Interview with the author
Q. What is it, do you think, that makes people want to write as a career?
A. I think they have to have a certain mad optimism, be divorced from reality a little. Otherwise they’d do something more pragmatic and sell fish or some other vital activity. And yet writers have to be connected to reality somehow, so they can write about things that matter, that people can relate to. There has to be a shared experience between writer and reader, at some human level.
Q: Well, at what point did you decide, – this is what I want to do, write, tell stories?
A: Can anyone be exact about that? When did I decide? I can tell you when I came out of the closet and admitted the awful truth, that I had written something I wanted someone else to read. But I didn’t emerge as a fully-fledged writer over-night. There’s evidence I was a secret writer before that, a number of forlorn manuscripts, from many years before, hidden in a bottom drawer somewhere, that I really must dig out and burn in case anyone finds them. But I suppose I didn’t write anything that I thought people would want to read, that I could be proud of until one summer…actually I can be very accurate about that: August 1995.
Q: That’s when you “came out of the closet” then?
A: It felt a bit like that. We all go through different stages in life, and I suppose I was looking for something, a way to change what I was doing with my life. I was a lecturer at the time, in Performing Arts, facilitating other people’s creativity. Which I loved, but probably I was secretly nursing my own need to be creative. So, that summer, I made a conscious decision to spend my holiday writing. There were a couple of competitions I’d noticed, so that gave me a focus.
I wrote a radio piece, Wilde Belles, about my family, and my rather odd childhood. You know the old adage, write about what you know. Well, that was pretty much all I knew about, of interest. I sent it off to Radio 4, to apply for the Alfred Bradley Bursary, and at the same time I sent a copy to a local Playwrights Reading scheme, hoping for constructive feedback. The Playwrights Reading scheme reader hated it, sent it back with highly charged criticism about how it was meaningless, trite, nonsensical rubbish. I was really annoyed, with myself I mean, because I hadn’t waited for this feedback before sending it off to the radio competition. What an idiot! But, just as well, as it happened, because otherwise I might have binned it. Or tried to re-write it. But Kate Rowland at Radio 4, responded positively. It won me the bursary, and Kate produced it. And it went on to win awards, so it can’t have been all that bad. Anyway, the moral of that story is, you have to be discerning about who you accept feedback from. You can’t please all of the people all of the time.
Q: So, like many writers, radio was your springboard?
A: Well, radio is a fantastic medium, you can be really original, in the way you tell stories, really allow your creativity a bit of freedom, so yes it is a good place to start, to find your voice, I suppose. Except it wasn’t just the radio that set me off, the other thing I wrote that summer was for a BBC TV competition called Double Exposure. I sent them a screenplay, Weedkilller also drawn from my childhood growing up in a dysfunctional family in the wild’s of the Peak District, although a different story from Wilde Belles. It didn’t win, fatally flawed, but the person running the competition was Stewart Mackinnon. He saw something in the script and wanted to develop it with me. The next year it was shortlisted for the Dennis Potter Award. It never fulfilled its early promise and is languishing in that bulging bottom drawer. But because of it, Stewart picked up my later book, Between Two Eternities, and wanted to make it into a film. I said, “Are you mad! How can you make a film about a premature baby, who never gets out of the incubator, except in his own imagination. You can’t get a more passive protagonist.” Passive protagonists are really hard to make a film about….
Q: So hang on, before we talk about the film, the book…?
A: Right. A fictional memoir. Whilst I was juggling being a lecturer, and the development of the two scripts I’d written, something far more important, and devastating happened: Saul’s birth. He was our first son. And he was born unexpectedly when I was only five months pregnant. When my time in neo-natal intensive care with him came to an end, I couldn’t go back to lecturing. I just needed to, well there was only one thing I could write about: Saul. His experience, his little life, filled my mind so completely there wasn’t room for anything else. So I wrote his story, using his voice, seeing life through his eyes. And an agent, Caradoc King, liked it, and was brave enough to take me on, and get it published.
Q: And it was made into a film?
A: I don’t know how Stewart did it to be honest. Films are so incredibly hard to get funded, and somehow he pushed it through, over hurdle after hurdle. And everyone who wanted to work on the film, they were equally as determined. Fortunately they were also very talented. And the film, This Little Life, although very different from the book, is a moving, wonderfully conceived piece. Sarah Gavron, the genius director, was infinitely patient with me, because by then, well, writing and re-writing it, as a fictional memoir, and then a film, was very painful. People always assume it was cathartic. But to be honest, it wasn’t. It was gut-wrenching to go over and over it. I did it because I thought it was important somehow. And all the amazing correspondence I was getting from readers, with their own powerful stories about their own children, who had found the book helpful, well that made it easier I suppose. And the film really touched people, so that makes me think, well it was worth it. Apparently people would go up to Sarah at screenings and thank her for telling what for them was an important story, so sensitively, honestly, but in an uplifting way….
Q: Yes, it is very painful to watch at times, and yet very uplifting at the end, which is what I found so astonishing.
A: Well, that was our intention. I couldn’t justify making something that just made people feel wretched. You’ve got to communicate something more than misery. And yes, lots of people seem to have got something out of it. And Saul has got this life on the internet that is nothing to do with me, people reading the book, and talking about it and lending it to each other. Which is a real, a wonderful thing for me, to be honest. I had to leave Saul’s story alone for a long time after that, though, after the film. Write something that was much lighter. And I developed a career writing for radio, TV and film, filling up that bottom drawer with un-produced scripts. There were a few that made it through the wire and actually got made. But there are so many hoops for a script to leap through, the attrition rate is very high. A key person at the BBC leaves for another job, and the project folds. One of the jigsaw of contributing funding bodies is forced to pull out, and the project folds. Another production company brings out a TV drama, a little similar to yours, and the project is “put on hold.” I’ve lost count of the finished scripts (usually paid for by some poor producer) that are “still on the table.” A very successful screenwriter (Oscar winner, BAFTA grandee) once told me that ten years ago the attrition rate from commission to production was nine out of ten. ie nine out of ten of his scripts never got made! The attrition rate is much higher these days. But you have to keep telling yourself, just keep writing, nothing is wasted….