Q&A with Hattie Naylor | The Night Watch

Time to adapt

Writer Hattie Naylor tells Vicky Edwards about adapting a Sarah Waters’ best-seller for the stage and why she believes that dyslexia can give script writers the edge

How did you get the gig adapting Sarah Waters’ classic book for the stage?

Sarah chose me because of two things, as far as I am aware: She liked my play Ivan and the Dog and also a stage adaptation of Alice Through the Looking Glass that I had done. The pleasure of having the author in front of you, especially someone as easy to work with and as generous as Sarah, was a joy.  

When did you realise that you wanted to be a script writer?

I was always going to be an artist of some description and it could have been any art. I knew that at the age of eight. I did a degree in Fine Art at Slade School of Art, but I have always done am-dram and so have always been around and involved in theatre. I am dyslexic and failed at English at school. Dyslexia means that you are quite good at speech. If you don’t have grammar falling on top of you then you have a very different relationship with language. You have to learn the back of the word in order to learn the front of it and it means that the brain has had to really adapt; you have to learn lots of different ways of saying things, and when you write having a plethora of ways of saying something means you aren’t nearly as constricted. You have an incredibly elastic way of working with language.

What are the golden rules of adapting a novel?

You have to be prepared to do lots of research but most important is understanding the period that the writer is in rather than the period the book is in.  Sarah is in the same period as me and so has similar values, which is easier. You start there. Then you look at why a book is a classic. The Night Watch is a very special book to so many people and I’ve kept as much as I can from the book without making it overly long.

You are an internationally critically acclaimed writer with several award nominations to your credit. How does that level of success feel?

It’s just great! But of course with The Night Watch [the play was listed as one of The Observer’s Top Plays of 2016] it was the whole team; an extraordinary cast and team that included Dan Jones, one of our foremost sound designers and composers. We have worked quite a lot together and he always says that if you notice the music then it’s wrong. It is lovely to be highlighted as the adapter as adapters generally don’t get noticed and it has a wonderful knock-on effect.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

You have to show your work to people. Some people don’t like doing it, but you really have to. Try entering competitions – there are lots – and get a copy of the Writers & Artist’s Yearbook which is stuffed full of information and really practical advice. There is plenty of advice online too. Lots of scripts get rejected because they aren’t formatted correctly, so take the trouble to find out how it should be done. And do your research. Lots of writers just don’t put the time in. Oh and never stop. I always had a thing inside me saying never stop. People have a right to do their art. Art is for everybody.

The tour is zipping all over the country. Will you be visiting any of the theatres to see the play?

I’m looking forward to Croydon. Half my family is from Croydon and I’m proud of my roots!

©Vicky Edwards