'Why I write' is an audio series in which Royal Literary Fund Fellows explain in their own voices their motivations for writing. Here is Stephen's response to 'why I write' (this takes you to an external site and audio file).
September 11th, 2014
I’ve just finished a play. No surprise there, then – except it’s my first uncommissioned play in over 30 years. While I was ill recently I hadn’t wanted to angle or accept any commissions. I wanted no pressure and, for a time, as I’ve written in the entry below, wondered if I was still capable of writing. I’d begun this play, now called ‘Sonnet 18’ (but for a long time ‘Bosie in Hove’) in the summer of 2012 and had written about fifteen minutes of material. I’d spotted, in a biography of Oscar Wilde by Hesketh Pearson that I’d come across, that the author had arrived in Hove to interview Bosie Douglas, Wilde’s ‘beautiful boy’, who was still alive, though ailing (he had a heart condition) at the very end of the Second World War. Rather than get down to the business in hand they had taken to arguing about the identity of the supposed dedicatee of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, ‘Mr. W.H.’. The interview had ended acrimoniously, though Hesketh Pearson had re-interviewed Bosie after bringing him a conciliatory gift of brandy and a dozen eggs. Bosie himself had died a few months later. I noted the details straight away in my notebook and, for some reason – unfathomable – knew I wanted to write those two late wartime encounters. I visited the flat itself in Hove and took pictures from outside. You wouldn’t have linked it with Oscar, dead for 40 years before the play begins, or Bosie, an aristocrat. So I had the start of a play. The next stage would have been to get it commissioned as, say, a radio two hander, but I couldn’t see that there would be any interest. Two guys get to arguing over Shakespeare? ‘So what else happens?’ And I didn’t know. That’s the fun of it.
It wrote – or revealed - itself finally and the Shakespeare argument pays off emotionally in the second half of the play. I realised I was writing some of my recent experience into the 74 year old Bosie, who had had a heart attack. There is also a great deal of verbatim material, culled from a variety of sources. Michael Holroyd, Hesketh’s executor, gave me free rein. It’s as if I need first hand, extant, materials for a play to be written. They get my juices going in a way unfettered imagination doesn’t. I’ve written elsewhere in the Essays about my attempt at writing novels and my failure, so far, to complete one. The advantage of their lingering in boxes and cupboards is there is plenty of material there for when I’m ready to pick up one again. I’ve written, in effect, my own source material. Some urgency is needed, of course, and I have to surmount my latest hurdle to becoming a novelist. This is my gloom on entering, as this morning, Waterstone’s, and the sheer amount of novels, piled high, this Booker prize season. You quietly know that you haven’t the novelistic skill of Amis, Barnes, or (at his best) McEwan, and certainly not the descriptive ability of the great Hollinghurst and yet, and yet… (I had lunch with Alan Hollinghurst about ten years ago. Afterwards we went to look at the newly published paperback edition of my favourite novel of his (underrated) ‘The Spell’, displayed in Blackwell’s window on Charing Cross Road. He suggested we had a drink or coffee somewhere but I felt I’d done well, thus far, to talk ‘naturally’ to him – he is such a hero – and scuttled off. I’ve done this before. Once, at the races, a TV producer I know said, ‘Come and meet Lester (Piggott).’ Lester in the hospitality tent was too much for me). I remember asking Hollinghurst if the novel he was working on was third or first person, and he said ‘third’. It turned out to be the Booker winning ‘The Line of Beauty.’
I suppose, as a playwright, I’m used to concision, and to actors speaking my words. With plays you stand back and let the characters get on with it. With novels, there’s the question of the authorial voice – where’s it coming from? I do like the turn around of writing plays and the sociability that is the inevitable end of the process, with actors and the director. So we’ll keep fingers crossed for that happening with ‘Sonnet 18’. But I bet it takes a time…
September 1st, 2014 Will Self, in yesterday’s ‘Observer’ howled, ‘How do you think it feels to dedicate your adult self to an art form, only to see the bloody thing dying before your eyes?’ I’ve written elsewhere (in the Essays) of the demise of the single play in television 25 years ago and its impact on writers who aren’t interested (except to subvert them) in genre or serial killers. Single plays and films don’t ‘build’ an audience. Apart from a couple of writers – Poliakoff, at the high end, and, for a time Denis Potter, the old staple of British Television under its various names ‘Armchair Theatre’, ‘Play for Today’, ‘Screen Two’ is long dead enough for the archivist.
So it was with some trepidation and interest that last Friday I went to the British Film Institute to look at – after a very long gap indeed - one of my own single films. I paid to go and see it, as presumably did the packed house in Screen 3 at 6pm. I’d sneaked into the BFI programme wearing borrowed robes, as part of the director, Moira Armstrong’s, season there. The film ‘Letting the Birds Go Free’ was an early piece in my writing life, an adaptation of a short story by Philip Oakes – and one of most sheerly enjoyable jobs I ever had. I remembered almost nothing about it apart from the fact that Moira had laid out the rehearsal room in South London as if we were rehearsing a stage or (early) television play. The action takes place entirely on a Derbyshire farm which must already have been scouted and measured up. Lionel Jeffries played the paterfamilias of the house, rather well, I thought, thirty years later. Back in 1983 Lionel, not that long after his success in directing ‘The Railway Children’, had bounded up to me after the read through, saying ‘Marvellous. Marvellous script.’ I have learnt to distrust actors so initially enthusiastic. Trouble follows. He then started altering his lines to such a degree that he got completely lost in a particular scene and asked to see me. We were on location by then. Moira, clever director, said, ‘Ignore him. Let him stew for a bit but type up your original scene on a fresh piece of typing paper.’ I did avoid Lionel until it was impossible to keep on pretending, and sat down with him to talk about his problems (which were, at least, the mark of actor who cares). ‘Give me an hour,’ I said, ‘I may be able to help,’ and returned with my freshly typewritten original scene. He looked at it: ‘Bloody marvellous,’ he said.
The young Tom Wilkinson played the son, Carolyn Pickles, his sister, and Martin Stone, a newcomer, the interloper into this family’s life. Tom was very funny and teased Carolyn (all terrific for the parts they played). Good though Tom was I would never have predicted (bet he wouldn’t either) that he would become Hollywood, or that Martin, a star in the making, I thought, wouldn’t be. (I remember Sean Bean played a small part in a television play I wrote shortly after ‘Letting the Birds Go Free’ and my thinking him very shy. After he became ‘Hollywood’, I had a call from the woman who was writing his biography. I said to her, ‘He said very little to me when we were making “Punters”. I expect he didn’t think the part big enough.’ ‘No’, she said, ‘It was his first part on TV. He was terrified.’)
I liked the Moira Armstrong film at the BFI all those years on. It was beautiful and satisfying (I was the adapter only, remember) and not a serial killer in sight. There was a bit of H.E. Bates’ ‘The Triple Echo’ and A.E. Coppard about it and I’m thrilled and still pleased to be associated with Moira – who e-mailed me out of the blue about three years ago. She’d listened one Saturday afternoon to my dramatisation of Edith Wharton’s affair with the journalist Morton Fullerton, ‘The Jinx Element’ and wanted to say how much she enjoyed it; ‘It’s what we used to do in television, she said.