It is about 10 minutes into my interview with the award-winning playwright and author Nell Leyshon, and already she is nicking my stuff. “Look what those workmen are doing!” she says, pointing out of the window of the Soho café, and after I turn back she shows me that she has quietly pocketed my mobile phone.
“It’s really easy to distract people, isn’t it?” she laughs. “What Gary says is that it’s about a story … it’s about making people believe something.” I suggest that both the novelist and the pickpocket are professional liars, then, and she agrees. “As soon as I use the word ‘I’ and I’m not being me, I’m telling a lie aren’t I?” She’s good at it, too.
We are here to talk about her new novel, Memoirs of a Dipper, in which the protagonist, Gary, does more than his fair share of nicking. The book is dedicated to “Gary, whose life this ain’t”, and it is inspired by people she met while teaching creative writing to “outsiders” including former prisoners and addicts in Bournemouth. Nothing is exaggerated, she says, having got to know these people very well – in fact, a few things were taken out because they were too much.
Unusually, this book’s launch parties will not be held in the bookshops and reading groups of London and the Home Counties, but in prison libraries. Leyshon says she really misses the quality of the discussion in such places: “I’ve taught [creative writing] at Masters level and it’s never as good. There’s a no bullshit thing.”
Gary is an unusually candid and beguiling narrator as he talks us through his childhood and early life of thieving, from what appears to be the relatively comfortable position of middle age. “When you’re writing a strong first person voice like that … could you make something that was completely not you? I’m not sure I would believe it,” Leyshon says. “It’s like method writing. I have to find that person inside me so that I can write from that, and then it becomes truthful, and you don’t stumble. I don’t ever feel that I’m trying to be Gary … and I never felt that I was trying to be Mary [the poor, 15-year-old narrator of her 2012 novel The Colour of Milk]. With those strong characters I just become them.” She says this just after admitting: “I sort of can’t understand why we don’t all shoplift….”
It seems fair to say that Leyshon is pretty hard to shock, but she prefers to describe her attitude as “unprecious”. She was born in Glastonbury, where she was “brought up in a very wild, bohemian and free way”, and moved when she was 11 to “a really rough village … like Cold Comfort Farm”. As a young teenager, she says, she would occasionally pack a little bag and just move in for a couple of days with the most interesting family she could find, until her mum came to fetch her home.
At 19, she worked as a porn photographer’s assistant, doing things like “making sure there was baby oil. And ice …”, and from there she went into advertising in the boom years of the 1980s, making commercials for Apple computers with Ridley Scott. “Do you know,” she says, “it was amazing, and it was fun … but I didn’t share the values, and we were making adverts for godsake. And I just spent my whole time reading. I just went, ‘Well whatever’, walked away and went to Spain. And then I had children, and when I got pregnant with my first one I thought, ‘I’ll go to university’.”
This sort of unpreciousness never seems to have gone away. After an English degree she started writing fiction, including one novel which came within a whisker of getting published, and then she set fire to three books and about 20 short stories because “it just wasn’t very good”. It helped enormously, she says, because then she decided “I’m never going to write that badly again”.
In the middle of writing Black Dirt, her first published novel (2004), she got a bit stuck with the dialogue and so she decided to write a radio play, which was “a bit of a revelation … and then my second play [Comfort Me with Apples] won the Evening Standard award …”, and then that all distracted her from writing prose, which sounds quite annoying, but she did end up being the first female playwright ever to have a play put on at Shakespeare’s Globe: Bedlam, in 2010, for which she drew on what she had learned while teaching workshops in the secure unit at Bethlem Royal Hospital.
She brushes off this achievement, pointing out that women weren’t allowed in the theatre in Shakespeare’s day, and then once it was rebuilt it didn’t put on new work; but at the time, Dominic Dromgoole, the theatre’s artistic director, revealed that he had been looking for a female playwright for years, but many had turned it down “because the space didn’t work for them”. Leyshon has a hypothesis about this: “What I’ve found [in the workplace] is that men conceal their doubts about what they can do, and women reveal them, and I’ve learnt to stop revealing them. Because women think we’re being honest, but actually if you’re on the other side of the table it’s just exhausting … I’ve learnt to stop those doubts. I personally find it a bit boring having to reassure [people], because I actually want to say just shut up and do it.”
Clearly, she continues to brush off her doubts and just do it. She’s recently had a very clever idea for a novel for teenagers, about which I am sworn to secrecy, and she’s set up a business (also top secret), but really she is focusing on writing fiction: lots of it. In fact, she says, she works on several things simultaneously, on a laptop that she takes everywhere. “I’ve got a window open for a play; a window open for a short story that I’ve just finished; a novel that I’m halfway through … and I’ll flip between them depending on how I feel. Today I’ve worked on three things. It’s weird, isn’t it, I know.”
One thing she will never write about is the gypsies with whom she worked for eight years, “because the idea is to get them to write about their own culture”; but she has shown Gary the novel which he inspired. “I think it’s a very rare kinda book,” he said, after he’d read it, and it is. But go into a bookshop and pay for it at the till, won’t you?
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