a conversation with Claire Massey
The conversation concludes with Claire Massey, founding editor of New Fairy Tales, reflecting on the interconnections between three independent, beautiful art forms: writing, acting, and being a mum.
PARADOXES: You’ve mentioned on your blog and in other interviews how you began with studying acting and then wound up reverting to creative writing. Why the switch?
CLAIRE MASSEY: I went to drama school, and it was method acting drama school. So it was a bit crazy. I had a brilliant time most of the time I was there. But I think a lot of what I learned, the more aware I became of what the acting profession was going to be like, and I started going to auditions, I realized it was all about what my picture looked like, and that I wasn’t really going to be given the chance to [use what I was studying].
I’d be playing these great parts at school, these great Shakespearian roles, Queen Margaret, and all kinds of really meaty stuff I could get my teeth into. And then it was, well, you’re going to come out of drama school, and you’re going to be lucky if you get a line on Coronation Street. All the stuff you’ve been studying for three years, all the Stanislavski, you’re not actually necessarily going to be using just doing an advert for a supermarket or whatever. I fell out of love with it, actually, acting, once I worked out what I was going to be doing.
I think story and character have always been the most important things to me. I was writing before I went to drama school, and then through it. But when I came out I thought, ‘No, actually what I want to do is write.’ Because I love finding out about different periods in time, and different people lives. It’s a way of being greedy to me. It’s a way of living more lives than I’ve got! Finding out fascinating things, having that excuse.
And I could do that as an actor. But then I saw, well, I have to wait for someone to give me an acting job before I do that in terms of acting. With writing I can sit at home and do it all the time. I don’t have to wait for that. There’s more autonomy. I have that control to just do it for the love of it. So that was how I made that switch.
So, as you’ve written, as an actor who’s writing, really, what similarities have you seen between the two art forms? Or what differences have you seen?
I think the main difference is that kind of autonomy. But the similarity—I think it’s interesting, because it’s partly where I think my love for fairy tales comes from as well—is that ability to believe in something, to have an imaginative life. To believe though, as an actor, that you are that character in that situation. And for me, I couldn’t just get on stage and recite lines without meaning them. So, to imaginatively put yourself in that place and live that experience on stage.
When you’re writing, for me it’s the same thing. You have to believe it. With fairy tales, the thing that I think I love most of all is that all these fantastical things happen, and they’re just accepted. No one ever questions it. There’s just this capacity to just believe and wonder, and that’s that.
So I think all those tie together. But definitely there are more similarities than there are differences between the two art forms.
And it’s interesting, because people often move between art forms anyway, don’t they? I mean, if you enjoy being creative, it’s too tempting not to do different things. I used to dance as well. I never sang though. I’m a terrible singer. I can’t do music.
Definitely, I’m enjoying writing more. But then, I’ve not been on stage for several years now. So I’m sure if I had to get up and do it, I would probably fall back in love with it again. But for now I’m happy doing what I’m doing.
How would you say that your training in acting has enriched your writing?
Definitely just that kind of experience—just immersing yourself in a world and finding out all the details. I learned how to research when I was at drama school. I learned that the small details are the most important ones. They’re conveying something.
And my training was brilliant for allowing that space to do that, in a way that I don’t think all drama schools do. So I was lucky in the way it happened and getting that chance to do that for three years. To ‘play’ almost, I suppose. You don’t get to do that as much as you start to grow up. So it’s important to grab your chances where you can, I think.
That actually leads into my next question, about what you put mentioned as your third identity.
I suppose it’s the number one, really.
It’s the number one—being a mum. How has that interplayed, again, with the fairy tales, with having children, with both the writing and the telling and the creating of fairy tales? How have those two things played together? Because it some ways that’s an art form, really.
Yes, definitely. I think, well, it definitely made me more productive, like I said before. But having the experience of motherhood, and suddenly being thrown into that, being up all night, I found I became very creative. I found I was telling stories to both of them, from them being just tiny, days old. Because it was either singing or telling them stories, and I’m terrible at singing. So I told them stories, and have continued to do that.
And I think it’s interesting in terms of fairytales, because I do tell them tales, but then you get to what’s suitable for what age range. I think I’d always been like, well, I’m just telling them. You know, not the really highly sanitized versions. And my oldest son started having nightmares about the big bad wolf. I felt terrible about having done that.
Yet at the same time, I feel it’s important not to sanitize tales too much, because that’s not what they’re there for. [My sons] get given books by other people, all these fairy tale books, that I thoroughly disapprove of. Like ‘Jack in the Beanstalk’—they’ve got a version where the giant doesn’t try to eat him, doesn’t smell him. He’s eating, like, roast potatoes and jelly and things. And then Jack basically robs him, and still goes down the beanstalk and kills him—chops it down. What kind of lesson is that? I’m not sure it’s the best bedtime reading to say it’s okay to just go and rob people, who all they’re wanting to do is eat their jelly!
I think as well, being a mum and being at home with them, a lot of my day is about play and being creative, and listening to them and the things that they come out with and come up with. So that’s inspiring.
But then, at the other side of that—because it is hard work, being at home with young children—I need an imaginative escape as well. And fairy tales are very good at that.
How did it make you more productive, having two toddlers? Because in one sense, looking at it as not quite an outsider but thinking about it from an outsider’s perspective, that just seems so counterintuitive, that suddenly I have an insane 24/7 schedule and I’m able to get more done than I ever did before. Can you explain that?
I think when I had more time, there was almost the idea of, I’ve got all the time in the world. And I just did a nine-to-five job, and I came home, and I would have a bad habit of watching television—which I never watch anymore, because there isn’t time.
Having children made me reassess what was really important. If I’ve only got this tiny amount of time once they’ve gone to bed at night, how am I going to spend that time? What is it I want to do with it? And it just became so important to me to be working and reading and doing things.
And I suppose all those hours up in the night as well, I used to just read. Fairy tales are perfect for that, because they are so short. You can get through them quite quickly.
I know that it seems probably slightly mad. But I feel like I have more energy almost, even though I really shouldn’t have. I do treasure that time at the end of the day where I can choose what I want to do. And I want to make sure I do something worthwhile with it.
I don’t think I can explain it any other way than that, but I’m very glad it happened. I’m very glad it happened, because I think in a way, because I’m more contented with that. The day to day grind of cleaning up after young children, with the tantrums and everything and all, becomes easier.
Well, I very much appreciate you taking the time out of everything else you’re doing to talk with us.
Thank you very much. And thank you so much very much for asking me, as well.
Read the rest of the interview here:
Claire Massey lives in Lancashire, England, with her husband and two young sons. She is the founder and editor of New Fairy Tales and she blogs about fairy tales at The Fairy Tale Cupboard. Her fiction, poetry and articles have appeared online and in print in an assortment of places including Cabinet des Fées, Enchanted Conversation, Rainy City Stories, Magpie Magazine and Brittle Star.