Bridget Collins published seven books for teenagers before writing one for adults. She talked to Joseph Jones at her publisher’s office in London Bridge, with 'The Binding' at number two in the bestseller charts.
Did you grow up Quaker?
No no, not at all. I started going to Meeting probably about ten years ago. I’d just walked the Way of St James and I was looking for a spiritual community that did an equivalent thing – sharing a journey with people without having to believe the same things, necessarily. I used to walk past the sign that said Friends Meeting House [in Tunbridge Wells] so I just started going and loitering at the back, leaving straight away at the end. Then somebody asked me to be on the coffee rota and slowly I kind of joined in.
Crossing the threshold is a big challenge if you’ve never done it…
I think so, yes. My first Meeting was Children’s Meeting and when I saw half the congregation stand up with the kids I thought I should leave with them. So my first experience of Quakerism was colouring-in and charades.
So you became a Quaker after you’d started writing. Did it change the writing process?
Yes. I think it’s been really useful for me. On a day-to-day basis my biggest struggle – if I’m finding it hard to find the words – is over whether I need to wait for inspiration to come, or whether I’m just being lazy and underprepared. Whether I’m letting fear or procrastination stop me. The Quaker method has a lot to say to that. You know, you wait in silence and if it doesn’t come then it doesn’t come. But also you have to be disciplined, and prepared, for that to work. I wouldn’t say that it’s solved the problem for me but it’s definitely made me think about it in a more useful way.
You told the Guardian recently that your new book is ‘too brightly-coloured’ to be a Quaker story. I’m interested in what you might mean by that.
I think there is a very strong feeling of creativity among Quakers but the reason I don’t think of it as an entirely Quakerly book is that it’s not… simple. There’s a Quaker aesthetic of austerity and simplicity and only putting down what is absolutely necessary. There are writers
who do that, and I really admire it, but my approach is to put more than I need on the page. I know I’m doing that – it’s a book written primarily for pleasure, and I think pleasure is maybe low down on the list of Quaker priorities.
Some of the spaces in the book do have a kind of sober aspect that feels familiar, though, and there’s one key plot idea – binding – that has parallels with Quaker waiting. But maybe it’s just more to do with living adventurously than living simply.
So you write to give pleasure, not to preach, but you obviously don’t shut down your Quaker concerns…
To give readers pleasure you have to make them care about what you care about. If you care about star-crossed lovers, for example, it’s because you care about people being allowed to love who they want. I wouldn’t ever set out to write a didactic story but if you want an authentic story that engages with reality – even if that’s in a fantastical setting – you need emotional truth. If you have that then it will almost certainly have a ripple effect and it will make people think about whatever’s happening in that world.
Your other books are aimed at the teenage market but The Binding is for adults. At what point did you make that decision?
Very late on, in fact. When I wrote it I was between contracts. I was trying to feel my way forward and really not knowing what I was going to be writing. The Binding came from a moment of intense frustration. I decided then that I just had to write the book I wanted to write and stop worrying about it,
What’s the distinction between the two audiences, for you?
In Young Adult books the pacing is different. Everything happens more quickly so it has less time to breathe on the page. And while teenagers are very sophisticated readers, you do still have more of a need to spell things out. In an adult book you can trust your readers – you don’t need stage direction on every line. When I was writing for teenagers I would write first for myself and then make an adjustment for a younger audience, whereas with this one I could just write what I would want as a reader.
Is it different writing about sexuality for an adult audience?
Possibly, but the amount of actual sex in The Binding is quite small. I’m sure if I’d wanted to be sexually explicit there would have been much more room for it. But sex is often better in the chapter breaks. It’s about the desire rather than the mechanics.
The book’s key concept, binding, has people sitting in silence, waiting, and then a story comes that unburdens them. It’s problematised in the story because that unburdening involves forgetting, but is there a Quaker parallel there, too?
Yes, though the biggest source for that idea came from when I was working as a Samaritans volunteer. Most of the time you’re doing something enormously supportive, sitting with somebody and listening to their story. At the end of it you feel honoured to have been part of that. But every so often somebody would get stuck on something and you’d repeat exactly the same conversation. Sometimes it felt like you might be reinforcing a story rather than liberating someone from it. It made me wonder what it would be like if we could just park that story somewhere.
I feel very strongly that we need to live with our darkness as much as our light. There’s an over anxiety in society about sitting with sadness or sitting with anger. But it’s much easier to say we should be comfortable with these feelings when you’re not feeling them! So, in the book, there are characters who are opposed on principle to losing memories, but for others some things are unbearable. Binding, when it’s abused, has parallels with prostitution and pornography, or laudanum. Ultimately you’re just numbing something – and, of course, the more numb you get the more empty you get.
It seems like mental health is one of your key concerns.
Yes, I suppose so. I think my ministry involves trying to make people happy. It’s very frivolous as ministry goes. I have a friend who was talking about being on Facebook and she said she shares so many petitions that every so often she has to share some jokes and kittens because otherwise it would just be unbearable. My ministry is the jokes and kittens.
I love that! It’s very necessary. But you say it like it’s embarrassing.
Not really! I feel grateful when I get inspired, the same gratitude I feel when someone else gives ministry. I see it as a lovely exciting gift of a thing. But in Quakerism there’s this anxiety about being given gifts and not being able to give back. I see it in my Meeting all the time. We’re very concerned with what we can offer, but when someone offers back we wonder if we’re allowed it. I think there are lots of creative Quakers, but we sometimes feel like activism is more important, or more in line with the tradition.
If you think in terms of wanting to make your readers happy, would you rather get good reviews or good sales?
I think what I really want from my writing career is to be able to carry on writing. But obviously I want both! With my Young Adult books I was in quite a frustrating position of getting very good reviews and not getting any sales, really, which wasn’t sustainable, so from that point of view I suppose I would say good sales but it sounds awfully mercenary.
How does the Quaker in you deal with all the publicity that goes with being a bestselling author?
I enjoy it, actually. The great thing about being an author is that no one is ever going to recognise you in the street. But I have an acting background so I’m perhaps more comfortable with that kind of work than a lot of writers. That said, the book is separate from me, so I don’t feel like a complete fraud pushing it really hard. I think that’s a blessing. Going back to actual writing will be very grounding. I think it keeps you sane to be working on something. The last couple of weeks have been amazing but it’s a bit like that feeling when you’ve eaten too much sugar. It’s great but you end up slightly wired and nothing feels real.
Is there anything you can share about what you’re working on next?
Yes, it has a similar feeling to The Binding in that it’s set in a world that’s historic but not specifically so – kind of the 1930s. It’s about a university where people play a game which is a philosophical, mathematical, musical amalgam of human knowledge. It’s about
their relationships, and there’s a central love story, but outside the world is basically just falling apart, which is more topical now than it was when I started writing. Gosh, that’s depressing.
Overall, are you an optimist or a pessimist?
I don’t think I could quite decide! I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that at the end of The Binding the characters are more in favour of living with themselves than they are in favour of chopping off bits that don’t fit with who they want to be. I think from that point of view it’s optimistic.
The Binding is available now from The Borough Press.
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