Books and poetry
An interview with Jan Woolf
Jan Woolf, member of the Writers' Guild Books Committee, originator of the Guild's Off the Shelf at Blacks events and recipient of the first Harold Pinter writers’ residency at the Hackney Empire in 2010, considers herself a late starter. However, her earlier working life: teaching, activism, events production and a brief stint as a film classifier gave her plenty of material. She talks to author and screenwriter Brendan Foley about finding a life in writing and her recent collection Fugues On A Funny Bone.
Brendan Foley: Your writing has been described as ‘quirky’ and ‘eclectic’. If you had to use your own adjectives, what would they be?
Jan Woolf: I’d be happy with pithy or sharp. Also wabi-sabi – a Japanese term for art that is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete – a bit wonky, like this answer. But I don’t mean anything goes. I liked Lisa Goldman’s piece in the last issue of UK Writer about breaking the rules and pushing at the edge – but not for its own sake; that’s arrogant. There are no right answers and I think you find your voice when you become present to the writing, the point at which it keeps you company. That’s when you find a style that suits your personality and you become own authority yet listen intelligently to what others say. I think it’s about cultivating a kind of writer’s wisdom, knowing what writing form should carry which idea. My piece about two film censors fancying each other but having to watch porn together found its way into a play – Porn Crackers for the Hackney Empire. My stories about kids in a Pupil Referral Unit needed to be linked – so they were fugues.
I don’t want to sound pretentious, but I’ve always liked the energy, speed and complexity of Bach’s fugues. They’re thrilling, and I aim to take the reader on the same sort of journey through dialogue, ideas, and snatches of observation.
So are you planning to stick to fugues for a while?
I like to move about. The next things are a short play, and the ongoing novel – a long and complex tale. I trained as a painter (the subject of the novel) and painting still has its pull.
You write with warmth and humour, but often about very troubled people. What attracts you to troubled souls?
People in extremis, especially kids, don’t always have the internal time to think before they react to something, so there’s not that diplomatic beat of thought before a response. This means that what is expressed is meant and it can be cruel, loving, needy, funny or even brilliant. There’s a condition called Bennet’s Ear, ie the way Alan Bennett is known for listening to people and getting things down. I’ve heard wonderful things, like the girl who at her care plan conference in a children’s home accused social workers of ‘speaking in tongues,’ and the mother who said in as aside to her son (as a teacher brought out a doorstep wad of notes) ‘Eh, eh bwoy they made a file of you’. Cultivating a malign vigilance is essential for a writer.
Young people form a big part of your work as well as your own baby boomer generation. Why is that?
Because they had formed such a big part of my life. And after all, I used to be one. It’s always been interesting to watch youngsters making their way in this confusing labyrinthine world. Each child in the Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) had their own set of circumstances, forming an entire world. At my first case conference, a 14 -year-old boy and his estranged mother were wrangling about what to do, where he should live and with whom. Profound things were happening in that room and I was very disturbed by it. That’s when the professional took over and I had know how to do my best as a teacher to help that child and his mother, but stuff goes to another part of the brain where it lies dormant until you wake it up for a story, sketch or play. Some things are unconsciously stored, but one that was almost being written as the scenario unfolded in front of me was the sexually abused boy grooming a horse as his work experience. His conversation with the horse was affecting and complex. I wanted it as a stage play but couldn’t get a horse on stage (health and safety) so it became the story Moving On. By the time I left teaching, I had many worlds stored in my head, with ideas flipping tangentially into the lives of some of the people who’d worked with the youngsters, like the learning assistant with a pretentious sister who gets crushes on actors who play Hitler. What the hell do you do with that? Other than put it in a story where it’ll make its own sense. I also had a thing about bad language – not swearing, but contemporary educational jargon like ‘sharing’ for telling and ‘off site learning module’ for a museum. The word education comes from the Latin educare – to lead out. And I’ve always felt that such language, obfuscates, leading us back into a weird institutional darkness.
You write about layers of society, from the forgotten to those who forget them. Do you have a worldview on that or does it change from story to story?
I certainly do have a worldview. I grew up in a loving working class family during the best years of the welfare state where we felt special but safe. That’s no longer there. Talk about what was sacrificed to fight fascism was in the very air, so when war loomed again during the Cuba Missile Crisis I started to learn fast about the push and pull of things, the political checks and balances of the world. I was also an 11-plus failure (dreamy and bad at maths) but I’d have found my niche, and anyway I had a terrific art teacher who opened up the world for the Secondary Modern kids in a very ‘us and them’ part of the Surrey stockbroker belt. Getting a teacher like that was completely random. I’ve always thought it important to be not only an artist but to belong to your Trade Union, the peace movement or other campaigning groups wherever ideas are collectively established.
I think that once you know how the world works, we have, as one of my kids once put it ‘a nobligation Miss’ to be active and alive to whatever you can do to effect change, not to let terrible things happen, like wars fought for profit and power.
You were involved with the protests about the Gulf War, and I’m told you’re planning something for the 10th anniversary series of events.
Yes, a current project is ‘10’ – an evening of ten, ten minute plays to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. This will be at the Royal Court just after next Easter.
What sort of future do you see for writers given the upheavals in book publishing in print and online?
There will always a place for the satisfyingly object of the book. Reading from screens is different I think, and can affect the way we read the text. But the tactile nature of the printed book puts us into a different relationship with it. Not just ownership, but as if the author were there with you, dressed in a beautiful cover. I am also involved with the Muswell Press – a new model of publishing where the writer, if accepted, pays production costs but keeps all royalties. I was published by Muswell Press before I became a director, which means that my next book won’t be. Publishing should be a collaborative act where good editing is seen as an equivalent art that strengthens the writer’s voice and story. Writers are mostly too close to their own work to be able to do this, which is why self-publishing can be problematic. Sure, there will be some good stuff, but how do you find it?
The Off the Shelf gatherings at Black’s members club in London have been very popular. What started them off?
I wanted to sit, with others, in a lovely room with a good writer, to listen to them and talk to them. Black’s were totally behind the idea, so Off the Shelf was established. Besides, I felt that the Guild’s book writers could be more involved in writers’ development initiatives as it’s such a solitary activity. We also forget how physical writing is. I went to an osteopath last month, she took one look at muscles knotted in my shoulders, neck and lower back and said ‘writer.’ ‘Fiction or non-fiction?’ I asked. ‘Short stories!’ OK I made that up, but she did say that writers should hang from doorways from time to time. So I have an ambition to start a writers’ centre with a special reinforced doorpost where we can hang like bats. If we’re up there too long someone will come along and poke us with a stick, then we fall back to our computers like ripe fruit.
Fugues On A Funny Bone by Jan Woolf can be found at www.muswell-press.co.uk .
Her short story Ten A Day is in the anthology Still, edited by Roelof Bakker www.neg-press.com
Brendan Foley is currently working on a film version of his book Under the Wire. He will be appearing at Off the Shelf at Black's in London on 14 January, reading from Under the Wire and discussing the differences between screenplays and books. He will also describe working as both a writer and director with actors as diverse as Sir Derek Jacobi, Vanessa Redgrave and Vinnie Jones, talking about the changes from script to screen. More information: www.facebook.com/thewritersguild/events
Author photo – copyright Roelof Bakker