I first met Stephan Collishaw when interviewing him for The Beestonian magazine, and from then I’ve kept in the loop with what he’s been up to, especially with his publishing over at Noir Press. I always enjoy going to his events and hearing him speak, whether it’s about his own books, or Lithuanian literature.
It was only a matter of time before I asked him to be one of my featured authors, and here we are! I really enjoyed reading his answers: they are funny, inspiring and wise. He also mentions procrastinating at some point…and since this interview is being publishing two days late, I can 100% learn something from him. I hope you enjoy and learn something too!
About the author
Stephan Collishaw was brought up on a Nottingham council estate and failed all of his O’levels. His first novel ‘The Last Girl’ (2003) was chosen by the Independent on Sunday as one of its Novels of the Year. In 2004 Stephan was selected as one of the British Council’s 20 best young British novelists. His brother is the renowned artist, Mat Collishaw. Stephan now works as a teacher in Nottingham, having also lived and worked abroad in Lithuania and Mallorca, where his son Lukas was born.
Follow Stephan on Twitter at @scollishaw
Describe your ideal writing atmosphere.
In 1995 I went on a trip to Lithuania with a half-written manuscript in my back-pack. I had some money saved up, and I thought it would give me a bit of space to complete the novel. I didn’t write a word. Life was far too much fun. So ideally, when writing, I try not to have too much fun. Its distracting. I don’t care where I write. Most important is to have my ear-phones plugged in. Just sticking in them helps me slide down that little burrow hole into the subconscious, where all the best writing happens. Sometimes I realise I’ve had my earphones plugged in for hours and forgotten to put on any music.
How long have you been writing and what inspired you to start?
When I was a teenager I wrote poetry. My older brother was an artist. It was a calling he had right from being at school. That was what he was. It was enormously inspiring, but I had to cut out my own space, and so I turned to writing rather than art. I read a lot of poetry then and it was poetry rather than fiction that I focused on really until I had graduated. After university I had a go at writing a novel. I wrote a novel set in Zimbabwe, a country that had had a profound impact on me. I gave the manuscript to my brother and I think he lost it on the train back down to London. I never saw it again. Which was no big loss to the world, it was no good. I then tried my hand at writing a couple more. My wife said to me that if I was going to do this, then I should take it seriously and encouraged me to apply for the Nottingham Trent University MA in Writing. Graham Joyce and Mahendra Solanki were tutors there then and they were wonderful. The workshopping process taught me a huge amount and it was on the course that I wrote my first published novel, ‘The Last Girl’.
Describe your writing style.
I write historical novels. I put ordinary people into these extraordinary times and see how they behave. For me it’s a way of understanding both historical events, and what we are like as humans. Over the years I have been trying to pare back my style. To make the story as unadorned as possible. I really believe in the art of cutting. My wife goes mad at me when I go out into the garden with shears and secateurs, because I love pruning things back, while she likes them overgrown and wild. But that’s where I am with my writing at the moment. Clip, clip, clip. This can go. This is superfluous. I cut 30,000 words from my last novel.
“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” – Toni Morrison
What kind of story that hasn’t been written yet do you want to read?
I think we are all looking for stories that will both move us and open our minds to some wisdom, some way of looking at the world which will be transformative. Perhaps Toni Morrison is right, but I don’t feel that I am able to write than kind of book. My ambition is altogether more restrained and limited. If I can tell a story that will interest people, if I can tell a story that will move people in some simple way, or even just entertain them for an hour, then I will be happy.
Name any authors or books that have had an impact on your writing.
There are so many that it would be hard to even begin trying to name the writers who have blown my mind and made me want to write. A favourite writer of mine is Amos Oz, the Israeli writer. I would love to write like him, but my style is nothing like his at all. I love Tolstoy, he’s such a great story-teller and funny. But, in contrast, it was the American thriller writer Martin Cruz Smith that gave birth to my love of Eastern Europe with ‘Gorky Park’. I’m quite undiscerning in my reading.
Describe the moment you truly felt like an author.
I’m not sure that really happens. It’s great, of course, to walk into a book shop and see your book up there on a shelf. It’s great to open the Guardian and see a review for your novel. It’s great to be invited to do readings and to talk about your writing. But somehow, I always feel like a fraud. Maybe if I have ten novels published, then I’ll be able to call myself a writer. After ‘The Last Girl’ was published, I gave up teaching for a couple of years to focus on writing. During those two years I never once introduced myself as a writer when I met somebody new.
What book by another author do you wish you’d written?
So many. Anne Michaels ‘Fugitive Pieces’. ‘The English Patient’ by Michael Ondaatje. Both beautiful, poetic novels of the type that I would love to write if I were that talented. On the other hand, you get novels like ‘Midnight’s Children’ by Salman Rushdie, which is a wonderful, exuberant, explosion of creativity. Not the kind of writing I would ever aspire to, but wonderful.
What is the best thing about writing/being a writer?
Being able to read books and say that its work-related. Being able to lie down on the sofa with my eyes shut and claim that it’s work-related. Going for walks in the country, ignoring all the jobs that need doing and taking the moral high-ground, saying I need the time to think through my novel. Basically, being able to claim that anything you decide to do is important because it’s related to the novel you’re writing.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
There is one difference between a successful writer and an unsuccessful writer. An unsuccessful writer will write the first 25,000 words of a novel, read it and think, ‘This is total rubbish’ and throw it in the bin. A successful writer will write the first 25,000 words of their novel, read it and think, ‘This is total rubbish’, and then go on and finish it off. Stick with it. Keep writing. Even when you doubt. When you are rejected. Keep on working at it. Read as much as you can and write as much as you can and your art will improve.
Tell the story behind your latest book, why did you write it?
In 1989, when I was twenty, I went abroad for the first time to Zimbabwe. I flew on my own, arrived in Harare airport and found the bus to a hotel in the city where I met some friends. We spent five weeks travelling around the country. It was an incredibly formative experience for me. I discovered so much about myself in those five weeks. A lot of stuff that I didn’t want to discover. But I also had some of the most sublimely beautiful experiences of my life. Sitting around a fire in a remote village in northern Zimbabwe, roasting peanuts, listening to the Shona singing, while the sky of the Southern hemisphere sparkled over our heads provoked a feeling of such peace and joy that it was almost like a homecoming. I went out another two times over the next year, spending a couple of months there. It was a place that I immediately wanted to write about. For me writing is a process of discovery. It’s a journey. It’s a means of getting to know something or somewhere, a way of pealing back the surface of a place and examining it. Trying to understand its soul and its story. That’s what A Child Called Happiness is; its me pealing back the surface of a place I fell in love with, to examine what made the place the way it is.
Most inspiring quote?
“Burn worldly love,
rub the ashes and make ink of it,
make the heart the pen,
the intellect the writer,
write that which has no end or limit.”
Which author (living or dead) would you like to have dinner with?
One of the high-points of my writing career was meeting Alan Sillitoe. Alan was a wonderfully generous man, and I’m proud that he was kind enough to read my early novels and support them. I had dinner with him and a group of other writers in Lowdham once. He was always great company and a determined curmudgeon. He would stuff his pipe provocatively, while the poor waiter or waitress sweated behind him. He would get as far as trying to light it before some poor person had to tell him that he couldn’t smoke on the premises. I saw him do this twice, both at the dinner in Lowdham and at the Polish embassy. I’m positive he only did it to wind them up.
If you could bring any fictional character to life, who would you choose?
Oh, I think it would have to be Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch. Teenage crushes stay with you. I was no good at school and failed all my O’ levels. I got a job as an office dogsbody, and while there I read as much as I possibly could. I just fell in love with Middlemarch (somewhat inexplicably). I read it three times as a teenager. I would rush all of my work in the office and then sneak off to the toilets with my book and bury myself in it. Until I got caught and was sacked. She was worth it.
How do you beat writers block?
Write one sentence. And then another. If you keep on doing that the sentences will start to flow. It doesn’t matter if the sentences are prosaic, terrible, meaningless, just write them. You can always come back later and cut the rubbish ones, or shape them into something more worthy. You just need to get the stone rolling, then it will take care of itself.
Give yourself some writing advice.
Stop being a perfectionist. And stop procrastinating.
What are your plans for the future? What writing projects are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a novel, but it’s developing very slowly. The publishing business (Noir Press) takes up a huge amount of my time, and I enjoy every moment of it, but I need to ensure that it doesn’t completely swamp my writing.
Three days after arriving in Zimbabwe, Natalie discovers an abandoned newborn baby on a hill near her uncle’s farm.
Years earlier, the hill was home to the Mazowe village where Chief Tafara governed at a time of great unrest. Faced with taxation, abductions and loss of their land at the hands of the white settlers, Tafara joined forces with the neighbouring villages in what becomes the first of many uprisings.
A Child Called Happiness is a beautiful and emotive work of historical fiction. This is a story of hope, resilience and reclamation, proving that the choices made by our ancestor’s can echo for many generations to come.