Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Different Incarnations – how writers can have several identities, by Elizabeth Kay

I started out as a radio writer, doing plays for Afternoon Theatre and a short series called Just Before Midnight, one of which I re-wrote for the stage. I also penned short stories for both radio and magazines. Writers sometimes feel that things have got a bit stale, so I did an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa, which was terrific fun. After that I became a poet for a bit. The need to make some money (and on the suggestion of my agent) I started writing rather more racy stuff under a pseudonym, initially in short story anthologies and later in novels for – shall we say – the more adventurous female reader. Eventually I was told there was too much plot in my stories, and not enough of the other, so I did a complete about-turn to children’s books, which have been my most successful venture. I’ve also done a couple of straight adult novels.

This means that I have mixed in many different writing worlds, and they’re not the same by any means. They do, of course, change over the years as well, and the advent of digital books means that the writing community has also become virtual rather than face-to-face.
Radio in the seventies was great fun – experimental, full of social comment, full of variety. Playing safe wasn’t on the agenda. Producers would say things like, “I want a play that will put my job on the line.” Ten years later, and Thatcherism turned it into, “I want a play that will keep my job safe.” Radio writing wasn’t an isolated activity – you collaborated with the producer, the cast, the studio managers. A play was a joint effort, and everyone was out for the best result.
You rarely meet anyone in the short story world. It’s not particularly well-paid, and so face-to-face contact with the publisher is extremely unlikely. All a bit distant. However, I did have one money-spinner, which is probably part of the category below.
Nobody ever meets anyone else in the world of soft porn, because everyone is writing under a pseudonym. The short story I’m referring to above is a little story all of its own. When my agent told me to have a go at an erotic story for an anthology I wrote a literary one of which I was rather proud. When she told me the publishers would take another one, I felt I’d nothing left to say. So I made a list of everything you could possibly include, invented a scenario which utilised all of them, and wrote it more as a joke than anything else. They published it, and a month later my agent rang me and said I’d better sit down – she’d had an enquiry about the film rights from a Canadian company.
My literary story, I thought immediately, it would make a great film.
Of course it wasn’t that one, it was the other. The option was exercised, the money was paid, and despite requests we heard no more about it. A year later one of my students rang me up and told me it was on TV that night, on cable. I didn’t have cable, so I had to go next door with a cassette with no idea what horrors were about to unfold. Fortunately the neighbours thought it was a great laugh, and we settled down to watch. It was part of sci-fi TV series called The Hunger, which later became a bit of a cult. The first surprise was that it was introduced by Terence Stamp. The next was that the production values were unbelievably good. The third was that it was produced by Ridley Scott’s company!
The poetry world is far and away the bitchiest. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to all poets – many of them are absolutely lovely. But reputation is everything, as there’s so little money around, and poems are by their very nature short and to the point. Just try to make sure you’re not the object that the point penetrates, although there are so many hidden agendas it’s hard to know why you’ve been the target of someone’s elegant and concise vitriol. It may not be anything to do with you at all – you’re just collateral damage in someone else’s war.

This can happen with reviews, of course, which brings me to the world of children’s books. Here you will find the nicest, kindest, most supportive group of writers anywhere. Unlike the kids who review your books online – they may be having a battle with a classmate or sibling, and trashing your book because the other person likes it. You can usually tell, because they haven’t read it and get the plot wrong.
          And the other great thing about children’s writers is that they all get together every so often, and have fab weekends away. I’ve just created a Powerpoint presentation for the last get-together, which I’ve illustrated with vodkas from different lands… I’m sure you get the picture… Here’s a taste of one of the slides (the accompanying honey vodka was particularly pleasant).

I used a mixture of images and experiences from different countries in Eastern Europe - Poland,The Czech Republic and Ukraine.



17 comments:

JO said...

What writing fun you have! Great to be so versatile.

Jan Needle said...

that's lovely, that, elizabeth. my agent once suggested i should write porn novels,on the grounds that my thrillers contained so much below the navel filth. she gave me a couple to get my teeth into, so to speak, and i had to withdraw. it was so funny that i couldn't keep it up. and unlike the real thing,it was booooring. but comedy porn - now that really is a good idea. shall we institute a new genre? i'm on fire,baby!

Lee said...

I'm often admiring of writers who have several identities, as you put it -- perhaps because I have more than enough difficulty exploring a single one. And as so often happens -- the usual writerly serendipity -- just yesterday I read a piece by critic Tim Parks, in which he discusses the nature of authenticity. Here's the link:

http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2015/feb/04/novels-search-authenticity/

Bill Kirton said...

Great post, Elizabeth. It provoked lots of memories. Those radio drama 70s... I had a Just Before Midnight slot, too. How great it was to write the play and submit the script directly to 'your' producer. The Beeb was a real patron, always encouraging. No filtering through committees, no pitching an idea, no restrictive synopses to write - the pre-Birt, prelapsarian paradise.

Bob Newman said...

According to legend, at least one issue of the SF magazine New Worlds was written entirely by Michael Moorcock, under a variety of pseudonyms.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

What an interesting career you've had! I remember those old radio days as well. In fact I kept at it for longer (the money was quite good and the work kept coming) but you could see the way things were going and when my brilliant award winning producer was suddenly made redundant, that was the beginning of the end for me. I remember when a young but very talented producer/director I was working with later suddenly sent me a set of very strange notes in different fonts. One set was excellent, helpful, questions that I was ready to address. The second set was picky, destructive and would have turned the series into something it was never intended to be. I phoned him and asked him 'what's with these strange notes? Are they all yours?' 'Er, no,' he said. Some are mine and the others are the script editor's. I wasn't supposed to tell you. I was just supposed to pass them on - but I didn't agree with them.'
Things went downhill from there - the introduction of the 'script editor' who wasn't even a producer, as opposed to the collaboration you've written about. It got more and more like television. Haven't done radio for years now.
Must say, some of my best, nicest friends write for children and young adults - and some of the most interesting and experimental books as well.

Chris Longmuir said...

You're versatility is impressive, Elizabeth, and I was interested in your assessment of the writers who write in different genres. who would ever have suspected poetry writers could be vindictive. Adding another category of writer to your list though, crime writers are very nice people, helpful and friendly, and of course, very social.

Mari Biella said...

'Radio in the seventies was great fun – experimental, full of social comment, full of variety. Playing safe wasn’t on the agenda. Producers would say things like, “I want a play that will put my job on the line.”' - Brilliant! It's at times like these that I have the haunting feeling that I was born too late!

Elizabeth Kay said...

Oh wow, Bill you did a Just Before Midnight as well! Who was your producer? Mine was Cherry Cookson. They did some nice posters for it, as well, advertising twelve of the plays at a time. I've just spent half and hour searching for mine in the hope that you were on the same one, but you aren't, sadly. But I think we're all agreed - radio in the seventies was a great place to be.

Jan Needle said...

i did a just before midnight too. producer was michael bartlett, who now has a small kids book publishing company. he's on facebook

Susan Price said...

You know, we need a Charney Manor... That's the medieval manor house in Oxford where the Scattered Authors Society hold a get-together for four days every year.
We need one more centrally located, with great road/train/air links...Er, Birmingham?

Elizabeth Kay said...

I remember Michael Bartlett. I have a feeling he was once on something like the Esther Rantzen Show, playing some strange instrument that wasn't an instrument at all...

Jan Needle said...

doesn't sound like mike. he married one of his bbc world service techies, called Dee. great people imho

Bill Kirton said...

My producer was Martin Jenkins, Elizabeth. Great man to work with. He produced all my radio plays. He's freelance now. Does a lot for Indies.

Lydia Bennet said...

I wear many writing hats myself, as you may know, though I've never been introduced by Terence Stamp! Very impressed. Such a joyful post this, and reminiscent of more playful, daring, risk-taking times. I too loved my experiences of radio and radio drama. Of course I'm one of the poets who's not bitchy at all - well not all the time. Chris is right, crime writers are a great bunch too.

Elizabeth Kay said...

Jan - it most certainly was Michael. He didn't mention it, but everyone else knew... and I saw the clip. Lydia - crime is something I've never been able to write, for some reason. I just don't seem to think the right way. I do remember meeting Jacqueline Wilson many years ago at a conference when she was a thriller writer, before she became a children's author.

Reb MacRath said...

Fascinating post--and writing life, Elizabeth. One line in particular resonated with me: the bit, in the poetry section, about ending up as collateral damage in someone else's war.