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Julia Copus Interview

Posted on 25 July 2008. © Copyright 2004-2018 WriteWords
A longer version of this interview is available to WriteWords Full and Community Members.
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WriteWords talks to poet and radio dramatist Julia Copus

Tell us all about your writing background- what you’ve written, what you’re currently writing

I’m a poet, but I occasionally write for radio too – for the afternoon play slot on Radio 4. I’m working on my third poetry collection at the moment – or third and a half if you include a pamphlet I published back in 1994. The provisional title of my new book is ‘Twenty Three Skidoo’, an American idiom meaning ‘Let’s get out of here’. I’ve also just finished a pocket writing guide for undergraduates, which is due out from Macmillan in September 2009.



Other work besides writing; ie. Editing, dramaturgy, tutoring, and how it works for/against your own writing

It varies from year to year, but I’m currently an Advisory Fellow for The Royal Literary Fund, and a ‘registered writing expert’ (!) for the Oxford Literary Consultancy, which offers anonymous advice on unpublished manuscripts. I also tutor for the Poetry School and the Arvon Foundation. I’ve just co-tutored with Roger McGough, and I’ll be running a course with Daljit Nagra next autumn. Until recently, I worked as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Exeter University, helping students on a one-to-one basis with their essay writing. I loved being with the students and other members of staff, especially as writing is such a solitary occupation, and I did find some of the advice I offered feeding into my own writing! But I also found it difficult for a while to switch between my academic-writing-adviser’s head and my creative head. These things get easier over time, of course. The more familiar and at ease you become with a job, the less it interferes. That’s inevitable. But I think as writers we have to learn what suits us best; what best works for our individual personalities and modes of writing – what suits one person may be a living nightmare for the next. A lot of poets teach creative writing in universities, often part-time, but some people hate the idea of all that. Remember that T.S. Eliot worked in a bank, and Kafka was in insurance! It’s horses for courses, I suppose.



How, when and why did you first start writing?

I wrote a lot at school – stories, mainly, but some poems too. I was the one who stayed in during my lunch hour at primary school to write twelve pages instead of the usual two. There was nothing terribly inspiring about my childhood: quite the opposite. The house where I grew up was on a dead-end road with a chemical factory at one end and a smaller electroplating factory at the other. On summer nights, when it was necessary to keep the windows open, there was a constant hissing sound above the hum of the traffic. In the daytime, the house was filled with other, more boisterous sounds. Behind each door, at pretty much any time of the day, you could be fairly certain that one of my brothers would be practising an instrument – French horn, ’cello, piano… All three brothers eventually won music scholarships to various prestigious schools or music colleges. The horn player went on to play for some of the top orchestras – the Philharmonia, the Berlin Philharmonic, the L.S.O. … There was a lot of fighting in the house too, a lot of tension: my parents had recently divorced, and my mum was struggling to knit things back together again. What I longed for above all else was quiet, and, I suppose for a room – a space – of my own. My solution was to move out, during the summer of my O’ levels, to the caravan parked in the driveway! It was here (under the quieter hiss of a gas mantle-lantern, and by candlelight) that I began to experience the sense of release and of order that writing can provide. As I say, I had always written poems and stories at school but it was here in the caravan, for the first time, that I truly began to feel that with a notepad and pen I could make my own world; could be whoever – and wherever – I wanted to be. I suppose it was a case of “Have pen, will travel”.


Who are your favourite writers/influences and why?

This is a hard one. I have quite wide tastes and I’ll give you the names of two poets from opposite ends of the spectrum: I really love Anne Carson (especially her ‘Glass and God’ collection) because she distils what it is to be human into so few words, memorably and beautifully, but I also love Billy Collins, for his quick-wittedness and because he makes me laugh. I also love W.S. Graham, Dorothy Molloy, Alice Oswald… This is rather a random list, though. There are so many.

My favourite short story writer, without a doubt, is Alice Munro. And one of my favourite contemporary playwrights is the fantastic David Eldridge (‘Festen’, ‘Market Boy’, ‘Under The Blue Sky’) – though I may be slightly biased as one of his plays is dedicated to my fiancé! As for novelists, a great favourite is Carol Shields (‘The Stone Diaries’ and ‘Larry’s Party’). I love the way Shields marries the personal with the universal, the parochial with the global, the outside world with a character’s inner life – in almost every sentence, it seems. For instance, I remember a passage from ‘Larry’s Party’ in which the protagonist carefully sprinkles cinnamon onto his cappuccino in order to get an even coverage. This little cloud of cinnamon forms in the air before it drifts down onto the coffee cup, and in the next breath it’s compared with a dust storm which had coated every ledge and leaf in Winnipeg the previous summer. I love that kind of combination. And quite apart from that, the extraordinary care that Larry takes over this tiny action tells us so much about his temperament, of course.

But in general, I find this a difficult question to answer, as I tend to have favourite poems or stories or books rather than favourite writers.

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

This isn’t very interesting. I won an Eric Gregory Award – a big award for poets under 30. The prize is administrated by the Society of Authors (www.societyofauthors.org), and they give four or five awards each year. I’d strongly urge any promising young poets out there – whether published or unpublished (I was unpublished) – to enter. Not only does it offer a big financial boost, but many publishers keep an eye out for each year’s ‘class of Gregory winners’. And it’s astonishing how many well-known (as well as less well-known) poets have won one of these awards – Alice Oswald, Lavinia Greenlaw, Don Paterson, Jackie Kay, Kathleen Jamie, Medbh McGuckian, Sean O’Brien, Andrew Motion, Paul Muldoon, Brian Patten, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney, Douglas Dunn... You get the idea!

What’s the worst thing about writing?

Having to be self-disciplined. It’s easy enough to sit down at your desk when you’ve already got your teeth into something – and it’s much easier if you’re working on a longer project, or something with a narrative thread which you can pick up each morning. After I’d written my first radio play (which took me only a few weeks), I realised to my horror that it contained roughly the same number of words as a whole poetry collection. A poetry collection often takes years to finish. I think that’s because each new poem is like a new project, and each new project takes a little time to feel your way into. The trick might be to have several things on the go at once. I’m experimenting with this at the moment!



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







Comments by other Members



vanessa rigg at 19:48 on 09 September 2008  Report this post
Hi Julia

Very inspiring interview - thanks for taking the time to share some advice and background notes. (Hmm, that's where I've been going wrong ... now where can I find a fifteenth century table ...)

I am particularly interested in your radio experience and advice - and was hoping you could spare a little more time for the site. Writewords has a small, perfectly formed radio group in its midst.

You won the Alfred Bradley Award in 2002 - brilliant! That is a wonderful breakthrough. What happened next? How many radio plays have you written?

Now, do you use the same producer / production house or have you moved on?

I’ve also been asked to think of more ideas for radio plays


So, do you sit down with a list of ideas with the producer(s) before working them up? That implies a lot of collaboration.

How would you describe the difference between writing poetry and radio plays?

And any final advice specifically for radio dramatists?

Julia, if you are far too busy, please don't worry. That poetry competition will keep you pretty busy


Vanessa





Ju-drop at 18:19 on 06 December 2008  Report this post
Hi Vanessa. I'm sorry to have taken such a ridiculously long time to reply to this. I didn't realise your message was there for ages. Should have had the "email notification of replies" box ticked! Anyway, to get to your questions...

After the Alfred Bradley prize, not very much happened at all, to be honest. I was under the impression that I'd be mentored in some way (as that was advertised as one of the outcomes of the Alfred Bradley prize...) but I didn't, in fact, get any mentoring. I just had to keep submitting ideas. To get a play on the radio these days you have to sell the pitch; not the play. You might be a brilliant (unknown) playwright, but if the pitch isn't right, you've no chance. This doesn't apply to first-time plays on the BBC, by the way. For those you DO have to send in the whole play, and you do that via the Writer's Room (who have a really good website), but I'm sure you already know this if you have a radio-writing group...

I didn't get any more plays accepted till this year, with "The Enormous Radio". I think there is a real knack when it comes to radio play proposals of knowing exactly the kind of thing the commissioning editor is after. Ultimately, the decision over whether or not your idea gets bought rests with ONE person (the commissioning editor), and so his tastes are clearly significant. The current C E says he's looking for three things: story, story and story. If you're not that kind of writer, it's tough.

The only really useful bit of advice I can give here is to tell you the one thing I HAVE learned about offering a pitch: very often (if not always) it helps to have a kind of Unique Selling Point some sort of appealing gimmick (if that isn't too strong a word) to hang the story on. For instance, Amanda Dalton wrote a radio play called Desire Lines, about several linked stories. Desire lines are the well-worn, but unofficial, paths that occur naturally over places where people happen to walk over and over again. Amanda 'hung' her whole pitch (and play) on that idea. Does that make sense?

And no, I don't sit down with the producer beforehand and run through ideas (would that they had the time / inclination to do that!). The idea is that you send in a number of ideas two or three and hopefully the director you send to will like one or two of them and will then ask you to write a pitch which they then present to the commissioning editor at one of the twice-yearly commissioning rounds. It's all quite a long process. If it's something you love doing it's worth it in the end, though. Keep going! I hope this helps some.

Julia x

vanessa rigg at 10:08 on 08 December 2008  Report this post
Julia,

Thank you so much for taking the time and trouble to post back and congratulations on getting The Enormous Radio broadcast.

It's a great insight into the commissioning process - particularly how your relationship works with your producer after the first play. I'd vaguely guessed that the communication is all done with quick pitches and USPs but have never had it quite spelt out, so thanks. It is often difficult to get practical advice about the commissioning of radio drama. No idea why.

Of course, your post has prompted a couple more questions. But please, free feel to ignore if you don't have the time or inclination.

After your first success, did you stick to the same producer or move?

How proposals do you submit a year and what form do they take: one page treatments, a USP sentence?

How's your work going? Heroines sounds particularly intriguing.


Cheers Vanessa






Ju-drop at 13:02 on 17 January 2009  Report this post
Vanessa, again, apologies for the long delay. To answer your questions, I did move producer after my first play, but this was only because I felt there was a producer whose work I was more in tune with in general. She also happened to be an exec producer (ie head of the drama team at her BBC centre) so I felt in safe hands!

To answer your second question, I don't really put as much energy or time into my radio writing as I might do, so I'm not sure how useful it is to tell you about my own practices here, such as they are. However, since you ask... I didn't send in any proposals for a while, but have started again now, and will probably only send two or three each year, and see which one the producer likes, and then write a one-page treatment for that. But if you're a new writer (new to radio, I mean), you can't do this. You have to send a completed play to the reading team at the BBC Writersoom. They have quite a comprehensive website. They read any new plays they're sent, and will get back to you if they like your stuff. Oh I see that I've already mentioned that in my previous post. Worth repeating anyway!

Thanks for your good wishes with my other work. I have quite a few projects on at the moment some more enjoyable than others. That's the joy of freelance writing, I suppose...

Best,
Julia

vanessa rigg at 10:14 on 19 January 2009  Report this post
Julia,

Many thanks for your answers.

I am sending full scripts into the writersroom and producers direct at the moment - hoping one will get picked up.

But it is lovely to know a bit about afterwards!

Cheers

Vanessa

ps I'll look out for your name in the Radio Times, but if you have anything coming up the the schedules in the future, you could always post on the radio forum so we don't miss it....


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