Interview: Martin Foreman
Martin Foreman’s monologues ‘Californian Lives’ will be presented at The King’s Head Theatre this month. He gives Alex Hopkins the lowdown on the art of monologue writing.
Where do the three monologues in ‘Californian Lives’ come from?
It started off as three out of 15 short stories in my collection ‘First and Fiftieth’, published by Paradise Press, which specialises in books by gay and lesbian authors. These stories are based all over the world and are all first person narratives, varying in age, gender and sexuality. The first story in the collection is about a 15 year old boy with lesbian parents and the last is about a grandmother.
Where do your ideas and characters come from?
It’s difficult to say. I like writing in the first person normally and I set myself a challenge of writing as many stories from as many different perspectives as possible. All of the stories in ‘Californian Lives’ are set in America because I lived in Los Angeles and New York for four years. The freeways of Los Angeles come up in the first story, ‘Los Feliz’. The specifically gay character is in the second one, ‘Ben and Joe’s’. The idea for this came after I had gone to a gay bar in the San Fernando Valley, which is the very suburban part of Los Angeles. I realised that it was actually very different from the gay bars of West Hollywood, which are similar to those in London’s Soho and Vauxhall. You get a different type of person there and and I started to imagine what would happen if there were a group of regulars there, in their 50s and 60s, who saw it as home, and then something happened that changed their perspective. The last story, ‘Sunset’, is about a grandmother. In the original collection she was in New England, but for the stage version she’s been transported to California. I have no idea where the idea for her story came from – I’m not a grandmother and never plan to be!
What are the themes that inspire you? Is your writing autobiographical at all?
I don’t think my own life feeds in directly because a lot of my stories are about loss, depression and death and the bad things that happen, where as I’ve actually had quite a good life. But I do think, deep down inside me, there’s a very negative view of the world and I tend to be pessimistic in the longterm and believe that if something isn’t broken now then someone is going to break it. That’s my personal philosophy.
That’s a strong statement. Tell me more about this personal philosophy and how it informs your writing?
The natural human condition ends in death. Along the way there are many good and happy moments, but in the end these moments are always going to come to an end. You may be in love with someone, but either that person can die and leave you alone or you can die and leave them alone, or there may be an accident, or that person may fall in love with someone else.
I think we lie to each other to protect ourselves, but those lies can actually create problems rather than solve them. My writing comes not so much from my own experience, but from a combination of this personal philosophy and observing other people’s lives.
How easy do you find it to adapt to difference rhythms of speech and assume varied voices when writing in the first person?
I think it’s partly a question of training. My degree was in linguistics and a lot of what I studied wasn’t just language, but the nature of communication. I’m very aware of the way people speak, the words they use, their grammar, accent and rhythms of speech. It’s like learning a foreign language. When I’m writing about someone else I try to imagine myself speaking their langauge and thinking their thoughts. Most of the time I’ve had good feedback and people have been convinced that I’ve experienced what I’m writing about.
How much did you have to change in adapting your stories to the stage?
I was lucky as it was easy because they had been written in the first person and they’re produced as monologues, with just one person on the stage, so very little adaption required. I do use fairly poetic language in the stories, so sometimes that had to be changed for the stage.
In your experience, what are the key elements in writing a monologue?
There definitely has to be an arc to it. In all the monologues in my story collection there’s a sort of twist to them. Things get resolved slowly. The situation that you think you’re seeing at the beginning isn’t necessarily the situation you’re going to end up with at the end. I very much like the idea of looking into a darkened room and seeing a few things and thinking that you know what the room looks like, but as the room lightens up you realise that that’s not someone standing in a corner, or that’s not a pile of clothes. And then if I’ve done my job properly the reader or audience will look back and remember the beginning and think ‘yes, that explains it, now I understand.’
You’re now planning to write a two act play, with lots of characters, again based on one of your short stories. What are the challenges here?
My perspective is to make sure there’s an arc and then create a plan focused on how it’s going to work. For example, in the first 10 minutes I would want X to happen, and then in the next 10 minutes Y. I would then want to build to a climax at the end of the first act and begin the second act, not with a resolution to that climax, but by aksing what situation has that climax caused? I think writing plays, as opposed to monologues, is more methodical. When writing the monologues as short stories I was much freer. I simply started writing and thought about where the character was going to take me and what situation he or she would end up in. I wasn’t always sure what that would be.
You’ve also written a play called ‘Tadzio Speaks’ about the character from ‘Death in Venice’….
I’ve always been fascincated by ‘Death In Venice’; I think a lot of people are, not just gay men. The thing is that it’s always looked at from the perspective of Aschenbach. Whether you read the novella or watch the fim, you always know what’s going on in Aschenbach’s mind, but you see this beautiful 15 year old and you have no idea what he’s thinking. How is he reacting to be watched, or stalked? We don’t know whether he likes it, or if he is afraid. I wanted to see it from his perspective, so ‘Tadzio Speaks’ is about Tadzio 40 years later looking back at those few weeks in Venice. He will be the only person on the stage and will be played by Christopher Peacock, who worked as a news reporter for many years and then decided to become an actor.
Californian Lives at at The King’s Head Theatre, 21 April – 26 May.
Words: Alex Hopkins
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