Stephan Collishaw will be reading
from and discussing their new book - Amber - at Waterstones in Nottingham
on Thursday, 15th July 2004. Find
out more details...
Nottinghamshire author Stephan Collishaw has just
launched his second novel - Amber - at the Lowdham Book Festival.
The book follows a Lithuanian who
gets conscripted into the Russian army to fight in Afghanistan.
It examines how people get sucked
into spirals of brutality. How the brutalized often brutalise others
Here Stephan tells us about growing up in Nottinghamshire, marrying
in Lithuania, studying at Nottingham Trent University and his passion
for Marlowe and itchy feet.
What are your defining memories
of growing up in Nottinghamshire?
I was born in the Nottingham City Hospital and for the first
20 years of my life lived within a mile of it sandwiched
between Basford and Bestwood. It was a normal rough and tumble upbringing
on a quiet working-class housing estate; football on the street,
fights after school. A couple of things made it different for me
though. The first was that we did not have a television which
meant I probably read more books as a child than I otherwise might
have, and I was asthmatic, which made chasing round after balls
hard work. I started to skip school to miss PE when I was a fifth
year. I would either skulk away to play my clarinet in the schools
music room, or go down to the park where I would write stories in
the style of Guy de Maupassant who I had just been introduced to,
courtesy of my English lessons.
You say you failed to get an education at comprehensive school.
Why did you decide to go back - as a teacher?
Going to university was one of the most exciting times of my
life. I had been convinced that I was a failure after doing so badly
at school and so it was with enormous gratitude that I accepted
my place at Goldsmiths College in London. The summer before my results
came through I took a job at a Wimpey fast food restaurant and was
considering taking on a job as trainee manager there, should I not
get the results I needed. Once I was at University, though, and
was heading for a decent degree, I had no idea what I should do
next. My love was reading literature and history - and I
didnt know any jobs that paid you to do that. Finally on a
long holiday walking around Czechoslovakia on my own in 1991, I
decided that I would become a teacher. It was really, I think, the
only profession I could think of at that time but also I
had fallen in love with traveling and thought it would be a useful
trade to have if I wanted to go and live abroad.
When did you first start writing?
The first thing I attempted to write after the stories
I penned while bunking off school was a novel when I was
16. It was of course unremittingly awful and I realized then and
there, that if I ever wanted to write a good novel then I would
have to do a lot of reading. I started reading anything I could
get my hands on, from Dick Francis to Virginia Woolfe. From Agatha
Christie to Kafka. I really loved the plays of Christopher Marlowe
Doctor Faustas and Tamberlaine. An image from Tamberlaine
burned itself into my brain and this image, almost 20 years
later, became the central scene in my second novel Amber. In fact
Amber derives almost directly from my passionate reading of Marlowe
at the age of 17.
My reading took me on a journey to University and while studying
I lost sight of what I was there for. Once I had taken on my first
teaching job, in Forest Fields in Nottingham, I began writing again.
I wrote a short novel, then a real novel. I was really proud of
the fact that I had managed to do it to write a full-length
novel. The only other person who has read it is my wife. I hid it
away. Later I gave it to my brother who is an artist to read to
get his opinion, but he lost it before he got a chance to read it.
It disappeared and I had no other copy of it.
I started a new novel but at the same time I was getting
fed up of teaching in Nottingham. I longed to break out and do something
What inspired you to pack up your bags, your teaching job and
move to Lithuania?
I thought about moving to Zambia to join a friend there. I had
been to Zambia and Zimbabwe three times and been enormously attracted
to the place. Instead, though, I decided to do my PhD. Before I
started I traveled around Eastern Europe with a friend in
a mini bus from Warsaw to Skopje and back. Each day my friend would
tempt me come and live out in Eastern Europe. I resisted
until the last day of the trip, when, in a dirty little café
in northern Poland something clicked in my head and I knew I had
to jump. I briefly went back to England to sort out my affairs,
then took the bus to Lithuania, a country about which I knew virtually
nothing. I had packed into my bag my unfinished second novel. I
decided I would give myself a year to finish it.
How did Vilnius compare to Nottinghamshire?
Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, where I rented an apartment
in a Breshnev era Soviet housing block, was just a different world
to Nottingham. The city is beautiful, Baroque architecture, a sky
full of church spires. I fell immediately in love with its winding
cobbled streets, its parks and cafes, with the crumbling buildings
and overgrown courtyards. I drank coffee in small back street cafes,
wandered the streets, made friends and began learning Lithuanian.
On the first of November it began to snow and it did not let up
for six months. The city was blanketed with snow. Cars parked at
the side of the streets were lost beneath the drifts. The temperature
plummeted to minus 28, so that it burned your face as you walked.
But it was a tough year for the Lithuanians. The euphoria of independence
had worn off, the economy was in crisis two banks collapsed
that winter almost bringing down the government with them - and
violent crime soared. Life was tough, but because people couldnt
trust the banks, or know what might be happening a few days into
the future, there was also a heady feeling in the air. People lived
for the day. They were crazy, wild, vivacious. When I briefly visited
Nottingham in the January it seemed everybody here was walking around
in a bubble, cut off from reality. I was supposed to stay home for
two weeks, but after the first week I changed my tickets and flew
back to Vilnius as quickly as I could.
In 2001 you moved back to Nottinghamshire
to do a writing course at Nottingham Trent University...
My Lithuanian wife and I had moved to
Palma de Mallorca, where we lived for a couple of years, but we
were very poor and life was tough. Also by this time I had written
three novels, none of which I had shown to anybody apart from my
wife. She was pressing me to take my writing more seriously. Back
in England, when I saw the advertisement for the MA in Writing,
she forced me to do it. We had no money and less time but I pressed
on. The workshopping sessions on the course were very honest
it can be a very brutal process for an insecure writer to go through
to have your writing picked to pieces in front of you by a group
of your peers, but an incredibly good discipline if you can take
it. I became much more self-conscious about my work in the best
way. I would look now for the best word. Would examine my prose
to see where it was working and where it was weak before I let anyone
see it. More than that, the course offered me the opportunity to
see that published writers were not a higher race, but that they
were ordinary people like myself who had had to go through the same
struggle that I was now going through.
What inspired - Amber - your new novel?
I began my new novel soon after I finished
writing The Last Girl, in the early spring of 2001. At that time
Afghanistan had fallen off the Western worlds map. My brother-in-law
in Lithuania had been conscripted into the Soviet army as all young
men were back in the late 1980s. He didnt fight in Afghanistan
- he had only been in the army about a month when he was beaten
up so badly he was hospitalised and had to be operated on. The medical
care that he received was not much better and it ruined his eyesight
and affected his brain. He is basically an invalid now. He hates
people touching him and cant stand his nails being clipped
or his hair cut. He says he can hear his brain cells popping. He
is a lovely boy but basically the brutality of the army broke him.
I was interested in examining how
people get sucked into spirals of brutality. How the brutalized
often brutalise others in turn. Half way through writing the novel
Britain with America invaded Afghanistan. I watched the news astounded.
But it grew more ironic still when the Allies invaded Iraq. I was
redrafting my novel by then. One evening I sat down to watch the
news. There was a British general talking and what he said mirrored
more or less exactly the things that the Soviet generals had been
saying in Afghanistan. Just recently of course we have seen how
the brutal condition in Iraq have led to our own troops brutalizing
Iraqis. There is nothing new under the sun, we know, but it is ironic
and terrible just how little we learn from the past.
Have you now settled in Nottinghamshire?
Or can you imagine a new book idea taking you off to foreign climes
I continually long to travel. I find
visiting new countries incredibly stimulating. With three children
it gets a bit more difficult though. We intend staying in Nottingham
while the children are growing up, though we visit Lithuania regularly
and hope to settle there, perhaps, later. In fact, though, to be
a writer you have to have a pretty boring routine. I have to sit
at my computer day after day for months on end with no distractions,
and I need all my reference books around me so I cant move.
When I was living in Lithuania life was so exciting I did no writing
at all why sit on your own in a quiet room to write if youre
able to have a good time?
What does your wife think of the move
from the continent to Nottinghamshire?
In some ways she has settled very well
and loves certain aspects of English life but other aspects frustrate
her. Eastern Europeans generally find English politeness very difficult.
In Eastern Europe everybody makes it clear what they think, if they
like you, if they are likely to help you, if they are angry with
you its clear! But here in England we hide all our emotions
and they arent able to read the subtle hints we use to tell
each other what were thinking. She also doesnt understand
the concept of rambling why would anybody want to go and
wander around in the fields, she wants to know. My friend, the poet
Nigel Pickard, and I take great delight in winding her up by planning
long rambles to be followed by afternoon tea.
Stephan Collishaw will be reading
from and discussing his new novel - Amber - at Waterstones in Notttingham
on Thursday, 15th July 2004. To find out more check out our book
Find out more about Stephan and his new book Amber at www.stephancollishaw.com
The BBC is not responsible
for the content of external websites.