“Inspiration is a gift” | B. R. Collins, Aarhus 39

“Inspiration is a gift” | B. R. Collins, Aarhus 39

B. R. Collins is an acclaimed British writer, part of our Aarhus 39 selection of the best emerging writers from across Europe. Collins will be appearing at the inaugural International Children’s Literature Hay Festival Aarhus 2017 later this month. Here she talks about her new story for Quest, our new anthology of 17 stories for children, inspired by journeys. 

Tell us about your story…
My short story is about a teenager who’s been collected from summer camp by her parents because she’s had a miscarriage, when they didn’t even know she was pregnant. It’s quite a dramatic premise, but to me the story is really about the relationship between the family, and the way that something small can give you a glimpse of a deep and uncomfortable truth.

Why did you pick that theme?
What I was really aiming for was a story where the reader sees much more than the narrator does. It’s told in the first person, and I wanted to get a sense of the real story being ‘filtered’ by the point of view, so that there’s a gradual realisation that the narrator can’t quite be trusted… I was really excited about creating a character who can’t see what’s going on – who can’t see herself at all – but who betrays herself with every sentence. Most of what she says is completely skewed, and she’s so self-absorbed that she can’t see past her own illusions – but I wanted the reader to understand, and wince! It was really good fun to work on that, trying to get the balance just right so that the character was believable and awful in equal measure.

When did you decide to become an author?
I’ve always written things, for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t exactly decide to be an author! I wrote a novel when I was a professional actor between jobs, and somehow it got published… By that time I was already writing another book, as I’d enjoyed writing the first one so much, and it went on from there. My first book, The Traitor Game, was published in 2008.

What is special about writing for children?
Writing for children – or teenagers – is brilliant because of the freedom you get to write anything you want without being dismissed or labelled. I think we’re much more open about genre, and ‘thinking outside the box’, in literature for younger readers, and there’s no snobbery around making sure the plot is a good one, or that things actually happen in the book! You can’t be boring, and I love that. But above all, I love writing for teenagers because there’s an intensity about every experience – people falling in love, or being betrayed, or doing something terrible, when they’re doing that for the first time it makes it even more visceral, and as a writer you have to try and get hold of that feeling.

What does it mean to you to be a part of the anthology and the Hay Festival?
I’m delighted and honoured to be part of the festival. Partly because it’s wonderful to be in such good company – it feels like a huge vote of confidence, so thank you!  But also because right now it feels really important to be part of an international community, to recognise that we have so much in common and that we care about the same things… At the moment it feels particularly relevant to be building bridges, translating books, and reaching out across borders, and I’m grateful for anything I can do to be part of that.

Do you have a favorite spot where you write? Where is that? And why is that your favorite spot?
I write wherever I can, to be honest! Mostly I write at my desk in my study (which is actually a bit of a store-room – if I look over my shoulder there’s a step-ladder, a vacuum cleaner, an old stereo and some half-empty cans of paint), but every so often I go somewhere else and it seems to stimulate the creative juices. Even changing which room I’m in can help me concentrate, so maybe I should move to a bigger house… Sometimes I write in cafes, which is good because somehow then it doesn’t feel like work. But when I’m excited about a story I’m writing, it doesn’t matter where I am – if I don’t have my computer, I’ll write with pen and paper – and equally, if inspiration is lacking, sitting in front of a different window doesn’t always help!

How do you get inspired?
It’s really hard to know how I get inspired. A lot of writing is just hard work, and having to get on with it even if you don’t feel driven – although you also have to know when to push through it and when to wait for your subconscious to catch up! I suppose I feel like inspiration is a gift – you wait for it, you do everything you can to be ready when it comes, but ultimately there’s nothing you can do to hasten its arrival. So I try to keep to a routine, I do things that I know are good for me (like reading and sleeping and exercise), and I sit down to write every morning (well, mostly). Then all I can do is hope! When an idea does come, it could be from anywhere, a place, or a feeling, or something I’ve heard about – it’s like sowing seeds, you don’t know what’s going to germinate, but when one does you can look back and think, oh yes, that came from when so-and-so said…