17 October 2010 Scotland on Sunday
Louise Welsh Pic: Steve Lindridge
THE directions Louise Welsh has given me to her Glasgow flat are so precise I feel like I'm a character in one of her novels. "Go through an underpass . . . climb the stairs . . . cross the square . . . " They are fail-safe instructions and get me there just as her partner and fellow writer Zoe Strachan is arriving home. We climb the stairs together, past the plant pots on the top landing and into their neatly kept flat where Welsh awaits us, the book case taking pride of place in a sunny, TV-free living room.
Strachan, it transpires, is the map reader of the household. Welsh is not, hence the precision of her directions. Her most trusted method of navigation when abroad is to carry a postcard of her hotel and to show it imploringly to strangers. People feel so sorry for her they tend to help, she laughs. Now, in a rare artistic collaboration, the two novelists are venturing beyond the Glasgow backstreets where Welsh's shabby auctioneer Rilke goes on a solitary quest in The Cutting Room; and beyond the West End launderette where Strachan's Myrna risks meeting a nasty end in Spin Cycle. In a jointly written play, Panic Patterns, they are taking us to a remote island in the far north of Scotland for a suspense drama involving dead radios, looming disaster and bird watching.
"We're interested in the tension between nature and technology," says Strachan, sitting on the living-room floor.
"I like the country," says Welsh, settling on the couch. "But I wouldn't want to be out there at night on my own. We see this couple and the dark outside could potentially have some menace."
Commissioned by Glasgay, Panic Patterns is about ornithologists Jacq and Fay ("birds that like birds," says Welsh) who have spent three days waiting for their boat off the island, getting more tense the longer they are delayed. The changing migration patterns of the birds and the illumination of the supposedly decommissioned lighthouse only add to their discomfort. "It is not horror, but we're engaging with a lot of those conventions," says Welsh. "You're not quite 100 per cent sure what's going on. That's a sensation I really like: I don't quite know where we are, but I'm enjoying this."
Ask them where the idea came from and they are unable to say. The theme of isolation is something they have idly chatted about for years, as is the idea of something post-apocalyptic. When they started thinking about the play in earnest a year ago, those ideas belonged equally to them both. Now rehearsals have started and the script is going through the usual last-minute tightening up, neither can remember who wrote what. "When a line gets cut, you never think, 'Ha-ha, that was your shit line that got cut,' or 'Oh dear, that was mine,' because you can't actually remember," says Welsh, delighted to be working with their director of choice Alison Peebles and actors Veronica Leer and Selina Boyack.
Louise Welsh Pic: Steve Lindridge
The uncertainty is because, as collaborations go, this one could not have been closer. Like partners in a small family business, Strachan and Welsh would set off every morning for Sauchiehall Street, where they had desk space in the Playwrights' Studio Scotland. Welsh had read that it is more sociable to sit at right angles ("you're not looking each other in the eye"), so they set up their computers accordingly and agreed to write one line at a time, ping-ponging back and forth from one to the other. "There were moments that were a bit like an improvisation," says Strachan. "Because there were two of us, we could play around with ideas and try things out (in a very non-actorly way). At points, we brought out a flip chart and Magic Markers."
"I loved the flip chart," says Welsh. "We've both collaborated with composers before, but never writers. With another writer, trust was much more to the fore and you had to try to put your ego to one side. There were things that were faster because you had somebody there. You could really brainstorm and bounce ideas around and we often resolved things quickly that might have taken me a day or two to work out on my own."
"But it wasn't any less tiring," says Strachan. "And I don't think it actually did take less time. The process of working things out was a bit more fun, but it wasn't necessarily easier."
It helped that they had already spent a lot of time imagining the characters, sketching out the plot and discussing the themes. And although they would never use the same technique to write a novel, it seemed to make sense for a play. "There were various motifs and metaphors that we were really aware of all the way through and we would bring it back to those and check that it all fitted together as a whole," says Strachan. "Things like the images of the birds, the sound, and the island that the women are trapped on. We thought about those things a lot."
Initially they laughed all the time. The play is not a comedy, but they amused each other with implausible plot twists and the simple joy of creating something together. Inevitably, there was tension too. "This is one of those Hello moments," jokes Welsh when I ask if they are pretending to be a couple just for my benefit. "Although we were writing together, there were moments when we would both sit quietly," she laughs. "Each of us would write something and then we'd come back and look at what we'd got. Quite often, we hadn't got it – but it was a way of opening up discussion again. Then sometimes, one of us would have written something and you'd say, 'That's it.'"
Their hard day at the office done, they would head out for a "decompression" drink. But the pub was rarely enough to stop them bringing their work home. "We just talked about the play," says Strachan. "It didn't leave us. We got lots of ideas and had to bring out our notebooks – all of these after-a-glass-of-wine ideas that we looked at in the morning and thought, 'Forget that one.'"
They are quietly confident about the results and the experience has only whetted their appetite for theatre. Both have written lunchtime plays for A Play, a Pie and a Pint (and Welsh has enjoyed seeing other people's adaptations of The Cutting Room and Tamburlaine Must DieTamburlaine Must Die) and they enjoy the novelty of writing for a form in which, as Strachan has it, the "subtext is the subtext". They have also both written for Scottish Opera's annual Five:15 programme and Welsh is currently working on a full-length libretto. "Writing for different mediums is really stimulating," says Welsh, nonetheless itching to get back to novel writing.
Strachan, who has recently completed her third novel, is particularly enthusiastic about the dramatic form. "I'd love to do another play," she says. "I love the difference between sitting in a little room working away on my own and seeing the actors bring the words to life and the excitement of the audience. I'm really enjoying it."
This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on October 17, 2010
© Mark Fisher 2010
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