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Catherine Czerkawska Interview

Posted on 12 August 2004. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
A longer version of this interview is available to WriteWords Full and Community Members.
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WriteWords talks to Catherine Czerkawska, playwright, short story writer, radio drama writer and novelist.

I began by writing poetry and short stories when I was a child. I went to Edinburgh University in the 70s which was a good time for poetry – I got involved with poetry festivals and did readings there - and managed to have a couple of collections published, with the help of the Scottish Arts Council. I was also very interested in radio writing, and had my first radio play produced (in Edinburgh) while I was still in my early 20s. I went on to work in radio drama for BBC Radio 4, for many years, winning a couple of major awards, though that part of my writing career is now definitely over and I won’t be writing for radio again! I tried writing for TV (an original serial called Shadow of the Stone for STV and episodes of a series called Strathblair) but decided quite early on that it wasn’t for me. I have written for the stage, sporadically – sometimes in community theatre which I enjoyed. I had two major and well reviewed productions for the Traverse Theatre: Wormwood (about the Chernobyl disaster) and Quartz. I’ve written stories, and articles for various publications but through the whole thing I have had a hankering to write novels and prose that has never gone away. Now, with a new agent, I am concentrating almost exclusively on prose and am in the middle of revising a new novel.

How did you start writing?

I’ve written for almost as long as I can remember. Even when I was a little girl I wrote poems in notebooks all the time! I found some of them recently and they weren’t too bad. In fact I sometimes think that some of the writing I did in my teens was better than some of my later writing. I think I’ve just been through quite a bad patch with my writing, but I hope I am in the process of coming out the other side!

Who are your favourite writers and why?

How long have you got? I can only give a few examples. Novels: Barbara Pym and E.F Benson. I read their books over and over again. They are like old friends. I read The Lord of the Rings over and over again as well. I liked it before all the hype. My dad discovered it years ago and raved about it so I read it as well. Then at university I did Mediaeval Studies and discovered all the inspiration behind the books. <br> Robert Louis Stevenson. So READABLE for something written so long ago. Such wonderful, easy dialogue. Such real people. My favourite is Kidnapped. (I dramatised it for radio years ago). Alan Breck must be one of the sexiest men in all literature. My hero!<br> Playwrights – Brian Friel. Brian Friel. And Brian Friel of course. He is the greatest living playwright in the English language. I can’t imagine why more schools don’t use his work. Why did my son have to read Death of Salesman and an ancient Shaw melodrama at school a couple of years ago when he could have been reading Dancing at Lughnasa or Translations? Also David Mamet. Difficult and terse and powerful. Worth the effort. Hard to read on the page; then you see the production and realise what it’s all about. Or just how much it is about. What a lot is contained in those few words. This is the way plays should be. It should be compulsory for school students to SEE a production of anything they are studying. Otherwise what’s the point? It depresses me – all this studying of plays as dead texts on the page. <br> Poems – I don’t read as many as I should. I think as you get older you turn to poems in times of trouble and stress! But Seamus Heaney, and Wendy Cope and Pablo Neruda. Even in translation his love poems sing off the page. <br> My absolute all time favourite novel, the desert island novel however is Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. It was my mum’s favourite book so it must be genetic. I even got trundled over Haworth Moors in my push-chair when I was a toddler! I think I realised very early on that this was serious stuff with powerfully uncomfortable characters. I can remember arguing the point at length with disapproving male writers who thought it was all Byronesque nonsense. It is more of a whirlwind than a novel. But the more you read it the more you see in it. It is like an extended poem – everything fits, dovetails so beautifully. The shape of it is wonderful. And yet it leaves you completely breathless. There are parts of it that still, after all this time, reduce me to tears. It stands alone, there is nothing else like it. To come from that person in that time and place…. It’s just incredible. I always wanted to dramatise it for radio but nobody would ever let me do it. Now I never will.

How did you get your first agent/ commission/publisher?

I got my first radio play accepted after I submitted it to a producer called Gordon Emslie in Edinburgh. (Sadly Gordon died when he was a young man.) I worked on it, following his advice – he was an excellent radio producer - and eventually it was accepted. In those dear dead days, if a producer liked your work and you were prepared to put in the time on revisions, it generally found a slot, sooner or later. Then London introduced something called “producer choice” which, oddly enough, meant that the producer’s opinion no longer mattered. I found my first agent after I wrote an award winning radio play called “O Flower of Scotland” about rape – a very controversial subject for a radio play in those days. I am actually with the same agency now (PFD in London) though with a new agent, since my career pattern has shifted fairly radically over the past few years.

What’s the worst thing about writing?

Getting started. I will do ANYTHING rather than get going in the mornings. Washing the floors and cleaning out the cockatiels’ cage all begin to seem quite attractive options by comparison. Also finishing a project, oddly enough. You get so deeply involved with a piece of writing that when it is all over, the let-down can be appalling. It’s like a kind of bereavement. You don’t know what to do with your thoughts for a while. I get very crabby. Fortunately the next idea generally comes along pretty quickly. Being interrupted in mid flow is horrible as well. That scene in The Shining, where Jack Nicholson gets murderous when his wife interrupts his writing – I can identify with that! I suspect King wrote it straight from the heart! People phone and say “it won’t take a minute” but in fact when you are interrupted like that it can take an hour to get back into the flow of it.

And the best?

I love all of it really (other than the above!) But that sense of being “in love” with your project (and your characters) is wonderful. It completely takes over your life – you eat, sleep, even dream about it. And the indescribable feeling of “being there.” When things are going well, you are sitting at the word processor, but it is as though you are completely somewhere else, in the world of whatever you are writing. Afterwards, you can feel exhausted and jittery, but it is completely worth it. And revising things. I love that. It’s so good when you’ve actually got a text to work on, and you know what needs to be done to it. I don’t even need the displacement activity to get going then – I just wade straight into it!

Tell us about what kind of response you get from audiences/readers

Radio writing does elicit quite a lot of audience response. So does theatre. I have had lovely letters which I’ve kept and emails too. Sometimes they go to the producer or director and he or she sends them on. I have a website and sometimes people write to me through that as well. I’ve had young people emailing me about my plays – they were doing them as part of school work. I thought it was quite enterprising of them! (Mind you I’m glad everyone doesn’t do it) But most students – and let’s face it directors too – are quite phased at the thought of a living writer, with opinions about her work and how it should be treated. So much of what people study is by conveniently dead people!<br>

Occasionally people will ask you if they can send you their novel or play for you to read but I’m afraid I always say no. I just don’t have the time and it would be unfair to do it for one and not for everybody who asks. <br>

Theatre audiences are surprisingly variable. It’s as though they form one organism, but a different one each night. Some nights everyone is responsive, some nights they are emotional and some nights they are just plain indifferent. At the Traverse they produce a “programme script” so that the audience can have the text to take home with them. On the whole, this is a good thing, but not when certain members of the audience try to follow the script in the programme instead of watching the play (and of course making note of all those little last minute changes!) Wormwood was produced in a small studio theatre, the audience were very close to the actors, and one member of the cast (who shall remain nameless!) used to walk past and kick people’s feet if he saw them engrossed in the script.

What inspires you to write?

Everything. Actually, if you waited for inspiration to strike you would never write anything. Places though. Certain places seem to make me desperate to go home and write. And objects with a history. Antique objects, things that people have used or worn. They seem to give me that little spark, that little push to want to find out more, to want to make a story around them. And being close to the sea. Which most of the time I’m not!

A longer version of this interview is available to WriteWords Full and Community Members.
Click here to learn more about becoming a member.

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