[Interview] Clive Collins

Clive Collins is a lecturer at the University of Tokyo in Japan.

He has also taught at The Open University in Northern Ireland and at the University of Sierra Leone's Fourah Bay College.

His books include the award-winning short story collection, Misunderstandings (Marion Boyars Publishers, 1993); the novels, The Foreign Husband (Marion Boyars Publishers, 1989) and Sachiko's Wedding (Marion Boyars Publishers, 1990; Penguin Books, 1991) as well as the blog novel, The Fat White Woman.

In this email interview, Collins talks about his concerns as a writer.

When did you start writing?

As a child I was telling stories before I was able to write them. My mother was a wonderful storyteller and passed the gift (or is it a curse?) on to me.

I loved essay writing when I was at school, the greater the scope for using my imagination, the better.

I was blessed in having some wonderful teachers for English and also for history. In particular, I remember a man called Jack Pearson, who taught me English for three years at what used to be Alderman Newton's School for Boys in Leicester. Then, when I got to university, the head of English was the novelist, journalist and critic Walter Allen.

In time, Walter became a friend as a well as a teacher. He was always an inspiration. I dedicated my first published novel to him. Unfortunately, he wasn't that keen on the book!

How did you decide you wanted to be a published writer?

I wrote a short story in my second year as an undergraduate and thought that it was good enough to be published. It never appeared in print but I was able to submit it and a couple of other pieces for consideration as part of my degree.

The work received praise from Walter Allen and the poet Andrew Waterman, another of my teachers. That was the point at which I thought I could be published and probably it was also the point at which I wanted to be published.

After two years as a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh I got a job teaching in Sierra Leone, West Africa. I was in Sierra Leone from 1974 to 1980 learning how to teach, stumbling through life and trying to complete my dissertation for Edinburgh. During my last year in Sierra Leone, I began what I knew could turn out to be a novel. Three years later, it was. I was living in Tokyo by that time.

On my first trip back to the U.K., I contacted a literary agent whose name I had been given by a friend. The agent took me on the strength of that first manuscript. He wasn't able to place the novel and then disliked my second but, with the third, which he did like, he placed me with Marion Boyars, who had not long split with John Calder. She had a brilliant list. I used to appear right after Jean Cocteau.

How would you describe your writing?

That's a very difficult question and I'm going to duck it by saying that if I could describe the writing I do, I wouldn't be doing it.

Who is your target audience?

I know that writers are supposed to know the audience they write for, but I don't. I might be more successful if I did.

I think I write for people who enjoy straight ahead fiction with a strong narrative and well-rounded characters.

In the writing you are doing, who would you say influenced you most?

Again, this is a difficult question. I don't think that I am consciously influenced by anyone -- I hope I'm not, certainly. At the same time, however, there are writers whose work I admire.

I re-read [Charles] Dickens regularly. I'm a big fan of Henry James, Edith Wharton and Joseph Conrad. It may be unfashionable to say so, but I still read D. H. Lawrence. I think he is one of the most important writers in English.

I think The Great Gatsby is almost perfect.

I admire Bernard Malamud's work, particularly A New Life, The Assistant and Dubin's Lives. I think that Penelope Fitzgerald was a wonderful writer, one of the very best. J. L. Carr's A Month in the Country is a flawless gem of a book.

I'm a big fan of William Trevor's work.

I finished reading The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen just last week and found myself wondering why I bother. The quality of her prose is stunning.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

I don't consciously have any concerns as a writer. I have a story, an idea, an image, a phrase. If other people can see concerns in the stories then fine, but they aren't why I start writing.

A good friend from my time in West Africa reads what I write more or less as I write it. A few weeks ago I sent her a copy of Carr's A Month in the Country. After reading it she wrote to say how much she had enjoyed the novel.

Her first feeling, she said, was "… a sort of exquisite sadness, and regret. A feeling that life can be beautiful but some people just are not allowed inside and have to stand on the periphery where it is not always so beautiful. That’s how I feel when I read your books."

Perhaps that answers this question and the one before as well.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

It would be disingenuous of me to say that my personal experiences have not influenced my writing.

In terms of setting alone I've written novels the action of which takes place in countries where I have lived. I also write about experiences that I've undergone, but I try very hard not to write thinly disguised autobiography; my second novel, for example, is narrated by a Japanese woman. In fact, I feel most comfortable writing in the voice of a woman or from a woman's point of view.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

The biggest challenge now is to keep writing in the face of rejection by publishers. I deal with this with the support of a few people who know me and know my work.

The novelist and non-fiction writer Richard Beard was my colleague here in Tokyo for two years. When he came out he had four novels in print and a book about Rugby Union (Muddied Oafs) just about to appear. I hadn't published anything for ten years by then, but Richard treated me as a fellow writer. In fact, he got me working again.

The Irish poet, Andrew Fitzsimons is another great support.

How many books have you written so far?

I've written eight novels and two collections of short pieces, but only two of the novels and one book of short stories have been published.

The Foreign Husband (Marion Boyars Publishers, 1989) is a story of expatriates in Tokyo and what happens when one of them becomes involved with a deeply damaged young Japanese woman.

Sachiko's Wedding (Marion Boyars Publishers, 1990; Penguin Books, 1991) -- the novel is narrated by Sachiko Miura, a Japanese woman, during her wedding party. She recounts her life from her earliest years right up to the moment of her marriage, a life she has lived in a country where there "are no women … only daughters and wives." Those words from Takeshi Ebisaka form the epigraph to the novel and pretty much sum up the life of the central character.

Misunderstandings (Marion Boyars Publishers, 1993) -- the stories are set in Colorado, Leicester and Tokyo. The central group of stories, all set in Tokyo, attempt to do a Japanese Dubliners. I think that the stories included in this book, particularly "A Slight Misunderstanding" and "A Blue Ribbon", are the best things I've done.

Do you write everyday?

Yes, I try to write a minimum of five hundred words every day.

Saturdays, Sundays, Mondays and Fridays, I write in any spare moment I can find. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays I write in the morning.

Usually I go into a Starbucks coffee shop close to where I work. I sit down, take out my Palm and the little wireless keyboard that goes with it, my notebook. I drink the coffee and get started by reading through yesterday's writing. Once that is done I get going on the new stuff, often working from notes but just as often, sailing along unguided. The sessions always end when I reach a point at which I can safely break off and am confident of being able to continue from on the following day.

What is your latest book about?

My latest book is called Cheap Music. It took a long while to write as it began as a growing collection of short fictions. Then, last summer, I realized that many of the stories were really about the same character at different points in his life.

I decided to try and turn the stories into a novel by folding them into a novella I had written.

In terms of narrative form, this is the most ambitious thing I've ever attempted. My agent didn't like the book at first but he put me in touch with a wonderful editor, Joan Deitch, who gave me some very constructive criticism and advice.

The book is just about to start doing the rounds of publishers. Last autumn, I entered it in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest. There were thousands of entries. Cheap Music made the equivalent of the long list of one hundred, which I thought was pretty good going for what is a very English piece of work.

The whole manuscript was read and assessed by Publishers Weekly. Of Cheap Music, the reviewer said that this "story of growing up timid, fatherless, bullied and Irish in post-war England restores a vanished era entirely … The controlled blend of humor, portent, and pathos is nearly flawless …".

Which aspects of the work you put into the book did you find most difficult?

The novel has a large number of narrators. The big difficulty was in making clear to the reader just who was talking and when.

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?

Recreating the sort of world that I had grown up in but yet making sure that it was a fictive one.

What sets the book apart from other things you've written?

The narrative modes. I've done third person and first person, omniscient narrators, dramatised narrators, but this has the lot and it was dizzying trying to pull them all together. I doubt I ever would have managed to do so without Joan Deitch's advice.

In what way is it similar?

The book grew out of the last two stories in Misunderstandings, so, in that way, it's similar in terms of setting and character. The MacNamara family from "Telling Stories" reappears in this book and the reader follows Stevie, the boy at the centre of "Telling Stories" into his late middle age.

What will your next book be about?

I'm now working on a book set in the first two years of the 1960s. It's about a young man, a saxophone player, who gives up his place at London University to hang around the murkier edges of the Soho music scene.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

I now understand that just getting published was a pretty significant achievement, but, really, winning half of the Macmillan Silver PEN Award has been the pinnacle of my career so far. I value the award because books submitted for consideration have to be nominated by writers who are members of English PEN. The judging is done by writers. The publishing trade plays no part in the process at all.

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