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Added: Friday 16th February, 2018

Dean Atta interviews Neil Bartlett

Guest Artistic Director, Dean Atta, talks to acclaimed playwright, author and director, Neil Bartlett about his writing practice, being categorised and the purpose of writing. 

Where do you write? 

I write wherever I need to. I often scribble on buses but I like to do a working day. It depends what I’m writing. If I’m writing a little thing, for instance David Hoyle asked me to write a new monologue and perform it for his Christmas show, well for that I scribbled some ideas down on the bus on a piece of paper I had in my pocket and I wrote it that afternoon sitting at the dining table. At the moment I’m working on a new book. I’ve been working on it part time for almost four years assembling my emotions and my ideas and my material and now I’m writing-writing it. I always start work at 10am and when I start I can normally manage a couple of hours and then it gradually builds up and I’m able to write for more hours per day. Of course it depends what else is going on in my life as I also have a career in theatre and I also have a husband but when it comes down to it I like to work 10am-4pm Monday to Friday. 

How many times have you started a project that you felt passionate about but later decided you didn’t want to do it? 

What I tend to do with all of my projects is I have a composting stage. I’m an obsessive notebook keeper, my archive is filled with what used to be called commonplace books, it’s a mixture of these or journals, what I’m thinking of gets jotted down, I sketch things out, I notice things, but it’s only the ones that really hang around that get used. So that’s why I say I’ve been working on the current project for four years, actually I think it’s longer, I think it’s six years. In other words, six years ago would be the time I went, “I think I want to write a book about addresses… I don’t know why. I don’t know what that means. I’d just really like to write a book about front doors.” And then here I am four to five years down the line and I’m working 10am-4pm five days a week writing that book. I am someone who follows their instincts at the very primary level of choosing my material; I only ever work on something if I’m really mad about it. 

How important are other people’s opinions on what you write? 

My favourite thing of all is when someone comes up to me at a gig or at a bus stop or online and says, “You don’t know me but I read one of your books and it really mattered a great deal to me.” 

Have you told a writer how much their work mattered to you? 

Yes. Edmund White, I was lucky enough to meet when I was very young. I met Edmund in ’83. Forgetting Elena and Nocturnes for the King of Naples, both of which I read when they were first published in this country. And in ’82 I was in New York and Ed was in the New York phonebook and I phoned him up and said, “I really want to meet you because your books matter a great deal to me.” And we didn’t see each other then but the year following he came to London and I got in touch with him then. We corresponded in the interim. I really believe in doing that, if you are lucky enough to meet one of the people who really matter in your life.

How do you feel about being referred to as a gay writer? 

There are two answers to that question, “Do you mind being referred to as a gay artist?” And one is yes and one is no. And the yes one is about why is it considered a pejorative or limited term? But the no answer is I am gay, I’m also a gay liberationist and I believe that every time someone says they’re gay it adds to the possibility that one day children won’t self harm because they’re gay. We’re in such a funny position now where so many people are going, “Oh well the gay thing is over isn’t it? You don’t need to identify as a gay artist anymore.” Really? When you talk to young gay men and women do they really tell you everything is fine and they’ve never had a problem in their lives? It’s not what I hear. It’s not the same as when I was 15 but the idea that we’re now in a world where we don’t need to affirm our culture seems to me as dumb now as it ever seemed. I don’t believe in outing, everyone has their own story and you have to respect that story but I did find it very hard in the 80s when people were staying in the closet for professional reasons. 

I’d like to ask you for some personal advice: I find with my writing career so far that people often approach me to do things because I’m gay or because I’m black or because, more recently, I write about mental health and I find sometimes that’s fine because I’m passionate about representing those communities and those issues but sometimes I feel like there’s just these three boxes that people can see my work fitting in to. Should I embrace that and the opportunities that might provide to create work or should I be trying to assert myself as an artist besides those things? 

Great question. Well your mother is here to tell you that the important thing in life is to have your cake and eat it. I don’t see any contradiction between embracing the opportunities that those three passions that you talked about give you. Go for it, go for it go for it. And you also absolutely have the right to assert yourself as an artist full stop. So your defining characteristic is how you wield your sentences. That is the most important thing about you. You’re not defined by subject matter, you’re not even completely defined by tradition or your epoch. You have the absolute right to go where your voice leads you, by that I mean how you turn a sentence. I think in the end all that matters is the sentence, that’s your work, in the end that’s what we dream of doing, that’s what we spend our lives trying to get better at. So if you find that other people are boxing you, just remember that’s their shtick, that’s their gig, that’s not your gig, your gig is always to speak yourself. 

In the late 80s I was active in World AIDs Day, I did every benefit that I was ever asked to, I worked in the campaign against Section 28, I was outspoken. I was also translating Racine’s play Berenice. Someone should have said to me, “You can’t do that because what’s that got to do with all that gay stuff that you do?” The answer is it had everything to do with it, it was intimately and profoundly connected in ways that I wasn’t really aware of at the time but then I remember seeing the play on the opening night and thinking “Oh now I understand why I’ve done this.” It’s the most beautiful play ever written about what it means to say goodbye to someone and that’s what we were doing. The 80s were about loss. So that’s an anecdotal answer. 

Be aware. I think the way you asked the question demonstrates that you are very aware that the important thing is that you inform yourself so that you know how these boxes work and when they work well, which is good. It’s good that people are going, “It is not, in any sense, aesthetically, morally, financially, feasible that every single person in our organisation is white.” Good. Good. Hooray. At last. Thank you. Good. Fantastic. Equally, if someone is saying, “It’s so good to have a black person… (puts on funny voice) it’s so good to have a black person with us because you’re so wonderful.” Then ding dong. Hello? That’s not you, that’s them. As artists, we are aristocrats on low incomes, we have to stay aware of the systems that surround us. 

Do you have an archive of your work?

I do have an archive. All my working papers up until six years ago are all in the British Library because they asked for them. My first reaction was “That’s silly” because I can see why you have a Harold Pinter archive or an Alan Bennett archive but I’m not famous, I’m not a best seller, I’m a cottage industry in all that I do. So I was a bit surprised and then I’m immensely flattered and I love the idea that if somebody wants to know what something looked like or how it came about that they can go to the British Library and find out because things disappear don’t they? Especially in our queer culture, things disappear and I know how important it is for me to have find documentation of our cultural predecessors because it makes a big difference. Often when I teach I get asked to talk about queer theatre and queer performance practise and queer performance art and I say to people, “You all think that solo queer monologues about gender fluidity probably started in the 1990s, well the first transgender or gender fluid performer in the contemporary sense to ever sell out the London Palladium was Malcolm Scott in 1902. So can we all get to the library and find out all this stuff.” 

What do you hope the legacy of your work will be? 

Surely you only think about your legacy if you think you’re dead already. There is a real danger that we attribute too much importance to certain kinds of validation to the detriment of the most important kind of validation, which is, “Did you really touch someone?” There is a real problem with that culturally now. Where does value live? Particularly in a mass media culture, a crass example: Do you want a small room full of people to have an experience that they’ll never forget or a readership of a very few thousand or do you want a zillion likes? 

What if the choice is different, the work is going to be the same standard of work, you’re going to put your all into your writing or the production of your show but you think it deserves a wider audience and you use all the mass media available to you? 

I think that’s marvellous and I wish I was better at it or I wish I had the money to employ someone to do it for me. I suppose I would say make sure you’re looking through the right end of the telescope, your marketing strategy shouldn’t be your point of origin. Except as I say that I know it’s not that simple because the best work is always positioned in that creative place between inspiration and audience. I don’t think anyone should allow themselves to fall into the solipsistic position of, “I work and it doesn’t matter if anyone sees it.” That would be as foolish as, “It doesn’t matter what I do so long as thousands of people buy it.” Your work exists somewhere in the middle of those two positions but I think my experience is that the heart of your working process is inside you not outside you. 

Writing at the moment is very different and I find the idea of writing very difficult to negotiate at the moment because publishing is in such free fall right now in this country. I find it professionally very hard to navigate that world in which no one knows what’s going on and what to do about it, so I have to say as a writer I find that part of it bewildering. 

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m rereading The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek, which is a book I adore and have known since it first came out in this country because it was published by my then publisher, Serpent’s Tail, so I remember getting an advance copy of it. I adore The Piano Teacher, there’s nothing I don’t love about it. 


Neil Bartlett is directing Medea, Writtten in Rage at Theatre Royal Brighton on 26 May as part of this year's Brighton Festival.