Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Nell Leyshon talks about her arresting new novel, The Colour of Milk, writing plays, delicious lunches, and so much more

Novelist and playwright Nell Leyshon is really an original. Her novel, The Colour of Milk, is narrated by a woman discovering the power of the written word--even as it eventually destroys her. It's a miracle of a read, and I'm just honored to have Nell here. Thank you, Nell.

The voice of The Colour of Milk is arresting and unique. Where did the voice come from? Was it always planned?

My original idea was born when the Royal Shakespeare Company organised a symposium for playwrights at Stratford. For three days we were given much food for thought and the idea was we would come up with ideas for plays on a linked theme. I put forward an idea for a play about a young woman learning to read. 

The season never happened and I was left with my idea that kept nagging in my head. I was determined to write it and realised I could turn it into a novel. The voice of Mary came to me the same day that I made the decision to write. I caught the first line of the novel in my head - this is my book and i am writing it by my own hand - and the rest followed. It was one of those books which comes as a gift and all I had to do was turn up and write it. However, that makes it sound easier than it was; as with all pieces of writing, there was a lot of rewriting and refining after that.

What was the research for this book like? Were there any surprises?

I have to confess I hardly did any research. I wrote the book first and then checked to see whether I had imagined correctly! If I do too much research before writing, I find myself tied into the facts, and there is always a temptation to load the writing with everything you've found out. 

I remember finding out one particular piece of background which I thought I would need, but that never made it into the book. Mary just didn't care about it. 

For Mary, the world of books becomes both a reward and a punishment for Mary, which in the end destroys her. Why do you think education is so dangerous?

Education is power. Without the ability to read and write, we are helpless. Therefore to keep a sector of society down, it is necessary to keep education back.  For me education changed everything. I went to university as a mature student and I know my brain was wired differently before and after. 

I am always interested in those who don't have power: I do believe that many many talented people never manage to speak out and use their talents because of lack of education and opportunity. 

You're also a prize-winning playwright as well as a novelist. Do you prefer one form over another? Is one ore rewarding and if so, why and how?

I love writing both. In fact, I keep expecting someone to say I have to make a decision between them, but it hasn't happened yet... Drama is different because I become all those different people, and the main challenges are structural, architectural. I also have to engage with the real world of theatre between and during drafts, Writing prose is secretive - I didn't show anyone a word of The Colour of Milk until it was done. In fact, I didn't even tell anyone about it. Writing drama is like being married; writing prose is having an affair.

Why and how do you write? What's your daily writing life like?

I write every day, just as any job. I can write quickly but that depends on how it's going and how easily it's coming. I live by the sea and walk each morning (I am just back from a walk) and then come home and write. I do have interruptions: teaching (which I love), working with creative writing and mental health and addiction (which I also love), meals, emailing etc., but I do work hard as I seem to have many deadlines. I have the mixture of prose and drama, and  I also write for radio.

What's obsessing you now and why?

Two things. First, the play I am currently writing. I am on my second draft and it's taken longer than I hoped. It's technically difficult and is really challenging me. Second, I have a complete draft of a novel on my desk waiting for me to come back to it. I haven't read a word of it since I printed it out and I am really excited about getting back to it in the new year. Yet again, I haven't told anyone anything about it.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

Ha ha. How do you keep going writing on your own at your desk all day long? The answer is I reward myself with food. If I just get this bit done, then I can have a delicious lunch. 

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