Interview with Bridget Collins, Questions by Alice Beazer

I was lucky enough to speak to the hugely talented Bridget Collins about not giving up, the overlap between writing and acting and her brilliant latest novel, The Betrayals. The Betrayals is NB’s first Featured Recommendation; as our lovely Managing Editor Jade Craddock put it so aptly, ‘whoever said don’t judge a book by its cover clearly hadn’t seen this one’.

  1. The Betrayals is set in Montverre in an imaginary country in the 1930s, where nationalist politics is rife – what was the initial inspiration for the intriguing, unique setting of this novel? How did you go about creating the unique, slightly sinister, haunting atmosphere of this mysterious school?

I think, as with most ideas, the inspiration for Montverre came from several directions at once. Generally, I’m always drawn to settings which are isolated and atmospheric – like the bindery in The Binding – because they’re both beautiful and a little sinister, and they act on the story like a crucible. There are a lot of books set on islands, and it’s the same phenomenon: because the characters are stuck there, everything is heightened and more intense. More specifically, Montverre combines elements of a monastery, an artists’ retreat and an Oxbridge college, and is influenced by la Grande Chartreuse in France, but with a pinch of Gormenghast in there too… I wanted it to be almost a character in its own right. As far as the country goes, I wanted the reader to feel like they were in an alternative historical Europe, rather than fantasy – so in my head I carved off the Eastern third of France and set it there. The nationalism arose partly because there had to be an exterior drama to mirror the smaller-scale conflicts and politics of Montverre – but also because of my own anxieties about our real situation. It was always going to be a book about being an artist in a world that feels precariously balanced just on the edge of cataclysm, but that felt more and more relevant as I wrote!

  1. Why did you choose to split the narratives between Leo and Aime in the past, and Leo and Claire in the present?

 The plot of The Betrayals is driven by two different kinds of tension: the revelation of what’s happened in the past and the unfolding of what’s about to happen in the present. I wanted to maximise the suspense, and the split narrative seemed to be one way to achieve that; if we knew it all in the order the characters do, some of the excitement would definitely be lost! Also, I hope that the two time-frames resonate and interrelate in interesting ways: I wanted them to work together in a sort of dance – to come together slowly, interweaving and informing each other. The book is partly about voices, and thematically it was important to have reflections, echoes, hints of dialogue, moves and counter-moves – a kind of counterpoint, I suppose.

  1. The story revolves around the mysterious game named ‘the Grand Jeu’, and those who study it – how did this idea develop?

I’ve always having been fascinated by games in general (my very first novel is called The Traitor Game and has a sort-of-chess theme), but in my Author’s Note I pay tribute to Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, and I’d be disingenuous not to cite that first! It’s an amazing book, and although I read it over twenty years ago that central idea stuck with me: a mysterious, meditative game-that-is-not-exactly-a-game, which has a lot in common with the grand jeu. But I guess that idea resonated so much because it’s a metaphor for art and writing and creation generally, and when I wrote The Betrayals I brought those things much more into the foreground than Hesse does – and made the game messier, more theatrical, more of a roller-coaster. The grand jeu – and the intricacies of playing it – is inspired by artistic collaboration of all kinds: from the joys of acting or the excited, euphoric conversations I sometimes have with my agent, all the way to the struggles and jealousies of failure. It’s both something the characters care about intensely, and a cipher for all the other things they care about intensely…

  1. What drew you towards writing adult fiction, and is this something you had always imagined you would do, and wanted to do?

When I wrote The Binding I knew that I was coming to the end of my YA career, and I didn’t know what to write next, or even whether I would go on writing. I was so close to giving up that I resolved to stop worrying about how to keep on getting published, and instead just write what I wanted to read – so I didn’t even know whether The Binding was YA or adult until after my agent looked at it. It was wonderful when she said she thought it could make it in the adult market: partly because it was a new start for me, and partly because I’d always written for myself, really, and now I didn’t have the extra effort of second-guessing an imaginary younger reader. I loved writing for teens, but one of the main reasons I ended up writing for that age group was because when I began my career the sort of genre-crossing books I wanted to write only got taken seriously in the YA market – that’s changed, now, and it feels so liberating!

  1. Both The Binding and The Betrayals are very much ‘escapist fiction’ – they are both part fantasy, part romance, Are you very conscious of genre when you write and plan your novels?

Not exactly – as I said above, when I wrote The Binding I didn’t think through that side of it at all. Even now, when people ask me what genre it is, I burble a bit and say, ‘Um, possibly historical-magical-realist…?’ because although it’s fantastical in some ways, in others it doesn’t really share the fantasy mindset. And I think The Betrayals is similar, in that it’s obviously not realism or historical fiction, but it’s not magical either – I love it that no one seems to mind how hard it is to label! That said, while I’m not bothered about the shelf my adult books would be on at the library (apart from a nice accessible one), I am conscious of what they have in common, which, of course, informs how people categorise them: they’re both about romantic love and creativity, with a strong central concept and an other-worldly setting – and those are things that I love writing. (‘Escapist’ to me is the best compliment.) But those things aren’t part of a plan, more just my authorly DNA!

6. Which authors and books made you fall in love with reading – and writing?

I’ve loved reading (and writing) for almost as long as I can remember – the first book I read was R. L. Stevenson’s The Black Arrow, when I was at infant school. I’m not sure I understood much, but I loved it. We didn’t have a TV when I was growing up, so I read voraciously, everything from the classics and Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton to Diana Wynne Jones and Rosemary Sutcliff and… well, you get the idea! My first attempts at long-ish stories were when I was a teenager, and heavily influenced by Robert Cormier and Melvyn Burgess; they’re still great, of course, but these days I’m more of a Daphne-du-Maurier-and-Sarah-Waters woman.

  1. You are not the only writer in your family – how does the fact that both you and your mother are writers impact your relationship?

On the whole it’s lovely – she’s a fantastic support because of course she really gets what it’s like, both the creative struggles and the more mundane stuff about publishing or keeping to a daily routine! She has a very literary, incisive mind, so she’s an excellent source of feedback, and it adds a different dimension to the relationship, where we engage as two adults, not parent and child. (Well, we try, anyway.) That said, I think it’s sometimes a source of anxiety for her because she knows how hard it can be, and wants to protect me – but the positives definitely outweigh the negatives.

8. Before writing The Binding, you trained as an actor, had two plays produced, and wrote seven books for young adults – and how have your past experiences in both writing for YA and in theatre informed your work now?

I think all that experience has benefited me a lot, in different ways. Acting and writing definitely come from the same place, for me: it’s exactly the same sort of mental exercise, and the same yearning to live different lives and imagine in as much detail as possible what they would be like. Good acting and good writing both answer the question, ‘What would it be like if…?’ – and even better writing and acting both answer the question, ‘Yes, but what would it really be like if…?’ If I’m trying to write a scene, to get the dialogue truthful or capture a character’s emotions, I’m essentially doing the same thing as I would onstage – trying to make myself believe it, utterly and completely, while keeping enough detachment to observe what I’m doing and feeling. (In practice this means that I do a fair amount of wandering about talking to myself, looking rather fraught.) In terms of having written YA fiction, there isn’t much that’s different – I’ve essentially been given a ticket to go round again, under a new guise! It helps me enormously in various ways, not least of which was knowing that I could write another book after The Binding. If it had been my first book as well as my adult debut I think I might have frozen up, but as it was I had enough experience to block out the demon voices that told me I’d never live up to its success, and go on writing anyway. Also – and this is important – having written so many books I know that the bit when you’re published is fantastic, but it’s like champagne: fun, but you can’t live on it. The really nourishing, sustaining part of writing is – well, writing. That’s the bit to savour.

9.  What advice would you give to a younger version of yourself? (in terms of writing – but also more generally if you like!)

  • Keep going! I was actively looking for Proper Jobs when I started The Binding, and if I’d got the one I wanted I probably wouldn’t have gone on writing. I’m very glad they turned me down.
  • Follow your heart – because it was when I wrote a book that was truly, unadulteratedly for me, without thinking about my career or the future, that I found I’d produced something that other people liked too.
  • Stockpile sanitising gel.
  1. Are you working on anything new at the moment?

Yes. I was lucky enough to sign another two-book contract with The Borough Press in the spring, so I’m working on the next one. It’s set in mid-Victorian England, in a factory which weaves spider silk into a cloth that makes silence.

  1. Which books have gotten you through the strange (/insert adjective of your choice!) year that 2020 has been?

I had a baby in January, so it’s been a very strange year for all sorts of reasons – not least because I haven’t had time to read much, and that’s never happened to me before! But I’ve discovered the joys of audiobooks, and now whenever I walk around the streets near my house I can see everything sort of overlaid with the stories that I was listening to the last time I went that way… which is weird and brilliant. I discovered The Luminaries and We Have Always Lived In The Castle and The Color Purple, which somehow I had never read – and I’ve just finished Guards! Guards! which made me laugh like a loon.