How many really good works do you think a writer has in them?
I’m going to say infinite for the sake of my own professional optimism, but I don’t think there’s a rule. I do think there are only so many things you can pull out of the bones of you … and they are usually the good ones. I don’t have a number for you. Fuck it, six.
What stage of making something are you happiest?
I love the very beginning when all the Post-its are on the wall. I love the mad, midnight script scrambles just before the shoot starts, trying to pull it all together. I found a video of the fire alarm going off in the office at 2am when we were working in the office late at night. Wine on the table, scripts everywhere. At the time it was stressful, but it has its own glory. I must like it because I always end up there one way or another.
I like the possibilities that you have when you are writing. They are infinite. I always feel as though the story is there, floating around in my peripheral vision, I just need to catch sight of it for a second. Being on set is a lot of fun; the camaraderie, getting that incredible take, but I think I love the edit the most. It’s like putting a puzzle together with friends. It’s so exciting when a cut works. Also, when it’s all finished and people like it is a pretty great feeling.
In a sliding-doors world, what other job would you do?
I’d be your overbearing assistant. I liked the idea of becoming a criminal barrister. I applied for law school when acting wasn’t interested in me. I’m excited by the power of argument.
Have you ever owned a guinea pig? If you did, do you think you’d treat it like play Fleabag or TV Fleabag?
Jack. Lol. TV Fleabag. Never owned one. I was more of a hamster woman. TV Hilary was adorable though. That was a tough goodbye.
Did you ever consider an ending where the Priest – I refuse to call him Hot Priest – said yes?
May I clarify that I never scripted him as Hot Priest! That was the good work of the internet meeting Andrew Scott’s impossibly intense charisma. There was an idea for an alternative ending, but I’ll never say what it was …
Did you know Fleabag was as good as it was before it aired, or were you anxious about anyone seeing it?
I was hugely anxious before it came out. I didn’t know if people would like it. I had to remind myself that my job is to move people, not impress them. I don’t think I’ll ever feel the pressure as keenly as I did the first time. It was a huge opportunity that had the potential to change my life – and it did! I was also aware that the play had done well and I didn’t want to fail it with a crap TV adaptation. I shudder remembering the sleepless nights!
Is it better to be fucked up by religion than by life? And why is damage so sexy?
If I was going to choose, I’d rather be fucked up by religion. At least that is something I could feasibly escape and still be breathing.
Damage is indicative of vulnerability, which I think always feels a little dangerous. It is evidence that a person can feel deeply, that they can be open … then that delicious wall goes up and we just want to scramble over it and save (and feel) the person. It’s irresistible. I also think damage is a glimpse of something honest, and that’s always attractive.
I read that you sometimes write characters for someone specific. Who could inspire you to write right now?
Héloïse! Great question! I saw someone performing this random thing online recently and was so stunned by his work that I spent hours tracking him down until I found him on a Facebook group and asked if we could work together. Just watching him for those few moments gave me the idea for a character I’m now completely preoccupied with. I also want to write for Sian Clifford and Jodie Comer for ever, of course.
Professionally speaking, what keeps you up at night?
The tease of a better idea, a better line, a better twist. I always think there’s something better somewhere and lie awake hoping I might just … grab it.
I heard that when you’re blocked or in a creative rut, you read. What kind of books help you to unblock?
It can be literally anything. I just feel it’s good to jolt the brain a little. One day while I was writing the second series of Fleabag I had run out of steam, so I kicked around the house and picked up my flatmate’s copy of Vagina by Naomi Wolf. I read a paragraph on the creative power of the orgasm and it gave me the idea for the Godmother character having an orgasm while she painted a picture. I went back and put it in the script.
You said the actor part of you challenged the writer part of you and vice versa. When you are writing for other people, do you envisage yourself in the roles?
If I know who I’m writing for I will always have them in mind, but my actor radar is always bleeping. I want to write scenes that actors can’t wait to play, whatever the size of the role. I remember being the character with one functional line and nothing to bring to life. Now, when writing those roles, I always try and bring a little personality to them, partly because that’s more realistic, but also so the actor has something they can actually make a choice about.
How do you, physically, write? What chair, what room, do you listen to music, do you have structures plotted on a whiteboard, what do you wear, what do you eat? Can you write in cafes? And do you get really sweaty while you do it? Because I do.
In bed. On Post-its. Often in weird combinations of clothes. Can’t write in cafes. Yes sometimes sweaty. On the busiest days I can write all day and night in bed. I often forget to eat and then get panic-hungry at around 5pm, scramble downstairs on all fours like a fox and eat everything in the fridge, however incongruous. Deliveroo has been a great help. At certain times I will work in an office with my producers, where we put all my notes – ideas, images, jokes – on the wall, then talk about them for hours, moving them around to see if it sparks anything.
How many ideas do you have floating around in your head? What’s the oldest, and the most recent?
Somehow the oldest and the most recent have combined. I’m working on a project that seems to encapsulate all the images and ideas I’ve been having over the last 10 years. They all seem to be slotting in peculiarly well. I was drafting the other day and suddenly remembered a rough, lone storyline I’d written years ago. It fitted so perfectly into a gap in the project, I couldn’t believe it. It’s almost spooky. Like it had been waiting for me to catch up with it.
Read out loud the first four entries on your Notes on your phone.
“Organise US phone with Josh”
“Hands at the top” (?!)
“You reached deep into his heart, grabbed the grenade, pulled the pin, then ran away shouting sorrysorrysorry!!!”
I enjoy Fleabag, but worry that it’s largely because I over-identify with the victim stance. Was this the plan? To exasperate the victim/blame culture?
No, I didn’t really have a plan. I like stories where you can see the fight in someone. Fleabag was always performing for the camera to distract both herself and the audience from her misery. Her drive was to entertain you, so she could never allow herself to be a victim for fear of boring you.
What was the most satisfying challenge to overcome in the making of Fleabag?
There was a moment when we thought we couldn’t have the fox in the final scene. I fought to the teeth for it so eventually seeing it come to life and the response it had was really satisfying. Fiona Shaw’s scene was a late addition and turned out to be pivotal. Watching Fiona Shaw moisturise her forearms exactly as I’d dreamed she would, was a highlight.
Would you say you were naturally self-confident, or do you have to work at it?
I’ve always enjoyed performing, and even when I wasn’t getting any work, I was convinced that I could bring something to the party. I don’t know where that came from. I have a very encouraging family and a very social upbringing.
I think confidence can be tied to permission. If you feel you have a place somewhere, you are more likely to assert yourself. Assertiveness isn’t a quality women are traditionally taught to possess and there are lots of professions where a woman can feel like a trespasser. When I met Vicky Jones (director of the play of Fleabag), she inspired me to stop apologising for wanting to be the kind of actor or writer that I wanted to be. We forced each other to write almost by reminding each other that we were allowed to.
How many drafts did you do for the pilot episode of Fleabag? And do you generally do lots of rewrites?
I did a lot of drafts for the pilot. Mainly because I have no problem with throwing things out. In fact I get a kick out of it. I have discarded full episodes of Fleabag that have nothing to do with the series now. There’s an episode somewhere where Fleabag goes to “Grief Tango” at the local church hall, which I’m slightly bereft about. As for rewrites, I’m constantly tweaking on set. Sometimes the moment I see the actors in the room, I know that the scene isn’t right.
I still don’t feel like I have a solid process. It’s a mystery to me that it ever gets written. I struggled to write the first episode of season two of Fleabag for four torturous months. I just couldn’t find the right story. Once I’d decided to set it in the restaurant I wrote the whole thing in under an hour … WTF.
At what point into writing series one of Fleabag did you think, ‘Oh I’ve actually smashed it mate, this show’s gonna blow everyone’s tits off’?
The moment we cast YOU! No, I didn’t feel that sure of the show at any point. But I was passionate about the character and the reveal of her story. I was proud of that. I think that’s all you can really hope for when writing; that you create a character you would defend, however awful they are. I’d do the same for Villanelle. I’d go down fighting for my girls.
Would you agree that the key to the heart (of Fleabag, and in general) is the way you write about the relationships between women?
I love writing women and their dynamics are infinitely fascinating to me, but I’m careful not to write them up at the expense of the men. I approached writing Fleabag’s relationship with her father, the bank manager, Martin and the Priest with as much heart as the female relationships, they just weren’t as central to the story. It’s why writing Priest was so important to me.
Fleabag started as a one-woman show. How easy was it to build the characters around her and retain her complexity?
It was hard! So much of Fleabag’s power in the play was her descriptive weaponry. She could sum someone up and decimate them within moments, and it would be the only perspective the audience would ever have on that person. Once they were real people populating the show a new line was drawn. Now Fleabag is describing a person who is standing next to her. We can see them too. In some ways it created its own tension and comedy. The more the audience contradicted what Fleabag led us to believe about them the more interesting it was. She’d say “He’s not going to do that”. Then he does it.
Which comes first, the comedy or the tragedy?
They are both sides of the same squirrel. They feed each other. Like a weird metaphor. I’d say usually the comedy. However hard I try to write a serious scene something will always sneak in. And so it should.
Your success is phenomenal, and an inspiration. But no one ever teaches you how to deal with success. So … how’s it going?
It’s going bloody great, Russell! Thanks for saying that. Last year has been insane. I’ve loved every part of it. Going back and doing the play was a really important part of it. Putting the show up with the same gang who put it up in Edinburgh in 2013, performing the character that started the whole thing and then ultimately letting her go, was oddly grounding.
I’m always asking myself “how would I feel if this went away” about various aspects of it all. I think the things I’d be truly gutted to lose are my creative freedom, my collaborators and a couple of really nice coats. Anything else is just a perk. One of the best of them is meeting people whose work you love.
How terrified (or not) are you before writing?
I’m excited before writing, when it’s all ideas and anything is possible. It’s once I’m into it and the deadlines are approaching that the terror turns up. I’m very self-critical, which is exhausting, but I know it’s what pushes me … so I’m trying not to improve on that.
How did you decide that Kristen Scott Thomas’s character couldn’t be bothered? And if she’d said yes precisely how terrible would the sex have been?
Haha. Excellent question. I don’t know, it just popped out that way. But I suppose the desire for a flirt isn’t the same as the desire for sex. Flirting can give you a pip of energy whereas sex can be exhausting, especially when you are a Very Busy Best Woman in Business.
As a writer I often feel like I am telling the same story over and over in slightly different ways. What is the story you tell across your work?
I think I’ll always write vulnerable rascals. I can’t help but tell stories about loss or grief, in one way or another. Mainly I’m writing people who are desperate for love, but don’t know how to ask for it.
Your writing is so brilliantly uninhibited about sex, have you had any push back from the Americans right?
Not a squeak … which I hope means they relate (probably haven’t watched it).
Amanda Palmer, singer, performance artist
How are you doing today? How are you feeling?
I’m good. I’m working on my friend’s show here in Toronto, which has been cold, but fun. I haven’t been back to London for a few months so I feel a bit disconnected from home. I am so looking forward to seeing my family. Other than that, it is 6.16am. I’ve been working on these questions through the night, which I’ve enjoyed, but now I’m absolutely wired, have suddenly got really hungry and am scared I only have feta in the fridge.
Do you find writing to be lonely and excruciating or does it flow out of you like a goddam fountain?
Bet you’re a goddam fountain. I can find it lonely, but I do find it mentally knackering after a while. Especially writing TV when the turnover is so fast and there is so much story to generate. I don’t think you can really stop working when you’re writing. It’s always with you, everywhere you go. You brain is constantly churning things over, generating ideas or unpicking knots. I wouldn’t change that for the world, but it is a constant rotation of the machinery of your mind. But then … oh but then … the goddam fountain suddenly cometh and my God what a feeling that is.
• Fleabag: The Scriptures is published by Sceptre on 12 November.