About The Author
Miranda Emmerson is a playwright and author living in Wales. She has written numerous drama adaptations for BBC Radio 4 as well as some highly-acclaimed original drama.
Miss Treadway & The Field of Stars, now out in paperback, is her first novel and the first in a planned series. Set in London in the 1960s, it is the story of a missing actress and her dresser's attempts to find her. Anna's quest takes her into an England she did not know existed: an England of jazz clubs and prison cells, backstreet doctors and seaside ghost towns, where her carefully calibrated existence will be upended by violence but also, perhaps, by love. Charming, evocative and fun, Miranda's book is also overflowing with ideas and observations about the immigrant experience and what it means to belong.
Exclusively for Foyles, we chatted to Miranda about why she found writiing a novel much easier than script-writing, how colour is still a massive barrier to success in education and employment, and why London is both a wonderful and terrible city.
Questions & Answers
What was the starting point for your novel?
The novel came out of a rather dark time in the winter of 2014. My husband was in Ireland where his father – to whom the book is dedicated – was very ill. My latest project had just failed to sell to Radio 4. In the run up to the 2015 general election there was an upsurge in anti-immigrant rhetoric which was genuinely beginning to terrify me. And my eldest daughter was ill and full of fever. It was almost Christmas and everything felt terribly bleak. I was sitting with my daughter in the living room of our house waiting for her temperature to go down, half watching the ITV version of At Bertram’s Hotel when it occurred to me that Martine McCutcheon looked oddly 1960s for such a 50s setting. Which led to the thought that someone should really write a 1960s girl detective series. I turned off the television and in the space of 30 minutes an entire plot and cast of characters unfolded in my head. And there was Miss Treadway – complete and ready to be written.
Why did you choose to set the book in Soho in the 1960s? You have a personal connection to that time and place, don’t you?
My parents are pre- and post-war babies and came of age as actors in the 1960s. I don’t think it’s incidental that almost all my characters belong to either my father’s or my mother’s generation. Growing up my parents would talk for hours about theatre in the 1960s, about who was sleeping with whom, about the politics and the culture of it all. Those tiny bedsits and sometimes very creaky productions and the camaraderie of that world. In addition to this, the Galaxy theatre – which is a centre for much action in the book – is based on the Phoenix Theatre on Charing Cross Road which my great-grandfather Victor Luxembourg built with Sidney Bernstein in 1930.
How did you go about re-creating the many vividly rendered settings of your book, the theatres, nightclubs, police stations, even the bus routes?
I literally grew up in theatres – spending many thousands of hours of my life backstage, in dressing rooms, watching plays from the very back of the stalls or from the wings. So theatre is a second home for me, I understand its machinery and its temperament. And – possibly unlike most theatre goers – I love that backstage world, the dressers and the technicians and the wardrobe people, as much as I like the productions themselves.
For everything else it was a question of research. I watched every piece of documentary footage I could find. Amazing documentaries on the arrival of ska and the history of black music clubs. Interviews with Count Suckle and Duke Vin and all those cultural pioneers. Taped interviews from social history projects talking to people who came to London in the 1940s and 50s. I read all the copies of the newspapers I could find for the mid 60s – including the local London papers. I watched the television of the time – including classic television plays like John Hopkins’ Talking to a Stranger which was written in 1965. I bought a copy of the 1964 Greater London Guide to Buses. I have to say, the internet was my friend. It allowed me access to all kinds of niche research which would have been incredibly hard to find even 20 years ago.
You’ve written drama adaptations for the BBC. How was writing your first novel – like – and unlike – your work for the BBC?
I trained as a scriptwriter and for about fifteen years that was all I wrote. Scriptwriting is immensely technical. You’re telling a story, almost entirely in dialogue, in very short bursts. Each scene has to work. Each collection of scenes has to work together. Dialogue has to inform your listener of both the exterior and interior worlds of your character. Even with a narrator to help you, in some serials you’re relying on the scant words of your dialogue and then the performance of your actors. Which is also the gift of drama – it’s collaborative. It’s never just about you. A radio drama is the writer plus the director plus the actors plus the studio crew and none of you is more important than the others. Which is actually rather lovely and democratic and (compared to most other writing) deeply social.
The first thing I noticed about writing a novel was the freedom. You can do anything. Anything! You are a god. The world is yours to create, the characters will do anything you choose. If you find a particular day or section of your plot boring give it two paragraphs and get to the good bit. If a character is saying one thing and meaning another and this is hard to convey in dialogue just tell the reader that this isn’t what they’re thinking. Amazing.
I wrote the first draft of Miss Treadway in twelve weeks and during that time I was drunk on the freedom of it all. Hand on heart, it was so much easier than writing a script. But I also found myself importing aspects of my scriptwriting to my prose. I love writing dialogue and readers find it easy to consume so I allowed a huge amount of the story to be told in the form of conversations. In fact, there are sections of the book which are virtually just script. Also, scriptwriting makes you very disciplined about the technical aspects of storytelling. So, you always put a clock on the wall (metaphorically at least) and set it ticking. The action of Miss Treadway takes place over about a week and I keep my characters moving all the time. That’s the legacy of scriptwriting: energy, movement, tension, speech.
Amongst other things, your book is about being from somewhere else, whether Ireland, the Caribbean, Cyprus, the US or elsewhere. Can you say more about why this theme is important to you?
I – like a lot of people – come from a very mixed family. On my dad’s side I’m more traditionally British – English with Welsh heritage – but on my mum’s side I’m a kaleidoscope of things. For various reasons, I only grew up knowing a small part of my wider family and the part which I knew was predominantly French and Polish and Jewish and thus the least ‘traditionally British’ part of who I am. This part of my family came over to Britain in the 1890s at the same time as many other Jewish families left the continent for safer countries to the west.
In addition to this, my husband’s from Northern Ireland and a mixed family – religiously and nationally – so I was also drawing on their stories of anti-Irish prejudice against those members of the family who had attempted to make a move to England for work in the early part of the twentieth century.
Growing up in London in the 1980s and 90s I lived and went to school in an area where coming from an immigrant background was completely normal. For the most part everyone was desperately assimilating and there wasn’t just one immigrant experience represented there. Peoples’ experiences depended on whether they were first-, second- or third- generation; on the educational and economic backgrounds of their parents and – of course – on the colour of their skin. At the same time, a number of far-right groups were extremely active in my local area and harassment, intimidation and violence were a regular part of many peoples’ lives. Part of what the book is trying to say is that there is a white immigrant experience and there is a black and Asian immigrant experience and they are not the same. Within the broad range of the British immigrant community are a multiplicity of stories to be told – and Miss Treadway tries to reflect a handful of those.
Colour is not the only obstacle to belonging, for Leonard it’s religion, for Barnaby his accent, and so on. It seems many of the characters live in fear of being discovered for who they really are. Yet Aloysius feels people will never see past the colour of his skin to who he really is. How far have things changed, do you think, both for people born in London and those from elsewhere?
Well – this is just my opinion – but I don’t think things have changed that much in the past 50 years. For quite a while it became less acceptable to openly voice your prejudices (though, god knows, even that seems to be falling apart at the moment) but the prejudices endured. I would say that colour is still a massive barrier to success in education and employment. But there are at least a concerted minority of people within some of the industries who want that to change. My publishing company – 4th Estate and HarperCollins – is working to open up its hiring practices. And so are a select group of other employers across the different sectors. But, honestly, this is just a beginning. And it’s 2017. Progress has been slower than slow. It’s glacial out there.
One of the things that really took me by surprise now that I’m moderately successful is how few people around me went to a comprehensive school. In many of my professional circles I’m the only state-educated person in the room. I think there is a liberal façade which hides the fact that it is still very difficult to get into any position of influence or power unless you went to the right school, the right university, your skin is sufficiently pale and you talk in an accent that denotes a kind of Englishness. Have things changed since 1965? Yes. But not that much.
There’s a classic essay by Peggy McIntosh which introduced the idea of the invisible knapsack – the theory that we all carry around with us markers of our social and economic background, from our accent to our confidence in different situations to our vocabulary. And that if we hold in common with – for instance – our future employers enough of the ‘right’ markers our path through adult life will be greatly eased. Each of the characters in Miss Treadway has a slightly different set of social markers determining their treatment by the outside world. Anna doesn’t have economic wealth but she has social and cultural capital because she comes from an intellectual and fairly middle-class family and that – in addition to her whiteness – allows her to venture into situations and conversations which would be much more dangerous for Aloysius or Samira.
How possible would a relationship between Anna and Aloysius really have been at that time?
As it happens in 1965 my aunt Liz – who was white – was in a relationship with a man called Des Brown – who was black British. Interracial relationships were undoubtedly a reality for people living in cities where there was a history of immigration. The BBC in Wales recently did a brilliant project on the Tiger Bay area of Cardiff – Tower Lives – where disparate immigrant communities settled over the past hundred years and many people entered into mixed marriages in the early twentieth century.
So my answer is that it wasn’t as uncommon as you might think. And the reason it takes people by surprise is that mixed race relationships just weren’t reflected very often in the culture of the time. Like many things that pertain to immigrant communities, the very existence of such things has been written out of history. And that’s part of what we see with the current rise in ultra-right-wing rhetoric. There is a false idea of history which says that before the 1970s Britain was white and monocultural and Christian and homogenous. It’s complete nonsense – show me the British city or port town that wasn’t built on the innovation of incomers – but as a culture I don’t think we’re doing enough to counter it. In part, we in the arts have actually helped to create this myth. There was such a fetishisation of elegiac visions of posh English society through the 1980s, 90s and 2000s that huge parts of British arts and media helped to rewrite our national history as something that it wasn’t (or, perhaps, as a tiny and exclusive part of what it was).
I’m currently doing a PhD at Cardiff University looking at what BBC Radio chose to adapt between 1985 and 2009 and even the BBC – often held up as some great lefty propaganda machine – has played a part in creating the idea that the defining stories of British history and culture are southern English (ie not Welsh or Northern Irish or Mancunian), white and upper-middle class. So, okay, I am still choosing to write about London – which is hardly revolutionary – but I’m also trying in my tiny, single-volumed way to rebalance some of the destructive myth-building that’s gone on during my life time.
Leonard comments that the great attraction of London is its possibilities either for making money or displaying what money you have. Do you agree with him and if it was ever the case, do you feel anything has changed in the last 50 years?
London is primarily a city designed for the rich. And that’s always been true. The other side of that is that London is also a city of incomers, it’s a city of immigrants – both from the regions and from other countries. And what I always found beautiful about London was that it was a melting pot. It was the most brilliantly diverse place to grow up and that diversity fed my imagination and my understanding of the world. It also feeds the arts, so London is a city unparalleled in the culture that it offers its citizens. London is not just one thing. It is both wonderful and terrible. I think that was true in 1965 and it was true in 1850 and it was true in 1590. I think that will always be true.
What has changed in the past 50 years (and I know this comes as news to no-one) is that housing has become so cripplingly expensive that London is no longer a place where most people can afford to live. I chronicle London but I cannot afford to live there. If my husband and I hadn’t moved to south Wales we would never have been able to settle down and have kids. So London is now driving out hundreds of thousands of the people who it needs to run its hospitals and its schools and to write its books and plays. And, in time, that will have a deleterious effect on its society and its culture. At least in 1965 if you worked five days a week you could probably afford your rent and bills and food.
How easy or difficult was it to get the character of Anna just right? In many ways she has to be an innocent, an ingenue, but she also needs to be sensitive and intelligent, and has her own back story, which takes on greater significance as the search for Iolanthe progresses.
Well… Anna is based on a number of women that I went to university with and she’s also based on me. I think the thing that Anna has – which was true for lots of people that I rolled up to university with – is that she’s read extensively, she’s very intellectually acute, but she knows relatively little about the world. So Anna is clever and she’s quite driven but she’s also somewhat sheltered. In writing the first Miss Treadway – and also the second, which I’m working on right now – I have tried to write honestly about how we open ourselves up to the less beautiful realities of the world. Also, in Anna, I wanted to write honestly about the prejudices we all walk around with. Some readers find it unsettling that Anna is not a vision of racially-enlightened perfection. But which of us is? We’re all just learning – that’s what makes us human. As for her back story… I leave that to the reader to uncover.
Has the experience of writing a novel made you reassess the future, or do you see a combination of novel-writing and BBC drama adaptations?
I’m on a sort of sabbatical from writing adaptations while I do a PhD about… writing adaptations. So there’s scriptwriting and there’s academia and there are the novels. In an ideal world I would like to do all three. I think each kind of writing informs and enriches the others. Plus, I’m easily bored! If I don’t have at least two huge projects on the go I descend into a pit of misery. I hope people enjoy Miss Treadway because I have a very strong sense of where I want to go with these novels; I currently have plots for five of them taking Anna and Aloysius et al up to 1973. There is a much larger narrative arc for each of the main characters that I’m desperate to explore because I think the wider stories that I have to tell are surprising and exciting. I love these characters – I really do – and I want to spend more time in their company.