Write On! interviews writer Maggie Cronin.
The eldest of four children born to Irish parents, Maggie grew up in Dagenham with her siblings’ brothers John and Terry and sister Sheila. Her mother Kathleen, from County Clare, was a midwife and her father Michael, from County Cork, was a foundryman at Ford’s. Maggie went to secondary school in Forest Gate, did a degree at Nene College Northampton, then trained as an actress at the Webber Douglas Academy in London (now part of Central St Martin’s). She has lived in Belfast with her husband, Frank, since 1993.
WO: How would you describe your work to someone new to it?
MC: I write plays, film scripts, solo shows, monologues and short stories. A bit of everything! I delved into historical drama A Most Notorious Woman about 16th Century Pirate and chieftain Grace O’Malley (in Irish “Granuaile”), Shrieking Sisters ( about the Irish suffragist movement) and Ten Days That Shook The World (on the Belfast industrial unrest and strikes of 1932), but I’ve also written and performed work based on semi-autobiographical details: for example, Greenstick Boy, a play about Irish dancing, Punk, Dagenham and heroin addiction! My subject matter is often dark – loss, grief, addiction, neglect and abuse – but always leavened with humour!
WO: Can you tell us a bit about your latest work The Headcount: A survey on the gender breakdown of eight Arts Council of Northern Ireland core funded theatre companies 2014 -2019.
This might sound like a strange thing to list and it’s not the snappiest title I’ve ever thought of, but, on top of everything else, I’ve been battling away at a PhD for the last few years, plus doing the odd acting or writing gig. My main research is into women who work in the performing arts sector in the North of Ireland. The survey report feeds into that research, so I needed to get it done. For lots of reasons, it took a long time to get the information collected and, needless to say, Covid didn’t help. There were days when I thought it would never get finished, but I finally completed the report and launched it in November 2021. I’m so relieved and proud of it! It’s a departure from my usual writing, and it was a challenge. I wanted to make it as informative and accessible to read as possible and hope I’ve succeeded.
WO: What inspired you to write in the first place, and what inspires you now?
MC: Oh, goodness – so many things! I always had my nose stuck in a book. I would read anything. My mum used to yell at me because I would stick my fingers in my ears and read away, just lost in the book. I wish I had that concentration now. I loved deciphering newspapers, and I’d read labels on jars and bottles if I thought they were interesting! I loved fairy stories and old adventure books from jumble sales. I loved The Cat In The Hat books, fairy stories, Heidi and The Diddakoi (turned into a TV series called Kizzy). I loved the parables in religion class and fables, too.
I failed Latin because I spent too much time daydreaming and staring out of the window and was sent to the Classical Studies class instead. Lots of Greek myths and legends. Perfect! (I have slight regrets about not paying attention in Latin, but no regrets about Classical Studies.) As I grew older, I remember Wuthering Heights hitting me smack between the eyes. It’s not a romantic book – in fact, it’s an awkward, sprawling book, but it deals with difficult and abusive relationships at its heart in a clear-eyed way. It’s ahead of its time. Brian Friel’s plays inspired me to write for the stage and also a particular play of Liz Lochead’s, called Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, made me think I could write about a historical subject in a quirky but engaging way. Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls was a big influence.
I love poetry: Tess Gallagher, Paula Meehan, ‘Famous Seamus’ Heaney, of course, and Carol Anne Duffy. With regard to novels, I’ve read Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other fairly recently and really enjoyed it. It’s almost more like a series of short, interconnected stories than a novel, but it was an exhilarating read. I loved Anna Burns’ haunting Milkman, too. Jan Carson is a wonderful writer from the North of Ireland, who’s also well worth reading. Actually, the writing coming out of Northern Ireland at present is phenomenal!
Finally, I must mention Dickens and Jane Austen. They regularly read their work out loud – albeit in very different circumstances – but I think that makes a difference. Again, it’s inspiring to an actor. I have to admit, as I grow older, it’s harder to justify the time to immerse myself in a book – and yet, it’s the lifeblood for us writers.
WO: The current issue of Write On! explores the theme ‘Nature, Inspiring Creativity: Past, Present and Future’. With that in mind, how has nature had a direct impact on your inspiration? Are there any particular art or creative works based in nature that spark ideas for you whenever you experience them?
MC: I walk a lot and, although I live in Belfast city centre, we’re not far away from hills, or even the seaside. For a very quick burst of nature, we walk along the Lagan towpath. It doesn’t take long to leave the city behind and walk into quiet, even when a lot of people have similar ideas. The Glens of Antrim, in particular Glenariff, is just beautiful. Forest walks with waterfalls and, after an hour’s walk, a vantage point that looks out over the sea. As for so many of us, the past few years have thrown up a lot of additional stress and challenges and, at times, real fear and worry. Walking in nature helps me slough off the weight of all the ‘what might be’ fears and helps me to collect my thoughts. I also have an allotment (I am appalling at looking after it). A day up there clearing weeds does more for my frame of mind than anything else.
I can’t remember who said that writing continues when you’re away from your table and notebook or computer screen. Sometimes, you can be angsting away over something when you’re sat staring at it, and a brisk walk, a lungful of air, and the solution hits you. (That, or it hits you in the foggy hours between dark and dawn and you’d better make a note of it quick or it will evaporate!) As for works of art – a lot of poetry: Andrew Marvell’s The Garden is gorgeous, Digging, Seamus Heaney, Patrick Kavanagh’s work and Kerry Hardie’s also is rooted in nature and is beautiful. I love Washing from the Collection Cry For The Hot Belly. I take a lot of inspiration from the visual arts, too: photographs and paintings can be very evocative.
WO: What one piece of advice would you give an aspiring writer?
MC: Read. Read, read, read. And if you are writing plays or films, watch lots of them, then try and get a hold of the script. It’s amazing what has been put online during the pandemic in terms of performance. There are subscriptions for the National Theatre, etc, but lots of small-scale theatre companies are streaming work for free, or for inexpensive ticket prices. It’s a question of looking around. It’s possible fringe and college theatres are putting up their work too, so it doesn’t have to cost an arm or a leg. Devour everything. Don’t worry about what is high art or low art, or feel inadequate because you don’t know everything, or anything about the latest ‘thing’ that everybody says is wonderful. You also don’t have to like the latest thing that everybody says is wonderful, either. Develop discernment. Why don’t you like it? Conversely, why do you love some things? Why do some things ‘speak to you’, while other things leave you cold? Can you analyse why? Your opinion is valid. Your voice is valid. And it’s valid, whether you have a ton of academic qualifications with bells on, or whether you don’t. People need to hear your truth – that’s all good art is – it’s the truth, whether it’s conveyed in a slapstick comedy, or a tear-jerker, whether it’s in a magazine or book, or in EastEnders, or whether Shakespeare penned it. It’s when you go, or an audience goes, “Oh, yes! I recognise that, that’s true.” They’ll remember those moments, and so will you.
And, it’s never too late to write!
WO: Question from Twitter user: @grasshopper2407 – How did publishing your first book change your writing process?
MC: Well, I suppose my publishing process is slightly different, in that only one of my plays has been published in book form (A Most Notorious Woman, Lagan Press), but the act of producing a play on stage is also considered ‘publishing’. As it happened, A Most Notorious Woman was also my first play and first published play, and I don’t know if my next play was directly affected by that, but I did write it in a very different way to the first play. Maybe, because I charged in a bit blindly with my first and didn’t honestly have a clue what I was doing. The play gradually emerged and was even re-edited after the first few performances. The final published version is the result of years of performing the play and redrafting it.
With the second, Greenstick Boy, I still plunged in but had a clearer idea of where I was going with it and what scenes I wanted to highlight. It was about a friendship where one friend dies by suicide and I found it incredibly tough going at times, but it was also technically difficult, because I was acting all the parts and needed to capture the essence of my friend: his characteristics, humour and physicality. Much of that came in the rehearsal room as I developed the play. I also began writing short and full-length multi-character plays and I deliberately started writing for other actors, not for myself, so I was expanding my writing. I suppose, ultimately, it’s not that your writing process might change drastically after publication; instead, it might be that you have a bit more confidence in the work you’re making and the way you make it. You’ll always be refining it, so you evolve.
WO: Can you tell us anything about future projects?
MC: Apart from finishing the PhD sometime in my lifetime, I have a screenplay, For The Sins Of My Mother, to complete. This is a film script adaptation of an original book with the same title by Marie-Therese Rogers Moloney, published by Colourpoint Press. It details her years being brought up in a home run by the Sisters of Nazareth in Belfast, being told she was ‘backward’ and that her mother was dead. Years later, she found out her mother was alive and running a hotel in Donegal. This revelation brought its own complications and pain. Marie-Therese managed to push against a brutal system, qualify as a nurse and eventually lead an independent fulfilled life, but not without some very hard setbacks to endure. The adaptation has been slow going because of the PhD and other work, but it’s a labour of love and early drafts have received encouraging feedback. Marie-Therese has had a remarkable story and she is a remarkable woman, prevailing against very heavy odds!
I also have a play I want to work on about 18th/ 19th Century Belfast and a number of monologues about motherhood. It’s an ongoing project called Motherhood Interrupted, about the flipside of pregnancy and parenting when things aren’t fluffy or easy (and they never are, despite what the magazines tell you)! It’s for the ‘bad mothers’, so-called ‘wicked stepmothers’, adoptive mothers and those simply doing their best. It’s also for those who yearn for a child and never have one, and those who do and don’t bond and for those who choose not to have children. Quite a selection there. I’ve had a couple of monologues performed at readings and I hope to bring some actresses together in Belfast when the pandemic permits and get a rehearsed read-through going.
WO: Lastly, if you could choose one fictional animal/creature to be a pet or companion, who would it be and why?
MC: Lyra Belacqua’s daemon Pantalaimon from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books. A pine marten for company as I grow old. What’s not to love?
Further information about Maggie and her work:
Her plays include: Ties That Bind (Terra Nova Productions, Belfast), Ten Days That Shook Belfast Linenhall Library, Belfast (Green Shoot Productions), Shrieking Sisters: The History Of Ireland’s Suffragist Movement (co-written with Carol Moor). The play has toured throughout Northern Ireland, playing arts centres, theatres community venues, the Irish Consulate, Belfast and the Northern Ireland Assembly, Stormont.
Maggie has written two full-length solo shows and a number of performed monologues. They include: Greenstick Boy (Director: Sarah Tipple). The play has been performed across Ireland and at the Bozar Brussels for Arts Council Northern Ireland’s Brussels Platform. A Most Notorious Woman (Director: Paddy Scully). Performed throughout Ireland, the USA and the UK. A Most Notorious Woman won the Stewart Parker Trust/BBC Radio Drama Award 1996. It’s published by Lagan Press.
Screenplays and short stories include: Across The Water Featured writer; BBC2 TV.
Phoenix Rising: Short story, read by Richard Dormer; BBC Radio 4.
Old Year’s Night: Short story, read by Maggie; BBC Radio Ulster.
Maggie is also an actress and full details of her acting CV can be found here: www.spotlight.com/1710-1209-1357
Connect with Maggie on her website: maggiecronin.com
A Most Notorious Woman is available to buy directly from the author via Maggie’s website.
If you’d like to read The Headcount report you can access it here:
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People need to hear your truth – that’s all good art is – it’s the truth: whether it’s in a magazine or book, or in EastEnders, or whether Shakespeare penned it. It’s when you go, or an audience goes, “Oh, yes! I recognise that." They’ll remember those moments, and so will you.