Hannah Collisson talks to author and lyricist Polly Samson about her latest novel and writing for legendary rock band Pink Floyd
Polly Samson’s second novel has taken her five years to complete, but she describes it as the best thing she has ever done.
The Kindness scrutinises family relationships exploring the themes of love, grief, betrayal and secrets.
It has been described as a “domestic thriller”, a term which Polly is happy to accept.
“I think it was Rowan Pelling who said that, and as soon as she said it, I thought, you’ve really got it.”
We are talking in the living room of the home on Hove seafront she shares with her husband, Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, and their children.
Brighton and Hove seafront has been instrumental in the writing of this book, as Polly would walk miles, she explains, writing and re-writing the plot in her head.
“There’s something about walking that really helps those thoughts, so that by the time I get back to my room at the top of the house to write, I know exactly what I’m doing.”
The central characters in The Kindness are Julia and Julian, lovers who give up everything to be together, but the relationship is not straightforward and things unravel when their daughter Mira becomes ill.
“I always sound like a mad person when I talk about my characters,” says Polly. “My characters just arrive fully named, they come like imaginary friends.
“I’ve never really been conscious of inventing or naming them.
“At one point an agent or publisher said you can’t have characters called Julia and Julian, but actually by that point I couldn’t rename them because they were Julia and Julian.”
The spark for her latest novel, which has already received rave reviews, was her great-uncle Heino – a photographer, and the only person to photograph artist Mark Rothko.
“When I was 11 he died, and my parents always protected me and said he had a heart attack, but it didn’t ring true.
“I kept coming across photographs he’d taken of a little girl and I didn’t know who she was, and it was when I was much older that I finally managed to have the conversation, and she was his daughter.”
Heino had married, says Polly, and they found out they couldn’t have children, so a friend of theirs who was about to move to America offered to help, and before he left Heino’s wife was pregnant.
As the situation worsened for European Jews, they moved from Hamburg to Paris, before Heino sent his wife and daughter to America for safety.
He was captured and imprisoned twice and by the time he got to America it was too late, his wife had fallen in love with his daughter’s biological father.
“In the end the misery of it all just did it for him and he just couldn’t cope anymore,” says Polly.
“That had always lodged with me, and this novel isn’t set in the Holocaust, but it’s taken that basic idea and the struggle that they all must have had to work out what was right.”
She adds that the actual events in her book are however fictional.
Polly’s own family history is an interesting one; both her parents came to this country as refugees. Her Jewish father escaped the Nazis via Kindertransport, while her mother, half Chinese and half English, fled the Japanese on a boat from China.
“I hadn’t realised for how long I had wanted to write this book,” says Polly. “The other day I was going through some old papers.
“When I was first working in publishing in London when I was really young, I was very, very lonely and I used to – it was before the internet – write lots of letters to friends at home just in order to get letters back really.
“I knew it was from quite a miserable, lonely time, so I’d never wanted to look inside. The other day I thought this is ridiculous, it’s been 30 years, I must look in this trunk, so I opened it and there were all the photographs and letters, and out came this notebook, and it had this novel plotted out.”
Aged 18 Polly got a secretarial job at publishing house Macmillan, was rapidly promoted, and by 24 was publicity director at Jonathan Cape.
She then became a freelance journalist, writing for the Observer, Guardian, and Sunday Times.
Her choosing publishing was down to her paternal grandmother, who had studied literature at Munich University, quite unusual at the turn of the century.
“She was very literary,” says Polly. “Throughout my childhood she would send me a book and to get the next one I’d have to write a little review and send it to her.
“By the time I was a rather dissolute 18 year old with no qualifications I had the idea that I was going to be a secretary and marry the local boy who I was engaged to.”
Her grandmother objected and told her she should come and live in London and work in publishing.
“I didn’t have any friends in London so all I did was read. I was the employee who when a typescript came in, the next morning I would have read it.
“I loved it, I really felt like I’d arrived at the place where I would become educated, which indeed I did.”
During this period, Polly was also writing for herself, as she had done since being a child.
“I was more or less an only child; I have got two half brothers but they were much older, and we lived in the middle of nowhere,” says Polly.
“My parents were very much a unit of two; I don’t know why they would have had a child. My childhood was, I wouldn’t say it was lonely because I was very happy, but alone.
“So that meant a lot of reading and wandering around with imaginary friends, and writing. So I always wrote, and I didn’t think of it as writing for anyone to read.”
It was only in the late 1990s when Polly was around 30 that things changed.
“A friend came to stay and she had leukaemia; it was thought at the time she wouldn’t survive, though in fact she did.
“I thought, we can’t talk about her illness and impending death the entire time.”
Running out of ideas, Polly eventually asked her friend if she would like to read some things she had written. The answer was yes.
“About a week later she said: ‘There’s one thing you can do for me. There’s a short story competition in the Guardian, I want you to promise you will enter it.’”
Polly did so, was a runner-up from thousands of entries, which gave her the confidence to take her stories to a literary agent.
She wrote her first novel Out Of The Picture in just six weeks.
“I was in a terrific hurry for it to come out because I was very unconfident then.
“My book of short stories was about to come out, and I had a contract to write a novel. I thought in a very pessimistic way that I’d get really bad reviews and lose all my confidence and never write again.
“So I had this feeling of having to write my novel before that one was published.”
Polly’s second short story collection, Perfect Lives, was a Sunday Times Fiction Choice of the Year.
As well as writing fiction, Polly somewhat incongruously began writing lyrics with husband David Gilmour, including seven tracks on Pink Floyd’s number one album The Division Bell.
It came about by accident, says Polly, when her then boyfriend David would come back from the studio with tunes with no lyrics, and she would make suggestions.
In 2006 she collaborated with David again on his album On An Island, and they continue to work together.
She wrote the lyrics to Louder Than Words on Pink Floyd’s 2014 album The Endless River.
“When I’ve got a new song to write I just have it on my iPod on repeat and walk for three hours,” says Polly. “I work out what the tone is and what [David] is trying to say, and then I start singing things.
“Now that we’re writing again, I’ve really found my feet and I really feel proud of what I’m doing.”
- The Kindness by Polly Samson (Bloomsbury) is out now.