BookTrib Spotlight: Amanda Jayatissa

When Nightmares Follow You Halfway Around the World

By Neil Nyren

My hands were trembling slightly….I hate how they do that when I’m angry. I hate it when I’m angry. It makes it hard to think straight. And I needed to think straight right now. I couldn’t have that cunning, two-faced soon-to-be-ex-roommate of mine getting in my head….I kept thinking back to that no-good loser’s grin. The one he wore when he told me that he knew. He knew. I’d made it eighteen goddamned years in this country, and now this absolute moron…had the gall, no, the actual balls to try to ruin it for me? He definitely didn’t know who he was messing with.

I mean, I could fucking kill him.

That profane, anger-and-adrenaline-fueled blast in Amanda Jayatissa’s MY SWEET GIRL introduces Paloma Evans, 30, adopted at the age of twelve from an orphanage in Sri Lanka by a sweet, rich California couple, and now on the wrong end of a blackmail threat and furious at an incompetent bank clerk for not getting her the money to pay him off. It isn’t her only problem—she drinks too much, she’s on meds, she has nightmares about something that happened back at the orphanage, sometimes she thinks she’s being stalked by a Sri Lankan ghost who followed her to the States, and she knows she’s being stalked here by someone who keeps calling her and ringing her buzzer—but it’s this problem she has to solve now.

Until she gets back to her apartment and finds she has an even bigger one: her roommate dead, in a dark puddle of blood.

And until she passes out, wakes up the next morning in the stairwell of her building, hysterically calls in the police, and finds a bigger one yet: no body in the apartment, and no blood…in fact, no evidence that the roommate ever existed.

This all happens in the first two dozen pages of MY SWEET GIRL, and the author’s just getting warmed up. What follows is an extraordinary rollercoaster of a story, as Paloma tries to fight through the mental fog and figure out what happened; holing up in her parents’ house (they’re off on a trip); tracking her roommate’s identity; examining her increasingly more dire circumstances; fending off strangers, and friends who are not what they seem, and facts that appear to shimmer and change before her eyes.

Before our eyes, too. Because Paloma’s right—something has followed her from Sri Lanka, but it’s nothing like she, or we, ever expected. Told in alternating chapters set 18 years and half a world apart, MY SWEET GIRL hits with the force of a hurricane. It might even give you some nightmares of your own.

Amanda Jayatissa

“If I’m to be completely honest, I didn’t start out planning to write MY SWEET GIRL,” Jayatissa says. “I was wading (and by wading, I mean sinking) through another project that just didn’t want to be written. I was suffering from the worst case of writers’ block, and to say my mood was bleak would be an understatement. And then I had a really annoying experience with a customer service associate at my bank, where I found myself wanting to scream and shout and make a scene, but of course I didn’t. I kept it together, like most of us are trained to do, went into a coffee shop, where I pulled out a notebook and a piece of paper and really let that customer service associate have it.

“I guess you could say that’s how Paloma came about.

“After I realized how much fun I was having writing from this perspective, I took the major plot twist from the story I was dismally failing at and reworked it into Paloma’s narrative. Suddenly, everything clicked, and I wrote the draft in about two months. It’s evolved a lot since then, of course, but I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed writing as much I did that very first draft of what finally became MY SWEET GIRL.

“I’ve spent what feels like an inordinate amount of time, however, convincing people that, no, I’m not secretly Paloma, and that, no, I really don’t have any pent-up anger issues that need resolving. A good friend who read an early version of the book even told me that he was getting me a piñata for my birthday, because he was convinced I just needed to beat something up. Ironically, I’m 100 percent the type of person that Paloma would make fun of—definitely a ‘basic bitch’ who wears mom jeans and loves a good green goddess smoothie.

“Of course, I did have to think about things that made me angry in order to channel her. This involved taking a look at some of my own experiences—feelings that I had buried so deep within me that I didn’t even acknowledge them until I started writing. Things that happened years ago, when I was a student living in the Bay Area. Things that I had made myself laugh off, never veering off course from the role I was supposed to play.

“Many of the scenes in the book came from incidents that happened to me. My reaction to them was not the same as Paloma’s, but that didn’t make them any less real. What’s really funny is that living in the Bay Area, I’d rarely experienced overt racism. My high school friends who went to university in other parts of the US (and even the UK) would tell me the slurs they’d be called, and a few of them faced violence, but that wasn’t what happened to me.

Neil Nyren

“Of course, this was many years ago, and people’s understanding of micro-aggressions and how it plays a role in race was pretty limited. Even I didn’t quite understand what micro-aggressions were at the time, just that I was laughing off things that often made me feel uncomfortable or insulted.

“A particularly personal scene was the one where Paloma was in the bathroom at a bar and a woman mistook her for another South Asian woman she knew. This was very common to my experience—people being unable to see beyond the brown skin and black hair to distinguish an individual.”

Those weren’t the only scenes she drew from her life. The Sri Lankan chapters are full of intimate detail—the folk tales, the language’s lilt and rhythm, the way to give directions (“the house opposite the one with the ugly brown wall”), the “quintessential Sri Lankan head nod that confused all Americans.”

“These are very much my own experiences,” she says. “Things I thought were completely normal until I left Sri Lanka and was suddenly acutely aware of how things I had taken for granted could be viewed from the lens of a different culture. It was really interesting to me how there were different versions of English that we spoke—not just accents but the way we form our sentences, the words we use, and phrases that don’t make sense to anyone outside of Sri Lanka. I assimilated pretty easily to the American way of speaking (we have Hollywood movies to thank for that!) But I still slip between my Sri Lankan English and my American (and subsequently, British) English depending on who I speak to.”

It was a long and winding road to get to where she is today. She grew up in Sri Lanka, went to college in the States, moved to the UK, and back to Sri Lanka in 2013.

“I grew up in Colombo feeling quite conflicted. My middle-class parents made sure I went to the best of schools, so I was very privileged, but also felt very stifled. Most of my friends were going to the UK and Australia to attend university, but I wanted to break away from the crowd and go somewhere where I didn’t know anyone. It wasn’t a particularly logical decision, but hey, how many logical decisions are made when you’re 17? I thought the idea of California seemed fun (again, note the complete lack of research and logic), and I applied to a few schools out there. I was lucky to be awarded a scholarship to Mills College, and everyone I spoke to from there seemed really nice, so that’s where I ended up. I absolutely loved it out there (despite everything Paloma says) and am still extremely close to my friends from the Bay Area.

“I briefly considered staying back in the US after I graduated, but my mother was diagnosed with cancer, and it felt right to return back home. Within a year, my mother had relapsed, terminally, this time around, so I’m very grateful of the time I got to spend with her. It was during this period that I also met my husband, who had gone to the same high school as I did, even though he was a year above me and we had never spoken until our accidental bump into each other. He was in Sri Lanka on holiday from the UK, where he’d migrated with his family. We got married five months later, very much against popular opinion. But someone holding your hand through the absolute worst thing that could happen to you makes up for the years most couples spend getting to know each other, I argued, and I moved to the UK to be with him.

“I think being away from your home makes you appreciate it a little more, and that’s certainly what happened to me. We’d been toying with the idea of moving back to Colombo for a while. While I was in the UK, I started doing online training in communication skills development and business English. During a visit back to Colombo, I broached the idea of carrying out corporate trainings locally and got offered a few contracts right away, solidifying our decision to remain here.

“And then came the cookie shop! We’d just moved back to Sri Lanka, and I was complaining to my husband about how I missed softer, chewy cookies that weren’t available for sale here. My husband (always aiming to please—I consider myself abundantly lucky) came up with a recipe and baked me a batch. They were delicious, and I joked that we should start selling them. Ever the entrepreneur, he had a light bulb moment, and we were able to rent out a teeny tiny space at a popular mall in Colombo. We naively thought that we could whip up batches of dough on one day of the week, and manage the shop during the rest (in between my corporate training assignments). We sold out our entire stock on the very first day and proceeded to sell out every day for weeks, which was both amazing and exhausting, especially because it was just the two of us making large batches of dough in our stamp-sized kitchen.

“Of course, during all of this, writing had to take a back seat. I enjoyed growing our businesses, of course, but I yearned for the time where I could truly commit to the stories that got inside my head and didn’t let up.”

Finally, she decided, she had to take action or she’d never be a writer.

“I’d been working on my first book, a science fiction novel called The Other One, for about two years, although it felt like forever because it was mostly during 15-minute windows between meetings and mixing cookie dough. I had gotten very impatient, exacerbated by the fact that I was approaching my 30th birthday. Immaturely thinking that was my ‘now or never’ moment (29-year-old me clearly thought life ended at 30), I decided to self-publish. I just wanted my work out there—to see if I was even any good at this thing I loved doing. To my complete surprise, it won a local award— The Fairway National Literary Award, which gave me the confidence to pursue writing a little more seriously.

“There were definitely a lot of lessons learned through the self-publishing process. The main one being that I didn’t really have the skillset it took to do everything self-publishing required. Writing itself can be very isolating, and self-publishing even more so. It’s worked out great for many writers, but it definitely wasn’t for me. I knew I wanted to take a different route with MY SWEET GIRL.

“I didn’t want to get my hopes up too much—everything I read online suggested that signing with an agent was an uphill battle. Heartened by positive early-reader feedback, I sent out one or two hesitant queries. I heard nothing back, which was to be expected.

“Nevertheless, I was committed. After spending some time polishing up my materials, which included reading every bit of online advice I could get my hands on, getting a professional critique, and shaking my fists at the book gods, I was finally confident enough to start querying again.

“While waiting for a meeting to start, I happened to check Twitter and noticed a lot of tweets using the hashtag #DVPit. Realizing that DV stood for diversity, and that I could actually participate in this event, I counted the minutes until my meeting ended and I could rush home to fire out some tweets of my own. This is how I met my wonderful agent, Melissa Danaczko.

“Melissa had some ideas on how we could improve my manuscript, and it felt like such a load being taken off my shoulders. Finally, someone who understood my vision and gave me the critical feedback I’d been lacking. We worked on edits, and Melissa sent the book out on submission. We heard from Jen Monroe at Berkley within the week, and I knew immediately when we spoke that my book couldn’t be in better hands.

“Funnily, Melissa recently shared a picture of her notebook where she listed down potential editors after our first phone call. Jen was the first name on her list. It was definitely meant to be!”

Jayatissa’s next book is also a psychological thriller “about a woman who travels back to Sri Lanka to stop her ex-best-friend’s over-the-top wedding to her ex-boyfriend, only for the bride to end up dead and the murder to be pinned on her. A lot of it takes place in Sri Lanka, and it features the Mount Lavinia Hotel, where my husband and I got married ourselves (albeit at a far less extravagant affair than what I’m writing), so again, the story has a lot of personal anecdotes, and I’m having a blast writing it.”

It’s clear she had a blast writing MY SWEET GIRL as well. There have been many noteworthy unreliable narrators in modern psychological suspense fiction, but I promise you, you’ve never met a woman quite like Paloma Evans.

Just watch out for those nightmares.

*****

Neil Nyren retired at the end of 2017 as the executive VP, associate publisher, and editor in chief of G. P. Putnam’s Sons. He is the winner of the 2017 Ellery Queen Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Among his authors of crime and suspense were Clive Cussler, Ken Follett, C. J. Box, John Sandford, Robert Crais, Jack Higgins, W. E. B. Griffin, Frederick Forsyth, Randy Wayne White, Alex Berenson, Ace Atkins, and Carol O’Connell. He also worked with such writers as Tom Clancy, Patricia Cornwell, Daniel Silva, Martha Grimes, Ed McBain, Carl Hiaasen, and Jonathan Kellerman.

He is currently writing a monthly publishing column for the MWA newsletter The Third Degree, as well as a regular ITW-sponsored series on debut thriller authors for BookTrib.com, and is an editor at large for CrimeReads.

This column originally ran on Booktrib, where writers and readers meet:

 

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