A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Following yesterday’s review of Hattori Hachi – Revenge of Praying Mantis – Vulpes Libris is delighted to welcome its author – television director, screenwriter and playwright Jane Prowse – to the big comfy armchair. You can blame Moira for most of the questions, but she had a bit of help from Hilary and Lisa …
MB: I was reading your mini-bio on Hattie’s site and thought an easy place to start – and one that’s always of interest to Vulpes readers (many of whom are would-be/unpublished writers) – was how you got into writing in the first place. You say you studied drama at Hull, then went to the BBC … could you flesh that out a little bit?
JP: I’ve always loved story telling, from regurgitating my favourite Narnia or Enid Blyton books to fellow classmates when I was a child, to being in plays at school, to studying Drama at university – despite heavy pressure from my headmistress to pursue maths and physics as a career. Sciences just didn’t do it for me, even though I could do the sums. I loved the connection I felt when a story hit home to a listener or an audience and I always had an image of me as an adult, staring out of a window, thinking, then putting my thoughts into writing.
At university I wrote a little but mostly directed. Then I got onto a BBC Graduate Trainee scheme which was a great training in Journalism and TV production. But that desire to tell stories never went away and I would spend all my time off putting on plays above pubs and coming up with new story ideas. Eventually, a play I co-wrote and directed transferred from Plymouth’s studio theatre via the Donmar Warehouse to London’s West End. It was called “Up On The Roof” and was the story of 5 students – who sang Motown type songs together in a group – and what happened to them over the 10 years after they left university. From then I’ve worked in theatre and TV, writing and directing all kinds of projects.
I’ve loved my work in TV and theatre – from directing all kinds of Children’s and mainstream programmes to writing original drama, theatre adaptations and most recently for Lynda La Plante’s Commander and Trial and Retribution. I wasn’t looking to change direction with writing, but last year I went to see Brenda Gardner at Piccadilly Press to ask if she had any action adventure books that might make good TV dramas. Very few, she told me, explaining how there weren’t many – especially with female leads. She threw my question back at me, asking whether I had any stories in development for TV that would make good books. I told her about Hattori Hachi – an idea which many TV producers loved but had never been made because of the budget required to mount a Crouching Tiger type story. Brenda loved the idea and told me that if I would write it, she would publish it – and she did. We took a while looking at the first three chapters and plot outline to get the style and story right, then she gave me free reign to finish the book – and it flew off my fingers. I found it so liberating to write from Hattie’s point of view with no concerns about budget, locations or casting! A real breath of fresh air after so many years of television restrictions! Brenda has already commissioned a second and is talking about a trilogy and I’m wondering why it’s taken me all these years to get down to writing prose …
MB: You talk about the wonderful freedom of being able to write without worrying about budgets, locations and casting … but was your Director’s brain still clicking away in the background? As you wrote it, was part of you sorting out staging, camera angles and the rest? Or did you disconnect that part of your brain completely?
JP: That’s a very interesting question, which has caused me to pause and consider quite carefully. I think I really did disconnect from the practicalities of filming – which was why the writing process was so liberating. I see the world visually and that’s something I love about ninjutsu – it’s about action and observing events from a new and refreshing perspective. Many of the skills I’ve learned as a director and screen writer came in handy for writing the action sequences – pacing, cliff-hangers and so on – but actually I was quite overwhelmed by how different it felt to write this. I was definitely inside Hattie Jackson’s head looking out, rather than observing and shaping the story, which is what script writing and directing for the screen are so much more about.
MB: I hold my hand up to not being very familiar with the area of children’s/YA writing – but I find it slightly startling that there’s apparently such a dearth of action/adventure books – especially with female leads. I mean, we know the market’s out there … J K Rowling got very wealthy proving it. And then there’s the (some would say slightly questionable) success of the Twilight series – which is read almost exclusively by girls. I would have thought that publishers were all looking for the next ‘Harry Potter’ … Why do you think they aren’t? Or are they, and people just aren’t writing them?
JP: Oh yes, I think the publishers are definitely all looking for the next runaway success action adventure stories, but my understanding from Brenda Gardner at Piccadilly Press is that not many are being offered to them. And the ones that are being submitted mostly have boys in the heroic role, if you think about it – Harry Potter, Alex Rider, Charlie Higson’s young Bond books. I haven’t read Twilight yet but my guess is that males are very much at the centre of that too. When authors come to write for girls, most apparently revert to pink, lovey-dovey subjects, boyfriends, ponies and ballet dancing. Hattori Hachi was my way of railing against what I have always felt to be true – that there is little out there for girls who are not tomboys but who are strong-minded, able and independent – and not reliant on boyfriends, clothes or weight loss in order to feel good about themselves. I’ve been pleased to have feedback that boys are enjoying Hattie’s story as much as girls. Although, sadly a few film companies who have read it and loved it so far have expressed concern that an action adventure feature film can’t work with a female lead. Why is that? Because we don’t have enough proof that it can – with few exceptions, men have always been our heroes … Time to challenge that, I believe.
MB: We need someone brave enough to try it, don’t we? I was going to ask you about any feedback you’d had so far and what sort of reaction you’d had from boys. That’s really very encouraging – although, like you, I don’t see any reason why boys shouldn’t enjoy a story centering on a kick-ass girl. But it’s very obvious that you took great care not to make your male characters just cyphers … they’re as complex and interesting as Hattie. And both Mad Dog and Toby have huge potential … Did their respective characters develop gradually – or did you pretty much know how they were going to turn out before you started? I know many authors are often a bit startled by what their characters do …
JP: I had a very clear sense of who Mad Dog should be. He did evolve as I wrote the book but I always wanted him to be loyal and trustworthy and misunderstood by most people simply because of his background and how he looks. Society can be so quick to judge on the basis of what people’s class and family life have been, and I really wanted to create someone who confounded expectation – who the reader could grow to love because of who he really is and who he wants to be, despite the odds. Ninjutsu is about not judging people at face value but working out who they really are, what they’re not saying, who they might be under their disguise. This is a great platform for playing around with assumptions and preconceptions. All the characters have the potential to shock and surprise the reader – and me! I think even Mad Dog will have some treats in store for me in Book Two …
Toby is more complicated. I’m still discovering exactly who he is. Without giving too much away for anyone who hasn’t read the book, Toby is turning out to be complex and flawed – and Book Two will explore his personality and the consequences of his upbringing in quite a lot of detail. He’s not clear cut at all – and that’s really intriguing to me. He has the potential to be so many things, but as yet I still don’t have a definite idea about who he will become. So that’s quite exciting – and scary.
MB: One of the things that came across most strongly was that it’s a book with a social conscience – but not in a sledgehammer sort of way. And the characters aren’t plaster saints either … they’re imperfect flesh and blood human beings you can identify with. The moment that particularly stuck in my mind – and really hit a chord with me – was when Hattie completely loses it, goes ballistic with her friends and storms off. Everybody must have been through that “It’s so unfair, I hate you all and stop the world I want to get off” moment … Were you identifying with her as you wrote it? In fact, is there a little bit of what I call “the fantasy you” in her?
JP: Yes, there’s definitely a lot of me in Hattie – and it’s not all fantasy! In fact, early on – as I was working on the first three chapters with Brenda – her big note to me was “write in your own voice”. This was one of the most empowering and stimulating notes I have ever been given as a writer – and was the point when Hattie started to come alive. Yes, Hattie definitely expresses many of my thoughts and opinions and the meltdown was very easy for me to write. Not because I’ve ever behaved quite like that – but because I’ve so often wanted to! Thankfully, I’ve never been submitted to the dire emotional pressure Hattie is under at that point – with no mother to guide her. But I do know how it feels to hit overload – as I’m sure most people do. Many of my hardest obstacles in life have come as an adult, when you’re supposed to be able to deal with them better, so it was great to hide behind the excuse of being a frightened, overwhelmed 15 year old and to have a good old rant and meltdown and get away with it! But it’s not all tough being Hattie in my head – the liberation and excitement I’ve felt as she trains and fights and succeeds have been thoroughly uplifting. She’s definitely a ‘fantasy’ me – when it suits…
LG: It’s a tough climate for independent publishers … Marion Boyars announced just a couple of weeks ago that they’re folding after over 40 years in the business … and getting books out there and noticed has never been harder – how have Piccadilly Press been going about the marketing and exposure of Hattori Hachi and how successful has it been?
JP: Yes, it’s incredibly difficult to get a new book noticed and Brenda Gardner at Piccadilly Press has always been very clear and up front about that. They work on a slow burn theory – history having proven that if you keep plugging away and visiting schools and writing books and sending them to reviewers, eventually things will gel and you’ll start getting some column inches. We all feel the future of book sales is going to be online and who knows how long it will be before books only exist electronically as downloadable files. I can’t bear to think of that – I love the feel and smell of books and will be the last one kicking and screaming for things to go back to how they used to be! It was one of the high points of my career to see Hattori Hachi in print – and then to be sitting amongst all those lovely books at Daunt in South End Green for the launch. But the internet is a wonderful thing – as your website proves. If word of mouth can be generated, then we don’t need to hang on the coat tails of newspaper and magazine reviewers. Readers can determine what’s successful or not – which is a great way to be judged in my view.
MB: Can we move away from Hattie and talk about some of your other – and very varied – work? I was particularly interested that you’ve turned Jane Juska’s best-selling book A Round-Heeled Woman into a stage play. It’s a book that divides people quite dramatically – as a quick check on Amazon reveals. There are those who think it’s funny and honest and brave and those who could be described as “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells”. Now – a little bird told me that at the recent public table read of A Round Heeled Woman at The Richmond Theatre – there was one gentleman present who was somewhat less than impressed … How did you come to adapt the book and did the subject matter cause you any problems?
JP: I’m delighted to say the one man in the Round-Heeled audience was completely alone in his view – and I was delighted he was there! Whenever you work on something creative there’s always going to be a mixed response. You wait and wait to hear the worst and then when someone says it out loud, you realise it’s just as much to do with them as with the material or how you’ve handled it. This guy just couldn’t be around the honest, frank sexual context of the play – which, to his credit, he admitted. But what his comments initiated was a sea of hands from men as well as women saying how vehemently they disagreed. The overwhelming response to our play about sex in older life was relief that finally someone, somewhere was talking and writing openly about these issues. We handed out questionnaires and they were incredibly supportive and full of praise. We got sixty answers with 48 ‘very good’ (top category), 10 ‘good’ and only 2 ‘average’ – of which one must have been the dissenting guy, so even he didn’t call it ‘below average’ or ‘poor’. I tell you this not out of any self-satisfaction, but because I believe that what the audience got from the play was exactly what I got from reading Jane Juska’s book – permission to have desires and to go after what you want in life. She did a truly open and courageous thing and the audience recognised that and debated passionately the shortage of this kind of inspirational drama in the Q&A session after. So that’s the long way of saying anything that encourages debate, even with wildly opposed opinions, has to be better than people feeling unengaged or non-plussed about your material.
I came to write the book because I’ve known actress Sharon Gless for many years since she performed in Steven King’s Misery in the West End. She’s a fabulous actress and had optioned this book and gave it to me to ask if I could see a way to turn it into a drama. I really could – I was blown away by the story and immediately had a very clear idea of how to make what is rather an incident-lead, linear story into a strong drama with its own emotional arc. I pitched it to Brian Eastman who I’ve worked with many times over the years and he also saw the potential. I knew comedy was an important part of making it accessible and the first image I had for the stage was how to achieve the first sex scene – the first orgasm she has with a man after 30 years! Brian laughed out loud as I described my idea, and I knew we were on the same wavelength and off to a really positive start. There’s a lot more about how the play unfolded on Sharon Gless’s Cagney and Lacey website.
MB: Right. My mind is boggling a tiny bit over the orgasm thing … but it does bring us very neatly on to something else I wanted to ask about … because we have to touch, if only briefly, on Between the Sheets, which was written by Kay Mellor and had a not dissimilar theme. It explores the lives of assorted couples who have turned to sex therapy to try and sort out their relationship problems. You directed it and it starred some very well-known names – Brenda Blethyn, Alun Armstrong, Julie Graham and – of course – Richard Armitage before he found fame as John Thornton in North and South. Very much like A Round-Heeled Woman, it divided opinion. It was frank, very funny in places and well observed – and it fielded some cracking performances – but the critics didn’t seem to know what to DO with it … Brenda Blethyn and Alun Armstrong in the altogether was apparently more than they could cope with … were you pleased/displeased/annoyed with the reaction – or was it pretty much what you were expecting?
JP: It’s a shame ITV didn’t commission a second series of Between The Sheets, which I know Kay hoped they would. I think you’re right that no one quite knew what to make of it – but of course that’s what I loved about it. Many viewers came back to us once again relieved that sexuality in older people was finally being talked about on TV. There may have been some dissenters – but to be honest, I didn’t pay them much attention. I learnt long ago that you can’t please all the people all the time. Dwelling on reviews and negative responses can be a monumental waste of time. I prefer instead to work on material that speaks to me and hope that it will also inspire, inform or entertain other people – and certainly challenge their views and preconceptions in a healthy way.
Working on that series was so much fun – I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as much on any other job. We filmed all the ‘sensitive’ scenes in the studio so we could control the set and not have too many people wandering around. What we hadn’t quite anticipated was that we only had 2 studios days’ worth of material – so on one of those days Brenda had 5 different sex scenes – with different men and on her own! We laughed till we nearly cried as she ran around from bed to bath to woodsman’s cottage with her hand on someone else’s parts or on her own (the first middle-aged masturbation scene I can think of on mainstream British television), shouting – ‘is this okay, Jane? How’s it looking?’ I know Brenda was relieved and happy with the final programmes – we all wanted to make the sex as truthful and palatable as possible. I don’t mind what people made of it – as long as they watched it and had some kind of opinion. The impact of these kind of scripts often doesn’t strike till much later anyway. While reviewers and some of the public may object at the time, ground-breaking dramas do eventually shift public consciousness about what’s acceptable. I know from letters we received that there was a lot of support for the series – from women in particular – who felt their fears, phobias and ignorance about sex had never been dealt with in such an open and helpful way.
In my opinion, no writer should get hung up on worrying about what people will think, but instead should spend their time trying to simply make people think at all.
HE: I thought that a second series was on the cards but never got commissioned – because my DVD says Series One on it. But I wonder – that ending was up there with the best. Such a satisfying conclusion to an original drama. I’m not sure I’d have wanted to see the ‘what next’ for the characters even after the twist in the tail- there’s a risk of bathos. Which of the storylines do you think might have had legs?
JP: I think Kay intended to make the sex therapists the centre of any future series – and to introduce a whole slate of new characters with all kinds of sex issues and problems. I know she was overflowing with ideas from the research she did and I think it would have been a great forum for all kinds of issues to be discussed.
HE: Despite the headline-grabbing themes of ‘sex therapist, heal thyself’ and sex and older people, the theme that I found most shocking and moving was that of professional misconduct, with the achingly painful moral dilemma of Paul and its terrible dénouement. So important and so thought provoking. Did it resonate with any of the critics? Or couldn’t they see past the sex?
JP: I know this storyline really resonated with a lot of viewers, but to be honest, I don’t recall there being a lot of coverage about it in the press. I think that having Brenda Blethyn in the role she was playing may have distracted a lot of previewers and reviewers, not necessarily just because of the sex but because of her status as an actress.
The Paul storyline was very shocking and disturbing – and so successful, I think, due in great part to the outstanding acting from Richard Armitage and Julie Graham. They both brought such complexity and pain to their characters. In Richard’s case, I was impressed with how much human failing he was prepared to grapple with. He’s a terrific actor and a really nice guy – but managed to access a really dark side in his portrayal of Paul that lesser actors are often frightened to show. One of my favourite scenes in the whole series is the therapy scene he has with Julie Graham. It’s about 12 minutes long and we put two cameras on the same track shooting different sized shots, turned over, and Richard and Julie just went for it. It was like they’d been married for years and the agony and love they managed to exude while rowing and blaming each other was exceptional. And it was a lot of fun directing their sex scenes too …
MB: I just BET it was …. Right. Finally – it’s customary for us to ask guests on VL to name their five favourite books – non-fiction, fiction, plyas, novels, whatever … and give reasons. It’s all yours …
JP: Only FIVE of my favourite books..?! Okay…
1. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The only book she ever wrote – published when she was 34 – this novel was a Pulitzer Prize winner and has sold over 30 million copies to date. Set in America’s deep south, it’s the story of Atticus, a lawyer, and his two children, Scout (who narrates) and Jeb. It’s a brilliant piece of work on all levels – engaging and funny, despite dealing with issues of rape and racial inequality. It’s one I read over and over again.
2. The Crucible by Arthur Miller. My favourite play of all time. Compelling characters, riveting story based on true events that, in 1692, led to the Salem Witch Trials. This a morally complex, yet enthralling play that was also written (in the early 1950s) as an allegory. It’s Miller’s response to McCarthyism – when the US government blacklisted accused communists. Miller himself was questioned by the House of Un-American Activities in 1956. A political man who found a way to express his views through drama – one of my heroes.
3. The Concise Oxford Dictionary – I use it nearly every day. I love words and writing a novel has reminded me of that all over again. It was a joy to sit with my editor on Hattori Hachi and debate the exact meaning and correct use of a word before it went into print. I worked recently with the director of A Round-Heeled Woman, making sure the script was wholly American. As a consequence I bought an American dictionary and thesaurus and am now having a great time idly leafing through, trying to understand the true differences between UK English and American English. The only phrase I’d used that the Americans didn’t know at all – and made them howl with laughter – was “Eyes out on stalks”. We replaced it with “Wide-eyed”…
4. The Travel Book – A Journey Through Every Country in the World. This book lays open in our breakfast room with a new country to read about whenever we’ve absorbed the last. Quite often it’s open at wherever we’re going to be travelling to next. It has all sorts of essential information – and experiences you should have while you’re there. But also, it tells you how to get under the skin of a place and some surprises about it too. We love to travel, so whenever I’m writing for hours on end, house-bound in the cold, grey British winter, I turn to some sunny, blue photo and escape for a while. It does wonders for my spirit.
5. The book of The Blue Planet. I was born to be underwater. I swim with whales and dolphins whenever I can – and this is my escapist, dream-time volume. I’m looking at it now – a humpback whale lunge feeding. There’s always something astonishing and awe-inspiring to look at in nature and if I can’t be there in person, then one of my wildlife books is always an inspiring second best.
MB: Well those are nothing if not varied … and a big “Yay!” for To Kill a Mockingbird – one of my all-time favourites, too. Thank you very much indeed for your time Jane – it’s been fascinating and great fun talking to you. And good luck with Hattie …
JP: Thanks from me too. You’ve asked some great questions and I really appreciate the chance to tell people about the book. Readers do have a lot of power these days – so if any of you enjoy Hattori Hachi, please spread the word – and let the film companies know girls can take the lead in action adventure stories!
On Monday, Simon will talk about the long-delayed joy of Beverley Nichols.
On Wednesday, we’ll have a Vulpes Random – tbd (EXCITING, no?)
On Friday, Hilary feeds her dreams of actually living in an actual bookshop with Jeremy Mercer’s memoir 'Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs. The Left Bank World of Shakespeare & Co.'