Five Questions for Andrew O’Hagan

Photo by Jerry Bauer

Andrew O’Hagan is the author of internationally acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction, as well as critical essays. His books Be Near Me and The Missing have been adapted for theatrical productions by National Theatre of Scotland. A London-based native of Scotland, O’Hagan shares with Culturebot the process from page to stage, as well as his latest work, The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe, which is released this month in the U.S.

On Tuesday, December 7, he will discuss Maf the Dog with Granta editor John Freeman at the Barnes & Noble located at 86th Street & Lexington Avenue, NYC.

1. In 2009, your novel BE NEAR ME was adapted for stage by Ian McDiarmid on behalf of National Theatre of Scotland, and directed by the renowned John Tiffany (Black Watch). What did the production achieve artistically beyond the scope of the novel which inspired it?

I had been sent several adaptations of the book, but no-one had got the internal life of this priest in trouble, no-one had found a way to make that echo in the theatre. Then Ian’s script arrived and I was knocked over by its stillness and its courage. His play wasn’t in thrall to the novel — he threw out masses of it — but it made the narrative live in a new way. That’s as much as you can hope for. The actors were thrilling and the way they sang and moved turned the whole BE NEAR ME experience into something entirely new for me, and for the rest of the audience. John Tiffany knows the biggest things one can know in the theatre: how to not take things for granted; how to make a theatrical experience true in its own way. If someone had told me 5 years ago that there could be a plausible production of BE NEAR ME in which the boy Mark sang directly to the audience I would have scoffed.

2. You recently inverted this performance process by having one of the featured actors, Ian McDiarmid, participate in a performance of your new novel, THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF MAF THE DOG, AND OF HIS FRIEND MARILYN MONROE. What was your goal in having an actor reinterpret your dialogue?

Well, you know, Ian’s just a genius actually. And like all very talented people he works much harder than others. In MAF THE DOG, which is a comic, philosophical book with the kind of characters who are often called larger than life, Ian took people such as Lee Strasberg and Lionel Trilling — real, legendary New York figures — and made them live. And this was just in the context of a live public reading. But Ian was prepared, he was ripe, and ready, and willing, and able. He was operating from intelligence and generosity, just doing it for the writing and for the fun of getting it right. And my God, I swear, you could have put his Lee Strasberg under a spotlight in any theatre in London or New York and he would have held the audience in the palm of his hand. He’s just a smash.

3. It’s my understanding that your nonfiction book, THE MISSING, is in the works or National Theatre of Scotland. Can you tell us more about this project?

Yes, we’ve just completed a series of rehearsal workshops, and the play is scheduled to go on next September. THE MISSING is a book about missing persons and was my first book. The director John Tiffany has wanted to do it for years, but I wasn’t ready, until now, when I saw how it might become a seriously magical piece of work for the stage. Those who know Black Watch will know how brilliant Tiffany can be at staging a large, uncanny, national emotion, and making it universal. He has such a vision for THE MISSING and it’s exciting to see it begin its life on the stage. These people are serious, and seriously funny, and I love working with them.

4. Your acclaimed new novel (MAF THE DOG), which debuts this week in the States, is narrated by a British expat Maltese terrier with an very celebrated American owner, Marilyn Monroe. Where did you start with establishing the voice–and any thoughts on how it would be approached as a performance-based work or film?

The book started when I attended an auction of Marilyn Monroe’s personal belongings at Christie’s in New York. Six little Polaroids of Marilyn’s dog Mafia Honey — given to her by Frank Sinatra — were sold for $222,000 and I thought instantly that the dog would make a brilliant narrator of a modern novel. I went back to the Plaza that night and couldn’t sleep. I could hear Maf speaking about the 20th century: this funny, erudite, cheeky, stylish little dog, and I knew I would have to set out and find his story. It took 10 years off and on. On the film question: well, people became interested in the possibility of a MAF THE DOG film very quickly, because the book was taken up in a lot of territories. Screenwriter Alex Garland turned up first. He wanted to adapt it and had a lovely feel for the dog but studio complications to do with his other projects made it impossible. Then we moved into another phase — during which the British press speculated wildly about big stars playing Marilyn and Frank — and are now waiting to see how it turns out. Film is such a strange world: either nobody knows anything, or people who know everything and they just aren’t telling me. Either way, I’m fine with it. At some point in the future we’ll see Maf’s the dog’s lovely face looking down a camera lense and telling it like it is. I hope he sounds like Ewan McGregor.

5. As an artist who is no doubt sequestered much of the time writing, can you elaborate on experiencing your own work on stage in front of an audience?

Oh, it’s lovely. Just hearing the laughter and feeling the energy in the crowd. There’s nothing like it. I’ve sort of grown into this aspect of my work, too: I didn’t jump in at the first opportunity, but waited until I knew how to do it and how to handle it. Now I’m a giant thespian with a 50-foot scarf. I’m beyond help. I make Truman Capote look like Arnold Shwarzenegger. But despite all this carry-on I always return to the desk and the plain shirt with the sleeves rolled up. I pour a glass of whisky in a room of my own. This is where the action is — in the writing. I only put the pen down when my daughter appears. She’s 7 and is officially the world’s finest person. She thinks her daddy is a dog.

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