Amelia Westlake Was Never Here was inspired by a hoax that two friends and I invented in our final year of high school. Our aim was to amuse ourselves and, with any luck, our fellow classmates by creating an imaginary student called Amelia Westlake. We began small, putting Amelia’s name down on lists for sports teams, graffitiing it on school desks, and accepting birthday party invitations on her behalf. We waited to see if anyone noticed.
They noticed. It is safe to say our classmates became somewhat obsessed with finding out who Amelia Westlake was. We carried on pranking until the end of the year without anyone discovering the truth. Amelia Westlake donated prizes to Trivia Night, she sent postcards from exotic locations, she even entered a painting (depicting a giant question mark) in the final year art exhibition. Our hoax was the most fun thing I did in my entire school career, and every time I see Amelia Westlake’s name on the cover of my published book, I want to laugh out loud. It’s her best prank yet.
What became clear as I began writing her story, though, was that I wanted to convey more than just the fun my friends and I had that year. Amelia Westlake Was Never Here also provided an opportunity to explore serious topics like power and privilege, the disadvantages that young women particularly face, and how there are ways—often creative ones—in which young people can harness their talents and skills to challenge power. To find their voice.
When my friends and I were conducting our hoax, I hadn’t found my voice yet. I was an obedient teenager who studied hard and was trying her best to be interested in boys. I didn’t even know any lesbians, so the thought that I was a lesbian myself was inconceivable.
Except that it wasn’t inconceivable. Not really. Not to me. Just to everyone around me. What was inconceivable was that I would ever admit the truth.
In this respect, Harriet and Will, the two main characters in Amelia Westlake Was Never Here, have a better experience of high school than I did. They live in a world where they can be more open about their sexuality. But they still face hurdles on the road to equality—both as lesbians and as young women.
What Harriet and Will must learn is that they can stand up for themselves, that while in some respects they are disadvantaged, they have an immense amount of privilege, which they can harness not just for their own benefit, but for others who are less empowered.
In the novel, Amelia Westlake’s motto is “Play the Power, not the Game.” It is a call to arms to young people everywhere to challenge the structures around you; don’t comply with them. Stand up for yourself and others. Take action. Be creative. Be brave. And have yourself some fun along the way.
[hbg-title isbn="9780316450669" /]
Luke Jennings is the author of the memoir Blood Knots, short-listed for the Samuel Johnson and William Hill prizes, and of several novels, including the Booker Prize-nominated Atlantic. His previous book Codename Villanelle is the basis for BBC America’s new TV series Killing Eve starring Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer.As a journalist he has written for The Observer, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and Time.
About the Killing Eve Books by Luke Jennings
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One of the author’s concerns when writing the book was that the extent and magnitude of the bias and discrimination shown towards female war correspondents was so great that readers might not believe it could really have happened. Were you shocked by the any of the sexist behaviour, rules or beliefs described in the incidents in the book? Which incidents surprised you the most? How do you think it might affect a woman to have to struggle against such ingrained bias in order to do her job?
Had you heard of Lee Miller before you read the book? Have you been drawn to find out any more about Miller since reading it? What do you think of the author’s decision to create a character inspired by Miller rather than write a fictionalised account of Lee Miller’s life? Which approach do you think you might prefer as a reader?
Victorine makes a difficult decision towards the end of the novel when she withholds information from both Jess and Dan. What did you think of her decision? What might you have done in her place? Is it possible to make the wrong decision for the right reasons? How important is it to consider a person’s motivations when assessing whether their decision was right or wrong?
Both Jess and Dan make different decisions when it comes to Amelia’s ultimatum: Dan decides to marry Jess in spite of his battalion; Jess decides to leave Dan so that he has to marry Amelia. Who was the more heroic out of Jess and Dan over the course of the war, and in making that final decision? Which one of them made the “right” decision?
For much of the novel, Jess collects information about soldiers sexually assaulting civilian women. She doesn’t report on this until after the war. Do you think it was cowardly of her to wait so long? What do you think might have happened had she tried to publish the article while the war was still continuing? Was she guilty of letting other women down, or did she have no choice?
Back in London, Jess has the thought: "War makes us monsters or angels, but so too does love.” How difficult do you think it would be to fall in love during wartime, knowing that death was a very real possibility for one or both partners? Do you think this would change the kind of love a person might feel, make it tense perhaps because risk is everywhere, or less intense because the fear of death creates a fear of true intimacy? How can love make someone a monster and where does this happen in the book?
The difficulties Jess and Dan and Amelia face during the war are very different to the difficulties D’Arcy and Josh have faced in their lives. Do you think people in contemporary times are guilty of creating problems where none exist? To what extent does living through a war change how a person views life? Are contemporary concerns less important than those people faced during the 1940s or are both sets of issues equally challenging and worthy of discussion?
There are many women in the book who are based on real people including Martha Gellhorn, Lee Carson, Iris Carpenter, and Catherine Coyne. Had you heard of any of these women before reading the book? Which ones? Is it true that the stories of so many extraordinary women have been lost to history, and forgotten by those of us who come after? If so, why do you think that is? What other books have you read, or movies have you watched, that feature extraordinary women from history and what did you enjoy about them?
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