Seriously Entertaining is back! The first of our two shows this fall, Inside the Lie, hits City Winery on Monday, September 29, with a mind-expanding line-up of literary talent. Don’t have your tickets yet? Check out our writers below in an audiovisual preview of some of the pleasures that await you.
John Guare‘s fifty-year career on the American stage and screen has been marked by some stunning highs, including the Tony Award-winning success of The House of Blue Leaves, Louis Malle’s classic 1980 movie Atlantic City, starring Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon, and, more recently, A Free Man of Color (2010). Check out our survey of his career here. In this interview at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Guare muses on the theory he helped popularize in perhaps his best-known play, 1990’s Six Degrees of Separation. “What about all the people we can’t find? The people who, through race and poverty… vanish? That’s what the play is about.”
Stand-up comedian, popular classicist, essayist, columnist, and now novelist, Natalie Haynes brings all her talents to bear on her literary debut, the tragic thriller The Furies (St. Martin’s Press, 2014). Set in a children’s behavioral unit in Edinburgh, it’s a fast-moving psychological stunner shot through with black humour (check out our full review). Earlier this month, we chatted to Natalie about Sophocles, The Wire and Mickey Rourke, and what we should really be teaching our kids. Read the full interview here, and watch Natalie talking about her earlier book The Ancient Guide to Modern Life here:
Gail Sheehy‘s explosive journalistic career has seen her board the Kennedy ’68 campaign jet, travel to the heart of the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, and investigate the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Along the way, she found time to get lost inside Grey Gardens, to follow Hillary Clinton into bathrooms, and, most recently, to dash off a quick memoir, Daring: My Passages (William Morrow, 2014). A veteran of the political profile and an intrepid reporter on the female experience, Sheehy’s is a fascinating journey. Read our review of Daring, follow Gail on Twitter, and check out the lady herself as she talks about her new book here:
You know that bit of clip art your computer used to throw up when you typed in drama? The two classical masks, one happy, one sad? That’s sort of like Natalie Haynes’s career. Not in a bad way, though. Thalia, the Muse of comedy, oversaw her first act — as a hugely successful stand-up (she was the first woman to be nominated for the prestigious Perrier Best Newcomer Award at the Edinburgh Fringe). Now it’s Melpomene’s turn, as the Muse of tragedy, to take over for Act II. The Furies(St. Martin’s Press, 2014), just published in the States, is a clever synthesis of Greek tragic tropes and modern crime fiction, set largely in a pupil referral unit in Edinburgh. (Read my review here.) Her earlier (nonfiction) book The Ancient Guide to Modern Life (Overlook Press, 2011), with its irreverent but perceptive rediscovery of contemporary culture through Greco-Roman eyes, bridged the gap.
Natalie was kind enough to drop by the blog for a chat about Sophocles and Mickey Rourke, patricide at school, and the drunks of East Anglia.
Charles Arrowsmith: Hi Natalie, thanks for your time. So The Furies is ostensibly a book about what might happen when you mix Greek tragedy with troubled adolescents. Can or should a line be drawn in terms of what texts we teach our children?
Natalie Haynes: I think people tend to underestimate what teenagers understand. We forget, maybe, how smart we were when we were young… So I’d let them learn most things in school (I’d shy away from bomb-making handbooks and Mein Kampf, obviously). I think we worry too much about them reading Shakespeare, especially in the UK. You can find big ideas and moral dilemmas aplenty without reading Hamlet or King Lear. And Greek tragedies – in translation – are usually an easier read than Macbeth. I stand behind Alex’s choice to read Oedipus with her class: I think if you are going to win over recalcitrant teens, there are few better places to start than patricide and deviant sex. And teenagers – who have so little authority of their own, and are so often subject to the authority of others – know what it means to think about free will, more than most.
CA: What’s the greatest tragedy of modern times?
Mickey Rourke: Sophoclean?
NH: Well, I would argue that the first three seasons of HBO’s magnificent TV show The Wire are a perfect Greek tragedy. And the Mickey Rourke film The Wrestler (how did he not win that Oscar?) is pretty Sophoclean: a hero whose fatal flaw leads him to the exact behaviour which will cause his undoing. Hard to argue with Arthur Miller, too, especially Death of a Salesman. I can’t pick one. Sorry. My tragic flaw is clearly an inability to favour one medium over another. Could be worse, I suppose.
CA: Your first novel is a tragedy but your career to date has mostly been in comedy. How did the latter prepare you for the former?
NH: I’m with Woody Allen on this: comedy = tragedy + time. Aristotle would probably have had less of a problem with this than we do. He knew that comedy and tragedy are both cathartic. Tragedy prepares us for the worst things to come in our lives. It allows us to rehearse our responses to grief. But comedy is a different kind of catharsis: it allows us to laugh at other people’s tragedy, and perhaps ultimately laugh at our own. My particular kind of comedy was quite tragedy-obsessed, I guess. I am way happier onstage now I’m there to talk about Greek tragedy or Juvenal or something else classical. Worryingly, I think I am probably funnier now, too…
CA: As a stand-up comedian you must be well prepared for the SpeakEasy stage. What’s been your single worst moment onstage?
NH: I’ve blanked most of them out. A short memory is crucial for a comedian, or we could never go out of the house again. I have had some terrible gigs, though. Sometimes I was bad, sometimes the audience was bad, sometimes it was both of us. I remember the drunk man in Peterborough who stormed the stage and wrenched the microphone from my hands (nothing personal, he just wanted to sing). I remember going onstage the night my grandfather died, and being way too upset to fake being funny. I remember demolishing a crazy heckler, because I felt that he was threatening my gig (no excuse for being as poisonous as I was). Ah, memories. And people wonder why I prefer writing sad books…
CA: As a prolific judge of literary prizes, can you give us a feel for the state of the art?
NH: Last year, I judged the Man Booker Prize and then immediately began the reading for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (awarded to fiction translated into English). And I judged the Orange Prize in 2012. So I have read something like three hundred novels in thirty months, which I cannot recommend, unless you want to have the worst posture in the world. On the plus side, it is an amazing way to read a pile of books you would never have chosen in a million years, which has been great. They haven’t all been great, you understand. A lot of them were bloody awful. But it’s still good to read outside of your own taste. My conclusions are: publishers take the past more seriously than they take the future. They submit a lot (I mean a lot) of historical fiction for prizes. They don’t champion futuristic fiction anywhere near as much. In related news: comic novels are rarely as funny as they could or should be. Crime novels are hard to give prizes to, because they don’t stand up especially well to being re-read a month or two after a first reading. If I never read another novel set in or around the Second World War, it will be too soon. Quirky child narrators drive me mad. Quirky narrators with Asperger’s, ditto.
CA: What are the last three books you’ve read?
NH: I have just read (and reviewed) The Amazons by Adrienne Mayor, in which she unpicks myths and legends and histories of warrior women in the ancient world. Fascinating, and super-readable. Before that, I read Ali Smith’s How to be Both, which is insanely good: there are two stories which intertwine with each other. You can read them in either order, and the book is cleverly published so you have to open it up to see which one they’ve printed first. And before that, I read Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others, which is a wonderful family and political saga, set during the Naxalite rebellion in India. Three great books in a row. I must be due a rotten one…
CA: Thanks so much for your time, and see you on the 29th!
You can buy tickets to see Natalie Haynes — alongside John Guare, Gail Sheehy, Marcelo Gleiser, and Andrew Solomon — in Inside the Lie at City Winery on September 29 here. You can buy Natalie Haynes’s debut novel, The Furies, at McNally Jackson.
Policemen and doctors will tell you they know when it’s a full moon, because the A&E units fill up more quickly than on other nights of the month. Sometimes I would think the same was true of Rankeillor: there was a trigger of some kind — invisible to adults but perfectly tangible to the kids — which would make them all go nuts for a day or two each month; or week, if we were really unlucky.
— Natalie Haynes, The Furies
Natalie Haynes‘s exciting first novel, The Furies (St. Martin’s Press, 2014), is a five-act tragedy-thriller set in a pupil referral unit in Edinburgh. Alex Morris is a young theater director who has fled to Scotland following a mysterious personal tragedy, leaving behind directorial duties at the Royal Court in London and what could have been a brilliant career. Taking up an offer from her old drama teacher at university, Alex finds herself in the basement of “the Unit” on Rankeillor Street, where she conducts drama therapy classes with children who have been withdrawn from other schools because of their behavioral problems. She’s drawn to one class in particular, a group of five mismatched teenagers who overcome their initial distrust of her as they discover a shared (unhealthy) interest in Greek tragedy. Each has her or his own demons to face; each is caught between a society poised to reject them and a burgeoning creativity that might yet save them. The two boys, Ricky and Jono, are aggressive and inarticulate, short-fused, prone to corridor brawls. The girls, meanwhile, are slower to reveal their cards. Annika, who is desperate to return to Sweden, is aloof and contemptuous. Carly and Mel seem more amenable both to Alex’s teaching and the possibility of rehabilitation, but may have more going on beneath the surface than initially appears.
Haynes was a classicist at university and a stand-up comedian for more than a decade afterwards. Her experiences in both fields inform this suspenseful but often hilarious debut. The plot exhibits many of the traits of classical tragedy. As readers we are made aware from the first couple of pages that something is desperately amiss (“I wouldn’t have believed any of them could do something so monstrous.”) So like Greek audiences’, already familiar with their heroes’ fates, our pleasure lies in the how rather than the what. Alex’s flashback narration is interspersed with both the legal battle that comes after the novel’s central event and Mel’s diary entries. These three strands offer a multidimensional view of the unfolding story. Mel’s full name (Melody) and her reflections on the action recall the Greek chorus, although her function in The Furies turns out to be rather more active than a chorus would traditionally have been. Like Oedipus, Alex is blind — metaphorically — to what is going on around her until it is too late, absorbed by grief over her fiancé’s murder. Mel’s literal deafness, meanwhile, is a variation on the same trope: she hears but does not really listen; she sees too much but understands too little. Nietzsche’s opposed forces — the Apollonian and the Dionysian — are well in evidence, too. The students in the Unit are an uncontrollable, Bacchic presence, “Like pack animals. Like hyenas. They know when you’re afraid and they use it against you, taking advantage of their superior numbers to destroy you.” The teaching staff, charged with bringing order to chaos, spend their days attempting to keep frenzy at bay.
Haynes uses comedy and social realism to bring a contemporary accessibility and resonance to her story. Alex’s students are the source of much of the novel’s humour. Mel, for instance, on a train to London: “I never understand why people make jokes about the food on trains being bad. They have three flavours of crisps on that train.” And this typical exchange between Alex and Jono on the subject of Sophocles:
‘So in today’s lesson, I thought we could look at the defining characteristic of Oedipus. What would you say that was?’
‘He fucked his mum,’ said Jono.
‘That’s maybe his defining behaviour, but it’s not really a characteristic, is it? […] If you had to describe him to someone — I mean, what kind of person he is — what would you say?’
‘That isn’t motherfucker?’
As the children find resonances between the tragedies they read and their own lives, their comic interpretations begin to serve more than one end. For although her characters are the functions of a tragic plot, Haynes’s compassion for them brings a warmth and social conscience to what could have been a chilly exercise in Aristotelian styling. A debate over free will inspired by reading Sophocles ends up feeling as sociological as it is philosophical. Are these children to some extent fated by their parents’ choices or their socioeconomic status to “fail”? At least in the eyes of society at large? Alex’s friend and former mentor Robert, who runs the Unit, keeps his students’ files as confidential as possible, “determined that the children shouldn’t become prisoners of their files and of the low expectations that accompanied them.” Likewise, Alex, who is respectful of her charges throughout, would rather see their potential than dwell on their troubled pasts.
In true Aristotelian style, there’s no slack in this taut, swift thriller. Each act ends on a cliffhanger; each revelation feels like a shift up in gear. As one character observes, tragedies are about “people fucking up their own and other people’s lives even though they’re often trying really hard not to.” The Furies is no different. With its litany of misunderstandings, regrets, and misguided actions, it’s like a diabolical Rube Goldberg machine, marching steadily, inexorably towards its awful conclusion.
You can buy a copy of The Furies from McNally Jackson. Natalie Haynes will appear at our next Seriously Entertaining show, Inside the Lie, also featuring Andrew Solomon, John Guare, Gail Sheehy and Marcelo Gleiser, at City Winery on September 29. Buy your tickets here.