with Briony Collins:
Q1: When did you start writing and first influences?
I’ve been interested in telling stories for as long as I can remember, but didn’t write one down until I was eight. At that time, I was reading a lot of Jacqueline Wilson. The way her characters always had unusual backgrounds or situations that differed from the stereotypical nuclear family always appealed to me, because my own home life wasn’t ordinary.
It was tough growing up in a single-parent household with my father, who was heavily depressed after the passing of my mother, and my younger brother. We didn’t have much money and so I spent a great deal of time imagining alternate realities. Ones in which we were happy and could afford things. Sometimes I was brave enough to dare dream of a world in which my mother was still alive. Reading was an escape for me, but it wasn’t enough to just float into the pre-scripted universes conjured up by other people; I needed to learn to do it myself.
When I started writing as a young girl, I found it hard to stop. My fascination with stories shifted into poetry, plays, and finally encompassed all forms. While the drive was always inside me, I think it was through Wilson’s work that I gave myself permission to celebrate what made me different and turn it into art.
Q2: Who are your biggest influences today?
My answer to this question changes daily. Today, it happens to be Charles Bukowski. I’m going through a big Buk phase at the moment, but I think it’s for the same reason that I was initially inspired by Jacqueline Wilson so many years ago.
His words command the page with a power beyond contestation, because he is so courageously himself. There are few writers I can think of who match Bukowski in authenticity, because he does not shy away from the dark, depraved nature of his difficult life. Instead, his work teaches, in his own words, that, ‘your demons are here to teach you lessons. Sit down with your demons and have a drink and a chat and learn their names.’
When I write, I consider each word on the page in terms of how authentic it is to me. I am only interested in writing the truth. While I may not always know much about the world around me, I’m an expert in myself and my experiences. I place that at the heart of my writing, and gravitate towards writers who do it too.
Q3: Where did you grow up and how did that influence your writing?
I spent the first fourteen years of my life growing up in Leicester, England. It’s a difficult place to describe to anybody who hasn’t been there. The city is so vibrant and multicultural, that I was exposed to a lot of different backgrounds very early in life. I visited the Gurdwara, bought jalebi from the spice mill on my street, went to watch Diwali fireworks with friends, and took some Gujarati and Arabic lessons. My friends were all from different heritages and religions, but no one in our little group ever felt out of place.
Growing up in Leicester helped shape me as a writer because I was immediately surrounded by such a variety of perspectives and beliefs. It taught me the value of different points of view and the rich diversity of humanity. Spending my formative years and beyond in an environment that cultivated a deep respect for people different to me was vital in my artistic development.
Q4: Have any travels away from home influence your work?
After growing up in Leicester, I spent a few years living in Virginia and then Wyoming, USA. It was unlike anything I’d experienced up to that point. While I had some difficulties living there that ultimately led me to move back to the UK alone when I was 18, there were two parts to this chapter of my life that really influenced my work.
First, the reason we moved out there was because my father married an American woman. For the first time since my birth mother died almost a decade earlier, I knew what it was like to have a mother figure. She has become my chosen family and I call her Mom. While she hasn’t had a direct influence on my work, she shows me unparalleled support and love. Being a writer can sometimes get lonely. Just one person’s encouragement can make an enormous difference.
Second, I had a teacher in high school there called Mr McGee. I took his Poetry and Science Fiction classes. There were quotes on laminated A4 paper all around his classroom. I can only recall one – by Nathaniel Hawthorne – ‘Easy reading is damn hard writing.’ On the back wall was a print of Monet’s painting, San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk. I remember looking at that quote and tracing the walls of the classroom back to that painting. It struck me that both writer and painter worked hard to make their visions accessible. Accessibility became just as valuable to me as authenticity, and I learned that good work requires both.
Q5: Any pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
Briony: I wish I could name a specific moment. Some writers have incredible epiphanies. They can trace their ambitions back to a single point. I don’t have that. I grew up knowing what I wanted to do and, apart from a brief daydream dalliance when I was a child about owning a convenience store, I haven’t strayed from this path. It’s not something I do; it’s who I am.
Q6: Favorite activities to relax?
Relax? What does that mean? I’m not familiar with this word…
I juggle a lot of projects aside from writing. I’m a co-editor of my own digital publication, Cape Magazine. I’m in full-time education finishing my Master’s degree this September and starting a PhD in October. I enjoy acting and directing plays, and recently founded a theatre company that is currently working on launching and preparing for our first show. There’s always a lot on my plate. By the time I get around to relaxing, I’m either having a pint in a pub with friends or zoning out watching Netflix. Recently I took up learning the guitar…it’s not going well!
Q7: Any recent or forthcoming projects that you’d like to promote?
My debut poetry book, Blame it on Me, is coming out with Broken Sleep Books on August 31st this year. It’s currently available for pre-order here: https://www.brokensleepbooks.com/product-page/briony-collins-blame-it-on-me
‘Briony Collins’ Blame it on Me is an extraordinary collection of poems that focus on the death of her mother, when she was just five years old, and the ensuing family upheaval. Collins’ poetry moves mellifluously, sensitive to the sound of words, infused with a delightful music. Collins believes, to quote her favourite poet Jim Morrison: “You should stand up for your right to feel your pain” – in Blame it on Me, that’s exactly what Collins does.’
Q8: What is a favorite line/stanza from a poem of yours or others?
My favourite line I’ve written (so far) is from my poem ‘Sunset,’ which first came out in Black Bough Poetry’s Deep Time Volume II anthology and is also in my book, Blame it on Me. The poem is about my mother’s last night alive. This is the line:
‘How the skin cracks around your eyes, blackening with the slow dilation of forever.’
Q9: Who has helped you most with writing?
Briony: While I’m fortunate to have many encouraging friends and a supportive family, my progress with writing is a testimony to the excellent teachers I’ve had the pleasure of learning from throughout my years in education. I’ve already mentioned Mr McGee’s inspiring classroom, but when I moved back to the UK and started studying for my A-Levels, my English lecturer was pivotal in shaping me as a writer.
Samantha Egelstaff-Thomas was the person who encouraged me to take my work beyond the classroom and start submitting it to magazines and competitions. Before her, I had no idea how to do that. My first submission was to the 2016 Exeter Novel Prize competition, which I subsequently won. Without her initial encouragement and guidance, I wouldn’t have been confident enough to enter the competition and start my journey towards a career in writing.
Bio: ‘Briony Collins is a poet, novelist, and playwright. She won the 2016 Exeter Novel Prize and has several prominent publications. Her debut poetry pamphlet, Blame It On Me, is forthcoming with Broken Sleep Books in August 2021. She is co-founding editor of Cape Magazine.’