International working


2016 was the 400th anniversary of the deaths of both Shakespeare and Cervantes, two giants of world literature. British Council and Hay Festival published an excellent anthology of contemporary stories inspired by both writers, and I made a contribution as one of the British writers inspired by Cervantes. An unforeseen bonus was that throughout the year I did some international work with the British Council and Hay to publicise the book, but also to have a world-wide conversation about the influence of both writers. I undertook trips to Colombia, Spain, Peru, Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago. By the end of the year I had undergone radical change. I have new inspiration and drive, but it is deeper than that: the last year has affected my work more radically.

The first trip was to Colombia. In Cartagena, as part of the Hay Festival, I worked with the British Council’s scheme Elipsis, which identifies talented writers and editors from all over Colombia and supports their development. The scheme is carefully set up to be inclusive, and participants came from all over the country, from all backgrounds; this is something remarkable in such a socially divided country.

I met the participants the day before our workshop in the shade of a white cloistered building: we talked about the events we had seen at the festival and the particularly wide range of ideas being shared. And then we talked of their own work: we talked of the importance of being brave and bold, and of having faith in their own voices and their own stories.

Following the workshop the next day, one writer asked to speak to me. She talked about my book, The Colour of Milk, which is about an illiterate young woman in 1831 who is taught, at great cost, to read and write by the vicar who employs her as a maid. The young woman was visibly moved and struggled to tell her story. She lived in Amazonia, she explained, and this was her first time out of her region. The book, she said… then she started to cry. The book, she finally told me, was the exact story of her mother’s life. Her mother was born in a village and was illiterate. She worked as a maid and, like many others in her position, was abused.

The young woman told me that after she had read the book in one sitting, she took her mother out onto the verandah where they were surrounded by green, where the rain fell onto leaves and roofs. She read the book out loud to her still-illiterate mother. She read her own mother’s story back to her.

This small exchange affected me deeply: my novel was set in my imagination, inspired by the village I grew up in, and by the past situation of women in the English countryside. And here I was on the other side of the world, hearing that the story I invented, set in the past, was the exact story of a woman brought up deep in the Colombian rain forest, and is the exact story which still continues throughout Latin America. It taught me about the power of story, and about how much we take for granted: the ability to read, and the ability to write, to express our own inner lives upon a page.

(read the whole article at International Literatures Showcase)

Nell Leyshon y el placer de escribir en primera persona

Liliana Martínez Polo | El Tiempo

‘El show de Gary’ es el título en español de la novela que la británica Nell Leyshon tituló en inglés ‘Memorias de un carterista’ (‘Memoirs of a Dipper’). En su idioma explica la esencia de la historia. En español hace énfasis en la forma en que es contada. Gary podría estar frente a una audiencia contando cómo sus manos ligeras eran capaces de quedarse con los valores de cualquier desprevenido en el Londres de finales del siglo XX, ufanándose de haberse perfeccionado hasta convertir su oficio en un arte.

Leyshon, que continuamente ha manifestado que prefiere historias de personajes marginales, explora el encanto que puede tener un ingenioso maleante como Gary. La primera persona la hace sentir cómoda, ya la había usado en el personaje de Mary –una campesina adolescente que aprende a escribir, en 1830, y plasma en un texto recuerdos familiares y tristezas–, en ‘Del color de la leche’, su anterior novela escrita en el 2012, que presentó en Colombia, en el Hay Festival.

Dos monólogos. Diferentes épocas y, por tanto, diferentes lenguajes. Leyshon admite que trabaja duro para que sus personajes sean diferentes, para cambiar la forma de narrar. “Escribir dos novelas similares me aburriría muchísimo. No representaría para mí un desafío”, le dijo a EL TIEMPO en un español que aprendió durante una breve temporada en España y que esta semana ha tenido que retomar, ya que viajaba al Hay Festival de Arequipa (del 8 al 11 de diciembre).

Meterse en las voces de otros parece ser su fortaleza. De hecho, escribir para Leyshon es justamente eso: “Para mí es sencillo escribir como si fuera otra persona. Es como un escape navegar dentro de mi personaje. Es como ir por la calle con otra música. Todas las personas en las calles tienen voces diferentes y eso me encanta. Es algo parecido a lo que pasa con los niños, que juegan a ser otros en sus juegos. Cuando tenemos más años es más difícil jugar así. Para mí es una cosa fantástica”.

Eso explicaría su relación con el teatro. Su nombre siempre va precedido con la frase de haber sido la primera autora mujer en haber puesto una de sus obras en el cartel del Shakespeare’s Globe (Bedlam) y tiene otras más. “Si quieres escribir para teatro –dice al respecto–, tienes que ser a la vez muchas otras personas. Si en una obra tienes 10 personajes, el escritor tiene que meterse en la piel de todos ellos, en la mente de cada uno”.

¿Fue primero dramaturga o escritora de novelas?

Primero fue la literatura. Pero cuando escribo novelas, me gusta escribir diálogos. Por eso tenía tantos problemas con los libros. La gente cree que llegué a los 40 años sin escribir libros. Pero escribía desde antes. Pero antes no sabía que podía escribir para mostrarlos.

Siempre quise escribir novelas, mucho antes de empezar con el teatro. Ahora lo que hago es escribir para radio. En la BBC hacemos una cosa que no es propiamente teatro, tampoco es novela, es como una mezcla. Tenemos obras cada día, unas son fantásticas, otras son horribles. Así es cuando se trabaja a diario.

Se siente esa necesidad de llevar sus textos a una lectura o interpretación en voz alta…

Estoy escribiendo ahora un monólogo para mí, lo voy a interpretar yo misma el año que viene. Es un trabajo con un poquito de peligro que lo hace interesante, es otro desafío, algo que no he hecho.

Gary, el protagonista de su nueva novela, también cumple con uno de sus intereses: el gusto por los personajes marginales…

Trabajé con personajes así durante diez años (la autora hacía trabajo social) y encontré muchas historias interesantes. El libro está inspirado en mi trabajo con ellos. Era una cosa fantástica oír sus historias de vida. Entre ellos había personajes con un tinte un poquito malo que me impulsaban a trabajar como escritora. Escribía sus historias en novela y poesía. Muchas de estas me dieron las ideas para escribir esta novela.

Lo más divertido a la hora de escribir esta novela fueron los diálogos. El diálogo de los hombres malos tiene, para la literatura, una lucidez que no es pesada. (leer más)

Interview with the Independent

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It is about 10 minutes into my interview with the award-winning playwright and author Nell Leyshon, and already she is nicking my stuff. “Look what those workmen are doing!” she says, pointing out of the window of the Soho café, and after I turn back she shows me that she has quietly pocketed my mobile phone.

“It’s really easy to distract people, isn’t it?” she laughs. “What Gary says is that it’s about a story … it’s about making people believe something.” I suggest that both the novelist and the pickpocket are professional liars, then, and she agrees. “As soon as I use the word ‘I’ and I’m not being me, I’m telling a lie aren’t I?” She’s good at it, too.

We are here to talk about her new novel, Memoirs of a Dipper, in which the protagonist, Gary, does more than his fair share of nicking. The book is dedicated to “Gary, whose life this ain’t”, and it is inspired by people she met while teaching creative writing to “outsiders” including former prisoners and addicts in Bournemouth. Nothing is exaggerated, she says, having got to know these people very well – in fact, a few things were taken out because they were too much.

Unusually, this book’s launch parties will not be held in the bookshops and reading groups of London and the Home Counties, but in prison libraries. Leyshon says she really misses the quality of the discussion in such places: “I’ve taught [creative writing] at Masters level and it’s never as good. There’s a no bullshit thing.”

Gary is an unusually candid and beguiling narrator as he talks us through his childhood and early life of thieving, from what appears to be the relatively comfortable position of middle age. “When you’re writing a strong first person voice like that … could you make something that was completely not you? I’m not sure I would believe it,” Leyshon says. “It’s like method writing. I have to find that person inside me so that I can write from that, and then it becomes truthful, and you don’t stumble. I don’t ever feel that I’m trying to be Gary … and I never felt that I was trying to be Mary [the poor, 15-year-old narrator of her 2012 novel The Colour of Milk]. With those strong characters I just become them.” She says this just after admitting: “I sort of can’t understand why we don’t all shoplift….”

(read the full interview at The Independent)

Hay Festival interview 2012

The playwright in residence Nell Leyshon has been picking up material from around Hay festival which will go in her play. (Guardian, June 2012)

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This year, for the first time, the Hay Festival has a playwright-in-residence. Nell Leyshon has spent the week in Hay acting as a kind of scout, looking for material which will be formed into a play for a company of actors who arrive mid-week. They will have just five days to prepare for a performance on Sunday. ‘I have overheard some wonderful things’, Leyshon says, ‘and they will make their way into the script’.

Leyshon prepared a framework for the play, based on the story of the Wife of Bath, but her observations at Hay will flesh out the characters and the action. ‘There will be upwards of 15 characters, including a baby, all played by a cast of 5 actors. It will be genuinely theatrical story-telling’.

Leyshon chose the Wife of Bath as her inspiration because of her earthy, fearless character. The Wife’s journey through five husbands gives the play the scope to move through five stages of a person’s life – twenty years’ worth of drama and comedy.

Leyshon’s Wife of Hay is a farmer’s daughter, and Nell herself is interested by our connections with the land. ‘I grew up in Glastonbury, so I am familiar with the potential for tensions between the town and the festival, between a practical approach to the countryside and the more ethereal view from visitors.’

Exploring our perceptions of rural life is key to the work of the Pentabus Theatre Company who are performing Leyshon’s play. The actors are coming into town, staying in tents, and putting on a play with ‘music and big, bold gestures’ and it is this feeling of a troubadour-type entertainment that Leyshon wanted to capture in the play. There is a sense of excitement that the play will take on a life of its own when it is performed in front of an audience at the Sound Castle. So what has the playwright taken from the experience? Nell is, in fact, half-Welsh, but has no living relatives from that side of her family. ‘I have been able to re-connect with my Welsh roots,’ she says, ‘writing is all about finding a stimulus and seeing what happens’.

Bocas Literary Festival

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To read the full article, visit the website of Art, Recognition, Culture

2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the deaths of William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes, who died on the same day, 23 April, in 1616. In the four centuries since their death, both writers have delighted and inspired audiences and readers around the world with their stories such as ‘Don Quixote’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Their influence on the generations of writers who have followed them, and indeed on literature as we know it, is impossible to ignore.

Lunatics, Lovers and Poets book cover

To mark the anniversaries, the British Council has teamed up with the Hay Festival, Acción Cultural Española and twelve contemporary English- and Spanish-speaking writers to create a new anthology of short stories inspired by Cervantes and Shakespeare. Lunatics, Lovers and Poets: Twelve Stories after Shakespeare and Cervantes, which is introduced by Salman Rushdie, has been described as a ‘triumph of collaboration’ by the UK’s Guardian newspaper. Two of the UK writers who have contributed to the anthology, Nell Leyshon and Kamila Shamsie, will be present at this year’s Bocas Lit Fest, Trinidad and Tobago…Read More…

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)