Today I’m thrilled to welcome Frances Kay onto my blog, as part of my ‘What I did at 50′ (and beyond!) series. I first encountered Frances about nine years ago on the online writers’ site Authonomy. I was pretty much in awe of her character and talent then, and I remain so now. Frances is a novelist, playwright and scriptwriter, performer and puppeteer; a mother and grandmother. Over to Frances:
FIFTY – THE AGE OF BALANCE?
There was a seesaw in my local playground so perfectly poised that you could teeter to the fulcrum, balancing with one foot on either side, able (if you were really clever) to tilt the whole thing one way or another by the slightest pressure of a left or right foot.. That’s how my fiftieth year was. Balancing between my past and present, a dazzling, drunken disturbance of the equilibrium and the dizzying possibility of future worlds unexplored…
We’d moved to Ireland eight years earlier, to my first ever mortgage at the age of forty two, (I’d put off buying a house until I was ready to call myself an adult), and we lived on Bray seafront, twelve miles south of Dublin.
In England I had been a puppeteer and performer, writing plays for Nutmeg Puppets, a fit-up seaside show with costumed characters and puppets, then, later, TV scripts for the BBC TV children’s programme I worked on, called YOU AND ME, in which I operated a feisty Geordie puppet called Cosmo (who was fiercely proud of being a girl). In Dublin I looked for openings for a children’s playwright, but found none. There was one single Theatre in Education Company for the whole of Dublin and the South-east, and I didn’t feel confident enough in my vernacular to write as an Irish person, so I sent out a couple of hopeful letters to arts organisations working with kids.
Four years later, and our finances were looking dire. Any money I’d saved from the BBC work went into the house purchase deposit, and just as we left England I had recorded my last series ever. We were paying monthly mortgage repayments with interest at 16%, a crazy amount each month, and each month it was harder and harder to scrape it together. The odd day as a film extra, or a royalty cheque from the Beeb, meant we were lying awake every night worrying about managing our money in a way that I’d never, in all my carefree life, had to do. Finally, we had to accept defeat. We would have to sell up and scuttle back to England and begin again.
Queen Boudicca: Frances performing at Southwold Beach in former days (around 1983)
What happened next was extraordinary. Someone told me about a new series starting on Irish TV, RTE, for pre-school children, with puppets, and they were looking for a script editor. I’d never done that job, but working as a scriptwriter and performer for You and Me, I was lucky enough to have seen the process, from creation through rehearsal, rewrites, and then the studio day when it would all get recorded.
I was stunned and excited when I was offered the post. I had a free hand to say what would go into every programme in the first series. It was a dream job for me. The puppets had already been commissioned and roughs had been made for the auditions yet to come.
One of the first things I did was assemble a group of writers – some I’d inherited from other kids’ programmes, some were writers whose work I’d seen and liked. Together we chose names for the characters – Molly and Rossa. (For You and Me, myself and Francis Wright, the other puppeteer, were invited to name ourselves, which is how we ended up being Cosmo and Dibs).
I was allowed to run the auditions, as my producer had never done drama before! Soon we had two Rossas and two Mollys. One of each for the bodysuits and one of each for the animatronics producing their facial expressions, ear wiggles and speech. Rossa, I was sure, would come from Cork (my favourite of all the Irish accents]) Molly from Dublin. I created a species for them [Morbegs], and a legend: back in Morbegland, where the Growing Tree kept everyone safe and healthy, until it developed a mysterious illness. Molly and Rossa were the volunteer travellers, come to a castle populated by friendly witches and wizards to find out about all growing things and how to cherish them.
While this was happening, Nico, my husband, was invited to become Musician in Residence at a brand new arts centre for children in Dublin, called The Ark.
We abandoned plans to go back to England with such relief.
Frances at 50
So, as my fiftieth birthday approached, I was an RTE scriptwriter and editor, rushing home from the studio to write more scripts.
At the same time, I was halfway through training to become a psychodrama psychotherapist, exploring my past with excitement, terror and curiosity. I wondered if processing the trauma from my past would make it difficult to write my first novel, a dream I’d cherished since I was fourteen. The one I started in Dublin, from an exile’s perspective, came to be called Dollywagglers.
Dollywagglers by Frances Kay
It is a dystopian story set in England, with a darkly comic protagonist, Billie, savage attacks on politics and politicians, and all the faults I found with UK society. I discovered how liberating it was not to be writing for children, who I feel deserve hope and optimism, whereas for adults I could write the kind of book I loved to read myself, as dark and doomy as I felt about my native land, pulling no punches. I finished that book some time in the mid nineties, and immediately started another, the story of two small boys brought together by chance, both unhappy and cruelly deprived of decent parenting, and the inevitably awful thing they decided to do to empower themselves.
It was this second book, which I called ‘Don’t Do This’, that got published first. I’d entered a competition run by Cornerstones, a literary agency, where an agent found me, and she sold the book to Picador. I had to change the book’s title to Micka, after the main character, and I agreed to a cover I hated, so as not to seem demanding and diva- ish. Micka was published to critical acclaim from all the UK and some Irish papers, as well as being on BBC’s A Good Read, which for a week made the sales go stratospheric.
Micka, second edition
I thought selling Dollywagglers would be easy after that debut, but Picador didn’t want it and my agent didn’t love it. I’m hopeless at marketing and selling, so I left it until a chance meeting on Harper Collins’ Authonomy slush pile found me a new and enthusiastic publisher, Tenebris, an imprint of Grimbold Books . Zoe Harris, my new editor, loves dark fiction, so when Strange Creation came to me out of nowhere, she kindly tested the waters with a Kindle edition, which was a best seller for a week in its category…
following it up with a printed version as a bonus with the new edition of Micka.
Zoe, my editor, was kind enough to publish Dollywagglers and then to greet the idea of a sequel with enthusiasm. That story became Dancing on Bones, which came out last year.
Dancing on Bones by Frances Kay
Tenebris also gave Micka a home when Picador refused to reprint it, with at last! a decent cover and two editors, Sammy Smith and Zoe Harris, who, being writers themselves, truly respect and appreciate their authors.
By the time the last one was finished, I was sick of dystopias, as world events had now created a real dystopia in which we were all living, so any inspiration, dwarfed by the hideous realities of politics and personalities, fizzled away to nothing.
As well as literary novels there were romances, penned by Pan Zador, my theatrical alter ego. ‘Act of Love’ was set in a rep theatre on the East Coast of England, and using my theatre experiences, it pretty well wrote itself. It was published in 2012, when I was sixty four. Act of Love
After that, a foray into the quirky world of “sexing up” classics; Pan Zador’s version of Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, with an extra fifteen thousand words of sex and erotic activity, was huge fun to write, especially since I learned that Hardy wanted to put a lot more sex into the book, only his Puritan Victorian editor would not let him. I felt I was giving Hardy restorative justice.
It was published by a US publisher called Crimson Romance, whose novels came in three categories – Sensual, Spicy and Hot. My American editor said there had to be sex on every tenth page. Reading the original book, it was obvious to me that lonely scenes of self-pleasuring would figure largely, as two of the main characters spend time fantasising about the heroine, rarely get together with her, and never get naked. But my editor did not consider masturbation to be about sex, which may say something about US and UK culture… For her, it had to be full sex between a man and a woman. A subtle scene I wrote, in which an amorous farmer takes Bathsheba to view his prize sheep, only for them both to be embarrassed by their frenzied tupping, was blue-pencilled immediately on the grounds of encouraging bestiality. So, when it was published, it got the lame “Sensual” sticker. Maybe that’s why it didn’t sell.
I wish I could talk about the future with confidence. Neither the planet nor my creativity is in good health these days. In 2012 I was diagnosed with a spinal cord astrocytoma, and this has sapped my stamina and seems to have robbed me of inspiration. I have survived seven years, thanks to radiotherapy, but I am not the woman I was. I look back at her now, on her fiftieth birthday, with affection and a little more self-knowledge, and I let be.
Frances Kay (aged 71 and still available for commissions!)
Cosmo and Dibs from YOU AND ME (Pinterest)
Puppeteer & Scriptwriter, BBC TV You AND ME 1980-1991
Playwright & Performer for Nutmeg Puppet Company 1980-84
Scriptwriter ‘Fair City’, RTE 1992
Community Arts projects for Wet Paint, Dublin, for whom I devised/wrote ‘Paradise Island’ and a short film ‘Fast Forward’, 1993 with youth groups.
Freelance playwright for The Ark, Children’s Cultural Centre, Dublin 1995-2000
Playwright for Team Theatre, Dublin 1996-2002
Wrote play ‘A Man in Half’ for Theatre Lovett, 2007
Directed ‘Last Call’ my play for teenagers about suicide, for Siamsa Tire Theatre, Tralee, Co Kerry, 2009.
‘Micka’ published by Picador 2010
‘Act of Love’ published by Crimson Romance, 2012
Wrote play ‘Feast of Bones’ for Theatre Lovett, Dublin 2012
‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ published by Crimson Romance, 2013
‘Mr. Foley, Radio Operator’ for Theatre Lovett, 2014
‘Dollywagglers’ published by Tenebris, 2014
‘Strange Creation’ published as a Kindle book, 2015.
‘Dancing on Bones’ published by Tenebris, 2017
‘Micka’ republished in a new edition by Tenebris, together with ‘Strange Creation’ 2018.