s search for love. Thirty-something singleton Jennifer Spendlove, a plump PA working in the marketing department of a microscope factory, lives with her demanding hypochondriac mother Alicia and makes a decision to change her life by placing an ad in a lonely-hearts column.
She then begins an adventure that sees her meeting a variety of (mostly unsuitable) men – including Salvatore the amorous Italian hairdresser, intense, miserable Lawrence and old flame Bobby – while trying to keep the truth from her mother. There are some lovely comic moments – one date arranges to meet Jennifer at a station buffet and then attempts to act out the whole of the first scene of Brief Encounter – and the dialogue is sparky and believable. Jennifer is a very likeable central character, who is a bit old-fashioned and slightly naive.
“I have a great deal of affection for her,” says Mandy. “I thought it would be more interesting if she had a softer and more innocent approach to the dating scene.”
Sutter’s observation of human foibles and the complexity of both romantic and family relationships is spot on. “I have done internet dating myself and it always struck me that it was a shame to waste quite a few of those things that happen,” she says. “Most of it is completely fictional but lots of them are based on real-life experiences.” Sutter’s own experience of internet dating ended happily – that’s how she met Tim, her partner of ten years – and she says she wanted the novel to be hopeful. “I have an optimistic view of love but I am not a romantic,” she says. “The ending is low key but nice – it gives hope to others who might be in that situation.”
Stretching It, £8.99, Indigo Dreams Publishing www.indigodreams.co.uk online and in bookshops. Mandy Sutter will be signing books at Waterstones in Leeds on September 18.
From poetry to novel writing
born in Bromley in Kent, Mandy Sutter moved to Yorkshire in 1977 to study at York University.
After taking a correspondence course in journalism she became a freelance copywriter, working mostly with Leeds advertising agencies.
She has been a ghost writer for Yorkshire Forward and was for many years writer-in-residence at Leeds General Infirmary.
Her poems and short stories have appeared in literary magazines and featured on BBC Radio 4.
She writes a successful blog called ‘The Reluctant Gardener’, about her father, who took on a new allotment aged 87.