Sylvia Colley is a novelist and poet. Her first publication came at the age of ten with her poem ‘The Tramp’. Since then, she has had a long and successful career teaching English and drama. Her life and poetry have featured in a moving documentary on BBC Radio 4. We asked her about her latest novel and her writing inspiration.
1. Tell us a bit about yourself and your latest book Ask Me to Dance.
I don’t do quizzes. The reason I don’t do quizzes is because I can’t answer any of the questions and it makes me feel ignorant, which in some ways I am. I can’t answer many questions because all my life I have lived inside my head, imagining things, making up stories. The other day I fell over crossing a perfectly normal road because I was looking at a rather handsome, tall, middle-aged couple walking towards me and I began to construct a story around them, I didn’t look what I was doing, tripped on nothing in particular and fell flat on my face. Literally! I had a huge bruise on my forehead.
It has always been the same. Ever since I could hold a pencil I wrote poems, plays, stories, but most often I kept them in my head or spoke them out loud. I constructed a whole make-believe life, a family. My husband was a sailor called Roy. I had three children, a boy and two girls; I forget their names, but I know they woke me up crying for the orange juice in the bottle by my bed that I fed them with! And I remember when I suddenly realised it was all make-believe and silly and useless and was depressed for days!
In Ask Me to Dance Rose has a difficult childhood, much of which is autobiographical although she and the rest of the story are completely fictitious.
I always wanted to write novels. I got my degree in English Lit and then spent my working life teaching, being married, bringing up kids, you know how life gets in the way. But even then, I was always scribbling. I thought ‘I can’t be a real writer’, because if I was then I would get on with it. It was when I found myself alone (another story) that I wrote my first novel, Lights on Dark Water, and I was overcome by the stunning reviews. I thought, ‘Are they talking about my book?’.
2. Take us through your writing process. Are you particularly disciplined when it comes to writing?
I have no work timetable whatsoever. No discipline. I’ll make any excuse to not get down to my writing. Make soup, phone a friend, deadhead the flowers. You get the idea? I have published two books of poetry. The thing is, poems are quicker than novels! At least, they are for me. I’m three-quarters of the way through my next book, working title: It Could Have Been So Different, and apart from the odd scribble when I am on duty in the local museum with nothing else to do, I have done nothing towards the book for ages. That’s not quite true, I do sit and do a huge amount of thinking about it; my people and their lives.
3. What drives you to write novels?
I’ll tell you what drives me. It’s the not knowing. It’s the not really knowing anyone, what’s actually inside their heads. Even those closest to you, you can’t really know. But I can get inside the heads of my people, know them, know what they may not even know about themselves. For instance, in Ask Me to Dance, Rose doesn’t know why she feels so angry at times, but I do. Whereas she in turn can express to herself why she is like a nut hanging on a tree, but the kernel inside is dead. That’s why I write. Creating worlds, just as I did as a child, but hopefully shedding some light on why we are as we are.
4. This is the second novel you’ve published. Is there anything you’ve learnt from the process and done differently this time round?
What I am learning more as I go on and now I’m into my third novel, is to not be afraid of my own voice, of my own style. I don’t fuss about punctuation if it doesn’t work for me. I don’t have to write in complete sentences. Life is not complete sentences. It’s broken and unsure. So, I think I am learning through experience to not be afraid and certainly to not worry about what other people think.
5. Are there any particular books you’ve read that have served as inspiration for your own writing?
I don’t read as much as I should. It’s difficult reading fiction when you have taught it and when you write it. Well, it is for me. I’m sure I’m impatient, but the first paragraph of a book tells me if it’s from the heart. Who has influenced me? Graham Greene. There is nothing pretentious or self-conscious about his work, it’s wonderful! The Brontës. For their visual effects, the atmosphere – it’s there because it is real. I have always been besotted by cinema and when I write I have come to realise, I can see it all as if it were a film. You never know, one day perhaps.
You can learn more about Sylvia Colley via her website.