Interview by Nicole Melanson ~
Rose Collis is a multi-media writer, alternative historian and performer. Originally from South Wimbledon, she has lived in East Sussex since 1997. Since 1985, her work has included biography, history, journalism, theatre, short fiction, online content, exhibitions, literary talks and historical walks.
In 2012, she created Trouser-Wearing Characters, the first-ever one-woman musical cabaret show written and performed by a female author. To date, the show has been performed at theatres and major arts festivals throughout the UK, New Zealand and Australia.
WHEN DID YOU START WRITING?
I started off as a songwriter – first lyrics at 13, then music at 15 after I’d taught myself guitar. That was my entrée into political fringe theatre in 1979, aged 20, working with gay and women’s companies as an (untrained) singer, writer and vocal arranger, supporting myself working as a temp secretary.
HOW DID YOU GET YOUR FIRST BREAK?
My work as an LGBTQ/feminist performer and activist led to my appointment in 1985 as the very first lesbian co-editor of “Out in the City”, the gay section of the then-highly influential London magazine, City Limits. I had no ambitions whatsoever to be a journalist, but they saw something in me I didn’t know was there and nurtured me. Working for them led to subsequent freelance work for over 30 publications on both sides of the Atlantic and, in another quirky twist of Fate, getting my first book, Portraits to the Wall, commissioned by Cassell in 1992.
WHAT IS YOUR LATEST BOOK OR CURRENT PROJECT?
As ever, I have a number of projects running in tandem: I’ve just completed a new play, Not Wanted on Voyage, and hope to get a venue or producer to pick that up and run with it. I’m still touring my one-woman show Trouser-Wearing Characters and my latest book is Death and the City, available in paperback and Kindle formats. I’m also planning a new one-woman stage show for myself.
WHAT IS YOUR WORK ENVIRONMENT LIKE?
I currently live in Telscombe Cliffs, East Sussex, in a house part-owned with my best friend, that is equidistant (10-min walk) from the South Downs and the sea. My work room was purpose-built as part of a garage conversion/extension, and is south-facing, overlooking the garden, which has a fish pond and lots of avian visitors. The room itself is chock-full of books and more books, files, archive and research materials, pictures and photos of friends and biographical subjects, CDs and mini-stereo, etc. It’s also next-door to my bedroom, which is handy, as I often get ideas or even come up with dialogue in the middle of the night, so I can pop in and jot things down. A word of advice: never wait until the morning to jot ideas down …
WHEN DO YOU WORK? WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE?
For me, there’s no such thing as a “typical” day. Unless I’m on a tight deadline, mornings and early afternoons are spent on the various administrative tasks that are as essential to a writer’s job as the “creative” work – everything from updating my website, to planning and writing funding applications… my brain tends to go into “creative” mode once I’ve attended to this stuff, and in shorter, concentrated, highly productive periods. With 30 years of experience under my belt, I can now produce just as good – if not better – work in 2-3 hours, than in 6 or 7.
WHAT IS YOUR WRITING PROCESS?
Apart from working out a provisional structure, it’s all about the research − and the actual “writing” won’t begin until I’m satisfied that I’ve gone as far as I can with that, be it a biography, an historical book, or a play. I’m always amused when people look astonished after asking me, some months into a book project, “How much have you written?” and I say, “Nothing.”
WHO OR WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
In hindsight, I can see that it’s always been quirky queer and/or female characters and associated historical events that have grabbed my attention and formed the bedrock of all my work – especially those who, like me, ended up becoming known for doing something they’d never planned as a career e.g. Nancy Spain and Coral Browne. I had no ambitions to be a journalist, let alone an author: I just wanted to write good, catchy, witty songs for the stage.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST PART OF WHAT YOU DO?
Most of the problems I’ve heard other writers complain of I don’t experience. Lack of ideas? Quite the opposite – far too many, if anything. Getting an agent? Nope – had three so far (though only one of my twelve published books was commissioned via one). Meeting a deadline? Bring it on, I say – get the job done as best you can in the allotted time, deliver it, move on.
However, there are two problems I share with many writers: the appalling level of income for our work – ALCS figures show the median income of professional authors in 2013 was just £11,000, a drop of 29% since 2005 − and the general downgrading of the status of our profession as just that: a profession.
I’ve also encountered publishers and agents who don’t appear to much enjoy working with writers, which begs the question as to why they do.
Oh − and sometimes my long-term clinical depression can be a bit of a bugger as well…
WHAT IS YOUR ARTISTIC VISION?
Given that most mainstream publishers are now ruled by marketing departments, rather than commissioning editors, the chances of getting any sort of contract – let alone advance − for a mid-range literary or non-celebrity biography are scant. However, I intend to keep producing a wide range of high quality, eclectic work with queer and/or women’s history at the forefront. I have to give myself some credit for realising, some years back, that an ability to diversify and continually promote yourself and your work to new audiences was vital – and, as a writer, often exciting and rewarding.
WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITE FEMALE AUTHORS?
There is one who stands head and shoulders above the rest: Jackie Kay. Since I saw her first play, Twice Over, in 1988, I’ve been lost in admiration for the breadth, depth and sheer quality of her work: whatever form she embraces, she is the consummate wordsmith. As an out Black lesbian, she has been an important and inspirational public figure. She is also a superb performer of her own work − always entertaining and engaging, never self-indulgent or smug.
WHICH FEMALE AUTHOR WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE INTERVIEWED ON WORDMOTHERS NEXT?
Bernardine Evaristo is another accomplished and versatile writer who, like Jackie Kay, I first encountered via her stage work: specifically Theatre of Black Women, which she co-founded in 1982. Since then, I’ve been delighted to observe her deserved ascendancy to becoming a much-respected and award-winning author who, like Kay, has been an inspirational and pivotal figure for other Black women writers.
Thank you, Rose Collis!
— Nicole Melanson
* Author photo by Tony Tree
And thank you, Rosie Garland, for recommending Rose! Read Rosie Garland’s WordMothers interview here
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