Bocas: The Story of My Story

Ahead of her trip to the Bocas Lit Fest, novelist and playwright Nell Leyshon reflects on her experience of writing a short story inspired by Cervantes for the new anthology Lunatics, Lovers and Poets: Twelve Stories After Shakespeare and Cervantes.

 

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When I received the email asking if I would like to write a story inspired by the work of Cervantes, my first idea was set in his birthplace, Alcalá de Henares, where I had been the previous year. The story focused on a relationship and the theatre in Alcalá, one of the oldest in Spain. I wrote around 3,000 words but the story wasn’t quite alive. It was all right, but it didn’t excite me, and so I threw it away. I turned to his short novels, the novelas ejemplares, and found El Licenciado Vidriera the story of the lawyer who believed he was made of glass. I knew as soon as I read it that I wanted to re-imagine it. I wanted to feel again what it is to be on the turn of adolescence, to go from having an invisible body, to having one which is publicly scrutinised.

I wrote my story Glass quickly as though in a fever. I had been very ill the previous year, and had procedures to examine the inside of my body: I lay on scanning machines and saw images of my pelvis, of my lungs, of my beating heart. The powerlessness I felt at being told where to lie, when to undress, was driven into the narrative of the young girl. I finished, rewrote it, rewrote it again. And when I submitted it, I acknowledged the fact that if I hadn’t been asked to respond to Cervantes’ work, the story would not exist.

But that was not the end.

Two weeks after I sent the story, I was re-reading my writing journal. It is where I put ideas, thoughts about writing, and any writing quotes I want to remember. I flipped back through the pages, back through time to old thoughts, old ideas. And there, on the left hand page, dated four years previously, I had written: Write a story about a girl who thinks she is made of glass.

I stared at my own handwriting. I had already had the idea. But I had no memory of writing these words and had no memory of having the idea. I had definitely never read El Licenciado Vidriera before.

But that was not the end.

The following week, I was tidying up the notes I keep on my smartphone. Random thoughts, ideas. And there, two years ago, I had written: Write about a girl made of glass.

The idea had been inside me, had attempted to burst out at least two times. There was an inevitability that I would eventually write it. And when I was invited to take part in the project, it meant my idea that I had had all along, took form and became real.

It felt at the time of sending off the story that I had completed a task which I had been set, but in fact more than that, it was one more thing I could tick off the list of ideas that comes solely from my imagination, from my subconscious mind, which moves in odd, slow, underwater ways.

Nell Leyshon will be speaking at the Bocas Lit Fest, Trinidad and Tobago, on 1 May 2016 from 11.00-12.00 at the Old Fire Station, Port of Spain.

This interview was originally posted on the British Council website

Guardian Interview

Shakespeare’s Globe has just commissioned its first ever play by a woman. What does Nell Leyshon have planned?

(interview by Andrew Dickson for The Guardian, February 2010)

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If playwright Nell Leyshon is ­overawed by the prospect of ­making history, she’s hiding it well. It was announced this week that Leyshon had been ­commissioned by Shakespeare’s Globe to write a drama for the ­theatre – the first woman to be asked since its opening in 1599. But ­Leyshon has something else on her mind first: body image. She’s working on play about the subject for the ­National Theatre, which has joined her with a group of ­teenagers in ­Plymouth. As we speak, she’s ­scurrying through an ­industrial park, ­attempting to find the rehearsal space.

“I come down for a week and write a play,” she says brightly. “It is a bit ­terrifying, because I’ve sworn I’ll ­finish it by Friday. The kids don’t quite ­believe me. But I will – because there’s other things I have to do.”

There is the small matter of ­finishing that historic commission. The play she’s writing for the Globe is ­entitled Bedlam, an 18th-century ­costume drama set in a ­fictionalised version of the notorious lunatic ­asylum. It will be a freewheeling mix of love and ­insanity; a romance infused with ­tragedy that will no doubt use the Globe’s unique properties – that large, open-air auditorium, Shakespeare’s circular “wooden O” – to full-throated effect. A fitting debut for a theatre with a rambunctious reputation.

“I thought I wasn’t ready to write a big story for a big space,” Leyshon says. “Playwrights now often write very small, very intense plays. You don’t get the opportunity to ­really stretch yourself, to be really brave. The Globe is much more extravagant to write for, much more extrovert. You have to embrace the nature of the space, and the nature of the audience.”

And there’s all that history, too. When the original Globe burned down in 1613, it was illegal for women to appear on stage, never mind write plays. Western theatre hasn’t moved on as much as it should, believes ­Leyshon. “When I started writing for theatre, people would say, ‘She’s a woman writer,’ and I didn’t ­understand that. You’d never say, ‘She’s a woman novelist’ or, ‘She’s a woman journalist.’ But in theatre, you do.”
(read the full interview)

 

Interview with The Telegraph

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Almost uniquely among today’s writers, late starter Nell Leyshon cares about country life. She talks to Charles Spencer
(from The Telegraph Jan 2007)

In my job, one of the greatest thrills is discovering a new writer of fresh and manifest talent, so I am unlikely to forget my first encounter with the work of Nell Leyshon. It was 2001, the year of the foot and mouth crisis, and I received a press release about a play called The Farm that was doing a tour of the West Country.

It was the time of the great countryside marches and the feeling was growing that the Labour government didn’t give a stuff about the troubles of rural England. I’d never heard of the Strode Theatre Company or most of the venues The Farm was playing, and when I turned up at a dilapidated converted cinema in Minehead my expectations were low.

But in her account of the problems facing a small Somerset farm, and the pressures on the family trying to keep it going, it was clear that Leyshon was a writer of skill and passion, ploughing a highly original furrow in a new writing landscape entirely dominated by urban drama.

The play transferred to the Southwark Playhouse, but it wasn’t until 2005 that Leyshon’s next play, Comfort Me With Apples, opened at the Hampstead Theatre, where she was Pearson playwright in residence. Once again, this concentrated on the plight of a farm, but naturalism had given way to far richer and more poetic writing, creating an extraordinary drama of long suppressed family secrets, potent folk myths and an air of autumnal melancholy and decay at a dying cider farm. The stage was covered with apples, whose aroma permeated the whole auditorium. (read full interview)