With a string of accolades under her belt – teacher, acclaimed children’s novelist, co-writer of Bullet Boy (2004) starring Ashley Walters, Catherine Johnson has branched out into the world of audio drama with her first radio Play, Fresh Berries which is a challenging, uncompromising, but compassionate play exploring the subject of men who lure young, vulnerable girls into the world of sex for money.
With Fresh Berries being nominated in the Imison Award for new radio drama category at the 2014 BBC Audio Drama Awards taking place Sunday 26th January, we caught up with Johnson to talk about the highs and lows of being a writer…
So you’re doing the BBC Writers Academy…
I wish I’d done it sooner. My agent said to me why don’t you? I thought, ooh no. But I think it’s a real shame they scrapped it. It is very intensive but the teaching is like a very potted MA [Masters], and then you get three commissions. I got sacked off of EastEnders, they didn’t take my episode, which was a real shame…
You got sacked?
What I mean is I wrote it, I got as far as the rehearsal script, but some things don’t fit. But I got another Holby [Holby City] and I haven’t done my Casualty yet. It is really hard. All these things are really hard.
What’s the process of going through the BBC Writer’s Academy?
Lots of hoops. You have to go on workshop days, and whittled down. You have interviews and stuff but it was lovely also because you get paid for three months when you’re on the course so… but it doesn’t exist anymore. It was John Yorke’s baby and when he left, the BBC said that they’re revamping the shadow schemes. I think you get paid on the Holby City shadow scheme but you don’t get paid on the EastEnders and it’s a lot of work to do without being paid.
What are the biggest misconceptions about writing Film, TV, Books, Theatre?
Well I’ve never written for theatre, but the biggest misconception is that it’s easy. Especially TV, especially soaps which are on every day. It so isn’t. I mean, there’s been some really good EastEnders on recently. People know when they’re good. People know when they’re bad. But it’s the same thing that happens all the time so it must be really easy. It’s not really easy it’s really hard. But it’s a good discipline.
What makes writing for TV So hard?
It’s working with characters. You’re working within a very tight outline. If you’re working with a TV Drama. You have got these marks to hit. These things have got to happen. So you’ve got to do these things in a way that it’s recognisably what it is. In a way that it’s recognisably EastEnders, or Casualty, or Holby but in your own unique way! So that’s what’s difficult.
What people should remember with film, and TV actually, is that script editors are there to help you. Most of the time I’ve never had a script editor who’s been really crap. I’ve always been grateful for the help which is what these people are there to do. Film and TV is a collaborative thing. I don’t think experienced writers don’t get that, but I think maybe if you’re new, you think it’s just your vision. It’s not. Because if you write a script for somebody to pick up you’ve still got a director, you’ve still got actors. It’s always a hugely collaborative thing and you are just a part of it If you want to be un-collaborative, then write a book.
With my experience working as a script consultant, watching one particular client’s journey, if anyone wasn’t really committed to writing they’d give up; the back and forth, the numerous re-drafts and edits of a script before then having to look for someone to actually make it…
Yes, and the reason people give you notes is because they want it to be better. Usually. Why would they give you rubbish notes? Not to say rubbish notes don’t exist. But on the whole, that’s what the process is about and as writers we’re really lucky we get the chance to make things better. I think if you’re old [Laughs] because I’ve been in writing a long time, I’m used to being told ‘oh it’s rubbish’. If somebody told me ‘oh it’s rubbish’ I’d be lying if I didn’t think you don’t like me, but over time you realise. I guess it would be harder if you’d just started out. But you’ve got to not care about it. You’ve got to think, OK that’s not for me.
As an experienced writer what was it like going back to basics and doing BBC Writers Academy?
There was a thing I’d written for Channel 4 which actually became a script for the radio play [Fresh Berries] and that script that was going to be made. But you know how scripts knock about a bit. Then it became a calling card script and Kate Rowland [former head of BBC Writersroom] saw it and thought it would make a great radio play.
I’d never thought about a radio play; I’ve never written for radio. So she linked me up with a director Marian Nancarrow, a very lovely woman and very experienced in radio. She helped me re jig it. So because of that she said why don’t you apply for the Writers Academy. I hadn’t before because it’s very hard with books, and I’ve been doing teaching and lots of things; it’s so hard to make a living. So you do whatever’s available.
How long ago was Writers academy?
Writers Academy was just last year, and Fresh Berries was broadcast on radio last February.
Let’s talk about radio plays. Coming from my world, the only knowledge I’d had of Radio plays was The Archers. It wasn’t until BBC Writersroom that I became aware of a world of plays made specifically for radio. That’s where I discovered Debbie Tucker Green…
Janice okoh also. I think if you are a writer and you write plays. I think you would have to listen to some. I don’t know. It’s a bit like saying I’m gonna write a book, but I’ve never read a book. Or I’m gonna write a film but never watched a film. But writing for a radio play it was very different. Things I didn’t think about, and if I didn’t have Marion who as I said is a very experienced radio drama director at my elbow saying ‘have you thought about this’ because it was written visually.
Because I work at home, and I’m old, I do listen to radio plays. There are some good ones occasionally. So I did know radio plays existed. It did not come naturally. Janice Okoh makes it look easy. But she’s a very experienced playwright. I don’t know if playwright’s write visually…
I was surprised to see how many books you’d written; specifically for teens. Was writing books your first passion?
Yes. Unless you are terrifically driven, you just write what comes. Five/ten years ago it was easier to make a living with just books. I think it’s much harder now. Advances have gone down. There’s much more competition and if you’re writing for kids, you’d make a lot of money doing school visits and a lot of peripheral things and a lot of those are gone.
It seems quite bleak…
You have to be really dedicated. I think these days it’s much harder for young people. When I was young I had subsidised housing, I didn’t have a university degree, I had housing association housing. So I didn’t need to make a lot of money. So I could write a book. I worked at book shops, I worked at literacy development places. I churned out my book. You could make a living. I think if you’re a young person and you don’t have parents or you’re not independently working how do you do it? Obviously people still do because people will always do, but a lot of the doors are being closed for people who don’t have a lot of money.
People will always write. But the problem in TV or film which is a high risk thing, is that they do one thing and it’s not good. Then that’s it. So how do you ever learn? How are you going to get better?
Going through the topics of your teen books, it seems you’re a champion of the underdog.
Yes, that’s kids’ books anyway isn’t it? The thing about kids or young people’s literature and film and TV is that it’s very story driven. In adult novels people might think about stuff a lot without much drama. But if you’re writing for kids or writing for film and TV it’s all about telling stories through drama.
With your latest book Sawbones, what made you go into the 18th century. As that’s the argument today – there’s so many period dramas which don’t include black people…
That’s right. That’s why I started writing historical fiction. One of the things I remember about being a kid, was you know there were these family dramas on a Sunday afternoon which were very often in costume, there was never people like me in them. I read Staying Power – The History of Black People in Britain (1984) by Peter Fryer and I thought immediately I’m going to put us back in the past I’m going to write us wearing a fancy frock. You know I’ve always wanted to wear a fancy frock. It’s purely about that. You know we’ve always been here so shut up.
Is Sawbones going to be a series?
There is a sequel I’m just writing it now.
The pressures of the follow up…
[Laughs] I know just don’t! You know whenever you’re writing anything you have to not look down. You just have to do it.
Going back to the underdog theme, with Bullet Boy, with your novels are you on a mission to change people’s perception of a certain community of people?
No. I’m on a mission to write rollocking stories. When you write for teenagers you have to have a really strong story. But you’re right, I am on a mission to put black people in the British past. To say we have always been here. The sequel to Sawbones one of the real people who is in the back ground was the father to Alexander Dumas, who was a general in the French revolution army and he was the highest ranking black soldier in the European and North American army until 1975. Yet no one knows about him. That’s my mission with the historical books.
What’s your inspiration?
I don’t know. I mean secondary school was not a good place for me. I didn’t think I was a writer until I was 30. I was put off writing because writing fiction was not writing essays. That’s another thing that people forget. It’s not about how good you are at school being a good writer and once I’d done it, I thought this is something I can do.
I like loads of writers. I like loads of stories. I think as a writer you read loads of things and think that’s fantastic. But actually that’s quite depressing because you think, well I’m never gonna write as good as they so I would say read a lot of shit stuff…
How do you find shit stuff?
One of these things that made me think I could be a writer was Hackney Library, when I took my kids when they were little and I picked up a teenage book and it was so dull. It was so boring. So I thought she must know the publisher, she must be his daughter or wife or something. So I thought I can do better than that. We do need more voices that are different, that are black, that are London, or are not London we need other voices. But what was funny about the last Writers Academy was that there were three black women on it and we were saying that if they picked one of us they weren’t going to pick the rest of us. But they picked us all.
What has been the biggest hurdle in your career and how have you navigated through it?
For me it’s earning a living. I’ve got two kids, they’ve now grown up, but the youngest is at uni. The hardest thing is a consistent living at writing. I mean I’m too old to do anything different but you have to stick at it. My partner is doing an equally stupid job. He’s a musician; when we got together he was doing quite well but the music industry’s gone through the floor, so you need support. You need time to get better. Because the only way to get better is to keep doing it. If you do one thing and stop, and think well that was quite good you’ve got to have dedication or the nerve or the space to write another one and another one.
Will you make a return to film making as Bullet Boy was so well received?
Well it was not my idea to make it. It was a big thing you know, it’s black boys and guns. I remember when I got the job I was a part of a writing group with women of colour. I went to them and said I’ve been asked to do this job and it’s paid but… and they said take it, because if you don’t someone else will. So I went to the meeting and it’s in West London. But the director was the bloke who was living next door but one to me and I was lucky because if it was panned I would never have gotten another job.
What’s next for you?
I’ve got things in development. You always have things in development. Something that started off for Channel Four, but it was turned down. BFI interested… but who knows. Then I have my episode of Casualty, and Holby City later in the year.