Getting to Know Sam Coley

August 28th 2020

This week we got to ask a few questions to the delightful Sam Coley, whose debut novel State Highway One is out August 25th! Sam gives insight into his writing and reading process, why the details matter, and what it’s like trying to find and understand the idea of home.

What is your day job?

I work for a not-for-profit health organisation. 

What is your connection to Vic Books?

None yet! Hopefully that can change if I'm ever allowed out of Australia again. 

What are you working on at the moment?

I've found it so hard to write much in this horrible year, but I've just started working on something new. It's an idea that's been kicking around since 2016, I only have about 1000 words down so far. I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about things and jotting ideas and making notes and then at some point it just clicks into place and I can start working. I can't say much because I don't know much yet but it's about a couple who move to the beach to open a juice bar and get away from city life. It's kind of a portrait of their relationship as it slowly disintegrates.

What is at the heart of State Highway One for you?

Where home is, and what that word even represents, when you're not sure about where you're supposed to fit into the world. It's also about grief, not just for people but also opportunities, like all those little hurts and tresspasses that acumulate over time - things you think you'll eventually get over and move on from, but suddenly won't have the opportunity to. Like, how do you run away from home when the whole concept exists entirely in your own head, and so what does it really mean to come back.

What was it like having to finish a novel after winning the Richell Prize? Is the pressure off now that the book is due to come out?

There was a lot of pressure, which manifested in either really positive or negative ways. On one hand it was great for my confidence because I'd already had that validation so early on in the process, and having a publishing-insider as a mentor for 12 months was any unpublished author's dream. On the other, I felt like I was under a terrible amount of scrutiny. During the drafting process I alternated between being terrified of not finishing and disappointing everyone, or finishing and it being terrible (stay tuned!) and being a disappointment that way. Sometimes I was tempted just to take the prize money and just ghost Hachette!

Now I have all this stress about how it's going to be received. After that, I'll be worried about writing another book. I think I'm just perpetually living in an elevated state of stress, which is probably what keeps me moving. In the same vein, it took me two years to write the first 35,000 words of the first draft, and I won the Richell Prize. I wrote the remaining 90,000 words in eight months. So that pressure definitely helped - I'd probably still be drafting otherwise. 

Do you have any favourite or memorable road trip experiences?

So many! I'm a huge fan of road trips. One of my favourite memories ever is of driving down the Desert Road with two friends in my old Corolla hatch. One of them plugged his iPod into the tape converter (just trying to date this memory haha), and put on the 17 minute long live version of Land by Patti Smith. I'd never heard it before, and if you haven't, you should. It's so epic, and it was so appropriate for that part of the country. Between the mountains and the music, the world felt so vivid then.

Another time I was driving with my then-boyfriend and we got VERY lost on our way to Whanganui. It was the middle of the night and raining very hard, we missed a turn off and ended up crashing the car and almost driving off the side of a cliff. When I started writing State Highway One I just knew a version of that incident had to end up in the book.

One last thing: after I won the Richell Prize, I came back to New Zealand to do my own condensed version of the roadtrip, taking photos and making notes for research. I had my phone headset plugged in and I was doing voice memos with landscape descriptions, thoughts and ideas etc. I was clicking the recording on and off with the play/pause button and at some point between Christchurch and Lake Tekapo I must have got out of sync because when I arrived in Tekapo and went to listen it was just road noise and me singing along to Lorde! I'll never know what I lost.

Where is home for you now? Have your ideas of home changed while writing this book?

Not just the idea of home, but my actual home itself! I started writing State Highway One in London, finished the draft in Adelaide, and now I live in Sydney. When I first moved to London I really did think of it as just somewhere I was living. It was years before I felt like I was really at home there. I knew when I set off to write SH1 that this idea of 'home' was going to be a central theme, and I guess the process of writing was as much about me figuring out what that was to me as it was to the character, Alex.

I realised it's not a binary, and now I consider Auckland, London, Adelaide and Sydney all home to me, all for different reasons. I do have a special attachment to my parents' house in Auckland, though. I never feel quite as at home as I do sitting on the back porch, drinking a Tui with my family. With a sister in the UK, brother in NZ, and me in Australia, it happens less often than I would like. Home for me now can be my sister's living room in Brixton, or the dance floor at Palms in Sydney - it's about the people for me, rather than the place. I can feel at home anywhere if I'm with my family or friends.

What inspires you the most? Which books inspire you the most?

I'm inspired by people who are passionate - about anything really. Books mostly, but music, screen, stage, art, cocktails, food, tech - literally anything. To me there's nothing more inspiring and energising than getting to talk to someone about something they're really excited about. I love bookshops for this reason - like, my perfect trip to the bookshop is one where the bookseller is just chucking books at my head shouting about why I'm going to love them.

I love talking to my family, we all have a similar sense of humour, especially my sister, and the book I'm writing now is kind of inspired by a phone conversation we had once. I like sitting at the bar and chatting to bartenders. Often there'll be something really simple, some small detail that will set me off on some kind of creative spiral, like a colour in a painting I see, or a line of song lyrics. The short story I mention below was inspired by a faulty download I had of this song called Soft where it would skip in weird places and so I started thinking about skipping tracks and how that affects how we perceive time, and that led me down a certain path. I listen to a lot of music, and there's a lot of music in State Highway One, check it out here. Like I will spend ten minutes finding my headphones so I can listen to a song on a two minute walk to the dairy for chips. And I get a lot of inspiration from that, even if it's just like a certain way I feel when I listen to a song. Like the bit in Clearest Blue by Chvrches, you know the bit I mean? There's a scene in State Highway One that was like me writing the scene but through the filter of that bit in the song. This sounds totally crackers, doesn't it?

I also get a lot of inspiration from things I read about on Wikipedia. Deep down I'm really trying to somehow acquire all human knowledge so I end up in some pretty intense wiki holes sometimes. 

In terms of books, I really am like a sponge and get inspiration everywhere. When I'm reading, I'm happiest when my brain is fully engaged with the text. I get distracted easily, so I like it when a book demands my full concentration. Often that involves breaking the conventions of what a novel can do. I'm such a sucker for a gimmick, as long as it's done well and actually enhances the text - Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk was the first truly contemporary novel I read (prior to that it was probably a lot of teen horror & fantasy - think Christopher Pike and Tamora Pierce) so my first encounter with an unreliable narrator. My little brain almost exploded right there on the spot. Definitely my own loosey-goosey attitude towards punctuation and formatting is inspired by authors who have done away with convention before me.

I'm a real stickler for details because I feel like they can tell you so much about characters and what's going on in their world. So I really enjoy it when the world a book inhabits feels fully realised and deliberate. That probably comes from my degree in film production -  nothing is there by accident, everything is a choice and all those choices inform the scene or the character or the narrative in some way. Likewise in fiction, if someone brushes their teeth I want to know what kind of toothbrush they use, if they drive a car I want to know what car, what year, what model. If the radio is on, what song is playing? I read quite slowly so I end up thinking about this kind of stuff a lot. Also when I write, it's such a great feeling when I'm trying to think of some kind of small detail like a song on the radio or someone's drink order and what I'm trying to achieve with that decision, and it all somehow manages to click into place. And honestly, sometimes they're just in-jokes for me or my friends. And as long as they don't detract from the reading experience, why not?

What are your favourite parts about writing and reading?

I know it's such a schtick, but I find writing really hard! I tend to be really hard on myself when I'm writing, and it's really rare that I feel good about it, at any stage in the process. My favourite part of writing State Highway One though has definitely been seeing it evolve over the past (almost) five years, from a couple of typewritten pages in a manila folder in my apartment in Soho, to 400-odd typewritten/handwritten pages of the first draft, and then a marked up edit, and then a typeset edit, a proof, and finally a fully realised book I can hold in my hands.

My copy is on my bookshelf and I can't stop staring at the spine, it's so distracting to see my name there. I draft on a typewriter (insert eye rolling emoji here) and I tend to play my typewriter like it's a musical instrument. I actually had an old flatmate text me from the other room to remind me that I was writing and not playing the piano. There's something therapeutic about bashing away at the keys, when it's going good it feels great, really physical, and when it's not going great, when the ideas won't come or they aren't cohesive, then at least I can get out the frustration by hitting the keys really hard and listening to them smack. 

My favourite part of reading is talking about books. If I'm really, really in love with a book I'll make one of my friends read it so that I can talk about it with them. I'm the kind of person who'll take the entire thing apart so I can try and understand it. If I didn't like it I'll take it apart to explain why I didn't. I forget that not everyone's method of enjoying something means picking it to pieces, so it can lead to some awkward moments when I'm talking to someone I don't know that well about a book I have strong opinions on.

Before I started writing State Highway One, I wasn't reading very much fiction, maybe 5-6 books a year, but a lot of longform journalism, around 500-600 articles a year (follow me on Pocket lol). Through writing fiction I really got back into reading fiction, which was really, really great. I have so much catching up to do and my TBR pile is almost touching the ceiling but definitely rediscovering my love for fiction has been an incredible side benefit of the writing process.

Are there any other places people can find your work?

Just one! I had a short story published in the now (sadly) defunct Brain Drip.

I also take a lot of photos and post them infrequently to instagram at @rockjonny.photo - when I originally conceived of State Highway One it was as a book of photography. Thankfully I didn't go through with that because someone had already done it! It's called View from the Road: Exploring New Zealand from State Highway 1 by Arno Gasteiger and Kennedy Warne, and if anyone knows where I can get a copy please let me know.

Books you'd recommend:

The Ice Shelf by Anne Kennedy - the best book I've read so far this year. I felt like it was specifically written for me and while I was reading it, it was the only thing I could think about.

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by GB Edwards - a perfect novel, and one of the only books to ever make me cry actual human tears. it's not the easiest book to get in to, but once you do it's so rewarding.

Lie With Me by Philippe Besson (translated by Molly Ringwald) - beautiful, heartbreaking, gay, and refreshingly short (just like my ex).

On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong -  Reminded me a lot of Patti Smith, who I adore,  in the way that poetry and prose and memoir blend seamlessly on the page, and it's queer, so ticking all boxes for me.

What are you reading at the moment?

I just finished The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox. 

What do you like about it?

My sister Emma and I have a 'book club' where we just pick a book and then skype about it when we're both finished. I think we talked about The Absolute Book for about four and a half hours.

I could write a book the length of The Absolute Book about all the reasons I liked The Absolute Book (it would be called The Absolute Book Book and it would just be six hundred pages of me and Emma interrupting each other every other sentence with 'AND ANOTHER THING...') but mostly I loved how it was like the literary equivalent of a stranger grabbing you by the hand and pulling you down a dark alley (in a good way) and taking you on some kind of mad adventure. It was like having a book whisper in my ear 'this is going to be totally batshit but stay with me because it's also going to be amazing' and you just go with it.

The next morning you wake up and you're like 'what happened?' and you can't 100% remember but you remember it was incredible, and then you spend the next four and half hours on skype with your sister trying to put the night back together.

Which literary character do you most identify with? Why?

Oh wow, umm. Calvin from Calvin & Hobbes maybe? Don't tell me comics don't count or we'll be in a fight.

He's a total pain in the ass, thinks he's a lot smarter than he actually is, parents are the true heroes of the series, tries hard to be optimistic but the smallest things drive him into fits of rage and despair, overactive imagination, poor communicator - especially with the person he has a crush on. And he eats way too much sugar.

Hardback or paperback?

Paperback! I like hardbacks but I hate dustcovers. I always take them off.

Favourite coffee?

The longest, blackest long black I can get my hands on. I have a Breville Melitta dripolator from the 80s and every morning I make about 10 cups of coffee and drink them over the morning. Between that and the sugar I'm probably rotting from the inside out.