About The Author
Nell Leyshon is a novelist and playwright, born in Glastonbury and now based in Dorset. She is currently the official writer-in-residence for Vita Nova in Bournemouth.
She has written a number of plays for BBC Radios 3 and 4. Her stage plays include Comfort Me with Apples, which won the Evening Standard Most Promising Playwright award in 2005 and an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's short story 'Don't Look Now'. In 2010, she became the first female playwright to be commissioned to write for Shakespeare's Globe since 1599.
Her first novel, Black Dirt, was published in 2004 and was longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. It focuses on Frank, lying on his deathbed, who finds his thoughts consumed by his elder sister, Iris, whose crimes he had tried to forget.
Her second novel was Devotion, published in 2008: Rachel decides to end her marriage with Andrew, but the consequences for them and their children are more dramatic than any of them might have expected. In that year, she also published a collection of two short stories in the Picador Shots series.
Her latest novel is The Colour of Milk. It is 1831 and fifteen-year-old Mary, who had been toiling on her father's farm with her three sisters, is sent to care for the local vicar's invalid wife. As events unfold, it slowly becomes apparent why it is so important that she keep a record of what has happened.
In this exclusive interview for Foyles, Nell talks to Frances Gertler about how she came to write in the voice of an 1830s farm girl, why society is more compassionate today and the value of literacy and speaking one's mind.
Author photo courtesy of Anita Schiffer-Fuchs
Questions & Answers
What drew you to tell Mary's story?
I had done a workshop with the RSC, exploring the King James Bible, and the story of Mary and learning to read came from that workshop. I thought about the story for a long time and still intended to write it as a play, but one day the opening line of the novel came to me while I was out walking. 'this is my book and i am writing it by my own hand.' I realised that I just needed to follow that one line and write it as a novel, which would allow Mary just to tell her story. Her character was there as soon as I started writing.
How did you research the details of farm life in the 1830s?
I did very little research. Too much research ends up driving a piece of writing and means that you will bend the story to allow for every fact that you have learned. I prefer to use my imagination and place myself in a certain period, then later check whether I have guessed correctly. The research I did consisted of stimulus, for example looking at old photographs and bills of sale from auctions.
What were the challenges of a first person narrative where everything depends on that very distinctive voice?
First person narratives are wonderful for entering entirely into a character's mind. It allows you to immerse yourself and not worry about the technicalities of story-telling, as the story is only seen through the one pair of eyes. Once I had the rhythm and pace of Mary's voice, it felt as though it had a power of its own, and the story became her story, rather than something I imposed upon the book. I think as a playwright, I was comfortable using a distinctive voice, and it felt more like writing dialogue than narration. I have to confess I loved writing as Mary and really felt bereft when I finished the last draft.
Mary was effectively sold as a slave and had no say in her own fate - how typical was that for poor farm girls of the time?
I think it was extremely typical: Mary would not have had access to any understanding of her rights as a person. She would have been wholly dependent on her family for food and shelter, and she would not have had a concept of being autonomous and able to act as she wished. She was illiterate and had no access to money, and therefore would have had to do what was asked of her. People like Mary would never really have travelled far, and would not have been exposed to other ways of being. This was Mary's lot and she did within it what she could.
Despite the obvious benefits of her new home, at least initially, all Mary wants to do is go home. Is this the same psychology at work as that which makes it hard for wives to leave abusive husbands?
That's a hard question.... I think Mary would have had little concept of any family life other than her own. She would not have felt she was escaping abusive conditions, as she knew nothing else. It was what she was used to. The psychology which makes it hard to leave abusive partners is complex and includes a reduction of the sense of selfhood, and the power that brings with it. To stand up for yourself is not always easy.
What was it that made Mary so desperate to learn to read? It didn't seem to be the prospect of a physical escape route from her circumscribed life but was it the possibility of exploring new worlds on the page, or did reading represent something else entirely?
I think Mary is clever and knows that within the pages of those books she sees, there is a whole world of experience. She is ambitious and she wants what other people are entitled to, and to be exposed to something larger than her very limited life. I think she knows the value of education, and once she can write, she discovers self expression and is allowed to speak out. If she hadn't learned to read and write, her story would never have been told.
Literacy is a theme very close to your heart. Do you think enough is done in the UK to promote reading and storytelling for pleasure rather than simple functionality?
Literacy is all-important. Without it there is no access to the structures of power, and no way to be heard. Human development has literacy at its heart, as writing is a record of our attendance upon earth. It allows us to make great strides, and to pass on knowledge so that we don't each have to learn from scratch. There are still many people who are illiterate and their lives are a daily struggle. They feel excluded and stigmatised. Reading and writing have been a source of immense pleasure in my life, and I believe that young people should be encouraged to idle away days with their nose in a book and their mind in another world, if they wish.
Mary's plain speaking was largely frowned upon or at best tolerated as a quirk. Do you think we still have an aversion today to saying it as we see it?
I have always got into trouble for my plain speaking. It is extraordinary what lengths we will go to not to speak simply and clearly about things. It's important not to hurt people, but at times it can be so helpful to find out what someone really thinks.
Mary's disabled grandfather is seen as useless, just another mouth to feed, and even Edna, a servant in more genteel surroundings, effectively went from workplace to shroud in a single day. What was behind this seeming callous lack of compassion?
I think society has changed enormously and we are much more compassionate because we can afford to be. Life in rural England then would have been so much more brutal than now: sentimentality would have had no place when you had to work physically all day to convert energy into food. Just keeping a fire lit would have taken a large part of the day.
You are also an award-winning dramatist. How do the two disciplines inform one another?
I thought they were reasonably distinct, as novels are essentially about inner worlds and plays about outer worlds, but the experience of writing The Colour of Milk has made me more open to crossover ideas. I am grateful I work in more than one discipline as I always seem to have another piece of work to move onto when I am stuck, and I do find that the ideas cross fertilise.