Author, publisher, teacher and family man Stephan Collishaw has made a name for himself with his Lithuanian lit publishing press Noir, and his own thriller writing. We had him in for a chat about books, Lithuania and Nottingham with the editor of the NottsLit blog.
I did sometimes truant, but rather than hiding behind the Co-op swigging cheap cider and smoking, I would go down to the park to write short stories.”
First, could you tell us a bit about your new novel?
The Song of the Stork is a historical thriller set in the Second World War, and is the story of a fifteen year old Jewish girl, Yael, living in North-East Poland when the Germans invade. Escaping a Nazi death squad, Yael finds herself on the run. With no-one to turn to, she seeks shelter on the isolated farm of a Russian, Aleksei. Aleksei is mute and is terrified at the idea of hiding a Jew. It’s a coming of age tale, the story of a young woman growing up and finding her voice under extraordinary circumstances.
At the heart of the novel is a relationship between two characters unable to hold a conversation. How challenging was that to write?
Though it sounds odd, I hadn’t really thought about how complex it would be. Normally speech is one of the most basic strategies for characters, or people, to bond. But, in the end, for me, this became the most wonderful aspect of writing the novel. Their relationship evolved through quietness, through everyday actions, through unspoken thoughts. It felt like it added something special to the novel.
I think The Song of the Stork would be a good novel for secondary school students to study. If you could add one book to the National Curriculum which would you choose?
Gone are the days in which teachers had much of a say on what they were allowed to teach. After jettisoning the National Curriculum, Michael Gove then went on to prescribe a narrow choice of literature we were permitted to teach. The great thing about literature is that we all have books we really love and then there are famous books which we hate. Teachers should be allowed to choose books that they are enthusiastic about. I’m actually a big fan of some Sillitoe and I still think stories of his like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner have something to say.
You went to school in Basford and failed your exams, but credit your schooling for igniting a love of literature, all thanks to a French author from the 19th century. What is it about the short stories of Guy de Maupassant that were so influential?
I was a disaster at school, not because I was poorly behaved but because I seemed to be lost most of the time. I did sometimes truant, but rather than hiding behind the Co-op swigging cheap cider and smoking, I would go down to the park to write short stories. My English teacher introduced me to the stories of the 19th century writer Maupassant and I really loved his stories. At first it was the obvious stories, like The Horla, which is basically the story of a man going mad – just the kind of gothic tale that appeals to teenagers. Even better, Maupassant had gone mad himself, believing his brain was running away through his nose. Later, though, I loved his spare style and the cutting social irony of his stories.
Your move to Lithuania in 1995 was a big life-changer. How did that come about?
It was unplanned. A whim. I had been travelling around Eastern Europe with a friend, sleeping on top of a red van. My friend had an apartment in Vilnius that he needed somebody to look after and he asked if I would stay there. I was due to start my MPhil on Elizabethan fiction back in England so turned him down. Then, on the last day of our trip, sat in a scruffy little café in Poland, I changed my mind. As I say, it was a total whim. I had spent four weeks looking through the windows of brutalist Soviet apartment blocks and wanted to know what it must be like to live in one of them. The truth was that I had fallen in love with Eastern Europe; it is so beautiful. I moved out to Vilnius, Lithuania, about which I knew nothing in August 1995 with a half written novel in my back pack. It was a beautiful crisp autumn and then on the 1st November it started to snow. And it didn’t stop until March. Cars parked at the sides of the street disappeared under the drifts. The temperature dropped to minus 28. I spent my days in cafes and wandering the streets of the beautiful, run-down Old Town. Two of the major banks collapsed that winter, and the government almost followed suit. There was a diphtheria outbreak. Violent crime soared. It was simply the most wonderful year of my life.
In 2001 you came back to Notts to take an MA in writing at Nottingham Trent University. How beneficial did you find the course?
I met and married a lovely Lithuanian during my year there. Holed up in her eighth floor apartment with the snow whirling around outside the window, we dreamt of a different kind of life. I applied for and got a job in Palm de Mallorca. In my head, it was going to be a kind of Gerald Durrell My Family and Other Animals experience. In many ways it probably was, but the gorgeous Mallorcan countryside, the beautiful beaches and the friendly locals didn’t make up for the grinding poverty. Trying to support a family of five, as we became, on a wage which a bachelor would have struggled on was just too much, and we ended up coming to England. During my time both in Lithuania and in Palma I had been busy writing. My wife encouraged me to take writing more seriously and supported me going on the Masters at Trent.
At the time the course was run by Graham Joyce and Mahendra Solanki who were both inspirational teachers. The heart of the course, though, were the critiquing sessions, where we sat and listened as others told us what they thought about what we had written. It was hard. Wonderfully hard. It was probably the most useful experience I could have had. It was during the course that I began working on what was to be my first published novel, The Last Girl.
Last year you helped establish a new press, to bring the most exciting new Lithuanian writing to an English reading audience. Is it safe to say there was a gap in the market?
Lithuanian fiction is terra incognita to an English reading audience; it is almost impossible for an English reader to know what is being written there. The aim of Noir Press is to present a wide snap-shot of the Lithuanian fiction scene as it is at this moment in time. The first novel we published was Breathing into Marble by Laura Sintija Cerniauskaite which won the European Union Prize for Literature. It’s a wonderful dark tale of a family falling apart under the malevolent influence of the young boy they adopt. The second novel, The Easiest by Rasa Askinyte is a funny, darkly ironic take on the romance genre. Each of the novels we publish represent the best writers currently being published in Lithuania.
Your own three novels have been set in Eastern Europe. Have you any desire to set a future book in Nottingham?
My new novel, which has just been picked up by Legend Press and will come out in 2018 is set in Africa. I would love to write a Nottingham novel, but I think that I would have to leave the city to write it. Sillitoe wrote Saturday Night and Sunday Morning when he was living up in the idyllically beautiful mountains of Deia, Mallorca. You need distance.
The Song of the Stork
£9.99, Legend Press
Nottingham author Stephan Collishaw’s latest novel, The Song of the Stork, is full of humanity, hope and smart metaphors. A teenage girl called Yael is struggling to survive in Eastern Europe during the Nazi invasion. Hiding for her life she takes refuge in a chicken coop that belongs to a young Russian mute. He’s an outcast, aware that harbouring a Jew is punishable by death, but their relationship develops amid the climate of fear. Collishaw’s accessible, spare prose vividly portrays the harsh environment and Yael’s emotional journey, one that continues with the partisans in the forest, fighting a war in which a positive outcome seems impossible. Only hope can help Yael survive in a book with plenty of relevance for our time. Many of the loose ends and plot threads are ultimately left untied in a way fitting of contemporary literary fiction and perhaps life itself. NottsLit Blog
Stephan Collishaw's latest novel The Song of the Stork is available at Five Leaves bookshop and Waterstones. The Easiest, Collishaw's latest publication from Noir Press, can be found purchased from the publisher's website at http://www.noirpress.co.uk.