I’m very pleased to be able to present another Great Conversation. This time, I’m chatting with a novelist/poet whose work I have very much grown to admire, and not only because he is a fellow Ward Wood writer.
Colin Bell is a very talented man with a fascinating background, and I know his new novel, Stephen Dearsley’s Summer of Love, will be a huge hit.
Here we go:


Me: Hi, Colin. Thanks so much for having this great conversation with me. I’m especially looking forward to this. The more I learn about you, the more fascinating you become! And of course, we are part of the same Ward Wood family. So here are some questions.
First, I’m always interested in how writers get to where they are, and your road has been an especially curving one, leading you from music college to the BBC to your writing room in Lewes. Can you talk a bit about how you got here?
Colin: I think of those curvey graphs I learnt at school where you have to mark the significant points along the curve with a straight line. My life has certainly meandered down many by-ways but, looked at from above or with hindsight, there is a pattern there. I just got interrupted a lot on a rather single-minded path. I always wanted to be a writer. My dream was to,one day, have a slim paperback novel published and to hold it in my hands like I’m doing now. I wrote poetry too at school but then forgot about it. The complications set in when people told me I had a big (and loud!) tenor singing voice and that I enjoyed performing in front of audiences so I decided I wanted to become an opera singer, as you do, and got accepted by London’s Royal Academy of Music to do a course in singing and piano. I loved it but I was young, maybe too young when I went there and, for me, unlike Stephen Dearsley, music college in the late 1960s just wasn’t enough. I carried on singing but left to go do a university English degree where the writing bug reasserted itself. After that I got involved in post-graduate film studies and decided I wanted to write film screenplays as well as, one day, having that slim paperback novel in my hands. I became a very junior independent film maker with some like-minded friends and had a wonderfully bohemian time until the film and television union (ACTT) threatened to black me if I didn’t get a union card. In those days, you had to get a job in the industry to get the card and you could only get a job in the industry if you had a card. Music came to my rescue and got me a job at Granada TV in their music department. I was, of course, always going to leave to become a writer but I got my union card and discovered that the television industry was so exciting in those days and then the projects kept coming until I ended up as a producer-director and then the executive-producer for arts programmes. I was the lucky holder of a job many people would die for.  The BBC came later when I left Granada to become an independent producer. That slim paperback wouldn’t go away however and, one day, in a pub, I discussed this with my wife over a pint, or two, of beer. We decided to go for it. So I took the financial benefits owing to me after twenty odd years in the TV industry, down-sized on the house and started typing – and,hey,it worked – after a few false starts and a few years of insecurity and frustration, it really was just a straight line from my boyhood ambition about writing a slim paperback novel ‘til today when, yay, here it is.
Sue: I have a strong musical background, as do you. Tell me, do you find your musical training helps with your writing? Does it affect poetry more than prose, or neither? Or are they completely different compartments for you?  
Colin: I have, as far as I remember, always been obsessed with music. It is nearly always either playing in my head or humming quietly in my subconcsious so it must have influenced nearly everything I do. In practical terms, I think all my writing, prose and poetry, benefits from the discipline and attention to detail musical training demands. My novel or my poetry must reflect all those years studying and feeling musical form with its complexities of rhythm, proportions and colouration. In my TV days, film editing was an outlet for submerged musical instincts.  I admire the same musically inspired feeling for concision, rhythm and structure in writing. It doesn’t mean I’m any good at it, of course, but I think my musical training made me a classicist as a writer. I take form very seriously in all my work. When I started to write poetry again, I saw it, at first, as a solitary in the study kind of writing but then, almost by accident, I found myself at a poetry reading and, the singer in me, found himself again and I discovered that poetry really is a performance art. That first reading took me back to the loud voiced tenor from my college days who loved to perform German lieder – that great marriage of poetry and music. Now I always hear the vocal performance when I’m writing a poem. Music has led me throughout.
Me: The plot behind Stephen Dearsley’s Summer of Love sounds so appealing, and it’s such a great title. How did you come up with the idea? Was it the plot which came to you first, or the character?
Colin: The first idea for the book was very clear and has actually made it to the final cut.  I wanted the contrast between two main characters and two, let’s say, iconic periods in English history, the 1960s and the 1930s. The young fogey who sees himself as dull, writing about history unaware at first that history is being made around him and the charismatic “matinee idol” heroic type, Austin, who becomes a figure in history and also the subject of Stephen’s biography. Austin and his circle also illustrate that, just  maybe, love isn’t all you need.  This was very clear to me when I started. I was also sure that I wanted to write about 1967, a defining year for me and most of my contemporaries, and to contrast it with the 1930’s, that glamourous but also dangerous and destructive era that led to horrors we should never forget.  The book was always meant to be about contrasts and maybe music, in the symphonic sense, plays a part here – First subject then contrasted second subject and surprising changes of harmony. Also, from the beginning there were a number of songs, some of my all-time favourites, that gave me ideas. These pieces are hidden in the text, they helped me to feel/remember some of the history and contemporary reactions to it.  The working out of the plot came later but it was helped from the start by the need to join together that dot in paragraph one chapter one and the one in the last sentence of the last chapter.  Don’t believe this was easy though, it wasn’t, but it was great knowing where to start and where I was going to end up.

Me: Thanks, Colin. And best of luck with your first novel. I’m sure there will be plenty more bubbling up from where that one came. But in the meanwhile, I’m really looking forward to getting into the head and heart of Stephen Dearsley! 

Colin Bell

Stephen Dearsley’s Summer of Love can be ordered via Ward Wood as above, or through Amazon here, the Book Depository here, or via good bookshops throughout the UK.