The family history of the author Polly Samson is a novel in itself, a generation-spanning epic that makes Wild Swans seem like a bedtime story. In the two generations above her are tales of love between classes and continents, affairs with concubines, betrayal, the abandonment of children in Barnardos homes, the joining – and fleeing – of Mao's Red Army, unintentional bigamy, escape from the Nazi regime via Kindertransport, and mass "rational suicide" for family left behind in Germany.
It's hardly surprising that she found the compelling story that forms The Kindness within her family archives.
The novel tells the relationship of Julia and Julian, whose bond is severed when the hospitalisation of their daughter, Mira, causes a geographical and emotional separation of the pair. In truth that’s not even half the story. To explain how the plot mirrors the life and death of her father’s Uncle Heinrich, who was born in Hamburg, is to give the game away, and we wouldn’t want to deny anyone the read.
In her seafront home in Hove, a large house full of books, instruments and decoration that she shares with her husband, David Gilmour, of Pink Floyd, and two of their eight collective children, she keeps a photograph that Heinrich took propped against their floor-to-yay-high bookshelf. It's one of many she found while investigating his story.
“He committed suicide aged 70, because the betrayal that happened to Julian happened to him,” she says. “It happened three decades previous, after which he built up a nice life in Paris, with a glamorous partner and a career as a renowned photographer. But he never quite got over it.”
With Heinrich also influencing the character of Heino in the book, The Kindness is the imagined version of the incident that haunted him, and so much more. It brings in elements of Milton's Paradise Lost, incorporates near-standalone short stories, and is teasingly told through an unravelling series of flashbacks, with two points of view eventually clarifying the truth.
“That’s a common fact in our lives; we blunder on with incomplete information,” she says. “You can look back on any episode in your life and think, If I had known that I’d have understood why that person wasn’t nice to me. I’m much more interested in what’s going on between the lines.”
Samson, who is 52, is strikingly intelligent, a graceful host whose warmth and humility outshine her beauty – quite the feat. It makes perfect sense to find out that the couple have donated millions of pounds to Crisis, which combats homelessness, and other charities.
A regular visitor to Ireland, she's planning an appearance in Dún Laoghaire for the Mountains to Sea DLR Book Festival on March 21st to discuss The Kindness. The audience will include Marian Keyes, who tweeted that "it's a long time since a book moved me so deeply". Later in the year Samson will make her first formal appearance with Gilmour at the Borris House Festival of Writing & Ideas.
Samson has written lyrics for both Pink Floyd and for Gilmour’s solo albums. His fourth is due in September; with the deadline adding a little more pressure, he’s locked in the studio. Samson aims to finish the last of the lyrics later on the day we meet.
“It’s lovely to collaborate with him after an intense time alone in a room for eight hours a day,” she says. “But I’m aware that he asks me because he hates writing lyrics – I think because he has a fully formed musical brain. On this album he’s written two songs, but it’s taken me months of sitting him down and nagging him. But I think it’s important. Like, David drives us everywhere, but our friends always remind me that I have to drive every now and then, otherwise I’ll forget how.”
Samson began writing lyrics for The Division Bell, from 1994, but it's only now, after years of fear of "wifeism", that she feels comfortable joining their names together professionally. "I started helping to write The Division Bell almost accidentally, when I was ill with glandular fever and he was looking after me," she says. "He'd come home, ask me for suggestions and write them verbatim.
"At the end of it I asked him to not put my name on it, because it felt like such a boys' club; it was a more misogynistic time. But he said I absolutely will put my name on everything I've written, and there will come a time when I'd thank him for it. He was right, of course. I'd be furious if I remained uncredited for what turned out to be quite good work. But at the time I felt uncomfortable; it was early in our relationship, and there was that idea of being Yoko Ono. Thinking about that now, where's the insult of being Yoko Ono? She's very talented. I think she's rather amazing."
Leading the pack of critics was Gilmour's adversary Roger Waters, who left Pink Floyd in 1985, forgoing his role as the main writer of both the music and the lyrics.
"After Division Bell came out," Samson says, "he was asked if he'd heard the album, and his response was, 'Yeah. Getting the wife to write the lyrics: how tragic is that?' I remember being quite upset. Now I just think it was appalling of him. Imagine someone saying that now. What disqualifies someone? Is it being female? Is it being married? I've been a writer all my life. Why would I not be able to do this because I got married? It's wifeism, really. I suspect it was sour grapes," she says with a grin. "In those days insults fairly freely flew back and forth. David and Roger were like a bickering old divorced couple."
It appears that Samson’s first love of writing lies somewhere between lyrics and novels, in the form of short stories. Her first collection,
Lying in Bed
, came out in 1999, shortly before her debut novel,
Out of the Picture
. Her second collection, entitled
, was published in 2010; Samson spent the intervening time raising their four children, as well as David’s older four.
“I just can’t do both. I get very preoccupied,” she says. “When they’re at the age where they really need you it’s no use for them for me to be half-present, and it’s no use for me to be writing and constantly interrupted or worried. Now my youngest is about to be 13, so it suits them to be forgotten. I think that they’re dying for me to do another one.”
She has no plans just yet, particularly as The Kindness was four years in the making, and a difficult four years at that. In 2011 her eldest son, Charlie, was imprisoned for violent disorder during the tuition-fee protests of the previous year. Samson's best friend, the journalist Cassandra Jardine, died in May 2012. Then, in February 2013, her father died, followed, two months later, by Storm Thorgerson, the artist who designered Pink Floyd's album covers, and who had been Gilmour's best man at their wedding.
“I wrote it in the worst period of my life,” she says. “It was one thing after another, and it felt so unrelenting. It was actually a relief to have this other narrative that I could leap into, and not be so present in my own life.
“My dad had a horrible death. He was being treated for macular degeneration, and a superbug got into his eye. They misdiagnosed it twice, gave him a really strong antibiotic, and basically killed his liver. It took six months, and it was horrific. Liver is a terrible way to go; you go yellow and itchy . . . The idea of ‘feeling liverish’ doesn’t even begin to describe it.”
The only saving grace was that there had been enough time for the family to recover from Charlie’s four months in jail.
“That broke my dad’s heart, but at least they had time to be together and for my dad to know that Charlie was all right, because he had post-traumatic stress disorder for about a year afterwards. If they had happened at the same time, how on earth would we have coped?
“Thankfully Charlie’s doing well now, and using his experience to look for reform of the penal system – he’s a good advocate. It was traumatic at the time, but there’s enough distance that it’s just wonderful to see the great recovery he’s made, and how he’s putting the experience to good use.”
Charlie Gilmour is now a journalist in London; Samson is equally proud of how all her children are growing up: Joe is relishing university life, Gabriel is set on becoming a set designer, and young Romany has already been bitten by the acting bug.
“They say you’re as happy as your unhappiest child,” she says. “All four are doing what they want in life, which means I’m happy.”
The Kindness is published by Bloomsbury Circus. Polly Samson is at the Mountains to Sea book festival, in Dún Laoghaire, on March 21st and at Borris House Festival of Writing & Ideas in June