A Gentle Home-Intruder, with Hannah Silva

What’s your favourite medium for writing?

Radio is a gentle home-intruder, no one has to sign up for it, or leave the house. You can write with the listener's imagination, it's like novel writing in that sense, and then like theatre as it's all in the dialogue and subtext and the drama has to be tight, even tighter for radio than theatre. The 45 minute afternoon drama slot is the dramatic equivalent of a sonnet. You have to develop one strong idea and transform it before the end, and you can't waste a single line. Radio focuses on sound and language, so it's the perfect medium for a writer - also, because radio plays are recorded so quickly, everything relies on the script, so it's the writer's perfect medium in that sense too. The director can't cut a scene and replace it with twenty minutes of interpretive dance.


How do you write?  Do you plan your writing or does it grow organically?

I do a lot of planning – sometimes it feels like procrastination! But then a solid treatment is the difference between getting commissioned and getting ignored. It took me a while, but I’ve learnt it’s got to feel real in my imagination to have a chance at reaching anyone else’s even right at the initial germ-of-an-idea stage. I always know my character’s back-stories, and how they think, and talk, words and phrases they might use, the rhythms of their speech. 

I do a lot of research – my next project is a radio play, ‘The Beast’ – which is about freight trains that cross Mexico (nicknamed The Beast or La Bestia) and people ride on them trying to reach the U.S, and for ‘Indigo Children’ for Radio 4 I’m learning abut autism, and a new age theory about ‘Indigo’ and ‘Crystal’ children.


If you could win the commissioning lottery, what single project would you most like to realise?

I’ve wanted to write a really ambitious piece about Artaud for years, I’m fascinated by how he made his life a performance and in his last years spent hours on articulations, and shouts and screams, and rhythmic chanting, and he had a fascinating terrible life with so many chapters to it. And he was a genius theatre visionary. It’d be a crazily virtuosic text, probably set in his head. I think it’d be an opportunity to bring together the different ways I work  - the performance sound poetry strand with drama and radio.


Globalisation and the internet are dissolving boundaries in the creative industries.  Have you worked on projects outside the UK? If so, what did you learn from the experience?

This time a year ago I was working on Italian–Swiss border on Lake Varese, recording poems and sounds with some incredible international musicians – Julian Sartorius, Luca Martegani, Enrico Mangione and Zeno Gabaglio. Playing together cuts straight to the heart of communication, there’s no small talk. It helped me to let go, to scream, to write out loud. We improvised for a week, recorded it, and now it’s turned out to be a record, ‘Talk in a bit’. – Because I talk in bits, I cut up talk into bits, reassemble it in different orders, and it’s a phrase I use all the time, instead of ‘bye’.  

I’m also working with the Japanese sound poet Tomomi Adachi, who I met when we were performing at festivals in Poland and Romania. We spent a week playing with his infra-red sensor shirts, they trigger vocal effects and sounds when you move in them. We’re doing a duet as part of the ‘Talk in a bit’ record launch this May.


What and where are the most exciting opportunities for writers at the moment?

There are some phenomenal TV series these days, Netflix and Amazon commissioning seems to be expanding opportunities. I listen to podcasts all the time and wonder if that boom will continue and open opportunities for dramatists. It would be great to push the constraints of radio - although recording a play in a day has advantages, it'd be exciting to research, develop, rehearse and really invest in and transform radio drama.


What are the biggest challenges for writers at the moment?

Living in London. Paying the rent. Finding time to write. Finding work. Juggling jobs and life. Not having sick pay, or maternity pay or a pension, managing anxiety about the future. Nothing new!

But also, there are challenges from the people that writers work with, producers or directors who ask for a slice of intellectual property for instance, contracts that don't follow industry guidelines, and in the theatre world - venues that pass on charges to the artists they are being funded to support. I used to assume contracts were standard and non-negotiable and especially if issued by someone I got on with I'd just sign. But that's not the case, and you haven't asked about The Society of Authors but this is a big reason why I'm a member, I've had a lot of help with contracts, and having the SoA support is really important, as it can be upsetting and difficult otherwise, it's easy for the ones with the money to manipulate writers, and it's especially tricky without an agent to shield that side of the work.


Your EP ‘Talk in a bit’ from the Swiss record label Human Kind marries your own sonic explorations of meaning and sense as a sound poet with percussion, electronics and strings. How did the ensemble come together?

Alan Alpenfelt started the label and invited me to make the record. I applied to the International Artist Development Fund so that I could travel to Switzerland and Italy and meet him and the musicians. We hired a beautiful recording studio on Lake Varese, and we just improvised together for a week. Alan brought together the perfect musicians.

I had the poems, and I was playful with how I performed them, changing orders of lines and repetition and my delivery… sometimes they’d be doing long musical improvisations and I’d try a few different poems. It was very groovy. I play with articulation techniques, a bit like a vocal kind of percussion (but not beat-boxing), so Julian Sartorius and I enjoyed having conversations, arguments, and races together with rhythm and word-percussion.

Putting grooves alongside my poetry gave it its own world, supported my linguistic weirdness, and let me have fun on the border of music and speech. Nothing was planned in advance...  then Luca Martegani did some magic in the edit. Henning Schmitz from Kraftwerk mixed the album, and people seem to like it, it’s been played on Late Junction a couple of times, and some international stations, and there was a track on The Wire’s The Wire Tapper CD.


Your new radio play ‘Indigo Children’ will broadcast Wednesday 18 July in a production directed by Jude Kelly, the artistic director of the Southbank Centre and founder of Women of the World Festival. What role do you see drama in relation to social change?

I heard a piece on Radio 4 on autism the other day, they were explaining the term ‘neurodiversity’, and discussing why less girls get diagnosed with autism than boys. I’m exploring the same subject in Indigo Children. I don’t know whether a listener would learn more about it from the reportage or from my play, perhaps it depends on the listener. I’m aware I’m writing drama not a lecture, and my understanding of the character’s autism is embedded in the character herself, in how she expresses herself, understands her environment, in her experience of childhood, in her word play and approach to language; the fifteen year old girl in my play wants to ‘come out’ to her mum as autistic, but her mum is resistant to the ‘label’. The play uses this ‘Indigo Children’ phenomena to explore the stigma around autism as a diagnosis, and the misunderstanding and resistance to it from parents like the fictional Lydia, who always wanted to do her best for her child, but, like many parents, gets it wrong. 


More generally as a writer committed to innovative explorations of form, voice and language to what extent are you involved in the production of your written scripts to audio (for example for radio production) and how integral is this would you say to the full realisation of your written work?

Writing for radio is a different strand to my solo poetry-sound-performance work, although I still love to find ways of pushing the boundaries of the form – so far they don’t need me making strange sounds in the studio. I quite like to hand the script over, but I also want to be a part of the creative conversations about the work. I love working with people who want to engage in a proper creative conversation, I want to be challenged, I’m excited when I’m wrong, and I understand why, and it pushes me far beyond what I can do on my own.

I had a brilliant session with Jude the other day and have a lot to do now, it’s daunting, exciting, sometimes I get butterflies just sitting down at my desk to write. Now I’m itching to write the final draft but I’ve got the Talk in a bit rehearsals and gigs first, so Indigo Children has to simmer on the back burner for a couple of weeks – which is good for flavour anyway.


What’s the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a new writer?

I’ve noticed that some people seem taken aback on the occasions when I’m not shy and apologetic (sometimes I forget small talk and I’m too direct, but it’s because I love creative conversations and getting straight to the interesting stuff). Perhaps there’s still an element of sexism in how female writers are treated, men are seen as assured and confident when they know what they want, women are seen as intransigent and controlling.

There’s also an embedded hierarchy in the industry, however lovely the ‘gate-keepers’ are. The fact that the writers aren’t the ones with the power to commission and pay sometimes puts us in an apologetic, weak position. That can be a horrible feeling and I think it’s something many writers experience.

I also suspect that most writers get accused of being control freaks at some point. We control the words that come out of people’s mouths, or that they read, or hear... And the fact is that we own those words too, as much as anyone can, so we shouldn’t be made to feel bad about wanting to keep ownership and intellectual property rights, it’s all we’ve got.

All that to say: Don’t let anyone make you feel bad for being passionate about your work. Intensely caring about your writing is not being ‘a control freak’ it’s being ‘a writer’.

Order Talk in a bit: http://humankindrecords.bandcamp.com

Tour dates and masterclass details: http://hannahsilva.co.uk/whats-on/