An EXCLUSIVE AUTHORLINK interview with Polly Samson
A THEATRE FOR DREAMERS (Algonquin Books, 11 May 2021)
A Theatre for Dreamers is Polly Samson’s bestselling novel and a 2020 ‘Book of the Year’ in The Times, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and The Spectator. It was published in paperback this month by Bloomsbury and already heralded as one of the ‘Best Paperbacks of 2021’ by The Sunday Times.
In the 1960s, the world stretched out to significant social change. This is depicted in the microcosmos that is Hydra island in Greece at the time. When they were not writing or composing – a group of bohemian friends such as the troubled Charmian Clift, George Johnston, Axel Jensen, his wife Marianne Ihlen, and a young Canadian poet named Leonard Cohen – languished on retsina in the sun or plunged into crystal turquoise waters.
Arriving on the periphery of this circle is teenage Erica, who recently lost her mother and, ladened by grief and a few blank notebooks, she observes the disquieting interchange of these artists lives, loves and their muses.
AUTHORLINK: Ms Samson, we are pleased to be chatting with you about A Theatre for Dreamers. We love your writing and, in particular this book, which transported us to one of our favourite Greek islands, Hydra. We could almost feel the sun emanating from the pages warming our cheeks – a wholly welcome escape from winter and Covid lockdown.
A Theatre for Dreamers is a semi-factual novel about the treatment of women by creative genius-type men alongside “the wilderness years” between The Second Sex (1949) by Simone de Beauvoir and The Female Eunuch (1970) by Germaine Greer. It was inspired by the extraordinary life of the Australian writer and essayist, Charmian Clift, a woman ahead of her time and at the centre of an artistic and bohemian (and rather promiscuous) group of friends – including Leonard Cohen, Marianne Ihlen, George Johnston, OBE and others – on the island in the 1950s and 60s.
We understand you were drawn to the subject by a visit to Hydra in May 2014 where you discovered a copy of Charmian Clift’s memoir, Peel Me A Lotus (1959) in the house where you stayed. What ignited your imagination about this book? Do you remember how you felt when upon first reading it?
“The first thing that struck me, before I’d read a word, was the photograph of Charmian Clift…”
SAMSON: The first thing that struck me, before I’d read a word, was the photograph of Charmian Clift on the front cover. It is a very stark image and not at all what you might expect a publisher to use to sell a book about a family making a new life on a Greek island. Her eyes are big and soulful, her hair untidy and tied back with a piece of string. To this day I can’t tell if she has a black eye.
“Her writing voice is so intimate and warm, her prose is poetic…”
I remember that once I started reading, I didn’t look up until I’d finished and felt bereft at the end, as though a really good friend had departed. Her writing voice is so intimate and warm, her prose is poetic, her observations of what makes people tick sharp and witty. Wrapped up within her evocative descriptions of the island and the sea are so many relatable thoughts about what it means to be a woman: she’s incredibly good on being torn between children and creative work. She is also brilliant at expressing difficult thoughts about existence. And she’s incredibly funny. There’s an immediacy because she’s writing as things are happening. The book begins “Today we bought the house by the well…” And the first thing I did when I’d finished reading was to go and find the house. Looking up at its windows I caught myself wishing, with a pang, that she still lived there.
AUTHORLINK: How touching; that’s beautiful. We know how you felt for we are sure Charmian Clift’s work has been experiencing a resurgence due to your book. A Theatre for Dreamers explores the idea of how most married women in the 1950s and 60s sublimated their lives to that of their husbands, in particular when (almost onerously) given the title of ‘muse’, such as the women of your novel in that era. Marianne’s willingness to be a muse for Leonard, and Charmian’s unwillingness to be only a muse for her husband, George or rather, to be a muse unto herself, is fascinating reading! The fact is, Charmian was also a ‘cook, nurse and barmaid’ to George throughout the 14 books he wrote in Hydra over the eight years they were there. Clearly, this might be soul-destroying if you are harbouring a considerable talent of your own.
While your husband has also described you as his ‘muse’ and ‘moral compass’, we understand you are rather not fond of the term. Not to mention you have rather spectacularly averted your brush with ‘musedom’ by becoming a successful author and lyricist in your own right. Still, it must be nice to be someone’s inspiration – as long as it does not come with shackles. Any thoughts?
SAMSON: I don’t believe that George Johnston was the vampiric monster that some have painted him. He was, especially at the beginning, supportive and admiring of Clift’s writing. The inequality was a problem of society rather than their partnership. Money was tight and they both knew that a man (and sadly this is still true today) was likely to be more handsomely rewarded for writing than a woman would be. It was in the interests of keeping a roof over their heads and feeding their family that she spent so much of her time supporting George’s work rather than getting on with her own.
“…taking the supporting role is not an entirely uncreative or unenjoyable act.”
As I know, from working with my husband, taking the supporting role is not an entirely uncreative or unenjoyable act. I have compared the term “muse” in its most sexist branding to that of a mother with a child. The creative man with a muse can live like a child with an attentive mother (who sets out crayons and paper and tempting but healthy snacks).
When Leonard Cohen was asked about Marianne and Hydra, he recalled that each day she would place a fresh gardenia and a little sandwich on his desk, and this became a motif in the book. Though such a person might be thrown the odd tidbit of having inspired great work, a lot of musing, it seems to me is taking care of the menial tasks so that the genius of the house might work in peace. In the case of my own marriage, I am lucky that we take it in turns to be supportive to the other. I couldn’t have researched this book without having David as my accomplice, both on the island and within the archives.
AUTHORLINK: If only there were more like your husband, and yes, we can see how the inequality ‘was a problem of society’. We loved what you said here, “It’s often used as an excuse by people like Heathcote and Axel. They say they cannot do their work if they are caught in domesticity, but actually it is domesticity that they crave. It is just that the domesticity is absolutely aimed at their own wellbeing. There is no art that is instead of a child and certainly nothing of any worth if a child has been sacrificed.” The Times, 8 April 2020.
It does seem rather blissful to be able to get on with ones’ inspiration and creative work without having to worry about children or a house. Are you able to further comment on this?
” It is inescapable that when in the throes of writing I forget everything else.”
SAMSON: I can confirm that it is ideal. This is why David and I have always taken it in turns. For every album I’ve supported him making there’s a book of mine for which he’s placed the metaphorical gardenia and sandwich on my desk. It is inescapable that when in the throes of writing I forget everything else. I can remember, years ago, deep into the first draft of my second novel, David came into the room to remind me that it was time to set off for the children’s school for Parents’ Evening. I looked up at him (wild-eyed, apparently) and said: “But why do I have to go to Parents’ Evening?” “Because you are a parent,” he said. I think that just about sums it up!
AUTHORLINK: Ha ha ha. Brilliant! Yes, totally ideal. What makes A Theatre for Dreamers even more poignant reading, is knowing that Leonard sent Marianne that goodbye letter before she died, and that Charmian committed suicide (in fact, close to where I grew up in Sydney) in 1969 on the eve of the publication of her husband’s George’s, penultimate book, Clean Straw for Nothing.
Since writing your book, has anything shifted in your mind about the characters of A Theatre for Dreamers? Are they less likeable because of their flaws? Are they even more impressive? Have they taught you anything?
SAMSON: The overall lesson they have taught me is to be glad to have been born at a time and in a country where a woman can have control of her own reproductive destiny.
The first biographies I read (one of George Johnston and the other of both writers) gave the impression that Charmian Clift was some sort of sexpot femme fatale who had been wildly promiscuous and whose behaviour had contributed to her husband’s premature death. The corrective came with the third which was Nadia Wheatley’s exemplary biography of Clift which took these same male biographers to task.
Having been an ardent fan of Leonard Cohen’s work (one of my previous books, Perfect Lives, has a Cohen epigraph and in the wake of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize I wrote in a national newspaper here that as it was for literature Leonard Cohen – a published novelist and prolific poet as well as a songwriter – might have been the more worthy recipient). In fact, although the music has been the soundtrack to my life, I knew very little about the man but assumed, probably because of the “ladies’ man” tag, that his romantic history meant he was something of a shit. The more I researched him the less I found that to be true. His letters to Marianne, for example, show that he never misled her with false promises and that he knew himself well enough not to make them.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, that is a worthy attribute indeed, one that we should all aspire to have. You are a writer of critically acclaimed short stories, best-selling novels, frequently hailed as ‘Books of the Year’ by The Times and the Observer, as well as a lyricist to the greatest rock band in history, Pink Floyd. You are also a mother to four children of your own and a stepmother to four others.
However, do you, do it?
SAMSON: I married a supportive man!
AUTHORLINK: Ha! Yes. Yet you once bemoaned the fact you wished you did something to aid humanity and “make a difference”. You said, “I just look at Julian Assange and what he’s doing, and I’d love to be doing something like that. Being strong and brave and actually doing something that will make a difference.” The Guardian, 7 Nov 2010. Do you still feel that way?
If you had more time, what kind of work would you like to be doing to help others, if you do not already, other than bringing hundreds of thousands joy with your writing?
SAMSON: I have been writing all my life and can’t seem to stop. Given a choice I would rather have spent the time helping others. I look at people who selflessly work in war-torn areas, with the sick and starving, and feel hopelessly inadequate. That’s about all I can say.
AUTHORLINK: You have been writing in secret ever since you were a child. However, you virtually dropped out of school by 14. At your grandmother’s urging, you moved to London and got a secretarial job in publishing, from where you rose to become head publicist at Jonathan Cape – at the age of just 24! You worked with the likes of Martin Amis and Ian McEwan, which must have been inspiring. What was that like?
“I was lucky to work in publishing in the days before conglomerates took over the industry.”
SAMSON: I was lucky to work in publishing in the days before conglomerates took over the industry. It was a great time to be working with books because it was all about the writing and not the balance sheet. I suppose it was unsustainable which is how we’ve arrived where we are today with most independent publishers being swallowed by the mighty corporations.
AUTHORLINK: To continue the question above, later, you turned to journalism, writing reviews and features for The Sunday Times, The Observer and many other newspapers and magazine.
Do you ever look back on the trajectory of your life and feel that it was all meant for a reason, even if at the time it did not make sense?
SAMSON: If there is such a thing as a guardian angel then I do believe mine is doing a really great job.
AUTHORLINK: You began your lyrical contributions on Pink Floyd’s 1994 album The Division Bell. We read some touching remarks made by your husband, who said this, “I’m very proud and happy with some of the lyrics that I’ve written, but I’m not prolific at that, and when I got together with Polly personally, it was wonderful to have someone around who had that enormous ability. Initially it was really her just trying to help me say the things I wanted to say but better. Gradually, through the process of making The Division Bell, her abilities became too obvious to ignore, so she started dominating that whole process. It was not my intention when we got together, but to have her become a part of the whole thing was a thrill and really good for me and for Pink Floyd. It brought even more of a provocation of thought.” (NPR, 7 October 2020)
We find this remarkably romantic. What do you feel has kept your relationship strong over the last 20 years or so? Did you feel sparks fly in the period when you first met? Certainly, he is very handsome. 😊
You also play the piano. Would you ever compose your own music to your own lyrics? Have you done so (even in secret?)
SAMSON: There were no sparks for me because I wasn’t open to a new relationship having recently suffered a painful split from the father of my first child. David and I knew each other for a couple of years before going on a date. In contrast to blind-to-love old me he was very certain. Very early in our relationship I had Epstein Barr and he took care of me and my young son. As to handsomeness, I think he looks better now than when we met!
I pootle about on the piano. There was one thing a few years ago that I was playing of my own and he taped me playing it and has often said that he intends to expand it into something. Time will tell if that ever happens.
AUTHORLINK: That sounds brilliant. We read somewhere you suffer from self-doubt, stage-fright, and anxiety? Is that still the case? If so, how have you been able to manage it?
SAMSON: Yes, I’m sorry to say that I still sometimes suffer terribly from stage-fright. Over the years I tried hypnosis, booze, tranquilisers, acupuncture, therapy, modern beta-blockers, you name it. I would feel perfectly confident, but my hands would always start to shake and then my voice would follow suit. Eventually David remembered reading about Propranolol, which was one of the first beta-blockers and how helpful snooker players had found it to be. It works like a charm! I subsequently googled it and there’s a statistic out there about classical musicians – over 90% of one of the big New York orchestras use it for performance. That made me feel better about it. And since then, I have discovered many other writers who have to take it to “perform” at festivals and on the radio etc.
AUTHORLINK: Perfect. Have you ever done a writing course to learn about plot, structure, dialogue, etc.? You used to be able to write a “thousand words of journalism in a couple of hours,” but the very intense process of writing fiction has turned you into a perfectionist.
If you had the time, would you ever consider returning to study? If so, what would you like to learn?
“I have never done a writing course (I’m not convinced it can be taught)…”
SAMSON: I often fantasise about studying. At the moment it would be a Greek language course. I have never done a writing course (I’m not convinced it can be taught) although in my journalism days I was sent on the Robert McKee screenwriting course in order to write an article about it.
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on right now? Any song lyrics? Any more stories? Are you able to tell us more about them?
SAMSON: The next thing will be lyrics. David has many pieces of music in development and has waited long enough while giving me the space to write the novel. I would love to write more stories too, but they seem to have deserted me so I guess it might be another novel once the songs are written.
AUTHORLINK: And to finish off with a ‘light-hearted’ Proust-like question – if you could invite three people, alive or dead to dinner, who would they be and why?
SAMSON: Ha! This is easy: Charmian Clift, George Johnston and Leonard Cohen.
AUTHORLINK: Of course! Ms Samson, thank you so much for your time today and talking to Authorlink about A Theatre for Dreamers and your writing life in general. We wish you all the best and an abundance of continued success!
SAMSON: Thank you for the excellent questions.
About the Author: Polly Samson is a UK novelist, journalist, and lyricist, best known for her lyrics to seven tracks on Pink Floyd’s hit album, ‘The Division Bell’. She is the author of two short story collections and two previous novels. Her work has been shortlisted for numerous prizes, translated into several languages and has been dramatised on BBC Radio 4. Her novel The Kindness was named ‘Book of the Year’ by The Times and Observer.
Her latest novel is called A Theatre for Dreamers, story of discovery set against the beautiful backdrop of Hydra, the Greek island fabled for its hedonism in the 1960s. The book was widely hailed as one of the ‘Best Novels of 2020’ and already been heralded as one of the best paperbacks of 2021 by The Sunday Times.
About Anna Roins: Anna Roins is a Senior Lawyer, previously of the Australian Government Solicitor, as well as a freelance journalist.
She has studied creative literature at The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London. Anna is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with best-selling authors. She also tries to write novels in her spare time, reviews books and writes community pieces for reputable online and print publications.