Interview with Frances Kay

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Frances Kay

by Jen

Frances Kay is a children’s playwright who was born in London and now lives in Ireland. She has worked with gypsies, prisoners and children in the U.K. and Ireland. She is married to musician Nico Brown. They have two daughters. Her debut novel, Micka will be published by Picador (Pan Macmillan) on July 2, 2010.

I had the dream again last night. About the fish that talked.
The first line of this debut novel had me hooked. That image, the colours and intensity of the first page continue in the rest of the novel. By page 37 of Micka, I was so intensely drawn into the world created by Frances Kay and feeling its desperation and emptiness that I found myself in tears. I quickly pulled myself together so that I could read on, because I had to. I felt compelled to find out what happened. It is told from the two perspectives of the protagonists Micka and Laurie. From the outset there is an inevitability in the atmosphere of the story which mimics the plot - Micka doesn’t stand a chance in life. Yet it stays compelling till the end. Although classified as literary fiction, I believe it is a great crossover, appropriate for mature YA readers who can deal with the subject matter. I also give it my personal full marks for an authentic and effective cover.


You are known as Fan - where does that come from?

We lived in France for a year [in 1984] and having seen the Pagnol film ‘Fanny’ Nico started calling me after the heroine - which worked fine in France, but not when we came back to England. I think ‘Fan’ is a strong, clear name, unlike Frances, which I find somewhat snooty and distant. I’ve always had nicknames; ‘Frankie’ when I was little and wanted to be a boy, and ‘Effie’ when I was at university. But in Ireland, if I say ‘Fan’, people always hear ‘Fran’, so I get called that too.

From the title I was expecting a story about an immigrant from Eastern Europe, not one with Irish roots. Names and their importance feature in the novel. Are names important to you and did you choose his name very consciously?

When I first moved to Newcastle [in the 1970s] and was working with local kids on community projects, it was one of the first things that struck me, how Geordie kids’ names were shortened. ‘Micka’ suggests toughness, coolness, being part of the group – qualities that my character doesn’t have in reality.

I feel desperately sad for the characters in the story its hopelessness that children are already doomed to failure. What do you want to trigger in a reader?

An emotional response to this book has to be a sincere compliment. I find the real lives of some children heartbreaking – and I’m talking about now, not the thirties and forties. I also want to connect people with communities and subsections of society they may not know much about, except from tabloid news stories. And I’d like adults to listen more to those children who aren’t being heard.

The last line is “the best I can do for Paula is never come into her world.” What made you want to write about these characters and tragically realistic story?

After I left university in 1970 I began working on community projects, in adventure playgrounds or street-based drop-in centres in Birmingham, Perth, York, Edinburgh, and Walsall. Out of school situations tend to be more unstructured and there was no sanction you could apply, so we had to create a relationship of equals based on mutual agreement with these kids, some of whom had no trust or respect for the adults in their lives. The events that happen in the novel have their origins in real life horror stories I was told or witnessed. Working with gypsies made a big impression on me and the characters are composites of real boys, with some elements of me added. The death of James Bulger and the response of the adult world to the two boys who killed him were what finally made me start writing this novel.

The themes in this book are very hard hitting but seen from a young protagonists viewpoint. Do you write aimed at young adults or is this novel perhaps considered a crossover for adults and YA too? Or none of the above?

I don’t see it as suitable for teenagers, but I know some who’ve read it and enjoyed it. I wouldn’t want to offer something so bleak to young readers. My work for kids, even if it’s about a serious subject like suicide, always has a grain of optimism and empowerment.

It is interesting to see the travelling community spirit and strength contrast with the failures and weakness of other parts of society, regardless of class. How did you research the multiple worlds that Micka and Laurie inhabit and visit?

I didn’t realise at the time I was doing research. I fell into lots of community work jobs after I left university where I met kids like the ones in the book. I was research assistant for a year on a fascinating project with travelling families [gypsies] in Scotland, which meant that every day and every conversation was documented. During that year I visited another similar project in the West Midlands, was a guest at a gypsy wedding, offered a share in the scrap business with my own trailer [caravan], and even had a proposal of marriage! Those notes were eventually written up [the report is on a shelf in someone’s office somewhere] but the impact of that year has stayed with me, even thirty years later. I think my picture of gypsies in the book is somewhat idealised, but Micka needs a good place to go to sometimes, and I found most of the traveller kids incredibly generous and kind.

What’s your writing day like? Do you write full time?

Not at all. When I read in newspapers about ‘A Day in the Life of A Writer’, and they all seem to get up at seven a.m. and write conscientiously all morning, stopping for a healthy lunch and more writing in the afternoon, I wonder if I’ll ever make the grade. I have days and days when I don’t write at all, then I have a deadline or something trips in my brain and I go upstairs and for me, time stands still. My family calls it my ‘writing trance’. I have no idea what day it is. I eat only if food is put in front of me. I stay up till three in the morning. It doesn’t last longer than a few days. Then I come back down to earth and start tidying up what I’ve written. It’s not organised and I’m not recommending it as a lifestyle, but this is the way I do it.

Do you write in longhand or use a computer and why?

Computer. Always. I can't write fast enough to keep up with my thoughts. A crazy jumble of word soup written at the speed of inspiration can later be sorted and tidied. Plus as a playwright, I love cut and paste. I used to do that when I had a typewriter, actually cutting out and pasting the scripts, so to have different ways of trying out versions quickly still feels like magic to me.

How did you go about publication and choosing an agent?

I’m afraid I did not put anything like the same energy into getting the book out there as I did in the writing. A class in advanced novel writing that I took as a student in 2008 revealed to me that my problem was not the writing, but the selling. I ended up making a promise in front of the rest of the class that I would not stop sending this novel out until it had got somewhere. Annette picked up my book as a result of a competition organised by Cornerstones [I love the randomness of competitions] and I am so glad to have met her.

What are you doing in terms of launch events and publicity?

I’m having a book launch at West Cork Arts Centre, in Ireland, in July. This is where I live, and I hope my friends and professional contacts around the Cork and Kerry region will come and celebrate with me. I think there are some radio and newspaper interviews already lined up in Ireland for early July – that’s the great thing about being looked after by a very supportive and energetic agent and a big publishing house.In the U.K. so far there’s a small event planned by a friend happening in Bristol this September. There may be other interviews but this one I’m doing for you is the first! I’m happy to travel anywhere Ireland and the UK, to talk to book groups, writers’ groups, do book signings or any other activity that is creative, sociable, and fun.

What are your top three tips for new or debut writers?

1. Write with passion and not with any reader or market in mind.

2. But, having written, be as passionate and committed about sending your work out into the world to those you have chosen intelligently.

3. Never, ever talk about what you are writing before you begin, or even before you finish. Talking about an idea satisfies your brain that you’ve ‘done it’. Keep the idea bottled up a bit and it will fizz out like champagne when you eventually put it all on paper.

Tell me about performing puppet shows on Southwold beach with Meg Amsden or other fun things from before you were a published author.

I began as a performer, director and playwright with my own theatre company up on Tyneside. The ‘scripts’ were very much knocked about in rehearsal, which is why no copies of those early plays survive. Meg and I got together later when we both had small daughters. Doing puppet shows on the beach satisfied our need to be creative. We had costumed characters appearing in front of the booth as well as an army of puppets and the girls were part of the company; during the summer holidays they could collect the money in a hat, watch the shows and once they even played Boudicca’s daughters in our show ‘The Warrior Queen’. At this stage in my career, myself and Meg, both single parents, were earning such tiny amounts that the Family Income Supplement assessment officer could not believe we were working such long hours for peanuts.

You wrote children’s plays before this your debut novel and you’ve travelled all over the world. Why did you now decide to write a novel?

I’m still writing plays; in fact the novels have been there all along. It’s a break for me from the disciplines of structuring a play and making it relevant and appropriate to young people, to have a piece of work where I can let out my shadow side and say how I see the world as an adult, without any holds barred. I started writing novels when I was fourteen, and it’s only forty odd years later that I’ve written one which is being published… I hope this is encouraging to other unpublished novelists!

Are there any skills you use or aspects of script writing, which you employ in your novel?

When I read other writers, character and a voice that carry the story along are crucial to my engagement with the book. My plays move fast, and I think my novels do too. A strong narrative voice that I hear in my head is what starts me off. Structuring a story is something we learn at our mother’s knee, if we’re lucky enough to be told legends and fairy stories, but learning how to maximise impact is something an audience soon teaches you. If they are gripped, you know you’ve got it right. If you haven’t, they either start coughing and shuffling and even texting [if they’re adults] or, if children, throwing things, shouting, and walking away. It’s humbling – but there’s nothing wrong with being a bit humble.

Many authors today are very available online, via Facebook, their own website, blog or other online presence. You seem to buck the trend. Is that a conscious choice?

Not at all. I’ve been lazy about getting a website; luck with commissions, plus only having dialup at home until very recently, convinced me that it wasn’t essential. I am on FB but not as Frances Kay. One of my daughters persuaded me it would be a good way of keeping in touch with the youth of the family – my nieces, nephews, children – but work is slowly beginning to creep in. I’m also on LinkedIn. Don’t have time to blog, and would never get any writing done if I tweeted it all away.

Is there another novel on the way or other work in progress?

Two projects which couldn’t be more different; a play about Franciscan friars in the 14th century which premieres in Cork this coming August, and another adult novel about which I don’t want to say anything - see my advice to writers above!

Do you have one or more books which you’d recommend as must haves, to aspiring writers?

’ve taught creative writing classes to adults at the Skyros Centre in Greece and in County Kerry, where I was writer in residence for a couple of years. The three most useful books that I completely recommend and have used myself are: WILD MIND by Natalie Goldberg, THE ARTIST’S WAY by Julia Cameron, and THE SCREENWRITER’S BIBLE by David Trottier. Whatever your genre, you will find much in these that resonates with us all as writers.

What’s your own favourite book?

Ah – too hard. I can’t choose just one. I’ll read anything by Olivia Manning, Iris Murdoch, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Cormac McCarthy and Martin Amis, and I’ve just read and loved ‘The Places In Between’ by Rory Stewart – non-fiction, but an incredible story.

What’s your idea of a perfect weekend?

Being at home in West Cork, going out in the boat with Nico for a spot of mackerel fishing and sea swimming, gardening, picking fresh vegetables from the polytunnel to have with the fish, and when night falls, a glass of white wine and conversations with friends. A cuddle with the two granddaughters. Oh, and somewhere in there would be maybe an hour of writing at my computer, in the grip of euphoric inspiration.

Imagine you are on TVFH Desert Island Discs - which book (Bible and Shakespeare excluded) and inanimate luxury object would you take with you?

The book that I have read and re-read so many times the cover is falling off, and it still makes me laugh out loud, is ‘Lucky Jim’ by Kingsley Amis. I couldn’t imagine desert island life without this chunk of England in the fifties. Luxury object – not sure if this is a luxury, but we have a huge old ex-army bell tent made of white canvas. If I had that, with all its accompanying tent pegs, mallet, sleeping bag and an old carpet to put on the floor, I would feel at home, wherever I was.


Links to Fan's other work:

Her current upcoming play [a one man show, with music] is on at the Granary Theatre, Cork, on August 27th and 28th and is aimed at family/adult audiences.

The Bare Hands Project Fan's current WIP.

Theatre Lovett Fan is their writer in residence, a second play is currently in development.

Last Call Project - The project Fan directed last year with a play she wrote for teenagers about suicide and life choices.

Nineteen Raptures - a literary event for prisoners' charity RAPt. Fan wrote a short story.


Annette Green is Fan's agent. Here are some insider notes, from her perspective on Fan's debut novel:

What should authors do, to work best with the publicity staff on offer from a publisher?

To do the best for themselves authors need to keep in close contact with their publicist and bombard them with suggestions for publicity and promotion opportunities. It's a good idea to discuss features for the Press with them. A good publicist should know which features any particular paper or glossy mag has planned, and try to think of a 'hook in' for the author who may be able to write a piece for one of them which doesn't have to be about their book, but will support it by its publication. An author can never do enough in this sense but equally it's unwise to go over the top and become a nuisance to the publicist.

Why is Fan a great author to work with?

Fan is a fantastic author to work with because she is clever, amenable to suggestion, easy to communicate with and hugely charming.

Why is this book going straight to paperback?

The majority of novels go straight into paperback now because there is less emphasis in the trade for the need for a hardback to secure a review, which has traditionally been the case. Hardbacks when they are published tend to be for the library market, and some areas of the trade for review. e.g. crime. Also, the publisher has the opportunity of pitching for the trade promotions in paperback, for example with 3 for 2s and so on which isn't the case with a hardback.


icka loves drawing and wants a pup, but with older brothers into violence and petty crime, and a mother who can’t read the notes his teacher sends home from school, neither he nor the pup stand much of a chance. Then a new boy starts in Micka’s class. Laurie, whose crazy mother and emotionally remote father have just split up, is a year older than Micka, and precociously articulate. Both boys have vivid imaginations, but when they meet, their imaginary worlds collide, with disastrous consequences: as Laurie’s fantasies of magic and revenge become more and more unsettling, he pulls Micka into a dangerous game where the line between make-believe and real life - and, ultimately, death - is increasingly blurred.

Micka will be published by Picador (Pan Macmillan) on July 2, 2010.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read "Micka".
It certainly gives lots of plausible answers to the questions raised by the James Bulger tragedy.