To celebrate this weekend’s Fun Palaces and Agent 160 Theatre’s involvement, here’s one of my occasional ’20 Questions…’ blog, when I ask novelists, actors, burlesque performers, directors, non-fiction writers, poets, the creative great and the good to respond as they wish to a series of questions. It is my great delight to present Samantha Ellis and her wonderful, witty, inspiring responses….
Samantha Ellis is a playwright and the author of the reading memoir How to be a Heroine; Or, What I’ve Learned From Reading Too Much. Her plays include Cling to me Like Ivy (Birmingham Rep and on tour, published by Nick Hern Books) and Sugar and Snow (BBC Radio 4), and she’s just had Starlore for Beginners and other plays on at Theatre 503. Goat and Monkey Theatre are producing her immersive Victorian thriller Anatomical Venus in 2015. Her short play This Time I Win is part of Agent 160 Theatre Company’s Fun Palace, celebrating Joan Littlewood’s centenary 4 – 5 October 2014 at Wales Millennium Centre. www.samanthaellis.me.uk
What first drew you to writing?
When I was really small I used to sit under the kitchen table where all the women in my family were cooking—my job was to pull the leaves off the parsley for tabbouleh—and listen to the grownups telling stories. The stories took me to another place—Baghdad, where my family are from—but also gave me nightmares (not everything that happened there was good). I was told to stop having such an overactive imagination. But then I read Anne of Green Gables. She also had an overactive imagination and she used it: to become a writer and tell stories of her own. So I thought I would too.
What was your big breakthrough?
In my twenties I was too scared to write the plays I wanted to write, and I was working as a journalist, which was not what I really wanted to be doing. I was researching a piece about the premiere of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey and she just seemed so tough, so clear, so passionate, so angry, and I realised I wanted to write like that too, to give it everything I’ve got, to be brave. If I could. If I can.
What is the most challenging aspect of your work/process?
Keeping thin-skinned enough to be open to ideas, and write from the heart, while also being thick-skinned enough to cope with the rest of it (meetings, rehearsals, reviews…)
Is there a piece of art, or a book, or a play, which changed you?
The book that rocked my world, more than any other, was Wuthering Heights. For years I tried to date Heathcliff. With predictable results.
What’s more important: form or content?
How do you know when a project is finished?
I never know! I wish I did.
Do you read your reviews?
Yes. I like to know what the response is, and to try to learn from feedback if it’s useful. But I try not to get upset if it’s not super-positive (I don’t always succeed).
What advice would you give a young writer?
Stay curious, keep exploring, read everything, watch plays. And join a writers’ group or start your own—for honest criticism, for good advice, for the fun of being part of a gang, for drinking with on opening nights.
What work of art would you most like to own?
I just like looking at it.
What’s the biggest myth about writing/the creative process?
That it should be easy. That you just lie back on your chaise longue and inspiration happens…it doesn’t, unless you really, really work at it.
What are you working on now?
I’m working with you! I’m so glad to be part of the women playwrights’ collective Agent 160, and to be making a Fun Palace inspired by Joan Littlewood at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff this weekend. My short play, This Time I Win, is about a woman discovering her inner (furious) feminist.
I’m also writing a book about Anne Brontë, called Take Courage (those were her amazing last words).
What is the piece of art/novel/collection/ you wish you’d created?
Wuthering Heights (both the book and the Kate Bush song). A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Lace. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? A Thousand and One Nights. When Harry Met Sally. Moonstruck and, most recently, Pride, which made me think about how outsiders can come together to change the world. Oh & certain episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?
I wish I hadn’t been so eager to please, to write “nicely”, to plane off all the rough edges, to write characters that were familiar and non-scary…it turns out the more odd and specific the writing is, the more people respond to it. The more I’ve written from my broken, messy, awkward, confused heart, the bigger and more truthful the work has seemed when it was finished…much better than trying to write something perfect and general and “universal”. And writing about people who aren’t often written about is a radical act.
What’s your greatest ambition?
To keep doing what I’m doing.
How do you tackle lack of confidence, doubt, or insecurity?
On my last day at university, a friend gave me a postcard of a Paul Klee painting and on the back of it he’d written out a bit of a letter Chekhov wrote to Olga Knipper, saying: “Art, especially the stage, is an area where it is impossible to walk without stumbling. There are in store for you many unsuccessful days and whole unsuccessful seasons: there will be great misunderstandings and deep disappointments… you must be prepared for all this, expect it and nevertheless, stubbornly, fanatically follow your own way.” I think about that all the time…that it’s not going to be easy, but you just have to keep going. I also do a lot of baking and go for a lot of long walks.
What is the worst thing anyone said/wrote about your work?
“Samantha Ellis has no humanity.” It was my first ever review, of a play I took to the Edinburgh Fringe when I was 21. My friends and I got the paper at a late night newsagent’s off Prince’s Street, and read it under an orange streetlight. I cried off all my mascara and then we got chips and vinegar and ate them as the dawn came up.
And the best thing?
I love that Lee Randall of the Scotsman called my book “a life-affirming feminist text”. But even better than that is if I write something my mum likes. She’s my biggest inspiration.
If you were to create a conceit or metaphor about the creative process, what would it be?
Wow…I wish I knew…
What is your philosophy or life motto?
I love the improvisation rule “yes and”; when someone makes an offer you should accept (yes) but also offer something new (and). I think it works for life as well as art.
What is the single most important thing you’ve learned about the creative life?
You don’t have to be perfect or finished or grown up to write; you can write out of rawness and uncertainty and doubt (in fact it’s probably better to).
What is the answer to the question I should have – but didn’t – ask?
My mum’s recipe for kichri (Iraqi Jewish rice & lentils) is the answer to most questions, I find… http://www.samanthaellis.me.uk/2010/04/lentils-are-for-consolation.html
Samantha Ellis’s memoir of reading too much…
Links and further information on Samantha Ellis: