The ink was barely dry on the final draft of my novel The Flask when the National Theatre rang me up and asked if I wanted to write a play. (This article first appeared as a Foyles Guest blog in 2012) There was a silence my end of the phone. “You’re not going to say no?” “Well,” I began, “you think I know how to write a play because of Feather Boy the musical and Knight Crew the opera – but those were both adaptations of my novels. I’m a novelist, you see. I’ve never actually written a play before.”
They gave me a week to think about it. As luck would have it, I spent that week in Morocco visiting an old friend. One morning at breakfast, his daughter Fan began talking about a trip the family had made on a previous posting to Canada. They’d travelled with a permafrost scientist to an arctic island called Herschel. On that bright sunshiny Moroccan terrace, Fan talked of blizzards and whaling boats stuck in ice; of shallow graves and things which should be buried being uncovered; of bear prints in the sand and twenty-four hour daylight. “A place where I felt,” she continued in a phrase that went straight into my notebook, ‘awake for possibilities.’
As Fan recalled the island, I began to hear it: the wind and the waves, icebergs, krill, whale song. A soundtrack! Surely that was theatre? I returned to England and phoned the National: “I’d like to give it a go,” I said.
“You can have four characters,” they said. Four? In a novel you can have as many as you want. I counted how many important ones I have in The Flask – Jess, her best friend, her mother, her step-father, her grandmother – five. And of course the flask itself. Six. For Island – which is what I’d begun to call the play – I’d obviously have to be inventive. Four as instructed, but the sound, that could be a fifth character, the island itself. That only left me short of a polar bear….
So where to begin? With the story of course, that’s the core of everything, whether page or stage, the passions and trials of the characters you chose to follow. In The Flask, it’s the story of Jess, a child with a thinner skin than the rest of us, a child who experiences things that we perhaps are blind and deaf to. A child who finds a flask in a secret drawer and thinks… though it’s mad to think this… that whatever’s in the flask can save her seriously ill baby brothers. It’s her story, her journey, and she tells from right inside her heart. First person i.e. On stage – it occurred to me, everyone’s a first person. Everyone speaking up for themselves. If I played my cards right, I realised, each of my four characters could go on a journey: the bullish Western boy learning that his culture isn’t the only one of importance; his mother learning there is more to life than her research scientist job; a young Inuit girl learning to become the guardian of the island and its people; Grandmother, who doubles as a polar bear (sorted!) learning to pass on wisdom and relinquish control. So far so good, and not really so very different. Just people in my head, talking. Telling me their stories.
But the process, the creative journey of novel and play, that is different. For a novel you go into a dark, solitary space with a piece of grit and emerge approximately (in my case) eighteen months later with a small pearl. Whatever lustre the pearl has – or doesn’t have – is down to you and you alone. You are the king or queen of the dark, solitary space and no-one has powers there but you. You are storyteller and scene-setter, costume designer and director. And props manager. I sourced the amazing flask Jess find in the secret drawer, had it sent from America, so she and I could see it, touch it, smell it.
Imagine such a god coming into the rehearsal room and finding a bunch of other creative people there. Nice – but what are they doing in your work-space? Imagine such a god having to bring her pearl – when it’s still very much a piece of grit (there are no creative deadlines in theatre only ones dictated by rehearsal space and paint shop availability) – and put that piece of grit on the table for these other people to inspect. That’s what it’s like for the novelist turned playwright. Scary. And exhilarating. Because, actually, there’s nothing so exciting as having a whole team of people entirely focussed on the story you want to tell.
The actors interrogate the script line by line. They have to work out exactly what the character means in every one of those lines, whether the tone should be off-hand or serious, whether there’s loads of sub-text or none. The director wants to know what happened before the scene opens, five minutes before, five hours before, what happened before the play began, what the backstory is. The sound designer brings you sounds you have heard (breaking ice like pistol shots) and sounds you haven’t – the call of seals zapping through water like electronic arrows. The designer brings you new colours and textures – the island sewn together with animal skins. You begin to feel sorry for your little novel with only one mind on the job.
Then there are practical things. It doesn’t really matter if a novel is 250 pages or 279. But if a play has to be an hour, that’s what it has to be. Whole scenes go in the bin. You pare back the sentences, word by word. “Don’t worry,” the actors say, “I can convey that with a look.” And actually they can. You get better and knowing what’s your job and what’s the job of the other people in the room. You begin to relax, enjoy the company. Playing in a creative sandpit with like-minded people, what’s not to like? You think you could get used to this theatrical stuff. And then, one day, they send you away. Yes, right out of the room and back to your desk by yourself, while they get on with the serious business of rehearsing the play. Then you come back and see a run.
And it’s amazing. And they did it. Without you.
It’s enough to make you want to go back to being god. So I’ve got this really good idea for a novel – it’s called ‘Experiment House’. Although, come to think of it, it would make a pretty good film or play or… hello, is anyone missing me?
[This piece first appeared as a guest blog post on the Foyles website]