SWEARING, SEX AND OTHER CONTENTIOUS SUBJECTS
Some years ago, when I was still writing radio drama, the topic of swearing was forever raising its contentious head. All expletives had to be ‘referred up’ as we used to call the process. The producer/director had to ask someone in a position of greater authority for the go-ahead to include even quite mild expletives. The reasons for this were not just to do with watersheds (so much radio drama is broadcast during the day) and the age of so many listeners (‘older’) but with a pretty accurate perception that on radio, images leap straight from the playwright’s mind into the audience’s head. Swearing on radio seems to be more shocking, more invasive than swearing on film or television.
My radio swansong was a well reviewed stage play called The Price of a Fish Supper, which had proved to be very successful, transferring from its original production at Glasgow’s Oran Mor to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It was also published by Nick Hern Books in an anthology called Scottish Shorts. (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Scottish-Shorts-Davey-Anderson/dp/1848420706)
It is essentially a forty five minute poetic monologue by an alcoholic ex-fisherman, about the decline of the fishing industry. It is also a play about personal decline and disappointment, but with a glimmer of hope for the future. Rab, as my West of Scotland fisherman was called, was never ever going to say ‘Oh goodness me!’ in the teeth of adversity. So I used the ‘F’ word wherever it seemed authentic. Some fifty-five times, in one form or another. Essentially, it was a ‘lexical filler’ – exactly as it is so frequently used in this part of the world. Nobody ever complained.
During the radio production, a suggestion was made that we substitute milder expletives. But the actor who had also played Rab on stage resisted this and I agreed with him. Instead we just deleted the expletives altogether. It worked well enough – although I think all of us still preferred the vigour of the stage production. Rab’s inarticulacy in the face of overwhelming emotion, his struggle to express his feelings, was a key part of his character – and of the play. But there was one intractable problem. The word ‘Christ’ when used as an expletive or exclamation is also forbidden on radio. I had used it only once, not just as a swear word, but also as a genuine exclamatory prayer and without it, a vital part of the play made no sense. The actor dug in his heels and insisted on keeping in its proper place. So we left it in. Again, nobody complained. Radio audiences ‘get’ these things.
I have never been a writer who liberally sprinkles her fiction with gratuitous expletives. But I write for adults, and I also believe in leaving them in where authenticity or intensity calls for them. Even The Curiosity Cabinet (http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Curiosity-Cabinet-ebook/dp/B005GEYW4A/ref=pd_ecc_rvi_2) has the odd expletive where I am absolutely certain that my present day hero, Donal, (also a fisherman) would have used one.
Bird of Passage (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bird-of-Passage-ebook/dp/B006RB2H3Y/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1333214662&sr=1-1 ) has a few more, especially in moments of extreme emotional stress, although I’ve never got the length of counting them.
But all this leads me to another slightly contentious topic: the writing of sex scenes. I’m reminded of that old ‘now that I have your undivided attention’ joke! Do you ‘leave your characters at the bedroom door’? Or are you with them all the way?
I’m a child of the sixties and by the time I was first publishing novels in the eighties, sex scenes weren’t just permitted; they were obligatory. If, as I plan to do at some point, I rewrite and update my ‘Canary Island’ novel, published many years ago, I’ll certainly tone down and reshape some of its more extreme physical aspects. Writer friends have told me that they sometimes get to the physical bit and back off. I find myself looking forward to writing those passages immensely. I remember my old agent, the late Pat Kavanagh, phoning me one day to say – in her characteristic clipped tones – ‘you certainly have a knack for writing those scenes, Catherine’. It was quite clear that she thought this was a good thing.
I’ve been reflecting on this a lot recently, because in both Bird of Passage and perhaps to an even greater extent in The Amber Heart, I refused to shy away from depicting the physical realities of the central relationships – although I hope that they are never offensive or crass. As a playwright, constantly engaged with showing rather than telling, you will always be informed when a particular scene is a ‘cop-out’. It will usually be the artistic director who tells you to orchestrate. ‘You’re the writer. Show us how it happens.’ That – coupled with the fact that most actors are so at ease with their own physicality – gives you a refreshingly different perspective on the need to engage with the sensual.
I would, of course, be the last person in the world to become prescriptive about all this – people write in their own voices, individuals have reading preferences, and that’s exactly the way it should be. And just as with radio writing, when you’re writing for children or young adults, the demands of a particular readership override many other considerations.
But Bird of Passage is a novel about the after-effects of extreme physical abuse, and the – possibly – redemptive qualities of love. Not showing the tangible qualities of that love, the touch, taste and scent of it, would have been one of those cop outs that theatre directors used to warn me about.
The Amber Heart (http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Amber-Heart-ebook/dp/B007PV35G8/ref=sr_1_4?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1333357198&sr=1-4) takes things a little further. It is, among other things, a book about an intense mutual physical obsession between two people. It took me a long time to see that, but now, it would certainly be my elevator pitch for the book. And to write a book about intense physical obsession without engaging with the manifestations of that obsession would have been impossible for me.
You’ll be pleased (or maybe disappointed) to know that my next novel, The Physic Garden, is a historical novel about male friendship and jealousy in which physical attraction is held very much in check. But that’s a whole other can of worms…
Bird of Passage with be reviewed on this site tomorrow and The Amber Heart is scheduled for review in May. (ed)