A talk with Nell Leyshon

BY Liliana Padilla


We talked with author Nell Leyshon during her latest visit to Mexico, on the occasion of Hay Festival Queretaro and the presentation of her newest book, Memoirs of a Dipper published in Spanish by Editorial Sexto Piso.


Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?

I never thought I wanted to be a writer, and there were a few times when I tried to write and I found it really difficult, and eventually, when I started writing it was very obvious that yes, I was a writer. But it’s difficult to know sometimes what you want. And now it’s really obvious to me when I look at my childhood, that I was going to be a writer, but I didn’t know that at the time.


When it comes to the creative process of writing, how do you create your characters? Do you focus more on the actions, or rather on the motivations/psychology of the character?

When you first start writing, you think a lot about that, you are a little more clinical about motivations and psychology and actions, and what somebody should do, but I think with experience it comes more organic. Now, when I start writing a character, one of the things that are really important is how they speak. As soon as I start writing dialogue, it becomes much easier. Until I really start writing lines of dialogue. I would never describe someone’s personality, because I understand that it’s boring to describe someone’s personality. There’s a dynamic. Like if you’re meeting someone socially, and somebody says “oh, you must meet my friend, she’s absolutely amazing, she’s so funny, she’s brilliant, she’s really clever, she makes everybody laugh”. And then you actually meet the friend, and this person is funny and makes you laugh, but it’s through a process and through actions, it’s not through being told. So, when I’m writing, I don’t want to tell the reader things, I want to show the reader. So what I do is allow the reader to get their own conclusions, you should just lay out the character on the page, and the reader is the one who’s coming to the conclusion, which is deeply satisfying, because for me that’s active reading. When I read books, I want to be active. For me it’s a collaboration between the writer and the reader. And I think that’s why people respond so well to the writing. They are involved, and they feel they are bringing a huge amount to the book. 


How did you create the character of Mary from The colour of milk?

Mary came from somewhere very particular, actually. I was doing a theatre workshop with Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon and it was going to be an amazing project, I think there were going to be about 6 plays, all dealing with the 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible. The Royal Shakespeare Company got 10 of us up to Stratford, and they got the best actors in the UK. Amazing people came talk to us about the history of the Bible. And in the end, they asked us, if you were to write a play about this, what would you do? It’s not the powerful man that put the Bible together, but the idea of a young illiterate woman, and I had been working actually with illiterate people. I had been working with a family, a mother and three daughters who were completely illiterate, now in England; these amazing, intelligent, fantastic women who couldn’t read or write. I thought about this young girl that was going to read the Bible and I knew her name was Mary. She was really excited about the play and then the project got cancelled, which happens in theatre a lot. So I had this girl Mary in my head and I thought “oh god, what am I going to do, I’m going to have to write a play”. But there was never an opportunity to do it in the theatre, and then I was talking to a writer who writes plays and novels, which is very rare, and she said to me, “oh, why don’t you write it as a novel?”, and it was the most extraordinary light bulb moment. And then the following day, I was walking by the sea, and the first line: “This is my book and I’m writing it by my own hand” just came in my head, as if Mary was talking to me. So I walked home and opened a document and started writing. And honestly, since it had been in my head cooking for three years, it was just there to emerge.


Writing in the first person must be really complicated.

For me it’s actually easier, much, much easier because you don’t have questions of point of view, the question of point of view is absolutely settled. There are pluses and minuses; you can also completely transform yourself into being that person, so it’s like an escape from yourself, which is really entertaining. It’s like being a method actor, so that’s fantastic. The fact that you have irony, I love, because the reader is interpreting the events in a different way than the narrator. When Gary says “Everything’s fantastic, everything’s fine”, but the reader knows that everything isn’t fine. So that’s a really great thing to be able to play with. The problem comes that you are restricted in what you can see. You can only see through your first person eyes, and also, you can only use the authentic language that your narrator would use. And that’s where I think the strength of the books are, that they are both totally authentic, that you can’t hear my voice in either book, you can only hear Mary and Gary. Whereas what I am writing now is in third person, and there are questions around what is my voice.  That for me is really complicated. 


How do you manage to lose yourself within the characters, how do you create and embrace this new persona? Do you think the characters keep something of you still?

This is the very fascinating thing, to be honest. Do I have a side of me which is Gary and a side of me which is Mary? Or have I used the trick of imagination to jump into their shoes? I can only use my ability to imagine the world from a different point of view. But what was interesting is that when I wrote Memoirs of a Dipper, these people who I’ve worked with who were very marginalized, read it after, and they said: “but, how did you know how it felt?”. So I got exactly right their experience without actually experiencing it. I don’t know what that is, I think it’s a leap of empathy, being able to empathising.  It’s also an act of imagination. Let’s imagine we are sitting here, and it’s snowing outside, we can begin to build up a picture of how we feel. It’s just an act of imagination, I need to imagine myself in another place or situation. So if I’m imagining myself where there is no electricity –like in the set of The colour of milk and I really enjoy that, because I would have to think ‘oh, how would that be to get out of bed in the middle of the night?’. I would be feeling the walls, because otherwise I would be falling over, and then I would have to walk really slowly, so I don’t fall down the stairs. It’s an imaginative act, and it’s really delicious, I really like it. I don’t do research really.


Do you consider being the fact of being a woman an important part of your work? Are you interested in talking about gender issues in your literature?

It’s difficult, because you only want to be seen as a writer. Nobody says to a male writer: how do you feel about being a male writer? It’s never been asked in the history of the world. It’s the same with no male actor being asked ‘how do you manage to have children?’ It doesn’t happen. So, part of me is irritated by the question. Part of me just thinks ‘Oh, really, we’re still asking this question?’ But the other part of me thinks that actually is really important for other women and I’m in Mexico, and the situation of women in Mexico right now is very different from in England, and I think it’s really important in that case to actually talk about this, about being a woman writer, about what it is to resist the way that we have internalized role models, female role models. You see in many cultures that young girls don’t tend to be very gender specific, so for example here, I see young girls are very girlish, very feminine. And when you start different behaviour of half of the human beings in a country, and you expect them to be more placid, you don’t expect them to speak hard, you expect them to please, so their function in society is to look good, and to please, there’s not a lot of freedom as a woman. And as a woman, you want the same freedom that a man has to speak out, to be argumentative, strong, powerful, and passionate, and to do whatever one wants. So I think when you’re in a country where you don’t have that freedom it is important to talk about that. And I think a lot of women internalize fear about writing and it is important to be a strong role mode for women, to say you can carry on, you can write. I was at the Mexican school of writers last night, and I met a woman said that she was scared to write because she thought everything should be polished and everything should be wonderful, and people should be happy with everything she says, and what she was talking about is self-censorship. She wasn’t been censored by the politicians or the state, she was censoring herself. And it’s what a lot of women do, they censor themselves. They also lack the confidence to do things. And for me it’s very important that you have to ignore the fear, the lack of confidence and continue. I had a lot of fear when I started writing, people don’t believe but I really very scared. To me is very important to say to people that the more you write, the more the fear disappears. The more you don’t write, the more the fear grows. 


I think female writers in general tend to start writing when they are older, while men start very young and sometimes their best work comes very early in life.

The thing is people always talk about me coming late to writing, and actually what I want to do when they do so is sit them down, and talk to them about a) the reality of working with two children, running a house with two children, you know it was really busy. And there was a lot going on. And I think women as they get older, they can be so powerful. Older women don’t care anymore, they’re not there to please, and they’re not there to be a good mother, a good daughter, a good sister, a good wife. They’re there to be a good writer. And to say what they want. They feel freer, they are not censored.


Have you been influenced by British literature particularly?

The question of influence always comes up, people keep asking me about influence, and I don’t know what to say about this one, because I’m not consciously influenced by things. I think for me, everything that I’ve read in my life is sort of in my head somewhere, and they create possibilities. They’re not conscious influences and I try very hard to retain my own voice and not to worry about what other people are writing. And that’s a struggle sometimes, because you sort of look around at all of this stuff, sometimes I don’t read contemporary literature, it’s better not to. And I think I really believe in the individual voice of a writer, that’s my passion. There must be influences, but I’m quite idiosyncratic, and I quite like that. My family was very idiosyncratic, with strong characters, and I’m hoping that with the writing that comes next, that I just follow what interests me and not worry about how the work is received and the outcomes, that’s very liberating. Who could predict that from The colour of milk which is about a tiny village in England, that I would end up at the British Council offices in Mexico? And spending time in Mexico and having my book sold in here? 


How did you collaboration with Hay Festival and the British Council begin?

My collaboration with Hay Festival began many years ago and I was their playwright in residence in Wales, and I had to write a play during the week that was put on the last day. Then I went to Hay with The colour of milk. The book was published in Spain and it was a big success and I went to Hay Segovia. From there, I went to Hay Jalapa and since then, for me it’s been a very creative relationship. For Hay and the British Council I made a film about Shakespeare in which instead of just doing an interview, I decided to do a performance. I have no idea why, I just had an idea to do it, and it was really good and I loved it. So, instead of just doing a Questions and Answers session at Hay, I started doing performances about my work. And I did the first one in Queretaro. I just said to Hay ‘Can I try it?’ and they were amazing. They never asked me what I was doing, they just trusted me, and it’s been a great collaboration of trust. I did it two times at Hay, once to students, and one to the public, and it was great. And then I did a reading at my third one. I find in Mexico and Latin America authors don’t do a lot of readings of their work, and my readings are quite dramatic now because I have been doing it for a while. It has to do with my theatre experience. So, it’s been incredibly beneficial for me and a really exciting collaboration. 


Are you particularly interested in Latin American culture and literature?

I had a great interest in Latin America when I was younger, I read a lot, I had a big obsession. The problem is that in the UK we have so much literature, because we have all the Commonwealth literature, we have North American literature, Canadian literature, all of India, Australia. We have so much literature in English. However, I’m starting to read more Latin American literature. I’m reading Yuri Herrera at the moment. How good is this? I just found in my Airbnb a copy of this book in English, the translation that only came out in England three weeks ago, and it was in my Airbnb. It’s was like she knew. It’s fantastic, like electricity for the brain reading it. The title is “Signs of the end of the world” and it’s about crossing the border from Mexico into America, absolutely brilliant.

Del color de la leche, Editorial Sexto Piso, 2013.
El libro más reciente de Nell, El Show de Gary, publicado en español por Editorial Sexto Piso.
Presentación de El Show de Gary en la la librería Porrúa del Bosque de Chapultepec, en presencia de Edgardo Bermejo, Director de Artes del British Council en México.