Congratulations on winning the BBC Radio 4 Audio Drama Award for Best Adaptation with Émile Zola’s Blood, Sex and Money with your fellow writers Oliver Emanuel, Martin Jameson and Dan Rebellato. The ceremony was hosted by Sir Lenny Henry, who studied literature with The Open University, back in the day, like a lot of our Inky followers! Can you please tell Ink Pantry about the adaptation and describe a typical day with your fellow writers in adapting Blood, Sex and Money?
Thank you! It was an odd thing, the Zolas. I met with my co-writers once and then had a phone conference with them. They had already written the first season and, although I was supposed to work with them on that, for some reason I was kept in the parking bay until Season 2. I like to think it was as their ‘secret weapon’! I’m known for being experimental in my adaptations, experimental not just in narrative but form and to also sling comedy into everything (the gentlemen were all a lot more serious writers than myself). Then a story arc was erected and the books allocated, a timeline worked-out, Glenda Jackson’s character, and the series narrator was given her own story arc and then we jumped in and wrote like scallywags. We only conferred when we shared a character between episodes, just to ensure that whatever liberties we took with that character were consistent with their behaviour in a previous episode. Otherwise it was Liberty Junction. As long as the spirit of the books were honoured, and there was basic agreement on what needed to happen to ensure the whole worked as a series, and as stand-alone, off we went. In Series 3, Money, I was given The Earth to adapt, the book that put Zola in court for obscenity (thanks for that). My adaptation was the sole episode that was broadcast prefaced by a warning and it is very visceral. It was the only episode, I think, to draw complaints about how upsetting it was. I offset it with comedy, the everyday intruding on murder, death and tragedy — and I’m proud of the script but sorry that it was too much for some listeners. (Guardian article: Blood, Sex and Money)
As a dramatist you have adapted many great works for radio. In 2002 you adapted Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for BBC Radio 4. Where do you start with such an undertaking? Did you have fun doing it? Have you any advice for budding writers who are interested in this field?
His Dark Materials, blimey, yes — when we were expected to cram big books into an hour each, then we were granted an hour-and-a-half. When we’d finished, we were asked why we hadn’t asked for longer! We did ask! It was an odd undertaking. The rhythm of the story, the pace and progress were all different because we had such a limited amount of time to set up characters and have them swept into the story. I was told to make one of the angels the narrator (fine and dandy) and to explain ‘Dust’ as ‘soul’, which was a trifle bizarre given the author’s atheism. I did my usual humour thing (throw it in, mix it up) which was also my way of coping with the project. It was, as they say, a poisoned chalice. Some people love the version, others wanted to kick me in the shins and nethers. I can’t say that the project was a joy. I didn’t sleep for five nights when it was broadcast and I also ritually smashed up my complimentary set of Dark Materials CDs when they arrived. Took a hammer to them. Broke ’em up on the doorstep. I wouldn’t wish to adapt anything under those circumstances again. No way. Very painful memories. As for advice to people interested in adaptations — they can be great fun (they are a glorified kind of fan fiction) — but go for books that give you, the dramatist, ample space to explore what fascinates you. The Zolas were great fun, but the adaptation I’m fondest of is The Anatomy of Melancholy (the commissioner gave me an hour for a book composed of nearly 1000 pages in tiny print) and Gargantua and Pantagruel. Be aware that some people will be annoyed with the choice you make and the liberties you take, but there’s no point in adapting a book for another medium if you’re going to lavishly copy the original. I also like my version of the (partly controversial) Ann Veronica by H.G.Wells — that airs on February 26th, repeated on March 4th.
One of your radio plays from 1997 is called Nietzsche’s Horse. Great title! What is it about and what themes does it touch upon?
Nietzsche’s Horse was my first ever radio play. It featured floating prostitutes. Of course it did! Nietzsche’s being followed by a horse as he discovers exactly what Universal Consciousness (the aim of his philosophy, in my humble opinion) entails. It was a comedy. It featured the famous horse in Wagner’s Opera explaining its poses, with the riposte, ‘And I never dunged the stage’. Happy days.
You have many books published, one of which is called Out Damned Spot; William Shakespeare, Crime Scene Cleaner. Another great title! What is the novel about? How would you describe your writing style, generally?
Out Damned Spot! William Shakespeare, Crime Scene Cleaner is about a latter-day William Shakespeare, a junior hospital doctor who’s bullied out of his job (nurses empty catheter bags filled with urine into his locker, midwives carve human placentas into his likeness, microwave them, and eat them in the staff kitchen, the fairies mess with his naval which becomes so enormous he’s diagnosed as acoustic) because he’s whistle blown about the hospital using occult practices, not medical ones. William walks in on someone running a Ouija planchette over a patient’s gelled abdomen, and the consultants all use the Great Western Pharma Tarot to diagnose and treat illness. He leaves and sets up in business as a crime scene cleaner, opting for ‘higher end’ crime scenes and cleaning up after the other William Shakespeare’s crime scenes depicted in his plays. He’s helped by nine bulimic cannibals, a Goth campanologist, a partially dissected cadaver, an ex hospital porter obsessed with sumo and Ann Hathaway Shakespeare, a free-diving, water-birth specialist midwife. They end up travelling in their own graves, stealing babies.There’s a flying human tongue (the Tonguebird) and nods to Lewis Carroll who was a Shakespeare aficionado. It should probably be a graphic novel, and I’m turning it into a performance piece and animation. There are also friars who anaesthetise poltergeists, enclose them in illuminated vellum tubes, and retail them as warheads. I drink far too much tea. I think my writing style shows that. I am a visual artist who accidentally ended up flinging words about. My work is driven by images and comedy. I do try plotting but no one believes me.
You have a ‘formidable grand dame’ of a pet crow. What is she called and how did she come to live with you?
Oh, my beloved crow Anne Bow! Out Damned Spot is dedicated to her for ‘noises off’. I thought she wouldn’t mind if nobody liked my book, she’d make her wonderful rude, raucous, hahahaha crow noises and she’d put the world to rights. Anne Bow is around 15 years old now and was born without true wings, a genetic defect that affects the Corvid family. We’ve had her living with us since she was a fledgling; she was a year old before proper flight feathers grew. Anne was found wandering about beneath a tree, her beak deformed, her throat filled with gape worm parasites and she had a severe chest infection, so she sounded like Donald Duck. Basically, she was going to be ‘put down’ unless she was offered a home with an aviary. It was hoped by the vet and veterinary nurses that Anne could be released once she had true wings, but the deformed beak never corrected itself, her crop is scarred because of the gape worm so she can’t store food, and she’s partially sighted and a poor flier, so would never have survived. We’ve left the aviary door open in case she wanted to fly out and return at her leisure but she yells at us until we shut the door. The local crows come down to see her and feed with her. Basically, Anne Bow is the Boss.
You are a lady of many talents, as you are also a performance poet. Have you entered many slams? What do you think about the poetry scene at the moment?
I love performing. It can be fun. I’ve tried my hand at local poetry slams but they’re far too serious for me. I am a giddy kipper. They seem to favour the one style of poetry, which is great if that’s your bag. I might be due a good shin-kicking if I say that the style of the ones I’ve witnessed verge on haranguing and in-your-face and, ahem, favour the overly macho and the immediately gratifying, but that might be just an accident of circumstance. The poetry scene is a rum ol’ world, some glorious pieces, some snobbery and bobbery and some grass-roots glorious, real, individual, wonderful, magnificent poems that are written because the writer needed to write them and remained playful yet true to their own vision.
Both your husband and son are also writers. What kind of things do they write about? Do you inspire each other?
We are a scribbler family for sure. My husband, Michael, is a poet and essayist (Michael’s essays Gifts of Rings and Gold ) He’s the real poet, I’m more an apple-bobber. His essays are brilliant, and he’s also just written two novels.
Our son, Alex, is a novelist, having completed his MA in Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam, had a short story, Plankton, published by Galley Beggar Press (under his nom de plume Vienna Famous: he and I are forever name-shifting). He writes wild, comedic pieces. He went to Art School and did a series about how the female body is usually the one depicted as vulnerable or available. He’s very interested in culture/gender and even did an MA about that, too. When he did his BA in English Lit, he even won the Virago Essay Prize!
I consider Michael and Alex to be the ‘real’ writers in the family. I’m a wonky hybrid thang, a writer that craves images (and who often draws) and laughter. I accidentally fell into writing plays and haven’t been able to extricate myself. I got in trouble for telling the wonderful Society of Authors, who had given me a free year’s membership, that I wouldn’t join after the year was up. I found their wonderful array of support and workshops terrifying. Bless them, they are brilliant, but it was a case of, having been allowed through their door, I could see that I didn’t belong. I really, really do not feel like a writer. I use words, but not in a writerly way.
Did you grow up with a lot of books? Could you please describe your library? 🙂 What is your favourite book? What are you reading at the moment?
We didn’t really have books when I grew up. There was a set of encyclopaedias in the garden shed which I used to read (I dug holes in the garden and sat in them and read, or went in the shed to read if it was raining) and I came home from school to find my dad burning them. Heartbreak! Now I’m a book obsessive. We have far too many books. Not enough bookshelves. Books in stacks by the bed and in the front room. Books! I’m always reading any of the Harry Potters, P.G.Wodehouse, Mark Ryden’s Pinxit which is a collection of his paintings, The Can Opener’s Daughter, a graphic novel by Rob Davis, and all the Moomin books in rotation.
What do you care about? What themes keep cropping up in your writing?
It’s been pointed out that frozen embryos appear a lot in my work. I think that’s because I find the idea of them intrinsically funny. My zine’s called The Adventures of the Frozen Embryos. I suppose, like most people, the big things call out — love, kindness, life, death, imagination — satire is important as a means of working through the big questions. I’m vegan as a moral choice. I also realised, when I was doing an oral story-telling course, that I’m a trickster type.
Have you any advice for budding writers?
The only advice I can offer for budding writers is this; if it’s what you really want to do then never give up, never allow anyone to put you off, and just keep working, working, working. Don’t install other people’s criticisms in your head. Write because there’s joy in writing.
You have a great interest in Mentalism. Could you tell us more?
Mentalism, yes, that fits in with my trickster persona. I have lots of books on this, including early works by Derren Brown, and works on cold reading. It’s the storytelling, the narrative that I love, the fact that this kind of magic is sheer showmanship (show-woman-ship?) and, when done well, can amaze, perplex, startle, and it is intrinsically playful. It also renders the performer and audience equal partners in the effect.
If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?
If I could change only one thing about the world? I’d ratchet-up the amount of empathy everyone was capable of feeling. Either that or inflate humanity’s stock of compassion.
What is next for you? What plans have you got?
My next plan is to create graphic novels, cartoons, animations and wonky live performances that continue to explore the universe that is partly visible in Out Damned Spot. If I can escape writing plays, well, yippee! I did a scratch night at Salford Lowry Seeds in November and the audience feedback was terrific (someone described me as a ‘living Terry Gilliam cartoon’!). There have been offers of a possible director and rehearsal space to work out what it is I’m doing. That should be a hoot.