In a new series, Northern Soul’s Phil Pearson talks to all sorts of creative types about the room they use to write, paint and, well, create. First up, it’s playwright Jane McNulty.
Jane McNulty is a writer and has been for more than three decades. While her name as a playwright (and she is prolific) might not be on the tip of your tongue, she has written extensively for TV and has seen her name roll up at the end of Doctors, Crossroads, Heartbeat and, for an intense two-and-a-half years from 2003, EastEnders.
Born in Cadishead, McNulty still lives and works in this Salford suburb “just on the edge of the world” next to Irlam (home of the first Greggs Drive-Thru), south west of Manchester.
An in-demand writer, she often works into the early hours. McNulty recalls rehearsing Dot Cotton’s lines at 3am in front of a full-length mirror on the landing outside her writing room in Cadishead.
But it is talking about theatre that sends McNulty’s eyes to a different place. Her drama Our Lady of the Goldfinches, an examination of the case of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10 who was killed by the IRA in 1972, toured the UK to great success in 2012. She has also had several shorter, award-winning plays produced in Ireland and the UK.
The 62-year-old is currently working on three projects: a musical about Hell’s Angels called Hell to Pay, a full-length play The Woman Who Created God, and a monologue about a woman with severe learning difficulties called Little Rabbit.
Her writing space is the box room of her semi overlooking a street of trees, privet hedges and neat houses. For a quiet room, the peace is only shattered by “that bloody bus” every hour.
McNulty’s room is packed with scripts, books, art and the debris of a lifetime spent writing. There are two beautifully cluttered desks, the back of the door is covered in a storyboard of Post-it notes, and there is just enough space on the floor for a hairy dog basket behind her cream leather swivel chair. She dusted for the “first time in 10 years” prior to our interview and was already regretting doing so by the time I got there.
In her own words, this is why McNulty works here.
“This has been my room for 20 years. It’s a bit of a cheat saying this is my writing space, because where I write is outside when I’m walking the dog. I always say, ‘put the bones of your story in your pocket and take them for a walk’. When you walk, that’s when the ideas come. This room is where I type.
“It’s really handy, out of the way and quiet. I don’t know how people work when they have to do it in the kitchen or the dining room. Nobody else is allowed in here for any length of time except my dogs. Trixie comes and sits with me a lot when I write. I’ve got everything in here. Old scripts, workshop courses and short stories – some of them were published, so they’re all in publications in here.
“I like having all my research books to hand. I can’t bear to put them away. All my Lady of the Goldfinches books are still here. It was more than a play to me. I storyboard a lot and I invented this door system for Lady of the Goldfinches because it had four or five story strands running through it. I had to juggle everything, keeping it in the air.
“Lately I’ve been writing little notes a lot, and they are everywhere at the moment. I make a quick scribble and then toss it on the pile on my desk. I can’t bear to throw things out, so they keep on accumulating and accumulating. No-one’s allowed to come in and tidy up anything. Good god, no. I dusted yesterday. I swore I wouldn’t do it, but I did. That’s the first time since it was decorated about 10 years ago.
“What I like is that it is a bit cavey, I suppose. It’s all my stuff and I don’t have to put it away or worry about what anyone else thinks about it or wants to do in here. I’ve got a paper shredder. I sometimes hear my husband using it to shred bank stuff and it really gets me. I get anxious. He wouldn’t touch anything, and he certainly wouldn’t dust, but I am a bit protective of it.
“I know where everything is; everything’s to hand and I know what’s missing. I loaned someone a book a few years back and they lost it and even though I’d read it, I had to go out and buy it again, just so I knew it was there. I find it distracting in here sometimes, though, because I have got all my stuff. All my music is up here, but I have to be careful what I listen to, because I’m listening to someone else’s words instead of writing my own.
“There are a lot of memories in here. I’m a bit of a hoarder of memories. I don’t let people go. Nothing ever leaves this room. I spend whole days in here a lot. The toast can get a bit sticky on your keyboard. I’m obsessive when I’ve got an idea that’s working, but I’m a lazy bugger like everybody else when it’s not. It’s hard graft. People think ‘oh, great life being a writer’. It’s really not. I’ve done other things in my life. Being an adventure playground worker was a much better life than this.
“When I was writing EastEnders, I’d be in here until the early hours of the morning having five-hour phone calls with script editors. I have walked that landing many times being Dot Cotton, trying out her words to see if they fit. It’s my world when I’m in here, if you really get stuck into something, everything else disappears.
“I’m in control. I’ve not got people mithering me and I can spend my time talking to people who don’t exist. And they’re always the best ones.”