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Playwright, novelist, screenwriter: A man hungry for ideas who cannot help but write. Esther Armstrong profiles Julian Mitchell’s career

Julian Mitchell is a gay writer. But he does not wish to be defined as such, “I do not regard myself as a gay writer. I write and I hope I can write anything.” And indeed he can. Born in May 1935, Mitchell is a playwright, a screenwriter and a novelist. Since taking up the pen at the age of 14 he has covered an array of topics but is perhaps best known for his contribution to the ITV drama institution Inspector Morse. However, despite his protestations, it would seem he does have a habit of looking to his own life for inspiration.

Mitchell describes the final night of Another Country as his proudest moment in a career spanning more than 50 years, and an occasion which made him cry. Based in 1930s England, the play deals with homosexuality in public schools and on its last showing in the 1980s, packed a West End theatre to the rafters. Mitchell himself boarded at Winchester College as a boy and admits he can identify with the experiences of the main characters, “We all assumed when we were young that this was just a phase out of which we would grow, and 90 per cent of people did. But it was a shock when you didn’t.”

This attitude towards homosexual activity is something Mitchell revisited in his film Consenting Adults (2007) – written for BBC4 in commemoration of the Wolfenden Report (1957). The film depicts the controversy surrounding the final suggestion by a government committee to decriminalise homosexuality. Adding to the complexity and drama is the relationship between John Wolfenden, who chairs the committee, and his son Jeremy, who happens to be gay. Again Mitchell’s art imitates life, “My father hated homosexuality and thought it was a crime. My mother never talked about it.

 “I was at least 25 before I fully adapted,” he continues, “It was very difficult in those days. I do not know how easy it is now. I never did tell my parents. But they knew.” Despite writing Consenting Adults, Mitchell is unsure of how important it is to educate young people today on the Wolfenden Report and its importance for the progress of gay rights. In his view society is much more relaxed now, “It seemed when I was younger things were never going to change. Then the law was changed and five years later nobody could remember it had ever existed. In this country I think people have become incredibly liberal in my lifetime.”

 Mitchell does not think he is unusual in drawing inspiration from his own experiences and says a little defensively, “Every writer writes about his family. You learn about human relationships very young and very early on.” Now, aged 74, he lives with his partner in Monmouthshire and says he does not like to define himself as either English or Welsh. Following a period of relative quiet, he is currently working on a series of six novels set in Monmouthshire which shows again his propensity to draw from what goes on around him. Inspiration, he says, comes along far less often than you would think, “I just drift around, I read, I listen, I look and I hope something will happen.”

 But Mitchell is not necessarily a modest man, “What is the point in writing if nobody is going to read it… I have written two [of the Monmouthshire series] so far and they are sitting in a box waiting for a publisher.” On saying that he has no plans to retire any time soon, “I would die if I didn’t write,” he imparts with no unnecessary drama.

 An avid reader of history, Mitchell wrote a biographical film of Oscar Wilde (Wilde) in 1997, something which he enjoyed tremendously. “When you are writing historically you are making them up… I did history as a student and I still read a lot. The imaginative effort to getting into the past is a great pleasure for me.”

 At times taciturn and at other times eager to share, Mitchell is an extremely interesting man who finds great delight in the world around him. Clearly capable of wowing a crowd he is both entertaining and fascinating in equal measure. But typically of men his age he does not seem inclined to sentimentality and this makes it all the more heart-warming when he temporarily lets his guard slip, “I met my partner at a dinner party. I arrived and there was an empty space opposite. He arrived late, he’s always late. I looked across the table and my life was changed.”

 

 

 

Julia's book <i>East of the Sun<i/> won Romantic Novel of the Year Award 2009

Julia's book East of the Sun won Romantic Novel of the Year Award 2009

 

 

 

They say everybody has a book in them. But it seems for some the book just writes itself. Is it easier to write if you have had an eventful life? And when is the best age to start? Esther Armstrong caught up with 2009’s Romantic Novel of the Year Award winner, Julia Gregson, to get some tips.

This is a woman who was asked by Muhammad Ali to affirm he was the sexiest person she had ever seen; someone who was so star-struck during an interview with Bob Dylan that she forgot the golden rule of listening; and a professional who found that even as she talked to him in jail serving his sentence for the Great Train Robbery, she was not immune to the charm of Ronnie Biggs.

Julia Gregson has had a career many could only ever dream of and yet, at the age of 61 she is still not ready to slow down. “I love the feeling of being gathered up and working on as many cylinders as possible,” she says. Having worked as a journalist since her mid-20s, Julia has recently branched out into novels.

In what could be described as a second career, Julia is finding out how different types of writing require a unique approach. While working on a novel she aims to write 1,000 words a day but will also “tinker” with what she has written the day before in what she calls a “warm-up exercise”. 

She compares a novel to a patchwork quilt; in the progress of fitting it together she draws ideas from various life experiences. And this is why Julia feels writing novels at a later stage in life can be more rewarding, “It’s much sweeter at my age. For me I could not have written a novel in my 20s, I did not have the discipline, self-belief or even the desire if I am honest.” 

Confidence is a theme she returns to time and again and is something she has developed with age. “Every time I have tried to take the next step I have had this sort of period of thinking ‘I cannot do this’. There’s always a mental block with me that has to be overcome. 

“There’s something about going through the process over and over again and learning what your own weaknesses are… It’s like a muscle you have learned to work, the more you do it the more instinctive it becomes.” 

Julia also feels better equipped to deal with the finer aspects of success now she is in her 60s, “It can be awfully overwhelming, suddenly everybody is being so nice to you. If it had happened at a younger age then I might have taken it too literally and expected it to always be like that.” 

Being older makes her wiser, and contrary to what you would expect Julia does not feel an overwhelming pressure to improve on the success of East of the Sun – the novel which won her the award. “The success of my last book has given me more confidence to keep going and to know that if I go through the process something will happen at the other end.”

 This is a clear example of how her journey as writer has developed alongside her journey as an individual. Not for a moment does Julia regret spending her formative years as a journalist. She acknowledges that had she started on novels earlier she might have greater literary notoriety by now but explains, “I loved being a journalist and would not have enjoyed such a solitary life in the early years.”

 And she did, of course, learn some transferable skills: the knowledge of what makes a good story, “It is like a prickling in your scalp and you know you are prepared to spend the time on it,” she says. Equally important is to write on topics that interest her, “If I was to try and write a book about middle-aged women going through marital angst it would not consume me.”

 But while it may sound pedantic, for those starting out, Julia advises one simple step: to write. She feels the worst trap can be thinking that everything you write must be deep and meaningful. “Sit down every morning and just write for 20 minutes about anything. It can be absolute rubbish… then piece together the bits where you feel excited about it.”

 Similarly she cautions against writing groups as she feels it can be destructive in the early stages of a piece. Instead, she favours a group of writer friends which she uses as a support network. “None of us share our work in progress… we get together and moan a lot, encourage and occasionally bully each other.”

 Her latest book, Jasmine Nights is due out in of August next year and it would seem even those with experience are not immune to the odd computer related pitfall, “I lost about 3,000 words in a computer error yesterday and I almost had a heart attack.”

 Above all she advocates writing with passion, “It’s an addiction. For me I feel my most alive when I am writing.” So with her final piece of advice Julia Gregson, a natural story-teller, leaves the room and I am left with an overriding compulsion to write. I better get cracking.