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Polly Samson on Blue Peter badges, Margaret Atwood and taking walks as one of her characters

Polly Samson is a novelist, short story writer and author of lyrics for Pink Floyd. Her first novel, Out of the Picture, was short-listed for the Authors' Club first novel award and her 2010 collection of stories, Perfect Lives, was selected as a Sunday Times Fiction Choice of the year. Her latest novel, The Kindness, is published in the UK by Bloomsbury.

Q: What role did books play in your childhood, what first got you hooked on reading and at what age? 

Polly: 'By the time I was reading I was an only child living in a village in Cornwall that was so remote even the people in the nearest town had never heard of it. Without books I can’t imagine how I would’ve spent my time. The first book I can remember becoming obsessed by was Enid Blyton’s The Wishing-Chair and then the Laura Ingalls-Wilder books. I loved all the E. Nesbit books - I can remember lighting little fires of pencil sharpenings and gum but no phoenix ever appeared. I also read an enormous number of pony books, particularly those by the Pullein-Thompson sisters but as long as it had a girl with a pony in it I wasn’t too fussy.'

Q: Did you write for fun as a child and if so what? 

'My mother recently showed me stories that I’d written before I could read. My daughter did it that way around too. I can’t remember ever not writing. Biddy Baxter (the producer of BBC’s Blue Peter) was practically like a one-way penfriend to me such was my enthusiasm for sending in stories and poems. Eventually they gave me a Blue Peter badge for a story about a lonely badger and I still think it the proudest moment of my life. I feel lucky that my mum kept so much. A poem I wrote about a dead jackdaw became the inspiration for one of my first published stories.  From what she held on to, it seems I wrote a lot of dark poetry and some quite funny stories.'

Q: Which authors or books fired your imagination as a teenager or young adult and inspired you to want to write? 

'All of the above writers. As a slightly older adult I’d add Margaret Atwood to the list as a sort of blow-torch to the brain. It was reading Margaret Atwood’s novels and short stories that made me realise that all I wanted to do was write books. It was reading Margaret Atwood that made me apply myself.'

Author Polly Samson .          © Sarah Lee

Q: Do you have favourite books that you re-read and does re-reading trigger personal memories as much as memories of the text? 

'The book I most re-read is quite a recent novel, Rose Tremain’s The Road Home. I re-read it because I think it is a perfect novel. I always remember where I was when I read it. I was a Costa fiction judge that year but sadly one of the other judges went against me in the first round. It’s such an interesting question the triggers, I can remember exactly where I was the first-time, what the weather was like etc when I re-read books that I love but not those I haven’t loved (which quite often I can’t remember even having read).'  

Q: How much do you draw on personal memories in writing fiction? 

'About as much as I draw on dreams. I don’t plot so I write very much from my sub-conscious. Sometimes when I read something back I am aware that a real life memory has emerged but I’m never aware of it at the time of writing.'

Q: What are your most vivid memories of having your first book published and do you view it as a watershed moment in your life? 

'I remember in the lead up to publication thinking that I would die and never see my book. From talking to others I think this is not uncommon. I think the watershed moment came when Susan Hill wrote me the most treasured and enthusiastic letter having read the book. That was when I truly felt like I had permission.'

Q: You’ve spoken about going on walks as a character while writing fiction. Has this ‘method writing’ ever taken you on an unexpected path in terms of character or plot development? 

'Yes, often.  When I first tried Julian [from The Kindness] on for size I went for walks assuming that he had grown to hate Julia. One day I walked towards a woman with long hair sitting on a bench staring out to sea. I thought how she looked like Julia, and then - as Julian - found myself having confusingly fond thoughts about her, hoping that it was her, feeling disappointed as I drew nearer that it wasn’t. You’d have to have read The Kindness to understand how important that change was to the story.'

Q: What are the main similarities and differences in your creative process for writing prose and writing lyrics? 

'It depends on the song. If it’s first-person it’s an act of empathy, rather similar to forming a character in fiction. For a song to work, the singer must believe what he sings. Recently I’ve written more third-person songs with narratives; sometimes it’s remarkably similar to writing a short story.'