Books: Interview: Polly Ho-Yen
Bristol writer Polly Ho-Yen’s third novel for children, Fly Me Home, is another gripping and moving tale. Joe Melia finds out more about the award-winning writer’s latest book and what drives her work.
As in your first book, the new novel is set in London and loneliness is a strong theme. Do you think cities are fundamentally lonely places?
I love living in cities and have spent my whole adult life living in one or another – I have lived in Birmingham, Newcastle, London and am now in Bristol. Part of what I love about them is that I think if you really know your city, if you look around you, if you are part of your place, then you won’t live in a bubble. You’ll see that whole messy, joyous, difficult spectrum of life. You’ll question how you live your life because of it. You’ll ask yourself what you want to do about it. Looking around me, I could see that living in a city could be incredibly isolating for many people at certain periods of their life although I think this could be said for anywhere, where different issues would crop up. I don’t think cities are fundamentally lonely places but I am interested about our relationship with place, space and nature and thinking about how another person in my city might live.
The main character in Fly Me Home, Leelu, is very vividly imagined. Is she based on anyone in particular?
So many of the children that I used to teach when I taught in a primary school sneak into my writing. Leelu’s situation – of arriving in London, with her mother and brother, from another country but without her father – was based on a child I used to teach. However they couldn’t possibly be more different in personality!
Which books were important to you as a child?
There were a handful of books that I read and reread so many times. Reading a variety of books is obviously very important but there is also a great value, I think, in rereading a book. I’m always fascinated by those books that have this kind of draw over me because there are some books that I would not be fussed to reread and then others where I can’t wait to turn back to the start. The Diddakoi by Rumer Goden and A Dog So Small by Philippa Pearce are such two.
How did being a teacher affect your writing?
I always tell readers when I do school events that being a teacher is when I felt like I became a writer because I finished my first book then. Being back into the world of a primary school first of all really took me back to my own school experience. It reminded me of being a child again, sometimes glimpsing part of an adult world that I couldn’t put together, but mostly being lost in my own struggles and joys. But I think the main reason that being a teacher started me off was that I wanted to try to write books where the children that I knew, the reality of their experiences, were put at the heart of a story. I wanted to see them on the page.
When your first book won the Calderdale Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for nearly every other Children’s book award, did you feel under pressure to match that achievement with subsequent books?
I always feel that when I’m writing a story, the act of doing it is just hugely enjoyable for me. I love getting lost in that moment of storytelling – everything else fades away. An artist friend wrote recently that she ‘relishes in the sheer aliveness of making things.’ I can’t put it better. So when I write, I’m relishing, I’m not thinking about achievements really at all. Having said that, it is incredibly lovely when people like your books (I can never quite believe it!) and I’m always so grateful to all those amazing people who work so incredibly hard to help new writers and different books to find their readers.
Did working in publishing help you to be a better writer?
Every experience you have can help you to become a better writer. Working in publishing obviously helped me to understand the process and where publishers are coming from. But mostly being surrounded by books and thinking and talking about them all day was a big help!
Polly Ho-Yen’s third novel, Fly Me Home (Corgi, £6.99) is out now.