By Leslie Lindsay
Eleven interconnected stories set in the bucolic English seaside town in which everyone is a little skewed and searching …for love, belonging, pleasures, and more.
~DECEMBER SHORT STORIES SERIES~
Lately I’ve had a love affair with wry, enchanting short stories that bring to mind nature and our connection to it–and also the inner lives of deliciously flawed characters. PERFECT LIVES (Bloomsbury, 2010) by Polly Samson absolutely fits the bill. Her writing is keenly observed in the nuances of family life and also the small town feel of this enmeshed seaside community.
There’s a broken egg dropped through a mail slot, a boy who glances his babysitter at a circus on a trapeze, a struggling postpartum mother, a piano tuner, some gorgeous architecture, and more. The stories meander and trail along in a fashion that is both exquisite and nuanced, and at times, I struggled to find the connections between them, but characters do resurface, and like a true-life village, ‘bump’ into one another time and time again. Samson’s strength lies in details and observations. It made me want to be a voyeur on Evrika Street.
“A cycle of intersecting stories describes the lives that make up an English seaside community—their joys, regrets, and various embarrassments. Samson is gifted in her understanding of and patience for the variety of human experience.”
PERFECT LIVES may not be very long–my edition is 194 pages–but the prose is dense and the stories deep, leaving a residue. It’s not the kind of book you read in a rush; take your time to savor, and perhaps re-read, looking for themes and motifs, because they are most certainly there.
PERFECT LIVES has been recognized as one of the best books of the year (2009) by the Sunday Times (London), the Evening Standard, the Spectator, and the Telegraph, as well as a recognition from O, The Oprah Magazine.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Polly Samson to the author interview series.
Polly, thank you so much for taking the time. I am always interested in beginnings. What prompted this collection? Was it singular story that you decided to stay with a little longer, a character, a situation, a place? Something else?
Thank you for inviting me Leslie, and for your kind words about PERFECT LIVES. I wrote the stories over a period of almost a decade in the hiatus following the publication in my thirties of my first collection of stories and my first novel. The reason I took ten years was that I had a houseful of small children and had taken a decision not to shut myself away while they were so young, a luxury I know. The first story I wrote was the last in the collection, Remote Control, and was commissioned by the BBC as part of a series. The other great influence was that I had decided to take piano lessons alongside my children. It was much harder for me! Being in my forties meant hacking through forests along the neural pathways and I practiced for hours. Pianos found a way into many of the stories and provided a link between Richard, the failed concert-pianist turned piano tuner, and some of the residents of other stories.
Also, I am curious if there is a difference between ‘interlinked/interconnected stories’ and a ‘novel in short stories?’ They sound a bit the same, but maybe not. Can you explain?
Publishers have long been disappointed when an author turns in a collection of stories rather than a full-blown novel. I think there’s a rather self-fulfilling prophecy that “stories don’t sell” so I was pleasantly surprised when Virago didn’t package PERFECT LIVES as “a novel in stories” for which there was quite a vogue at the time I find it slightly dishonest as stories are such different beasts to novels. That said, I do love collections of stories with links. OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout, Alice Munroe’s THE BEGGAR MAID, Melissa Banks’s THE GIRL’S GUIDE TO HUNTING AND FISHING are three that come to mind and remain firm favourites.
As for Evrika Street, can you set the scene a little? Is it located in Brighton, where you reside, or a made-up place? Were did you draw your inspiration?
Evrika Street is a made up place. I named it in memory of a recently-deceased friend’s boat, a place he was always happy. It means “eureka” in Greece so fits with the sudden realisations that take place in the lives that I’ve set there. The stories are all take place in and around Brighton although I didn’t yet live there. My children were all about to start school in Brighton and, as we didn’t want them to spend all their free time traveling, we had decided to move. I wasn’t feeling entirely optimistic about this as I was wedded to our life in rural England and was nervous about living in a town again. Writing stories set in Brighton helped me to come to terms with the town, and to get to know it, and, as it turned out, as soon as we did move there I found I loved it, with a passion, particularly having the sea on our doorstop.
I love, loved these descriptions of the homes and architecture in PERFECT LIVES, “The porches of the houses had fluted pillars; there were curlicues and garlands. The plasterwork reminded Rose of her first wedding cake, the one she’d cut […]” But I have a ‘thing’ for architecture and design and especially neighborhoods. What is it about homes that you think draw us in? We’re all a little voyeuristic, aren’t we?
I think the only really important thing about houses are the people who live in them. I do enjoy setting the scene – I have to be able to visualize every aspect of the home before I start writing. There are often more telling details on a coffee table, for example, than there are in what someone may volunteer to reveal. Objects often speak louder than words, I find. I remember once reading a novel by a good friend, someone whose books I loved, which featured a woman who worked in an attic. In Chapter Three she rises from her desk and walks out of French Windows into her garden. I had to stop reading. A mistake like that signals to me that the writer hasn’t fully imagined the world.
One of my favorite stories was ‘A Regular Cherub.’ Even though my own children are 12 and 14 years old, I am suddenly very interested in those early postpartum days. Can you talk about what inspired this one and also—do you have a story in this collection you feel a particular affinity toward?
I didn’t realise it at the time but looking back I did have a (luckily mild) depression following the birth of one of my sons. I can remember despairing that he wasn’t a bonny baby. I would cry when people visited if they said something like “oooh, I love his little hat,” as all I would hear is “what a shame the baby is so ugly”! Later, I looked at his baby pictures and could see that he was gorgeous: a regular cherub. I don’t think I can claim a greater affinity towards one of the stories, it would be like picking a favourite child!
Maybe you see what you want to see, because reading and writing is sort of a partnership…but in terms of themes and motifs, I kept finding eggs. Maybe it’s about beginnings. Or life. Or maybe I’m completely off. Can you speak to that, please?
Oh goodness, it all feels like another lifetime. I’ve written two novels since PERFECT LIVES was published so the data has been wiped to make way for the new things. I can say that the egg shell scene in the first story, The Egg, still makes me feel quite nauseous. I do have a shell-phobia and I can remember reading that story at festivals and really struggling to get the words out without retching in front of the audience. I suppose children figure in all the stories because they were the people I was spending most time with in the years before these stories poured out.
What three things can you not stop thinking or talking about?
My new novel, A THEATRE FOR DREAMERS, which is being published in the UK in April 2020. I am currently doing final corrections to the proofs. It’s been a few years but I can’t stop thinking and talking about the characters, some of whom are real people, Leonard Cohen, Marianne Ihlen, Charmian Clift and then, of course, there’s the island of Hydra in Greece where the action takes place.
Polly, this has been most intriguing. Thank you for taking the time. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
Thank you Leslie for these excellent questions. I can’t think you’ve forgotten a thing and it has been lovely to be reminded of the stories in PERFECT LIVES.
Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Please follow on Instagram for more like this
For more information, to connect with Polly Samson via social media, or to purchase a copy of PERFECT LIVES, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Polly Samson was born in London in 1962. Her father, Lance Samson, was originally from Hamburg but came to London in 1938 on the Kindertransport. Her mother, Esther Cheo Ying, is the author of Black Country to Red China, a memoir that moves from Shanghai to Dr Barnardo’s and back to China where she became a Major in Mao’s Army.
In the seventies the family moved first to Cornwall, then Devon. A solitary child, Polly began writing and illustrating stories and poems from an early age. Eventually, after many attempts, a story about a lonely badger won a Blue Peter badge. It was the high point of her childhood. There were few high points at school and she was eventually asked to leave the sixth form of Newton Abbot Grammar School after which she spent a year working as a telex operator for a clay company.
At eighteen she moved to London and at her grandmother’s insistence got a job in publishing. Eighties publishing turned out to be a world she loved and thrived in and at the age of twenty-four she was appointed to the board of Jonathan Cape.
Polly Samson’s first collection of stories, Lying in Bed, was published by Virago in April 1999 and was picked as a “Book of the Year” by both Susan Hill and Cressida Connolly. Her first novel, Out of the Picture, was published by Virago in April 2000 and was short-listed for the Authors’ Club first novel award. Perfect Lives, Polly Samson’s second collection of stories, published by Virago in October 2010 was a Sunday Times Fiction Choice of the year, was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize and was read on BBC Radio 4. The story Ivan Knows was shortlisted for the VS Pritchett Award. In 2011 Polly wrote the introduction to Daphne du Maurier’s The Doll and Other Stories. She has been on the judging panel for many literary prizes including the Costa Novel of the Year Award and the overall Costa Book of the Year.
Polly Samson wrote the lyric to Louder Than Words on Pink Floyd’s The Endless River which reached the top of the charts in 2014. Her latest novel is The Kindness.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these online platforms:
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[Cover and author image courtesy of P. Samson and used with permission. Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Please follow on Instagram for more like this]