About The Author
Polly Samson's publishing success began early: she won a Blue Peter badge for story about a lonely badger.
She became publicity director at publisher Jonathan Cape at the age of just 24, before turning to journalism, writing reviews and features for The Sunday Times, The Observer and many other newspapers and magazines.
Her first collection of short stories, Lying in Bed, was published in 1999 and she has since published a novel and, recently, a second book of short stories. Her writing has also appeared in a number of short story anthologies.
She was formerly married to the writer Heathcote Williams. She is now married to guitarist David Gilmour and co-wrote many of the lyrics on Pink Floyd's final studio album, The Division Bell, and Gilmour's solo album, On an Island.
She was on the 2007 Costa Novel Award judging panel and names Rose Tremain's The Road Home, which was shortlisted for the prize, as her favourite recent work of fiction.
She is currently working on putting together a collection of Daphne du Maurier's early short stories for Virago.
Below the interview is a list of titles by Polly Samson currently in print in the UK. You may find other editions in our 'New and Used' section by typing the author's name into the Search field at the top of this page and selecting the 'Author Exact' filter to the far right of the Search field.
The Author At Foyles
We interview Polly Samson on the publication of her latest short story collection, Perfect Lives.
You began writing when you were very young [Polly won a Blue Peter badge for a short story about a lonely badger]. What age were you when you started to feel you might have a future as published author?
I was very secretive about my writing but when a friend of mine was seriously ill I gave her a story I’d written called Wasted Time. It was the first time I’d ever allowed anyone to read one and after she’d read it she made me promise that I’d enter it for a short story competition that she’d spotted in the Guardian. Because she was so ill I found myself agreeing. Apparently there were several thousand entries. My story didn’t win but it was the runner-up and after that I think I allowed myself to dream. Then Ed Victor called and asked if I he could read my stories. Wasted Time became the opening story in my first book Lying in Bed and I’m delighted to say that my dear friend made a full recovery.
Perhaps the central theme to this collection is the shortcomings and disappointments which can derail a seemingly perfect life. Do you think it is an aspect of human nature to never be satisfied?
I think a perfect life would be extremely unsatisfying. The first character we meet in the book is Celia who gives every impression of leading a perfect life and of being perfectly satisfied with her lot: she has a handsome husband, a taut figure, healthy children, a beautiful house beside the sea. But Celia is as brittle and rigid as a china doll and refuses to look beneath the glossy surface of her life. When she is forced to lift the rock she comes face to face with the creepy crawlies that have been there all along. It is only by acknowledging them that Celia’s life can become anything close to satisfying. However, if it were human nature to feel satisfied I suppose we would all still be living in caves.
Many of your characters have artisan-type jobs or interests – a piano tuner, an artist who creates rugs, an amateur photographer. Do you think creativity and self-expression are a central part of feeling satisfied with life?
I’m not sure that it has to be creativity or self-expression particularly but I do think that happiness comes along as a by-product of being focussed on something. I suppose this feeling is best summed up by the character Tilda who has been forced to give up her job as a picture restorer when her husband is called back by his domineering mother to run the family farm. A life as a dairy farmer’s wife doesn’t suit Tilda. She has a baby but is suffering from post-natal depression and fears that she doesn’t quite love him. It is only when there is a fire and she almost loses her baby that Tilda finds the necessary focus to be happy again.
The stories are interwoven, with some characters popping up in later instalments. Was this always the plan or did you find some of them such interesting characters to work with that you found you wanted to make broader use of them?
I didn’t have a plan. The first character I wrote was Richard the piano tuner. He is in a bad way because stage fright has put an end to all his hopes and dreams of becoming a concert pianist. As I took him into houses to tune pianos I started to become fascinated by each of the characters whose pianos he was tuning. To him they all appeared to lead such perfect lives so part of the fun was to revisit each of them and reveal what was really happening behind the scenes. It was almost as if they all clamoured to have their stories told too. It was quite a magical process and I really started to enjoy myself. I love that feeling of coming across people in books that I’ve met before, it’s that six-degrees of separation thing, and it’s always good to see people from different angles and to let each character have their moment in the spotlight. I very much enjoyed giving Richard his happy ending too.
There are many particularly appetising descriptions of food in the stories. Do they play symbolic roles in the stories?
Yes, the food is there to add to the atmosphere and tell something more about each character. Celia, for example, has brittle food: I mean ginger thins and black coffee for breakfast is quite an odd choice but is there to contrast with the bounteous feast (cheese that was so ripe it had to be scooped out with a spoon, etc.) that she presented to her husband at the party where her life was blown apart by one of the guests. Richard the piano tuner exists on limp, rather flaccid food which I’ve used to show how defeated by life he’s become. The character of Morganna offers delicious little morsels that made me feel hungry while I was writing them. Her ghastly husband has run off with a younger woman and I used the sensuous food, among other things, to make it clear to everyone else just what he was missing.
Some of your characters’ misfortune comes about through a lack of honesty. Is there an idea here that true happiness is only possible for those who are true to themselves?
Gnothi seauton, from Delphi, the Ancient Greek aphorism meaning know thyself has always struck me as the best possible aim in life.
You have a very assured writing style, switching between the mundane and the poetic quite seamlessly. Does your writing go through many drafts before you find the right tone?
It goes through many drafts and also many readings aloud. I always read every new draft to my husband. By the time I’m happy with it he’s heard it so many times that he can practically recite it from memory.
You’ve written in many different forms: a novel, short stories, journalism and song lyrics [Polly wrote with David Gilmour for Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell and his solo album On An Island]. Do you find that these different forms make different demands on your writing skills?
I used to be able to write a thousand words of journalism in a couple of hours but since then the very intense process of writing fiction has turned me into such a perfectionist that it would now take me a month to find the right words. Song lyrics are closer to fiction because I try to get under the skin of the person who will sing them so it’s almost like writing in the voice of a character.
Rose Tremain once said that she found short stories much harder to write than novel-length fiction as they don’t offer any room for tangents. Do you find that writing short-form fiction makes you focus more on what’s central to the story?
I think Perfect Lives comes somewhere between a novel and a book of stories because each story works at a tangent to several others.
You have plenty of experience in publishing [Polly was made a director at Jonathan Cape at the age of just twenty-four]. Do you think that tempers your excitement at seeing your books on sale, knowing what a crowded market all authors face?
Publishing was a very different place when I worked in it: it was all wood panelled offices, and ‘I urge you to read this’. ‘Marketing’ was a bit of a dirty word because everyone still believed that the best writers would rise to the top. If I stop to think about the crowded market and all the really great books that are probably not being published because of the concentration on ‘blockbusters’ I become very sad.
Have you had any thoughts on what your next writing project might be?
Yes, it’s a novel and I’m longing to get on with it. I wake each morning thinking about it and make notes before I get out of bed. There’s a bit of research to do before I can get under the skin of one of the main characters. Also, there are some lyrics to write for David, a short story prize to judge (the Asham Award) and an introduction to write for a book of recently discovered Daphne du Maurier short stories that Virago will publish next year, which is both an honour and a joy.