Discover Christmas gifts we know they'll love

‘We should knock romantic love off its perch’: 21 Questions with Amy Key

The author of Arrangements in Blue on Elena Ferrante, the best writing advice she’s ever received, and painting portraits of parakeets.

Image design: Flynn Shore / Penguin

When the poet Amy Key was younger, she thought she’d experience romantic love just like everyone else – or, at the very least, just like Joni Mitchell did on her album, Blue. “The album laid it all out for me,” she once wrote; “I’d fall in love, it would be sweet and cosy, I’d be sad, I’d sometimes need to run away. I’d hurt someone. They would hurt me.” When, by the time she was in her forties, that hadn’t quite happened, she went on a pilgrimage to Laurel Canyon – Mitchell’s home for most of her career – to explore why.

The artistic result of that journey – to California, and then inward – is Arrangements in Blue. Subtitled Notes on Love and Making a Life, it’s an exploration of a life lived for oneself, on one’s own terms, that raises the question: is it possible life without romantic love isn't so bad?

In our 21 Questions interview with Key, one gets a strong sense of the affirmative answer: below, she opens up about the extraordinary novels that have made her; the loving friendships that have shaped her; the wisdom of Rainer Maria Rilke; and the cult TV show obsession that made her start drinking her coffee black.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

I don’t really have an internal hierarchy of writers I admire, so today I’m going to say Elena Ferrante. I had fallen a little bit out of love with novels until I began reading Ferrante. I think she is such an extraordinary observer of human frailty, pettiness, desire, envy, motherhood, relationships, the bewilderment of all being alive.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

Grandmother Lucy and her Hats, written by Joyce Wood and illustrated by Frank Francis. The flap copy reads: “Grandmother Lucy was a very old and very delightful grandmother. She lived in a house with blue curtains and red geraniums and a large fluffy cat called Tom. Her house, particularly the attic, was full of secrets.” It is narrated by Lucy’s granddaughter – we never learn her name – and it tells the story of beautiful, strange hats stored in the attic.

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

In my early teens I was obsessed with Twin Peaks. I fully immersed myself in Twin Peaks lore: took up drinking my coffee black, like Agent Cooper; taught myself how to play the soundtrack on the piano. And I read the tie-in books. The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer by Jennifer Lynch (David Lynch’s daughter) is a pretty harrowing book, an account of a young woman’s experiences of sexual abuse and addiction. I didn’t share most of Laura Palmer’s experiences, but there was a small window in which I saw myself reflected and that was an incredibly potent, albeit sometimes disturbing encounter.

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

Chelsey Minnis’s poetry collection Bad Bad. A fun fact about the title is that it comes from the Chris Isaak song 'Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing'.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

I haven’t really had any strange jobs; I’ve done a lot of retail, pub and office work. As a poet I’ve done some fun, unusual things, like making members of the public wandering along the Southbank to help me to write an epic love poem, or working with a perfumer to make a perfume inspired by one of my poems.

When I’m stuck [on a creative idea] I just think to myself – I’m simply carrying still

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

I was talking with the poet Emily Berry about feeling stuck and unable to write, and she recommended a quote from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet: “Everything must be carried to term before it is born. To let every impression and the germ of every feeling come to completion inside, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, in what is unattainable to one’s own intellect, and to wait with deep humility and patience for the hour when a new clarity is delivered.” Now when I’m stuck I just think to myself – I’m simply carrying still.

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

I’m not much of a re-reader, at least not these days, but I used to be, and one book I’ve read several times is Marianne Faithfull’s memoir Faithfull. I bought it at university when I was listening to the Rolling Stones all the time, and her book describes the experience of being a woman in London’s rock scene of the ’60s and ’70s, where social codes were being reinvented and sex, drugs and rock’n’roll charged Faithfull’s life.

What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?

Every book – usually poetry – written by someone I know that I’ve not managed to read yet.

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

I work full-time in the public sector, so on a practical level, that. But if I could have a fantasy different career I’d love to have a junk/antiques shop and spend my days looking for stock. I’d specialise in ceramics, jewellery, paintings and arts and crafts furniture.

What makes you happiest?

I have a reliable formula for happiness: a day out with a little potter around charity shops, a couple of sea swims (one before breakfast, one before dinner), a meal shared with friends, and the sun on my face.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

A few years ago I took up painting portraits of pets. I’ve painted dogs, cats, rabbits, pigeons and a parakeet.

What is your ideal writing scenario?

Waking up early with an empty day ahead of me, making a pot of coffee and getting back into bed with my laptop. I like quiet, I like that my brain is unrumpled by the goings on of the day, and I love it when one of my cats comes to settle alongside me as I write. I take a lot of breaks and don’t push it if it’s simply not happening.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

I’m pretty sure I told Maggie Nelson I loved her. I almost told Anne Carson I loved her hairclip.

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

I recently read Gwendolyn Brooks’ novel Maud Martha, set in 1940s Chicago. It is narrated by a young, working-class Black woman. The novel features exquisite descriptions of interiors, textiles, clothes, food, the city – the desire of it is palpable. I would love to talk about the material world with Gwendolyn, and for our meal I’d make crispy lamb cutlets, little roasted potatoes, salsa verde and greens. There would be tiny pistachio cakes for dessert with a lightly chilled sweet Tokaji wine. I’d really want to impress her, so it could all go horribly wrong.

What’s your biggest fear?

I am really scared of moths, which feels like an easier thing to say than all the anxious dread that can arise when I think of other fears.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

I’d love to be able to persuade bigots to abandon their beliefs

I’d love to be able to persuade bigots to abandon their beliefs.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

It’s a tie between Kick the Latch by Kathryn Scanlan and On Trampolining by Rebecca Perry. Kick the Latch is a novel based on conversations Scanlan had with a horse trainer, Sonia; it’s electric. On Trampolining is a short, poetic memoir reflecting on Perry’s time as a competitive trampolinist – it’s about the fallibility of the body and of memory, girlhood and pain. Both are brilliant.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

I do read in the bath – my go-to is Gardener’s World magazine.

Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?

I have to confess I’m not much of a hot beverage drinker. First thing in the morning I drink a pot of strong coffee, and then that’s it. Maybe sometimes I’ll have a mint tea after a meal or chamomile if I’m feeling angsty. Coffee shop culture is a bit alien to me.

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

Again, I’m not really able to place the books I love into a league, but one of them is definitely Childhood, Youth, Dependency by Tove Ditlevsen. It scraped a layer from me.

What inspired you to write your book?

There were two moments that inspired me to write Arrangements in Blue. The first was when I visited my friend, the poet Roddy Lumsden, in hospital. He was very unwell, and often what he said made no sense. But one day he looked at me and said, “Love hasn’t happened for you, has it?” It was a moment of startling clarity. He’d located perhaps my tenderest spot. It hurt not because he’d been tactless, but because it was true. Very sadly, Roddy died a year or so later, and shortly after I found myself on a pilgrimage to Joni Mitchell’s old home in Laurel Canyon. There, Roddy’s words came back to me, and with his and Joni’s voices alongside me I began to think my way into the story I felt I needed to tell.

It feels scary to be so open about life without romantic love at its centre because it’s something that has made me feel ashamed and lonely throughout my life. I thought there was something wrong with me. I don’t think that now, and more than that, I’ve come to think it would be good for everyone to knock romantic love off its perch – to question its place at the centre of experience.

Arrangements in Blue is out now.

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more