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Wright to Writer: Actor Alex Lawther in discussion with Sam Kenyon

Actor and author discuss I am not Raymond Wallace, a remarkable tale of love, loss and queer visibility

AL: I had the joy of meeting you as an actor workshopping your musical for the RSC Miss Littlewood. What propelled you into writing I am not Raymond Wallace?

SK: The joy was mine…now then, the impetus came from a story an older friend told me way back in 1995. It was a story from the early ‘60s of love, loss, and an extraordinary father figure. A few years later - in 2003 - I wrote the first draft…and then various other things either happened or didn’t happen, which resulted in my shelving this manuscript until the first lockdown, when I saw Inkandescent requesting submissions…

Did you find writing a novel an extension of your work thus far or a leap into a totally new way of telling a story?

Since writing MISS LITTLEWOOD, I got very interested in dialogue and how much of the story can/should be told through conversations. In returning to prose writing, I was resistant to giving ‘line readings’ to my reader; I wanted them to engage with what the characters were saying to one another, and not to be overly reliant on an authorial description of, for example, motivations or subtexts. So I imagined actors delivering those conversations, with me as the director. That said, I also enjoyed returning to an authorial position, able to give detailed descriptions of feelings and the like. It’s a really fascinating balance, how to give indications without being heavy-handed.

I saw in your acknowledgements that "early drafts...were aired at the Gay London Writers Group" – did hearing the text aloud inform the way you wrote (particularly that intimate first-person perspective that the novel has)?

That group was a haven in and of itself. I certainly received very robust criticisms during those evenings - often ranging from admiring effusiveness to disdainful frustration between listeners! If anything, though, reading it out loud created a discipline in me to be more economical and less self-indulgent than I might have been, otherwise. It’s really embarrassing when you feel as though people are losing interest…!

I love the shift in form from Part 1 to Part 2. Suddenly understanding that Part 1 was from Raymond's memoir, made me second guess the reliability of him as narrator. Were those big shifts (and again in Part 3) a structure you had in mind from the outset or did they come to you along the way?

The overarching move towards part three was always part of my plan, even twenty years ago. I’m interested in emotional inheritance - what we receive, almost certainly unconsciously, from our parents, that isn’t material, and that may take some analysing and unpicking. So I wanted a broad time range. The decision to make part one a memoir, however, was one I took during the latest editorial process. It gave me what I’m delighted it gave you: the right to engage with a series of different narrators, all interrelated, and all as (un)reliable as each other.

Whether it is a gay bar in Brooklyn or a tea room in Paris, place seems to be very important to this story. Is there something about place – and also to be away from "home" – that is bound up with the events which happen in those places?

Joe’s observation that travel helps us dip the clutch on entrenched patterns of behaviour is very much something I’ve felt in my own travels. And New York and Paris have, for me, both represented a delicious freedom, albeit in quite different ways. I think as a queer person, ‘home’ is often split, complex, and being away from it can give a really useful context to - and perspective on - it. The intimacy of certain spaces is definitely something I’ve enjoyed – and which I’ve tried to convey in this story.

Speaking of place... Little Navy. Les Mots à la Bouche. Joey's apartment in Brooklyn. These spaces seem like precious safe-havens to your characters where they can feel free, sexy, at ease. Those spaces are essential not only for queer kids growing up, but for queer newcomers to a city, queer friends of any age to meet safely – the places mentioned in the Paris portion of the book are real, but are there any other real world queer spaces that hold an important place for you? Or were inspiration for the fictional ones in New York?

Oh, there was a marvellous cafe right by Centrepoint when I first arrived in london. It was a vegetarian place called First Out, where they played Joni Mitchell. I just adored it. I felt so safe there, and it was right in the centre of town! It’s closed now, but it holds such a warm, nourishing place in my heart and memory. Les Mots à la Bouche (in its previous location in the Marais) was a similar place of greater safety for me. Again, a central location, and again, a vibrant, sexy, creative queer space. I just hope one day I can see my own book on its shelves…that would be a wonderful moment for me.

It feels as if each "Part" is like a generation passing its story on to the next. In some ways, part 3 told in 2003 seems very close to today's world but was there ever a temptation to write a part 4 set today?

In an earlier draft, I had a key character die at the end of part three. My editor suggested it might be nice to end on less of a downer (!), so I did make that (not insignificant) change. This leaves us with a mixture of feelings at the end. I like that there’s a kind of echo built in to my book. So I ended up wanting to let ‘part 4’ play out in the reader’s mind, rather than pinning it down. A number of readers have said they’ve actually missed the characters when they’ve finished the book; that is an extraordinary thing to hear, and I wouldn’t want to affect that in any way.

Joey, Raymond, Joe; each seem to embody different ideals about love. Raymond searching for his "angel"; Joey only wanting "to be the man of someone's rainy Thursday afternoon"...was there a perspective that you felt easiest to write from?

This is a wonderful observation and question. A serial philanderer once described me as ‘the man of [his] dreams.’ I responded with Joey’s line about rainy Thursdays…I’ve experienced all of those perspectives, and in my experience, they are dependent on the interlocutor. I drew on aspects of myself for each of these figures.

My publisher once asked me how I could write what he perceived as such clarity whilst appearing to be such a well-balanced individual. I responded:

“In some sense I used to be like Ray; I’ve spent a long time being like Joe, but I’m aiming to become more like Joey!”

Raymond Wallace writes about himself at 21 years old in 1963. If you were to write a line or two to your twenty-one year old self today, what might you say?

“It’s going to take longer than I know you’d like, but trust me: it’s going to be wonderful.”

What's next for you, Sam?

Since the first lockdown, I’ve also been developing a new theatre piece inspired by a memoir and letters by/between Samuel Steward, Gertrude Stein & Alice B. Toklas, entitled ‘Dear Sammy’. It’s about queer (in)visibility in the 20th century, sex, sexuality, and passionate friendships. I’ve also just begun adapting a big old novel for the stage…and there are other novels, whether on my hard drive or bouncing around in my head…I feel very lucky to be getting the chance to tell stories that matter so much to me.

SAM KENYON is a writer, composer, performer and teacher. He studied English Literature at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, before training in Musical Theatre at the Royal Academy of Music.

After performing for twelve years, he developed a career as a composer and lyricist. At the Royal Shakespeare Company, he provided music and lyrics for The Christmas Truce (2014), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2016) and Vice Versa (2017). He wrote the book, music and lyrics for Miss Littlewood—a musical exploring the life of Joan Littlewood—which opened at the RSC in 2018, and which is published by Concord Theatricals. He is currently developing a musical about Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas and Samuel Steward.

As a voice teacher, he works across styles and genres, with theatre, film and recording artists. He teaches at the Royal Academy of Music, as well as running a private teaching practice. He lives in London with his partner, Mitch, and their daughter. I am not Raymond Wallace is his first novel.

ALEX LAWTHER is best known for his acclaimed roles in THE LAST DUEL, BLACK MIRROR, HOWARD'S END,and multiple BAFTA winning THE END OF THE FUCKING WORLD. He made his screen debut as young Alan Turing in THE IMITATION GAME. Alex will next be seen in STAR WARS: ANDOR. He recently played HAMLET in Rob Icke's production for the Park Avenue Armoury in New York to outstanding reviews.

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