I learned to write in the theatre, though at the time I didn’t realise it. When I was small we were not allowed a TV – what I had was a Pollock’s Toy Theatre and it was there that I made up plays and told my stories, my characters cardboard actors playing in front of cardboard scenery.
I went to art school and studied theatre design at Central St Martins. From there I won an Arts Council scholarship to study set design at the University Theatre, Newcastle. I spent 15 years working in theatre and opera houses in various parts of the world.
It was without doubt this period that taught me the most about writing; that there is nothing better than seeing a play performed, to see first hand what happens when it works and when it fails. I always keep in my mind the old adage I learned in theatre: don’t give all your tricks away in the first half of the play — keep a surprise or two up your sleeve for later.
These days, there is no end of writing courses to help you, so they say, become a good writer. My advice to any would-be writer is go the theatre – even better, work in the theatre, watch the audience, see what makes them sit on the edge of their seats, what sends them into the land of nod, what makes them give a standing ovation.
The book, by its very design, is a proscenium arch, a private theatre that opens on to other worlds. Acting is all about characters and writing is all about characters. The plot is the situation they find themselves in and how a character reacts to their journey is what makes a novel intriguing.
So here I am, two decades later, having written and illustrated about 30 books, only to find myself back in the theatre. But this time it is with one of my own novels, Maggot Moon, which has been adapted by Jemma Kennedy. It was the strangest of experiences to walk into a rehearsal room and to see the characters being brought to life.
It is the book and it isn’t the book and that is what fascinates me. There is so much that cannot be encompassed in 90 minutes. Yet in no way does that distract from the story itself.
I have always seen the book, the play, the film, as separate entities. A conversation through different media that in the end I believe adds to the sum total of the original work.
I look back at my time in theatre with gratitude for all it taught me. I learned never to be scared of pushing the limits. Never to be frightened of starting again. Though I never went into theatre believing I could be a writer. I look back at my time there and see that I couldn’t have been anything else.
Maggot Moon runs at the Unicorn Theatre until October 27