Write On! interviews writer Stephen Leach.
Stephen works as a freelance content writer and production editor and has written for various websites and local and national newspapers. He has a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Winchester, as well as an MA in Contemporary History and International Politics from Birkbeck University. His first full-length stage play, Can’t Wait To Leave, opened at Waterloo East Theatre in February.
WO: How would you describe your writing to someone new to it?
SL: I’ve always been attracted to exploring things that aren’t on the surface; people with hidden lives, places that hide secrets, characters who are outside the world in some way. I guess I’d say I’m interested in situations as much as I am in characters. Sometimes the situation is what comes first and the characters develop out of that, and sometimes it’s the reverse. Part of my writing process is working out the interplay between the situation I’ve created and how the people there react to it – I love putting characters in circumstances that stretch or test them.
Equally, I love twisting the context of scenarios from one moment to the next – making something that was serious suddenly funny, or something that was funny sad. You know when someone says something serious but the next moment someone else responds in a way that completely breaks the mood? There’s a real satisfaction in getting a particular reaction from an audience when you hit a certain beat.
WO: Can you tell us a bit about your latest project, Can’t Wait To Leave?
SL: Sure! It’s a solo performance told from the point of view of a young man named Ryan. He’s quite a directionless person, who’s always lived in his older brother’s shadow and looks to him often for guidance. The play opens with his brother announcing he’s moving away and Ryan finds himself on his own in an unfamiliar city, having only moved there in the first place on his brother’s recommendation. That whole relationship between Ryan and his brother is very much the core of the story as he struggles to cope and gradually opens up to the audience about the dark course his life has been taking. Ultimately it transpires he’s a pretty damaged individual, but still hopefully a fundamentally good one.
It was described as A journey of self-love and I think that’s pretty accurate. Ryan’s story is all about dealing with the hand life gives you without ever letting yourself be overcome by it, and about questioning your place in the world. It was a hard piece to write (and for the actor to perform) but I’m really pleased by the reaction it’s received so far. We had a short run at Waterloo East Theatre earlier this year and in a couple of months we’ll be bringing it to the Edinburgh Fringe!
WO: What inspired you to write in the first place, and what inspires you now?
SL: I’m inspired by lots of things – which I know is an incredibly dry answer, but what I mean is, there’s no real unity to the things I find interesting. It’s a method of exploration, i.e if I want to explore an idea I write about it. My view is that good writing inspires me to write better, but good stories inspire me to think better.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what motivates me lately and I think I’m increasingly drawn to messier topics: troubled people, places with problems, settings that aren’t typical, and how those things fit – or don’t fit – into the world around them. I love to read something that makes me look at the world in a new way, so it probably is the case that it’s something I strive for in my own writing.
WO: The recent issue of Write On! explored the theme of ‘Contradictions’. With that in mind, do you ever actively look for or specifically avoid contradictions in your writing? Is there a part of your writing process that contradicts itself yet somehow works for you?
SL: Interesting question. Generally speaking, I’m not a very methodical writer. I know how something starts and usually how it ends (and have a few ideas for what happens in the middle), but the wider picture takes time to form. What often happens is that I’ll write scenes out of sequence and find myself eventually joining them up. It’s like having four or five key points that must be reached but being able to take any route, no matter how meandering, to get there. So there’s a contradiction there in that it’s a messy, quite experimental process, but also one that has a fairly rigid structure I have to stick to.
Contradictions in a human sense are interesting to me because they’re what make people complicated – cognitive dissonance, exceptions to rules, mixed-up emotions. Keeping that in mind can be a great way to deepen your understanding of a character. What are the contradictions they perceive in their own surroundings? Do they act contrary to how they expect others to act? Do they have standards for others they don’t apply to themselves? Those sorts of questions are interesting to me because there’s no reason fictional characters should be any less complex than real people. The most interesting relationships and character dynamics are usually full of contradictions.
WO: What one piece of advice would you give an aspiring writer?
SL: Just write. If that sounds basic… it is. I don’t typically find a lot of writing guides to be helpful because we all have different methods: some people like to write at night, some people prefer the morning. Some people need total peace and quiet, some people like doing it in busy coffee shops. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.
You have to push through. The best advice I ever had was that, even if you write ten pages of rubbish, it means you’ll sit down the next day with something to work on. It helped me a lot, especially with my latest project.
WO: Question from Twitter user: @lisalovesbooksx What is your writing kryptonite?
SL: Titles! Seriously, they’re the hardest part of any project. I’m terrible at them.
But to carry on somewhat from the last question, I find it intensely difficult to write when there are lots of distractions. Outside noise really irritates me so I currently do a lot of writing at the library, which is (obviously) a delightfully quiet place. I’ve also got a massive playlist of mood music I use if I ever need to shut out intrusive thoughts.
WO: Can you tell us anything about future projects?
SL: As mentioned, we’re taking CWLT to Edinburgh so that’s huge and has been a massive thing to organise. Beyond Edinburgh – who knows at this point; it’d be great if the show could have a longer life (both for me and for Zach, the actor playing Ryan). I’d love to carry it on, but nothing’s definite.
I’m writing a second play, which will probably have a cast of six. I find that a lot of the time I start with one idea and end up going in a totally different direction, so everything I say is bound to change but, at the moment it’s about conspiracy theories, moral panic, consumerism, grief, friendship, and the end of the world. That’s all I’ll say for now!
WO: Lastly, if you could choose one fictional animal/creature to be a pet or companion, who would it be and why?
SL: A phoenix. It’s the ultimate utility animal; saves you money on heating costs and it can fly so that’s your transport costs taken care of. Also, it’s immortal, so as lifetime investments go it’s pretty much unbeatable.
You can connect with Stephen on Twitter: @SirTerenceBoot
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Just write. If that sounds basic… it is.