Polly Courtney left university to embark on a career as investment banker with no intention of becoming a writer. Her first book, Golden Handcuffs, came out of a desire to expose the reality of life in the Square Mile. This self-published novel attracted the attention of HarperCollins who signed her for what most authors dream about, a 3-book deal.
Having discovered her passion, Polly went on to write Poles Apart, a light-hearted novel based on her Polish migrant friend’s experiences in England. Subsequent novels have covered sexism, racism, fame culture and the summer riots. She is a passionate champion of the underdog and this is reflected in her novels.
In late 2011, Polly famously walked out on her publisher, for the ‘girly’ titles and covers assigned to her books – most notably, It’s a Man’s World, a hard-hitting take on the lads’ mag industry and its impact on society marketed as chick-lit.
This experience has seen Polly return to self-publishing, most recently with the novel Feral Youth launched yesterday, and become a champion of authors who wish to go it alone. We first met her at Stratford Literary Festival in a session that saw us walk away fired up to crack on with The Book in a way we hadn’t been for some time. Obviously we wanted to know more, so I fired off a quick e-mail request quickly answered with a generous agreement to answer a few of our questions despite being in the throes of launching Feral Youth.
We’ve split the interview into two halves. Today we look at the nuts and bolts of writing a book. On Tuesday we’ll be asking about self-publishing a novel.
Where and how do you write? Do you set goals for numbers of words written per session? Write in the morning before breakfast or later in the evening? Use only pink and fluffy pens?
Definitely the pink and fluffy pens!
No, I use a clunky old laptop, which is black and only a little fluffy. I plan my books meticulously before I sit down to write the first chapter: planning the different threads, the interactions between characters etc. so that when it’s time to sit down and write, I know who’s going to do what and how.
I can only write in the afternoons (I know… don’t ask why) so in the mornings I get ‘stuff’ done: go for a run, tweet, make calls, tweet, write articles, tweet… you get the idea.
Your books always focus on an issue and then weave a story around this. How do you pick the central theme? I’m assuming you don’t just grab a copy of the Daily Mail and see what they are getting worked up about.
Damn – you’ve worked me out!
The truth is, the ‘issues’ (lads’ mag culture, city sexism, wealth divide etc.) are ones that have been swilling around in my head for a while, making me angry. I don’t like to see inequality or prejudice going unnoticed and although I’m not deluded enough to think that my novels will change society, it makes me feel better to know that ‘the flipside’ (of the Daily Mail argument) is getting some airtime.
Do you plot the entire story before starting or do the characters become alive and drive the plot lines?
I plan the story, but when I start writing the chapters, the characters soon start behaving in ways I hadn’t quite anticipated. I’ve never managed to stick to the original plan for a novel – but I think that’s OK. I’d hate to force the characters to do something against their will!
How much Polly Courtney is in your characters? Your first book came from your job but after this, there are some interesting similarities – the main characters mother is usually strong and demanding figure for example.
My first book was definitely semi-autobiographical, based on my experiences in the City. Since then, there have been components of me in all my novels, but only streaks: attitudes and opinions, not the whole me. In my latest novel, Feral Youth you might struggle to see me in any of the characters, as it’s set on the streets of Peckham – but I’m sure you’ll find me in there somewhere…
Interestingly, the ‘mother figure’ who appears in a couple of my novels is based not on my own, but on an amalgamation of ‘pushy mothers’ I saw during my school days: parents who would push their girls so hard that many of them suffered from depression and worse – driven by the relentless goal to ‘have it all’. My parents are definitely not pushy; in fact, their attitude has always been ‘do what makes you happy’!
Unlike chick-lit authors, your male characters are very well written and rounded. How easy do you find to write the opposite sex without resorting to clichés?
Why thank you! I actually enjoy writing in different voices: the teenagers in Feral Youth definitely felt most ‘alive’, and the men in my previous novels were interesting to write, too. I guess I’m just fascinated by people and things that are different from what I’ve grown up with.
Thanks Polly for this. Next week we’ll peek behind the scenes of publishing a novel yourself. In the meantime, visit Polly’s website at pollycourtney.com