Monday, 31 March 2014

Adapting Fact into Fiction
The Play: We’re Not Going Back

We’re Not Going Back tackles the resilience of working communities, the make-and-mend fabric of family and the power of sticking two fingers up to a government hell-bent on destruction… with humour, song and a six pack of Babycham.

The Director/Theatre Company: Rod Dixon & Red Ladder

Rod Dixon is Artistic Director of Red Ladder, a radical theatre company with 45 years of history. The company is acknowledged as one of Britain’s leading national touring companies producing new theatre, contributing to social change and global justice.

The Writer: Boff Whalley

Writer, singer, songwriter and founder of the band Chumbawamba, Boff has also written drama for theatre and radio, and composed soundtrack music for films by Ken Loach and Alex Cox.

Interview with Boff Whalley

Why did you choose these particular events to dramatise?

Boff Whalley
Because it's the 30th anniversary of the strike; and because Unite the union wanted to fund and promote a play about the miners with Red Ladder. On top of this, the subject still has so much resonance, especially around Leeds/Yorkshire where Red Ladder is based. The wounds opened during the strike aren't healed, and the current government are constantly reminding people of Thatcherism and its legacy. What happened to the miners and the NUM is directly affecting the union movement now.

What were the dangers in using real events as part of your fiction/play/film?

That people who were involved in the strike may think they 'own' the truth. "Oh, it wasn't like that…". I'm always keen to tell people that even when I write about history for theatre the fiction is an important part of it. I don't want to write documentaries, I want to write stories. And storytelling is about elaborating, drawing out crucial parts of a narrative, making it entertaining.

How did you go about researching the reality?

Well, memory was good research since I was around the strike when it happened – definitely one of the advantages of writing history that isn't in the far-distance. I read books and watched footage that related directly to Women Against Pit Closures. Together with Rod we met a group of miners' wives and their supporters, who were gathering for an annual reunion – that was pretty inspiring, and even though I'd written the basic first draft by then it informed how I saw the characters and subsequently what changes I made to the script. I think it also probably had a big effect on how Rod and me saw the general feel of the play – unashamedly funny and upbeat, despite the subject matter. We also saw Jean Gittins from the WAPC speaking – she reiterated that idea, calling the strike "the best year of my life."

Why tell the story via these particular characters/voices?

I like telling stories about events that have huge resonance and meaning, but tell the story from the point of view of just three or four (or less) people, families, friends, how the bigger story affects them personally, affects their relationships, how it changes them as people. The historic events become almost just a backdrop, something happening outside the front door. I love setting plays in living rooms whilst political upheaval is going on outside the house. I think you can tell stories effectively from the living room, without having to portray the cops beating up miners (for instance). That's a problem with a lot of modern theatre for me – there's so much emphasis on drama that we lose the macro view of history, how it resonates personally with people. Too often historical drama becomes just a series of 'incidents' strung together with a fictional narrative. I didn't want that. I'm happier writing three sisters standing talking at a funeral than I am showing the death of a young lad while picking coal from a slag heap.

What you you hope the readers/viewers/audience will take away from the experience?

Firstly, the sense that they were entertained, they enjoyed it. Secondly, questions – arguments, disagreements, talking points, whatever. Thirdly, I want them to go away with a least one of the songs stuck in their heads for a few days! I want people to see our stuff and find things out about history that they didn't already know; especially things they assumed they knew. But that mustn't make the play into a history lecture. The Book: Ghost Town

Ghost Town is set in Coventry in 1981, when the city of Two Tone and Ska was riven with battles between skinheads and young Asians.

The author: Catriona Troth

After more than twenty years spent writing technical reports at work and fiction on the commuter train, Catriona made the shift into freelance writing. She now writes a regular column for this very literary magazine, researches and writes articles for Quakers in the World and tweets as @L1bCat. Her writing explores themes of identity and childhood memory.
Interview with Catriona Troth

Why did you choose these particular events to fictionalise?

I was living in Coventry at a time when there was a lot of tension between skinheads and Asian youths. But I was a student, very much at the fringes of what was going on. Years later, when I went back the research that time as a possible backdrop for a story, I discovered things had been much worse than I'd suspected at the time. And yet somehow the city pulled back from the brink and sent the racists packing. I became obsessed with telling the story of what happened that summer - something that is really very little known outside of Coventry.

What were the dangers in using real events as part of your fiction?

I felt a huge responsibility to the people who experienced those events to get it right - to be factually accurate but also emotionally honest. On top of that, I was writing about a community that was not my own. When I finally finished the book, it was very important to me that it was read by by someone who came from that world before I ventured to publish it. That gave me the confidence that I wasn't simply being crass. I am still conscious of the risk that someone who actually lived through the events could say, 'You got that wrong.'

How did you go about researching the reality? 

Catriona Troth
 Even today, there is very little on the web about what happened in Coventry that summer. I spent time in the Coventry City Library going through newspaper archives from the period, and I read the small section at the back of the Scarman report that refers to Coventry. Apart from that, I read a lot of books - factual and fiction - that involved to comparable events. And now, Social Media has given me the opportunity to talk to a few people who were there at the time - something I couldn't easily do when I started out.

Why tell the story via these particular characters/voices?

I chose as my main point of view characters two people who were, in their different ways, outsiders to the conflict, but caught up in it. This was partly because of the perspective it gave me on what was happening. But it was also because, as an outsider myself, it was easier to get inside that perspective. I didn't feel confident that - as a white middle class woman - I could authentically inhabit the point of view of a working class skinhead or a British Asian kid from East Africa. But having moved back and forth between two continents most of my childhood, and having grown up monolingual in a bilingual household, I did have the glimmering of an idea what it was like to be caught between two cultures.

What you you hope the readers/viewers/audience will take away from the experience?

I hope they learn how easy it is for those with malign intent to manipulate vulnerable people into scapegoating others - and that it's always worth making a stand against the politics of hate. And I hope they'd think it was a damn good story too.

The Book: Feral Youth hard-hitting look at the real causes of the summer riots, written from the perspective of a 15-year old girl in south London. As a south Londoner by birth and now a resident of Ealing, one of the affected areas, Courtney wrote Feral Youth because she believes that the real causes of the uprising have not gone away and another riot may well be imminent.

The Author: Polly Courtney
In late 2011, Polly famously walked out on her publisher, HarperCollins, for the ‘girly’ titles and covers assigned to her books – most notably, It’s a Man’s World, the hard-hitting take on the lads’ mag industry and its impact on society. Footballer, violinist, commentator and passionate champion of the underdog, Polly is keen advocate of self-publishing and doing things her own way.

Interview with Polly Courtney 

Why did you choose these events to write about?

The London Riots had a profound effect on me. I remember lying in bed, scrolling through Twitter and smelling the burning rubber of police cars on fire. I thought: Wow, this is big. Something is seriously wrong here. It was around this time that I started mentoring a child with Kids Company, so I was seeing depravation first-hand. I was glued to the news in the following days and weeks, waiting for explanations, but they never came. Politicians were quick to write off the events as 'pure criminality caused by a feral underclass' and the mainstream media focused on the long prison sentences, as though jailing young people would solve the problems. No, I thought. It's more complicated. When I started to dig into it, I realised that the events of August 2011 were just the tip of a very large, ugly iceberg and I wanted to expose the whole thing with Feral Youth - but also to show that change is possible.

What were the dangers in using real events as part of your fiction?

On the plus side, it's a 'hook' to hang the book off; if somebody asks me what Feral Youth is about, I say: It's the story of the London Riots through the eyes of a 15-year-old girl. But while that appeals to some people, it also puts others off. The riots were very divisive, just like the benefits cuts we're seeing now. A lot of people would like to pretend they weren't a big deal - they want to forget all about what happened. So I guess in a way, I'm reducing my potential readership for the book by setting it in such a contentious part of history. But I'm fine with that. I know that Feral Youth will only appeal to the open-minded. Not everybody can put themselves in the shoes of a deprived, angry, vulnerable teenager for 100,000 words!

How did you go about researching the reality?

Polly Courtney
I made life difficult for myself by opting to write the whole novel in the dialect and inner monologue of Alesha, street slang and all. So not only did I have to understand the events of what happened, I also had to get inside the head of a disenfranchised 15-year-old and work out her attitude, her voice and her issues. I did this by running mini-brainstorms and workshops with young people in schools, youth clubs and charities. I also talked to youth workers, teachers, social workers and youth club volunteers to get a sense of how it was to work closely with disenfranchised teenagers. I supplemented this first-hand research with a lot of reading - reports on the riots, statistics and views on youth issues and so on - but for me, the most valuable part was talking directly with young people. They had strong views on everything from the cost of Nike creps to austerity cuts. Oh - and I did a lot of riding buses. You can learn a lot by eavesdropping.

Why tell the story via these particular characters/voices?

I wanted to put the reader right in the shoes of Alesha, so that they saw things through her eyes, felt her frustrations and lived her life for a summer. She's from a deprived background and lives her life in such a different way to me and probably to most of my readers, but that was the point. Too many people write off the Aleshas of this world, as though they're beyond hope, they don't matter and their problems aren't our problems. But they're not beyond hope. They matter, and the problems are very much ours. Feral Youth is not always an easy read, but I wanted to make people think. We can't always judge using our own frameworks and experiences. We have to try and see things from another point of view.

What do you hope the readers will take away from the experience?

A sense of hope and a better understanding of a part of society that's too often ignored, stigmatised and punished. There are deep-rooted problems, but there are also solutions. Over the course of one summer, Alesha's life changes track many times. I hope that people will come away thinking that change is possible, if we open our minds and empathise. I'd love to think that reading Feral Youth inspired someone to mentor a child. Book: Until Our Blood Is Dry In March 1984, when miners across the country begin the long strike, trouble is brewing in Ystrad. It is time to defend jobs, the pits and a way of life that has formed both the life of valley and the nation.
What matters most: to be right, to be loved or to belong?

 The Author: Kit Habianic

Kit grew up in Caerphilly, Colwyn Bay and Cardiff. Her journalism has appeared, amongst others, in The Guardian, The Daily Mirror, The Times, Marie Claire (US), and Time Out and in trade titles in Europe and the Middle East. Now based in London, she processes copy for a business daily, all the while plotting new stories to write.

Interview with Kit Habianic

Why did you choose these particular events to fictionalise?

The miners’ strike was the defining event of my youth; the dispute tore the country apart, set neighbours against neighbours, even fathers against sons. I grew up in villages on the South Wales coalfield and the events of that year remain vivid and real.

It doesn’t feel as though I chose to write a novel about the miners’ strike – more that the events of that year demanded to be sifted and considered again.

High-stakes conflict is fascinating material to mine. The strike raised complex issues about loyalty versus self-preservation, principles versus politics, right versus wrong. The men and women who did or didn’t get involved felt their survival was at stake, made choices from hope or from despair. Plot and characters sprang out of that conflict.

What were the dangers in using real events as part of your fiction?

The dispute happened within living memory and has left a bitter legacy. The miners lost and paid a heavy price as the government shut pit after pit. At the beginning of the strike, the mining industry employed around quarter of a million people. All those people, whether they supported the strike or opposed it, lost their jobs in the UK’s pits.

So many people lost so much and a ravine of bitterness divides those who supported the strike and those who opposed it. As a writer, you ask yourself, do I have the right to dig into this, to risk reopening old wounds. A novel is a version of the truth as its characters see it but with recent, real-life events there are always many other deeply held truths.

How did you go about researching the reality?

I visited Big Pit, once a working mine now a museum, to get a sense of what it must have been like to work below ground and met former colliers who talked about their experiences. Swansea University holds the South Wales miners’ library at Hendrefoelan. It was fascinating to listen to crackly taped interviews recorded during and just after the strike and to read through all the poems and stories and pamphlets.

I also spent a lot of time at the British Library and in Colindale at the newspaper library, which sadly closed last year. The British Library has a vast stash of non-fiction books about the strike, as well as pamphlets and magazines. And reading microfiche of old newspapers was fascinating. I’d forgotten the extent to which much of the media demonised striking miners at the time.

Why tell the story via these particular characters/voices?

Because the strike is so divisive, I decided early on to explore it through three opposing viewpoints.

Gwyn, the overman, has been promoted to a lowly management role and promised better if he toes the Coal Board line. He has every reason to oppose the strike and to resent the NUM activists who stand in his way. He believes it’s his duty to better himself, to look after his own and to encourage his daughter to do the same.

Scrapper, the young collier, has spent his life in a tiny mining village that offers no job prospects beyond the pit. He comes from a long line of union activists but also believes passionately that the only way to save Blackthorn pit is to come out on strike.

As the strike progresses Helen, Gwyn’s daughter and Scrapper’s lover, finds herself torn between the two sides and trapped by what her family, her school friends and her neighbours expect of her.

The political becomes ever more personal to all three characters. The choices they make will cost them everything.

What you hope the readers will take away from the experience?

Kit Habianic
Reading has always been an escape and an adventure. How else do we get to step into someone else’s skin, and feel what someone else would feel and wonder what decision we’d make, in their shoes? That’s what makes writing so compelling, too.

I hope the book transports the reader to the coalfields of the Eighties and leads them to question what decisions and choices they’d make in the same circumstances as Gwyn, or Scrapper, or Helen.

But maybe the novel has something to say about the way we live now, too. There’s very little UK fiction set in working-class communities today. At a time when the rich seem richer yet the poor so much poorer, there are many stories that deserve to be told but never seem to get heard.

By JJ Marshauthor, reader, Triskelite, journalist, Nuancer, reviewer and blogger. Likes: pugs, Werner Herzog and anchovies. Dislikes: meat, chocolate and first drafts.