Amanda Coe’s strikingly impressive debut novel, What They Do in the Dark, starts as one story and finishes, shockingly, as quite another. It opens in June 1975 in a town in South Yorkshire, with 10-year-old Gemma detailing her perfect Saturday—swimming, chip shop, a trip to the newsagents to chose comics and sweets, rounded off by watching a TV show featuring her beloved Lallie Paluza, a singing, dancing, mimicking 11-year-old child star.
In contrast Gemma’s classmate Pauline lives in squalid neglect. Her mother is away for long periods with various boyfriends and Pauline fends for herself within a chaotic extended family. Pauline is violent and bullying at school and the two girls are seemingly worlds apart, but gradually form an uneasy alliance. The sense of menace builds as Coe reveals a dark and disturbing side to these childhoods—both in what the children have done to them, and in what they do.
Coe herself grew up in 1970s Yorkshire. “It’s very vivid to me as a time and a place...there’s a kind of cultural nostalgia for the 1970s which is quite odd in some ways if you grew up [then],” she says. “It was a very austere, tough time in a way. I suppose the book is a powerful counterpoint to being nostalgic about childhood as a time of innocence.”
Coe began writing What They Do in the Dark in 2005 and got about a third of the way through. “I knew where the story was going by that point and I think that can be quite a difficult stage with writing,” she says. “You know that then you’ve just got to tie yourself down and do the actual writing and it was very, very hard to find the time to do it.”
In 2008 she had a “road to Damascus” moment when she realised that “if I don’t sit down and physically do this it’s never going to exist” and began getting up early in order to fit in two hours of novel-writing before her day job as a screenwriter. At the time Coe was also working on a biopic of the ballerina Margot Fonteyn which was about to go into production, a script for “Doctor Who”, and beginning to adapt John Braine’s 1957 novel Room at the Top for the BBC. It sounds creatively exhausting but writing screenplays, Coe explains, means working from treatments and detailed outlines so when writing the novel she found it “quite liberating to go off piste”.
“The rationale for writing a novel was that [What They Do in the Dark] could never be a film or TV piece—there has to be something that is intrinsically literary about it so in that respect it felt quite different,” she says. There’s a brevity and tightness to the writing, and it’s expertly plotted which must stem from Coe’s screenwriting background. “With screenwriting something, you have to imagine something very fully but you don’t necessarily then have to describe it all. It has to exist somewhere, but in the screenplay it’s the tip of the iceberg that you are setting down. That was quite helpful for writing a novel.”
After graduating from Oxford, Coe worked as an editorial assistant in a contract publishing company before starting to freelance as a sub-editor. Spotting an ad for the screenwriting diploma at the National Film and Television School she was accepted on the strength of some short stories, the only woman on the course at the time.
After graduation her first commission was an episode of “The Bill”. She went on to create the ground-breaking and much loved teen drama “As If”, as well as writing for the early series of the drama series “Shameless”. Her single dramas include “Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story” starring Julie Walters and “Margot” starring Anne-Marie Duff, and she is currently adapting Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook for Film 4, which she describes as “mind-bendingly challenging”.
Although What They Do in the Dark is her first novel, Coe’s first book was a collection of short stories, A Whore in the Kitchen, published by Virago in 2000. Her first literary agent was the legendary Pat Kavanagh. Coe says: “One thing that impelled me to get going properly on [What They Do in the Dark] was her death, which was really shocking. I’d always felt I was not a very active member of her client list and she’d been very supportive of me, getting my short stories published, and I always felt like I wasn’t a proper prose person as so much of my time was spent with my screenwriting.” But now she has finally got going on the novels Coe has no plans to stop.
Amanda Coe's What They Do In the Dark is out now, published by Virago.