Method writer: how acting inspired Lisa Harding’s novel

There is no attempt to write it slant, or to play with form, or dazzle or seduce the reader. Lisa McInerney Q&A: ‘Heresies was a landscape. This became my first play, which was workshopped at the National Theatre, and led to my first commission as a playwright. An inspired theatre director once said to me: to play a character fully, to embody them, don’t just step into their shoes, wear their clothes and try on their voice, don’t just “act” them or “ape” them. I wanted to be humble with the material and to fully embody the experiences of trauma, as well as the girls’ survival techniques, which include friendship, fantasy and humour. What surprised me was that a story took shape in spite of my best efforts not to force one, and that there is dramatic tension and a forward-moving narrative arc. Woolly, perhaps, but always liberating. Perhaps my training in drama lent itself to this instinctive drive. I think that director left an indelible impression on me all those years ago: seeking to put yourself at the service of the character means allowing it to take on a life of its own. Instead, channel their spirit in much the same way a shaman does. My first novel, Harvesting, came about in this way. Only then does he apply his conscious mind to shaping the material. It is experiential and unapologetically real. The subject matter was presented to me in a similarly unexpected way: when I was asked to read first-hand accounts of trafficked girls at the launch of a campaign in 2012 to combat sex trafficking of minors, run by the Body Shop and the Children’s Rights Alliance. I don’t plot or structure in advance, I try not be in conscious control, and once I feel sufficiently possessed by a voice, I’ll allow it take hold. If you do that well enough, the humanity, the story, the truth – or something approaching it, devoid of posturing and artifice, at least – will shine through. Figures are currently rising because of the migrant crisis). If that voice attaches itself to a body and has legs, it will run, usually gallop, with me one step behind. I was haunted by what I read that day and the stories wouldn’t let go. Let their thoughts become your thoughts. Harvesting by Lisa Harding is published by New Island on May 1st and is launched tonight at Hodges Figgis, Dawson Street, Dublin, at 6pm. I remember being on tour with a rather wooden production of Pride and Prejudice, playing the vapid, pretty Jane, when this desire to express a dark, energetic, angry voice became apparent. Step aside from all preconceived ideas about how the character should appear, empty yourself and then allow yourself to fill with their essence. I heard George Saunders speak about this improvisational manner of working recently. Miracles is a portrait’

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There are limitations to this method, of course, and often I end up with a glorious mess, or just a mess, but sometimes the material shapes itself and when it does, I let it. Be a conduit. I also had no idea that Ireland is considered a destination point for traffickers and sex tourists, or that some of the girls are as young as 12 and some of them are Irish. Having completed a feverish first draft, I set out to find experts in the field who would read and comment on the text, and check for any plausibility issues. These free-form monologues became alternating chapters, in what ultimately became the book. I didn’t go looking for it; I didn’t even know the voices would present themselves in the form of a novel. Because it is written in the first person, present tense, the novel has a kind of immersive, claustrophobic feel, like in a film shot by a single hand-held camera on zoom. At first they were a play, then the characters took up the space of short stories and then I allowed the two girls to just speak, to tell their stories however they liked. My acting career had always felt restrictive and increasingly the roles I was being offered didn’t satisfy the need in me to explore other psyches, other stories, to travel to other places, to experience the full gamut of human experience. After all, if someone is going to sit through an hour or so of dark, disturbing material in the theatre, it has to be presented in a way that is compelling. I saw him draw out performances that were master classes in immersion. Likewise, with a novel, or a story, in any form. It seems he adopts a similar “mindless” approach to the first creative impulse. I was lucky enough to find two interested and careful readers: Sarah from Ruhama, a Dublin-based NGO, and Liliana from CCF Moldova, who works directly with victims of trafficking in Moldova. It was a 17-year-old boy, speaking from prison, who came from a fantasy-laden, alcohol-soaked background. I can only hope I did these girls a service by channeling their voices in this way. Although I may not be in possession of such a fine intellect as Saunders, I have learned to hone and polish the first surge. This was my wish with Harvesting. Until that day I had no idea of the extent of the industry worldwide (at the time there were an estimated 1.2 million children trafficked for the sex trade, according to www.ecpat.org. Because it is written in the first person, present tense, the novel has a kind of immersive, claustrophobic feel, like in a film shot by a single hand-held camera on zoom

A period of research followed, then a period of “emptying” and then “filling” again with the voices that ultimately became Sammy and Nico, a girl from Dublin and a girl from Moldova, whose lives collide in this treacherous world. I credit my time working with the maverick director, who shouted at us in rehearsal room to “stop thinking”, “stop posturing” and just “be” the character, with my approach to writing

I credit my time working with the maverick director, who shouted at us in rehearsal room, to “stop thinking”, “stop posturing” and just “be” the character, with my current approach to writing, in any medium. In other words be possessed by the character.