Polly Samson was born in London in 1962 and grew up in the West Country. Her first job was in the clay industry, her second in publishing. At the age of twenty-four she became a director of Jonathan Cape and subsequently became a journalist, including a three year stint at the shallow end of the Sunday Times. Since the early 1990s, Polly has written lyrics with David Gilmour, firstly for Pink Floyd's The Division Bell and latterly for On an Island, both of which went straight to number one. She has been on the judging panel for the Costa Prize, and will judge the 2011 Asham Prize for Virago. Polly has four children and four stepchildren, and lives with her family in London and on the South coast. Her previous collection, Lying in Bed, was followed by a novel, Out of the Picture.

Short Story Collections

Perfect Lives
(Virago, 2010)

reviewed by Michelle Reale

Lying in Bed

Interview with Polly Samson

The Short Review: How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?

Polly Samson: The first story to be written was Remote Control (the last story in the book) and that was a commission for BBC Radio 4 about eight years ago. In between I wrote the lyrics for an album (On An Island) and I’ve done a few pieces and reviews but most of the time the stories that became Perfect Lives were bubbling away and I was making notes. It seems ridiculous to say eight years but I suppose that is the truth of it.

TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?

PS: Yes. I delivered Perfect Lives ten years late according to my contract with Virago.

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

PS: I only wrote stories that I would include. If a story isn’t going to work out it usually has the grace to die within a few paragraphs. I really enjoyed putting the stories in order. The connections between them work in very different ways according to the sequence in which they’re read. My editor at Virago wanted to start with Barcarolle because it introduces so many of the other characters and the effect is like the other people waiting in the wings. Perfect Lives started there until the bound proofs but then I thought it might be off-putting to open a book and immediately be confronted with a depressed man eating flaccid ham.

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

PS: The word story is forever connected to the first stories I ever knew. I chose good parents as they both made up bedtime stories and were very good at it. I wish I had inherited that ability; when my children ask me to make up a story I’m flummoxed which doesn’t seem quite right. Now my favourite short stories often don’t fit with my interpretation of the word story at all. I think story gets used to categorise many different types of descriptive prose because there isn’t another word that quite does it.

TSR: Do you have a reader in mind when you write stories?

PS:  I can honestly say that I never have a reader in mind when I write. Thinking of anyone reading would make me seize up with embarrassment. I’m the same with lots of things: I can’t play the piano if there’s someone in the room for example. When I’m writing I’d hate to have an imaginary reader peering over my shoulder – I think it would make my characters terribly self-conscious; they might all start showing off horribly.

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?

PS: So many things! There are few things I’d rather talk about than my stories and characters once they’ve left home. I have to restrain myself if I know someone’s read it from running up and asking which stories they liked, which they didn’t, did the vibrating bed make them laugh…did they get the reference to the yellow dress etc etc

TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?

PS: It feels very different this time. Ten years ago I was still quite bashful but I long for people to read this book and enjoy it.

TSR: What are you working on now?

PS:  I’ve just finished an introduction to a book of Daphne du Maurier’s stories. It’s called The Doll and Other Stories. The collection is mostly made up of her earliest stories and has been fascinating to write about as so much from her juvenilia went on to feed her later great novels. Notice I’m telling you about the thing I’ve just finished rather than the thing I am about to start…

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

PS:  Apart from all the Daphne du Maurier ones, the last three story collections I read are: Daniel Kehlmann’s Fame, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge and Julian Barnes’ Pulse.
find something to read: reviews
find something to read: interviews
find something to read: categories
find something to read: back issues
competitions & giveaways

Find out what other authors, from Aimee Bender to Sana Krasikov, said about their collections, what the word "story" means to them, and how it feels to know that people are buying your books! More interviews >>>