The Writing Life of: L R Hay
L R Hay
This week I am thrilled to be interviewing author L R Hay who will be sharing with us details of her writing life, telling us all about her book ‘Jairus’s Girl‘, which was released on 2nd April 2019 and answering a few fun questions too. This post contains affiliate links.
L R Hay’s writing covers a number of episodes for BBC TV, plus film, radio and theatre – winning an award from the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain for Best Children’s Theatre.
As an actor Lynn has played parts ranging from Lady Macbeth to Mole, and recently made her West End debut in an amazing lead role, understudying Stockard Channing in APOLOGIA and going on a number of times. She also appeared in series 3 of UNFORGOTTEN for ITV. Her one-woman show has played a variety of venues, including the only part of Glastonbury Abbey still standing (not her fault).
Lynn’s claim to fame is that she once won an episode of TV quiz show FIFTEEN TO ONE.
1) As a child did you have a dream job in mind?
I was totally convinced I wanted to be an actress, and that hasn’t changed! My parents are keen amateur actors and directors, as well as very knowledgeable theatre-goers, and though they never rammed it down my throat I caught the passion too. They’re thrilled I went into the profession, and they really get it when I achieve something. It’s an amazing feeling when I follow in their footsteps and perform in a theatre or a play which they also did.
A few years ago, I played Miss Prism in THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, a part my mother once played – as did my father’s mother, and one of his cousins! I’m not quite sure what that says about the women in my family 🙂
2) Who was your favourite childhood author (s)?
Aargh – so many! Enid Blyton, certainly – MALORY TOWERS and all the many adventure series. Also E Nesbit and Arthur Ransome. I didn’t discover C S Lewis until I was eleven, but then I was totally hooked and he became my absolute favourite. I also loved THE BORROWERS series by Mary Norton. I was thrilled to buttons when I was commissioned to adapt them for the stage, and I still feel so honoured it was that project that won me my Writers’ Guild award.
3) Was there a particular point in your life that you realised you wanted to be a writer?
It’s funny – Miss Hart, my primary school teacher, told my mother that I was going to be a writer, but I didn’t spot it until my mid-20s. When I was about eight my school even did a public performance of a play I had written (with me as the female lead, obvs!), and I still didn’t notice it was significant. Because they get you to do a lot of story writing at school, I just thought it was something everybody could do.
Then when I joined the acting profession and found myself often without a creative outlet because I couldn’t get work, I started to hanker for another way of storytelling. At first I just wrote for my own amusement, launching into an attempt to adapt the Dickens book MARTIN CHUZZLEWIT for the stage. Partway through, I realised it might actually be viable and sent it to my nearest professional theatre. The Artistic Director thought it was promising and asked when he could see a finished first draft. I had no clue what to say! I took a deep breath and committed to a deadline – then immediately got an acting job. Doh! So it was finished in my dressing room and on the kitchen table at my digs, but I managed to hit the deadline and they put it on a couple of years later, with Aled Jones as the lead. (And – again – with me in it!)
After that, I started getting commissions for theatre adaptations rather than having to write ‘on spec’ and realised that I was an actual writer. Who knew? Miss Hart, clearly.
4) What is your average writing day like? Do you have any special routines, word count, etc?
My life is usually too varied to have a routine – which I like, though I realise I might get more done if I had!
Sometimes I have acting work, in which case writing is out during rehearsals and line-learning, but then a delicious possibility once the show goes on and settles (especially when on tour, as you’re removed from all the stuff you should be doing at home!). If I have a lot of fill-in work, to pay the bills, it’s hard to fit writing in – but other times, when those jobs dry up, I’m free to work on my various projects. And then, of course, it’s pure bliss when I get a writing commission and am actually paid to write!
I admire those writers who are able just to grab a short amount of time every day to get a bit done, if that’s all they have. They talk about it as if it’s a tap they can turn on and then off again, but for me it’s more like a floodgate. When I start, I can’t then stop it, so I’ve missed some important events – or gone to them, and found it impossible to focus properly on the person I’m talking to, as whatever I was working on carries on writing itself in my head. Not good!
I like to work outdoors or in beautiful surroundings sometimes, as I find it very inspiring. This picture was my office for two or three days last year, when I took a little holiday in Scotland after the Edinburgh TV Festival, but carried on working to get JOSEPH’S BOY released in time for Christmas.
Right now, I’m in lockdown with the whole Covid-19 situation, as are so many people around the world. So far all my time has been spent trying to organise things from a distance to keep my loved ones safe and fed, but at some point I’m hoping to get down to some writing. It feels odd to think of doing something seemingly trivial, with all that’s going on – but I reckon we need uplifting stories now more than ever. I’d also like to stream some readings for isolating children, if I can figure out how! My computer moans about low bandwidth every time I connect with friends.
5) How many books have you written? Any unpublished work?
I have two books published so far – JAIRUS’S GIRL and JOSEPH’S BOY – from a series called The Young Testament, which I intend to be five in total. I also have a huge drama workbook unpublished which I started writing many years ago, based on the workshops I’ve conducted over the years. But that will take quite a while to finish and edit, so I want to concentrate on the series first.
I have many film and TV scripts unproduced, but I’m also very fortunate to have had a lot of my work put on. Over 30 professional productions of my theatre adaptations, plus 6 episodes of DOCTORS for BBC1. There’s also a co-written screenplay, BRAVE THE DARK, which is hopefully due to go into production later this year with Jared Harris.
6) Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Ha! I always thought I was a diehard plotter, as I have a very clear idea of structure in everything I write. I’ve even known some creatives suggest that geeks like me should loosen up a bit! If a script is proving problematic, structure is the first fix I reach for, and with my books I always know the whole arc of the story and where I intend to land it. Heck, I have all five books of my series in my head at once, and I know how I’m going to finish each one. That has to be a plotter, right?
But that’s the giveaway: I have them in my head. I also love to be taken by surprise with ideas as I write, even if it makes me go back and make changes right the way through – so the structure is really a kind of flexible skeleton around which I riff joyously!
Seeing other writers’ processes – for instance, via the active Writing Community on Twitter – I discovered that there are people out there who write all their preparation down before they set paws to keyboard on the actual story. Every single scene. And backstories. In huge detail. For every character. All worked out, and with much angst when their characters or story threw them a curved ball. OK, I jot down research notes, but apart from that the most plotting I ever write down – if anything – is with broad strokes on a whiteboard with the squiggly and colourful Arrows of Repositioning whizzing all over.
So I guess that puts me right in the middle – I’m a plantser!
Concerning your latest book:
The Young Testament
Publisher – Salted Lightly
Pages – 180
Release Date – 2nd April 2019
ISBN 13 – 978-1916077003
Format – ebook, paperback
Entertaining and moving kids’-eye view of the Jesus story – aimed at preteens, though some adults have sneakily read and enjoyed it too.
Tammie’s life in a quiet fishing town would never be the same. Her future wasn’t looking good (*understatement!*) but things quickly went from bad to WICKED with the arrival of a strange grown-up with nice eyes. And as for the business with Daniel’s lunch, or Dibs’s roof…
JAIRUS’S GIRL is the Galilee side of The Young Testament, a fun, accessible series of full-length books about Jesus, from the viewpoint of the children and young people involved. Check out prequel JOSEPH’S BOY, a kids’-eye take on the first Christmas!
7) How did you go about researching the content for your book?
Many different ways, since there are several aspects that needed it. It’s a fictionalised retelling of the Jesus story, with the children as the main characters, so the historical, cultural and biblical elements are all important.
The internet is a fantastic resource, of course – though when I started writing JAIRUS’S GIRL, it wasn’t a thing! It’s also a notorious rabbit hole, that you can disappear into for hours on end and forget what you came in for.
The Bible itself is a wonderful window into how people lived then, so that’s my main port of call. I’ve also picked up many interesting nuggets from listening to pastors, vicars etc over the years, and I love to read books about that period. Plus I have friends and colleagues with various specialisations who by now are used to me asking random questions!
8) How long did it take to go from ideas stage to writing the last word?
A ridiculously long time – over 25 years, as I did it in two stints! I started JAIRUS’S GIRL in the late 1980s, and the process probably took 2 or 3 years, fitting it around other work.
When I started approaching publishers it was a recession, and most of those who might have been interested were stopping their children’s department – but there was an opportunity to broadcast it on a community radio station, which meant I then had an audio version!
It was heavily abridged, but at least it meant I could get it out there, on cassette and later CD. I used to sell it when I did my one-woman show, REDEEMING FEATURES, or if I was invited to teach a drama workshop or perform at a conference.
I intended to try publishers again as things picked back up, but then a film was announced with exactly the same premise. I still haven’t had the guts to watch it! I’m sure they’re different enough and there would have been room for both, but sadly it meant no one was interested in mine.
9) What process did you go through to get your book published?
Everything changed a few years ago, when advances in technology meant indie publishing became a thing. Alan Scotland of Lifelink Global, UCB, the Awareness Foundation etc had tried to get it placed with a publisher in the early days, and he alerted me to the new possibilities opening up via Amazon and various other companies. I dusted off the manuscript, added 2 or 3 new chapters around the middle, and the rest is historical preteen fiction! I’ve really enjoyed releasing it myself and being involved in the whole process, though of course you do have to apply yourself to learn best practice and do it as professionally as you can.
With hindsight I wish I’d carried on writing the series all those years, of course, so that I could have published them now in quick succession! I won’t beat myself up about it, though. In my line of work, with so many ideas and projects on the go, and needing to earn a living, it can be hard to know where to invest your time – and it really didn’t seem as if there was any point. The important thing is that I’m off and rolling now, and loving it.
10) Can you give us an insight into your characters?
I knew I wanted each book to be named after its main character – except for the fifth, which will be about them all! It’s a mirror of the New Testament: four books focused on the life of Jesus, named after individuals – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – and then the Acts of the Apostles, as the story explodes in all directions.
The twelve-year-old protagonist of this book is simply known in the Bible as “Jairus’s daughter”. I thought I’d like to twist that to make it snappier and more colloquial, while still keeping a hint of what we’re used to for people who know of her and would recognise it.
I figured I might take a bit of a hit in terms of audience with that first one, having the word ‘girl’ in the title! But we made sure to put a boy on the cover too, and I knew that once more of the books came out, it would be clear that they’re for everyone.
11) How did you come up with the title of your book?
The characters have been one of the most enjoyable aspects, for me, as I’m using the minor people on the fringes of the Bible stories as my core team, so that gives lots of scope for imagination! My main character Tammie (Tamar) is very sparky – a bright eleven-year-old when we first meet her, maturing to the grown-up heights of fourteen by the end. She’s kind and brave, with a great sense of fun which is often piqued by her best friend Dibs, who’s younger and a real tearaway. Then there’s Dibs’s little brother Jakey, always tagging along and demanding piggybacks, a great source of humour – and Daniel, the steadiest of the group, trying to be responsible and curb the worst excesses of Dibs. His ears go pink when he gets embarrassed, usually by his mum.
That’s the main gang, though there are a few other youngsters – for instance, a Roman slave boy; I thought I’d make him Scottish! Obviously the majority of characters need to be from the general area from Syria to Egypt, with a handful of Roman soldiers – but as the empire was so vast, it’s a good opportunity to bring in some others to show the rich mix of that cultural melting pot, the joining point of three continents. In the next book there will be an Indian girl, and a couple of African lads in book four.
Tammie & co become followers and friends of Jesus when he turns up – though Dibs has doubts, like her uncle Thomas (in fairness, it’s because her home ends up with a whacking great hole in the roof after Jesus comes to visit and some people decide to take a short cut past the crowds to get their friend to him). It was wonderful writing the interaction between Jesus and the children. According to the Bible, he loved having them around and gave great value to them, so to take that slight step further and flesh out some fictional detail felt amazing and very moving, even when it was a fun scene.
There are other grown-ups too, of course. Tammie’s mum, Naomi, and dad Jairus, who runs the synagogue (that gets quite tricky when Jesus comes on the scene!) and many other people in their little town, including a bunch of fishermen and a taxman – now famous as Jesus’s main followers, but here just the ordinary people Tammie has known all her life.
12) What’s next for you writing wise?
I haven’t yet started book three, as I’ve been taking a little time to make the first ones available more widely than just Amazon. JAIRUS’S GIRL was my priority, to get it out in time for Easter, since the story covers it. It’s hopefully now available through all the routes people might source their books.
Given the Coronavirus situation, I’m hoping to release that audio of it next. I’d always avoided it, as it’s from 1994 (and only a copy, at that!), so the sound quality isn’t what people are used to these days – plus it’s heavily abridged, as I said. I was waiting to record it again ‘properly’ at some point, but with so many children stuck at home and maybe feeling anxious and missing their friends, I really want to make positive stories available through any channel I can. I need to look into the technicalities to see if it’s possible and what’s the best way.
I’ll also start to make prequel JOSEPH’S BOY available through other channels, though that might seem odd timing, given that it’s the Christmas story (even though it takes place over two years, and I didn’t put the birth of Jesus in December!!)
And I’ll spend some time keeping up my connections with producers and development executives in film and TV. All my other work has stopped abruptly, but script commissions would be the same process as usual, if I could nab one.
But most importantly, I’m now close to starting the next book in the series – very exciting, if surreal, given the global situation. It will be called THAT WOMAN’S GIRL, and will show the Jesus story from the point of view of the people in Samaria – outsiders, in the opinion of other nations in that area – a very different take from Tammie and her friends in Galilee.
1) If you could have any super power for the day which would you choose?
Obviously I’m spoilt for choice – but I really would love to be able to fly! (Though it didn’t work out so well for them in FIVE CHILDREN AND IT. Haha, love that book)
2) Do you have any pets?
Not now, but I grew up with two gorgeous, characterful and hilarious boxer dogs – a mother and daughter. Then a while ago, I was privileged to look after an African grey parrot for a few years. He was amazing; he would do naughty things and then laugh, which was hysterical. He learned and repeated what we said, of course, but he also used nouns, adjectives and verbs correctly to customise his own phrases, and he invented terms for things. (For instance, when we started giving him cherry tomatoes, he didn’t know the name so he called them “big grapes”)
3) If you decided to write an autobiography of your life, what would you call it?
“Spinning Rather Wild” might be a good one. It was part of the feedback on my certificate for a ballet exam when I was a child: “Expression good. Rhythm good. Spinning rather wild.” I think that’s a fair summation of my life.
4) Your book has been made into a feature film and you’ve been offered a cameo role, which part would you choose, or what would you be doing?
Well – I do have a track record for being in my own writing, as you know! It doesn’t always happen, frustratingly, but I remain fairly hopeful of being cast.
I’m not sure there’s a role for me in JAIRUS’S GIRL, but I’ve got my eye on the flustered Bethlehem innkeeper in the Christmas prequel, JOSEPH’S BOY. She’s comedically over-talkative, trying desperately to seem as if she’s coping, amidst the phenomenal influx of guests, as her grandad gets swamped under a heap of travellers’ cloaks. But she comes out good, giving Joseph the key to the stable she’d been saving for herself.
5) Where is your favourite holiday destination?
This world is extraordinary, with so many different types of beauty and climate! I’m equally happy exploring the many delights of the UK, or striking out somewhere totally new with breath-taking scenery, exotic sights and food, sweeping beaches or fascinating history. I love nature and the outdoors, especially rolling fields, woodland, rivers, lakes, mountains and moorland – but my particular favourite is the sea. That doesn’t narrow it down much, does it?
6) A baseball cap wearing, talking duck casually wanders into your room, what is the first thing he says to you?
I don’t know, but I hope it’s “Here’s the paracetamol, toilet roll and sensitive soap you ordered”!!! (And I hope he washed his feathers, for at least twenty seconds ) 🙂
I would like to say a big thank you to L R Hay for sharing with us details of her writing life and for a wonderful interview.