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June 2004
Stephan Collishaw interview
Amber - the new novel by Stephan Collishaw - book cover
Amber - the new novel by Stephan Collishaw
Nottinghamshire author - Stephan Collishaw - on life, travel and books.
Lowdham Book Festival
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Stephan Collishaw
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Stephan Collishaw...
I was born and brought up in Nottingham, Basford area, went to Ellis Guilford. Left at the age of 21 to go to university in London but when I'd qualified as a teacher came back to teach for a couple of years. I Left again to live abroad (Lithuania, Spain) but then returned five or six years ago with a wife and three kids.

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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.

Stephan Collishaw
Stephan Collishaw

It examines how people get sucked into spirals of brutality. How the brutalized often brutalise others in turn.

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 school’s 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 didn’t 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 adventurous.

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 couldn’t 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 world’s map. My brother-in-law in Lithuania had been conscripted into the Soviet army as all young men were back in the late 1980’s. He didn’t 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 can’t 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 again?
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 can’t 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 you’re 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 aren’t able to read the subtle hints we use to tell each other what we’re thinking. She also doesn’t 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 events listings.

Find out more about Stephan and his new book Amber at

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites.

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