The Prodigal returns – script turned into novel by friends after 15 years
A HARD-hitting story about life, love and loss in a fictional Newcastle housing estate has been written by Nicky Doherty and Julie Blackie called The Prodigal. Despite being hundreds of miles apart, the collaborators, who write under the name Nicky Black, explain how they’ve transformed a tv script into a gritty novel while building successful careers and why it was so important to base their book in a deprived world which rarely gets a voice.
I remember well the Elswick riots in Newcastle in the 1990s. You both met while working on regeneration schemes in riot-torn estates in Newcastle then – how did that influence your writing?
Julie: I had been a community worker for years so I think this influenced my writing enormously. People take you into their lives and homes, they tell you so much about their personal circumstances and trust you with their secrets, hopes and fears. For me the setting in my head for The Prodigal was always Scotswood and Elswick which suffered terribly from rioting. I invented the fictional name of Valley Park from my favourite nursery in that area called Valley View.
For Nicky, when she is writing, she imagines Valley Park as Cowgate because she spent many happy years working in a community project there. Nicky and I have also worked in Byker, Pottery Bank and Walker, none of which suffered riots, but which have the same characteristics as Elswick.
We don’t shy away from the fact that estates like Valley Park can be frightening places, and some, like the Meadowell Estate in North Tyneside, became no-go areas at that time. Valley Park could be any council estate in any part of the UK – it’s fairly universal. The Prodigal is just a glimpse of how people get through their lives living amongst such neglect and chaos.
How, until very recently has your writing taken you on different career paths?
Nicky: It wasn’t the writing that took us on different career paths so much as the need to work to pay the bills! Julie had a career in the public sector, writing as a hobby, until she met Carolyn Reynolds from Granada who loved her work and commissioned The Prodigal as a two part series in around the year 2000. It was then that Julie started writing as a career.
Julie: I got an agent and landed a job on a soap called Family Affairs. I wanted to hone my craft and wrote 25 episodes of Hollyoaks and then moved to Casualty where I wrote for two series.
But my heart was in writing my own original material, so I decided to pursue that, helping my local theatre group write kids shows, and raising money for a children’s theatre called The Round in the Ouseburn Valley. I still did some writing: trials for Vera and In the Club.
Then I got involved in a business venture supporting my daughter and I’ve been doing that for the last four years in the North-East.
It is very busy and I rarely get time to write now although I do sneak off to writer’s retreats and courses when I get the chance, I love going to Arvon at Lumb Bank in Heptonstall.
Nicky: Julie is being very modest. She actually owns a multi-million pound on-line fashion outlet with her daughter, Alice, which has won tonnes of awards, including North-East Young Entrepreneur of the Year (for Alice, not Julie ☺ no offence Julie…). In terms of my career, I didn’t write as prolifically as Julie, after meeting her and editing her work, she encouraged me to enter some competitions and to enrol on the Live Theatre’s new writing programme, which I did. I wrote three pieces for the Live Theatre, but, to be honest, dialogue wasn’t my thing.
I did write a monologue called ‘Blob’ about a baby in the womb, and that I loved. I also worked in the public sector, and when my contract came to an end in Newcastle, I took a punt on a big promotion in a London based consultancy, which, to my surprise, I got. So off I trotted in 2002 to the Big City, and I stopped writing all together. I met my partner in London and have been there ever since.
I am now Deputy Chief Executive of a Social Enterprise, still in the world of regeneration and helping make life better for the least well off.
In 2011, Julie, still confident that The Prodigal had some legs, was losing faith trying to find a producer for it. ITV didn’t green light it, and Carolyn Reynolds had moved on. I’m a big reader of books, and as a passing comment, I said it would make a great novel. Julie had just written a short children’s book, but she didn’t enjoy it as much as script writing. So I asked if she’d let me have a go….
Julie: I was pleased when Nicky wanted to adapt The Prodigal as a novel. I’ve left a lot of it up to her really, I just need to make sure she stays on plot! [Nicky: I get a bit carried away sometimes…]. Sometimes the characters turn out differently to how they were in my head but that’s okay. I love the way she describes things, feelings and motivations: that’s something I’m not very good at. I think in pictures and what people feel and say but scriptwriting is a whole different medium to being a novelist.
Was it difficult to write the book in this unconventional way?
Nicky: Well, I’ve never written a book any other way, so I can’t really compare it to be honest. But I didn’t find it that difficult, no. I had a plot, a structure and characters all there. I also had lashings of brilliant dialogue, which I don’t write very well.
Writing a whole story from scratch scares the living day lights out of me. Having two of us makes it a less anxious journey for sure.
Why did you decide to self-publish through Amazon?
Nicky: Basically, because we could. Why waste time and emotion on rejections? We’re not naive and we know how difficult it is for new writers to get book deals. Other writers were making a success of it, so why not?
I’m still confident we’ve got a great product, and it will get picked up, but we’re in no hurry and we’ll wait for the right deal. The reviews are fantastic – all we need to do is get The Prodigal and future books visible to readers and that’s going to take time.
How integral was it to keep the local dialect in the story?
Julie: As a writer you have to understand that your audience is much broader than just the area where you live. I don’t write dialogue in dialect, like ‘wye ey man’ if I can avoid it. I write in word and sentence patterns that are common to the North-East area but not impenetrable. I want anyone from anywhere to get it.
I remember reading an Irvine Welsh book and having to put it down and never went back to it because I just couldn’t understand the dialect and it ruined the book for me (although Trainspotting is my favourite film of all time). It’s just hard to read dialect so I avoid it.
It’s a tale of star-crossed lovers but you’ve said this is definitely not ‘chick lit’ – what makes it different?
Julie: I don’t write light stuff and I associate chick lit with that. I have lived and worked in hard places and this book may be a love story but it’s essentially hard. That’s not what chick lit is.
Nicky: Every writer has their own voice and it isn’t until you write a lot of material that you begin to understand what your inner self is saying. When I first read Julie’s work (her screenplay ‘Heads’), I loved that it was gritty and real without an ounce of fluff. It has its place, don’t get me wrong, but neither of us reads chick-lit. Too pink *shivers*.
How did you write the novel between you and what are your individual strengths and weaknesses?
Julie: Nicky takes the script, asks me lots of questions about the characters, how they feel, what their surroundings are like, what the tensions are between them, why they are motivated to do certain things and I try to describe all this over the phone, because it isn’t on the page, it’s in my head. Nicky transforms that into emotion, thoughts and back stories which gives the characters texture and brings places to life.
Sometimes she’ll say that there isn’t enough material and we will work on an extra bit of plot together or she will add or remove characters. I have to appreciate how much work that is and give her the freedom to get on with it.
Sometimes she’s nervous about what I’ll think and I have to admit sometimes I’m nervous about what she’s doing with it but it turns out alright in the end. My strength is story and dialogue, my weakness is descriptive stuff and adjectives, I don’t really do adjectives [Nicky: I love them, me. Probably a bit too much…].
Do you write full time or do you have other jobs?
Nicky: Julie has a full time job running her company, but is aiming to have more time for writing from 2016. I’m working three days per week right now, so am fitting in the next novel and promoting The Prodigal into those two days.
You’ve said that people of the North, the way they speak and live, struggle and survive are absolutely integral to the plot. Why was it so important to base the book in a socially deprived world which rarely gets a voice?
Nicky: Funnily enough, the Guardian ran an interesting feature on this earlier this year. Whilst I love to read ‘proper’ literature like Wolf Hall or Ian McEwan, it is so rare to hear the voices of the working classes in literature now. Roddy Doyle is my favourite author, and he, for me, is a genius at it. I grew up in a big, Catholic, working class family. We had nothing, and whilst I consider myself middle class now, I’ll always root for a better life for those that can barely get by. It’s bloody hard work.
Julie: Similarly, my life has changed hugely since bringing up my kids on my own in Benwell, mostly through different opportunities I’ve had, education and meeting different people along the way, but I can still be totally transported back to the kind of life Nicola Kelly has in The Prodigal.
Problems may change and poverty may become relative rather than actual but there will always be lots of people doing the daily grind of living on very little money who often have hearts of gold and hopes and dreams like all the rest of us. It isn’t fair for them always to be portrayed as benefit cheats.
Do you think the 1990s urban regeneration worked in the North-East or has any progress been undermined by Government cuts?
Nicky: Don’t get me started…. I think the themes that existed in the 90s have never gone away, but now we see poverty emerging as a major risk to mental and physical health, homelessness, crime and poor education again. It feels different this time though.
There was much more hope back then, and money to invest in the problem. It’s just all too short term. It takes a generation, maybe two, to turn things around for these communities. Maybe I’m just getting old and cynical, but the gap between rich and poor seems much bigger now and it depresses me sometimes that the poor have become an ‘industry.’
I think regeneration worked in improving the fabric of some areas but I also saw it having an impact on people. City Challenge for example had committees made up of council, private sector and community representatives. It helped local people get involved in decision making. I saw individuals personally benefit from this. They became confident, took up opportunities to learn about things and they gave a tremendous amount of time for free to make their communities better, just like Margy in The Prodigal.
Of course everything has changed with Government cuts but I do think, as a region, we were always dependent upon grants for everything and your success seemed to be measured about how well you could fill in a grant application form. Progress has been undermined but that is the old school way, it is never going to be like that again and I think there has been more growth in social enterprises to replace this.
What are you writing about at the moment?
Nicky: I’m pleased you asked that! When I first met Julie she’d written a screenplay called ‘Heads’ which is our next project. We tried to get it made into a movie in the late 90s, and whilst we didn’t succeed, we did produce this tease which will be the opening chapter to the book. It’s a tad dated, but you’ll get the drift. Heads will be released in Summer 2016.
You can purchase the Prodigal in Kindle format or Paperback by visiting: http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Prodigal-Nicky-Black-ebook/dp/B010W0IE5A