Nell Leyshon

 Author Nell Leyshon  Picture Hattie Miles

By Jeremy Miles

Writer Nell Leyshon is wreathed in welcoming smiles as she greets us at her rambling Bournemouth home.

It's a family house shared with her long-time partner Dom and their two teenage sons.

It feels a happy place and Nell exudes a sense of confidence and fulfilment.

And well she might. In recent years her work as a novelist and playwright has brought her both critical success and public recognition.

Now in her mid 40s, she has become known as a late starter, scoring a series of notable literary hits.

Her first novel, Black Dirt, was long-listed for the prestigious Orange Prize in 2004 and the following year her play Comfort Me With Apples won the Evening Standard's £30,000 Charles Wintour Award for Most Promising Playwright.

Meanwhile, her radio play Milk earned the Richard Imeson prize.

In a word, when it comes to wielding a pen, Nell Leyshon (it's pronounced "Ly-Shon" by the way) is really rather good.

Yet despite the cheery smile and continuing success, her work deals with tough subjects like broken relationships, damaged lives and the dreadful things that human beings are capable of.

Her second novel Devotion - published this week by Picador - focuses on a family in meltdown following the break-up of a relationship that had once been central to their lives.

It describes a growing disaster from the different perspectives of those involved.

It's beautifully written in her terse but lyrical style, a finely judged jigsaw of observations taking the reader through a tale that can only end in tragedy.

I ask Nell why someone who has such a sunny disposition feels compelled to write such dark and desperate stories?

"I am an extremely positive person but I've always been fascinated by the dark side - the extremes of human nature, where people will go."

I suggest her gruesome fascination could stem from a deep-seated fear that she might lose her own happiness?

"I think that's probably very, very accurate," she agrees. "But also, when I hit my 40s, a lot of friends' relationships started to fragment and I think it was my observing that too. I am such an observer of people and I really like children. I think I could see how such things affected them."

Her observation of people, she admits, verges on the obsessive.

"I am absolutely riveted by people and families, the way they live together and how their individual voices can be so different but my really big obsession with people is what's going on on the inside.

"I'm constantly psychoanalysing people and indeed myself. Constantly questioning - why did I feel that funny little bit of jealousy?"

By her own admission she was "incredibly nosy" as a child. She was also allowed free reign thanks to an unconventional up-bringing in and around Glastonbury. Her parents were free-thinking hippie shopkeepers, who prized self-expression above rules. Nell went to a pioneering "progressive" school but says all she learnt was "how to roll joints and blow smoke rings".

She headed for London and worked her way around the commercial film business, working as an assistant to a variety of people before eventually becoming a producer in her own right.

"I was earning a lot of money but the business was madness," she says. Priorities were skewed. She recalls hearing a big-time Oxbridge-educated advertising industry player boast that his proudest achievement was dreaming up the slogan Only the crumbliest flakeiest chocolate'.

"That was my big moment of awakening. I just couldn't take the advertising business seriously. They used to call me the commie'. I'm afraid the commercial life just wasn't for me."

Writing, she says, is infinitely more satisfying. Despite her success nationally, she is still committed to working within the local community in Bournemouth, her home for the past 15 years.

She is currently working on a theatre project with Vita Nova - a performing and writing group made up of recovering drug addicts and alcoholics. Called The Confession, it is due to be staged at Lighthouse in Poole in April. Based on often harrowing addiction stories, the work is, says Nell, the product of "brave, strong people who have had very difficult lives but have reached a place of true honesty".

She says that whatever success she achieves she doesn't want to be someone who is constantly only working in London. She wants to have input into the local creative scene and says: "Some of the richest, most intelligent, creative people I've met in Bournemouth have been people I've met in the recovering community - I think they have a massive amount to offer."

© Jeremy Miles 2022