We’ve been listening recently to Dame Hilary Mantel‘s fascinating Reith Lectures about the process and philosophy of writing historical fiction. As well as talking with great insight about the writing process itself, she touches on the business of adapting other peoples’ material – in her case, their actual, historical lives. What is the relationship between historical accuracy and novelistic creativity? Is the spirit more important than the letter? These issues are still pertinent when the starting-place is an existing work of fiction, although with different implications when handling source material and characters.
Mantel also touches on something common to all fictional processes where personalities are involved – the autonomy of the characters themselves. There comes a point reported by many writers where the characters – real or created – become so present that the author almost feels the character are actively leading the way. This is something that Di Sherlock, the librettist of The Ubiquitous Woman, has talked about. If and when it happens, she says, it’s always much better to go with it than to resist.
So it has been with our work on The Ubiquitous Woman, which has continued to develop since our first workshop in November 2016. We have received significant critical feedback from our peers within the theatre and opera industry, which has shaped our pathway for the next phase of development. But in the end, the direction suggested by the characters themselves in response to their developing storyline is as strong a factor as anything else.
One always has to begin somewhere and we began quite close to the short story that inspired us. This was not only a way of examining its themes but helped us to tease out what fresh insights we wanted to offer about them. As we have extended the reach of those themes into the twenty-first century, it has become clear that we are writing a totally new story with very different characters. The decision to rename our protagonists reflects how far they have moved from their literary inspiration: the centrality of digital and virtual-reality technology to our narrative shows that this story can only be entirely contemporary in its concerns and location.
However, the wry humour and spirit of the original continue to inspire us. Dame Hilary Mantel, must necessarily preserve Thomas Cromwell more-or-less as she finds him in the historical record. We have the good fortune to be able to let our characters run more freely and, if they feel like it, to become different people.