Scottish Shorts - Short Plays from Scotland

On Thursday of last week, I went over to Edinburgh to the Playwrights' Studio summer party, and the launch of  Scottish Shorts, a new anthology of short plays from Scotland, edited by Philip Howard, just published by Nick Hern Books and which includes my own play, The Price of a Fish Supper. This was the first time I had actually met Nick Hern - and it was a great pleasure to meet a publisher who (a) seems to enjoy his job so much and (b) is tremendously positive about books in general and plays and playwrights in particular. Some years ago now, Nick Hern published my full length play about Chernobyl, Wormwood, in another anthology called Scotland Plays, and has kept it in print ever since. The play was first produced at the Traverse in Edinburgh, and I have already had tentative enquiries about another production to mark the 25th anniversary of the disaster. Nick Hern says that these anthologies are still selling pretty well and I can vouch for the truth of it because a nice little payment arrives each year . He offers writers a small advance and a royalty, and also handles enquiries about licensing of the plays for professional production. The books are well  produced and edited, and - unlike so many publishers - he keeps things in print, with small runs. Wormwood is on the Scottish Higher Still syllabus, so schools which offer courses in drama (not - sadly -  South Ayrshire, which seems to approve of neither drama nor history at secondary school level) buy a number of copies.
But, as talented playwright Jo Clifford remarked to me at the launch, what a pity that, although all these plays are kept in print, they are seldom if ever produced again. There is a vast body of  vibrant and exciting work floating about out there which can be read, thanks to Nick Hern, but not seen and heard. And there is an argument to be made that - unlike, for instance, a novel - a play which is not being produced, which has no audience to see it, and interact with it, is frozen, static, not quite alive.
Years ago, when my son was studying English at school, it saddened and infuriated me in about equal measure, that there seemed to be no notion of taking students to see productions of the plays they were studying. They were being asked searching questions about the text which could only really be illuminated by seeing the play as an entity on the stage.
In the current financial climate, and with current government attitudes to the arts, things are clearly not going to get better any time soon - but with that small light on the horizon of a possible new production of Wormwood, I'm keeping my fingers and toes crossed!

Wuthering Heights Again

I blogged about this when it was first shown, but last night - weary to the point of catatonia, and with absolutely nothing else to watch while I drank a late night cup of tea - I switched to the repeat of the first episode of ITV's recent dramatisation of Wuthering Heights, half hoping that it might have improved in the intervening months. It hadn't. The best thing about it was still  the scenery, which was gorgeous. Everything else was wrong.
I have a great many friends who adore WH (and about as many who loathe it!) and I think all of us who love it tend to share the same reservations about the many and varied dramatisations to which we have been subject over the years. These are major reservations which are almost never inspired by - for example - the dramatisations of Austen novels which have come to our screens over the past few years. We may have a few quibbles about these, but on the whole, they are forgivable and in some cases - the film version of Sense and Sensibility springs to mind- we get so caught up in the brilliance of the production that it's hard to find any fault at all! This never seems to happen with Wuthering Heights. Instead we watch, with the triumph of hope over expectation, only to have our fears realised yet again. They can't ever seem to get it right.
I know it's a difficult novel, but I still find myself wondering why, since when I talk about it to the friends who DO love it, we all seem to love it for the same reasons: the intensity, the passion, the cruelty, the primitive, mythic quality, the uncompromising nature of so much of it, the way in which we don't need to like these characters to be caught up in their story.
So what was wrong with the latest version? Well, just about everything except the landscape jarred with me.  Wuthering Heights itself was all wrong, for a start: much too big, too clean, too grand. It looked more like Thrushcross Grange. The Heights of the book is described as a Yorkshire farmhouse in the old style, sprawling rather than monumental, with its yard, and its sheepfolds and stables: low ceilinged, dark - except for the roaring fire at the very heart of the house, whose flames run through the book, warming the place and the people, central to the story. I've never pictured it as the large, light building of this adaptation. Cathy was all wrong too, but then they never do seem to get Cathy right. She's always too wishy washy and while I'm at it, the real Cathy would have scorned to call Heathcliff 'my love' all the time, the way this one seemed determined to do, whining about his desire for revenge. She's never ever strong enough. Frankly, she should be lovely to look at but mad as a fish, difficult, dangerous and not very nice to know.
Heathcliff looked all wrong too, but maybe that's a personal judgement. Worse, his lines were all wrong. The central conceit of WH is that Heathcliff is utterly obsessed with Cathy, and no matter how badly she treats him, he would die rather than take his revenge on her. But that won't stop him taking his revenge elsewhere. (In many ways, this has the strange, claustrophobic atmosphere of a Jacobean revenge drama). If she asks him not to do something, whether it's refaining from killing lapwings, or refraining from killing her husband, he'll obey her but only because it's her. When she's gone, when she is no longer there to temper him, he becomes utterly demonic. But this doesn't make any sense at all, if you haven't shown the extraordinary nature of that relationship first.
Better to quote from the book itself, don't you think?

'You teach me now how cruel you've been—cruel and false. Why did you despise me? Why did you betray your own heart, Cathy? I have not one word of comfort. You deserve this. You have killed yourself. Yes, you may kiss me, and cry; and wring out my kisses and tears: they'll blight you—they'll damn you. You loved me—then what right had you to leave me? What right—answer me—for the poor fancy you felt for Linton? Because misery and degradation, and death, and nothing that God or Satan could inflict would have parted us, you, of your own will, did it. I have not broken your heart—you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine. So much the worse for me that I am strong. Do I want to live? What kind of living will it be when you—oh, God! would you like to live with your soul in the grave?'

'Let me alone. Let me alone,' sobbed Catherine. 'If I’ve done wrong, I'm dying for it. It is enough! You left me too: but I won't upbraid you! I forgive you. Forgive me!'
'It is hard to forgive, and to look at those eyes, and feel those wasted hands,' he answered. 'Kiss me again; and don’t let me see your eyes! I forgive what you have done to me. I love my murderer—but yours! How can I?'

I strongly submit that if you can't live with that central premise, can't accept the novel on its own terms, rather despise it in fact, then you had much better dramatise something else: Jane Eyre or Villette for instance. Instead, they always seem determined to transform Emily into Charlotte, even if it means rewriting the whole story in the process. It won't do. Definitely could do better.

The Amber Heart

I'm currently revising my great Polish story, now called the Amber Heart, which is loosely based on episodes from my own Polish family history. Browsing my bookshelves, recently, I came across some illustrations of work by artist Juliusz Kossak who was the rather famous grandfather of my own gorgeous great uncle Karol Kossak (below).

I met Karol in Ciechocinek, where he was living with my Aunt Wanda, when I was a very young woman and he was an old man. I think I fell a little bit in love with him, and even wrote a poem about him called Potato Fires:

I remember

talking with my uncle Karol,
walking arm in arm
on Polish evenings when
mist spread over flat fields
and women were burning
the last of the potato leaves.

We wrinkled our nostrils.
It was a kind of myrrh for us
preserving the moment yet
bitterly telling time.

There was no cure for it.
Though I hurtled through youth
for love of him
he’d gone too far before.

In truth, he was the closest I would ever come to meeting Count Danilo from the Merry Widow, and it occurred to me that that was indeed his world. It was part of my heritage too, but as impossibly strange, remote and magical to me as a fairytale - or a Viennese Operetta!

The pictures by Juliusz Kossak, and his equally famous son, Wojciech, were something of an inspiration for me, when I was writing. There's a heroic quality to many of them, for sure, but also a lovely evocation of atmosphere and detail that is something all writers of historical fiction are searching for.  Even now, when I look at them, I get a little thrill of excitement. It's the equivalent of walking through the fur coats and out the back of the wardrobe - and it's part of my own family history. How wonderful is that?


A couple of years ago, feeling that my career was somehow 'stuck' and that I was floundering about a bit, I booked an advice session from the Cultural Enterprise Office in Glasgow. It turned out to be very helpful in allowing me to assess where I was at, and where I might want to go in the future and I would certainly recommend it to any writer who, in mid career, has that familiar feeling of frustration that things may not be going quite the way he or she expected or wanted.
The single most useful piece of analysis, however, and - as it turns out - the thing that has stayed with me over the succeeding months, has been the idea of 'focus.' What emerged from an afternoon of detailed one- to-one discussions with the adviser, was a sense of my own dissatisfaction with the way I work - not so much with the work itself, which I love, as with my propensity for spreading myself too thinly. Am I a playwright who also writes novels? Am I a poet who writes plays? Am I a historian who writes lots of other things? A number of conclusions and recommendations emerged from the session but the one that I have carried with me all this time is the idea that - for various reasons, some personal and some of them practical - I have always found it hard to focus. I don't mean that I start things and don't finish them, because I do. I finish lots and lots of things! But ... when I'm working on a novel, I do find myself wondering if I should be writing a play. When I'm writing a play, I'm distracted by the thought that I could be making more money writing for business. I'll have a spell when all I want to do is write poems, and then, quite suddenly, the need to do this will vanish, and everything I want to write will present itself as a novel or a short story.
Over the year or so since that session, however, it has become increasingly clear to me that my main focus, the place where my true love of writing lies, is definitely with novels.  There is quite simply nothing I would rather be doing. And the result is that I have a couple of manuscripts to sell, and another one on the way. But this is also a frightening realisation since it is now so hard even for agents to find publishers, and yet novels take up very large swathes of your time! And so, it's time to recognise my own fear - and do it anyway.
I was considering all this last night, when - having watched The Dragons' Den - I was involved in a discussion about successful people in all walks of life  - how some people make it, while others, arguably with equal amounts of talent - don't. The conclusion we reached - and it may seem obvious, but I hadn't clarified it in my own mind until that point - was that the people who had made it in a big way all had massive 'focus' in some aspect of their working lives. My friends who have been most successful are those who - perhaps not immediately, but at some point in their lives, maybe even quite late in their lives  - have found out what they really want to do and then gone for it, relentlessly. This may or may not have involved money. For some of them the money-making was purely incidental. For others, they made very little money, but didn't care. The focus on something was all important. If you look at successful people currently in the media you'll find plenty of examples. Mary Portas has that same almost scary focus - in her case, on the retail experience. The Dragons themselves seem to have a focus not so much on their individual businesses - but on making money. I know a few people like that. We probably all do! They are the businessmen and women who seem to have the midas touch. All their enterprises prosper, and it isn't necessarily because they are ruthless or greedy. It's more that the actual business of making money, of profit and loss, seems to fascinate them so that they focus on it more clearly, more exclusively than any of their competitors, regardless of whatever business they are involved in.
Looking at some of the most successful writers I have known or worked with, the single most important thing they seem to have in common is that same ability to focus. And I don't just mean the ability to ignore distractions and naysayers. It's more than that: it's a kind of singlemindedness. Given the obvious necessity of a baseline of real talent (without which, nothing)  success so often seems to come to those who are very clearly focussed on some aspect of writing. They seem to know exactly what they want to do and they go for it, like an arrow, strong and straight and true. Obviously, they may then go on to do other things, to branch out and experiment but I become more and more convinced that part of the trick of professional success in all walks of life, is to find out exactly what you want to do - and go for it.
Of course, the finding out can be tricky. Self help books tell you to listen to your 'inner voice' - but I'm not sure that it always tells you the truth. Because your inner voice can be frightened as well. And of course - as we concluded in our late night discussion - it may be that what you want is not to focus on any one thing. My own father was a case in point. He was clever man and a distinguished research scientist, with a myriad of other interests. He had a good career, but by no means as starry as some. It didn't matter to him. His interests were many and varied, he loved his life and his family, and he was one of the happiest people I have ever known.
All the same, I've reached some conclusions, the main one being that from now on, my focus has to be on novels. Long fiction seems to be where my heart lies, as well as my head!