Emerald Fennell, début author of Shiverton Hall, a horror story for young adults, tells us how her day job as an actor feeds her writing…
I think the thing that did it was the jar of severed fingers. Some people, when looking at a jar of severed fingers, or the bottle of eyeballs next door it, might be thinking “gross”, they might throw up, or scream or run out of the room shouting. But all I could think was “Can I get away with running off with this jar of severed fingers because it would look AMAZING on my bookshelf next to the stuffed crow and the skull with the moustache!”
I was filming in a disused mental asylum and luckily the fingers and eyeballs were just set dressing, and not the real thing left behind by an insane doctor. There were bloody hacksaws and meat hooks with tufts of hair on them, crazy anatomical diagrams and a skeleton leaning in the corner – just the sort of décor I can really get on board with. At the time I was writing a story for Shiverton Hall. I had been mulling it over for a while and for some reason it just wouldn’t come together. I had written and re-written it, and had to admit to myself that I had hit a bit of a snag. Then I saw the jar of severed fingers and immediately knew how to resolve it. I scribbled it down frantically on the back of my script between takes, and transcribed it onto my computer once I got home later. If I’d ever had any concerns about working as both an actress and a writer, they disappeared that afternoon.
Sometimes doing two jobs can be a bit strange. Especially when I have been writing by myself for a while, and have become slightly twitchy and feral and sensitive to daylight, like a vampire from the days before vampires were sexy. Writing is a pretty solitary business (which is why so many writers have such terrible hair) and acting is the very opposite. Part of what I love so much about working as an actor, apart from the fruity hats, is its collaborative nature. Any production is genuine team effort, with the actors and the cameramen, and the costume designers, and the director and the producers, and all of the hundreds of other people on a set, all doing their part, to work together to create something wonderful. For me, to be able to move between completely solitary work, to work that is collaborative, is tremendously thrilling and I am always pathetically grateful that I am able to do either of my jobs, let alone both.
Sometimes you can be a little stretched, or crotchety because you have to write through the night so you can be on set the following day, but in general, the two things tend to actually enhance one another.
Many actors write, and in the UK we have a rich seam of ridiculously talented actor/writers, from Emma Thompson and Dawn French to David Walliams and Mark Gatiss. After all, the two skills are not so different. Both require a lot of tea drinking, concentration, discipline, commitment, an interest in humans and how they work, the foolhardy desire to do things that terrify you, and a terrible impulse to look like a complete idiot in front of a whole bunch of strangers (whether in real life or on the page). But most of all – and I think this is the thing that really unites them- they are about pretending. Both writers and actors spend their days making things up, and imagining what it is like to be somebody else. Scratch the surface of any writer or actor and you will find nothing but rainbows, stardust and unicorns, or in my case, ghosts, deformed mermaids and severed fingers..
Emerald Fennell, for Waterstones.com/blog