Book Chat: Maura Pierlot
Updated: Sep 26, 2021
Maura Pierlot is an award-winning playwright and author, whose works include short stories, poetry, microfiction and essays, published in a wide range of anthologies and journals. Maura is a former medical news reporter and editor of Australian Medicine. She is also a Role Model for Books in Homes, and writes reviews for the Children's Book Council of Australia's online magazine, Reading Time.
It's a great pleasure to welcome Maura to Book Chat, to find out more about her debut professional theatre production, Fragments, which explores aspects of youth mental health through eight interconnected monologues. Fragments first appeared on stage in its entirety in 2019 and is now available in paperback and being adapted for the digital space. The book, Fragments: Journeys from Isolation to Connection, is out on 1 October and available at all major online retailers including Booktopia (bit.ly/FragmentsBooktopia), and most bookshops including The Book Cow in Canberra (bit.ly/FragmentsTheBookCow).
Hi Maura. Thanks so much for making the time for a Book Chat, and congratulations on the success of your play, Fragments. It’s a brilliantly devised piece that offers so many opportunities for discussion and connection around youth mental health issues, and encourages the audience/reader to challenge so many surface perceptions of other people. I’m really keen to learn more about the development of Fragments, and about the journey that it’s taken you on as a writer.
Thanks for that great intro, Cam and for the opportunity to chat about Fragments.
Firstly, could you share with us a little about your journey as a writer? Has creative writing complemented your other professional ventures?
I’ve written all my life but usually for other people – medical writing, academic writing (philosophy), health policy, advertising copy, marketing campaigns, government reports. Before this, I wrote about issues that mattered to me, not what people paid me to write about. When my husband and I were juggling small business and raising a family, I didn’t seem to have a spare moment to think, let alone to write. But as the kids grew and I had accomplished what I set out to in business, I longed to reconnect with my creative self. The problem? My older self had lost her (creative writing) confidence somewhere between motherhood and menopause. But early competition wins and placements buoyed my spirits and I kept going.
Rather than my creative writing complementing my professional ventures, I would say it was the other way around. Running a small business – and we had three on the go at one stage when the kids were young – teaches you to be proactive, organised, analytical, resilient, progressive, dynamic and collaborative. I am a master juggler and worked hard to find the time and space for writing as a priority in my life. It took a few years to distance myself from our business pursuits though not a week goes by that I don’t seem to be dragged back in for some reason or another.
Although my business background has certainly helped me to develop a sustainable arts practice, it hasn’t made getting published any easier. Publishing decisions are based more on commercial considerations than literary ones. In business you quickly learn ultimately, you have to back yourself. I’m not the type of person who’s going to send my work off into the ether and wait around, hoping for the best. I always have a lot of irons in the fire. In fact, COVID-19 forced me to be even more proactive – to explore new opportunities, step outside of my comfort zone and tap into why (and for whom) I am writing.
If you were asked to describe Fragments to someone who hasn’t seen or read it, what would you say?
Fragments is a rare and timely opportunity to embrace your teenage self, coming to grips with the challenges, fears and regrets that many of us struggled with in high school and that many young people continue to face today. Fragments is the human form of chiaroscuro – only in the darkness can light become visible, only when you’re hurting in some way can you truly develop a hopeful heart. It’s an important work that underscores the importance of connectedness in a world that’s becoming increasingly isolated and fragmented.
What sort of discussions and connections do you hope Fragments will help to facilitate?
I hope Fragments will encourage people to talk much more openly and constructively about mental health issues. When I started writing the play in 2017, mental health wasn’t part of the public discourse or talked about candidly in family life and friendship circles. Thankfully, people are more willing to broach the subject today – we can thank the pandemic for that. Rates of anxiety were already at record levels pre-COVID and, perhaps not surprisingly, skyrocketed afterwards as isolation and uncertainty defined the new normal.
But there’s still a great deal of stigma. In fact, the term ‘mental health’ itself is a pejorative one. When we can’t cope with the stress at work, we take a ‘mental health day.’ Humans tend to think in linear terms and mental health issues are often described by deficit language, as a deviation from “normal.”
We speak of mental health illness, mental health disorders, mental health challenges, mental health problems.
I think we need to re-frame mental health in positive terms. I prefer to think about mental health in circular terms. We are up and down, left and right, all over the place from time to time, but our circles overlap with those of the people in our lives and we can be a salve to each other – if we speak our truths without fear of judgment. The end game is not about achieving a perfect state of mental and physical health. That’s impossible though it would certainly be wonderful if we self-regulate, like a mental homeostasis, when challenging thoughts and circumstances intrude. Instead, we should be striving for balance – and resilience will help us to get there.
Having written extensively for the page and stage, what are some of the factors that make you decide which mode is the best form of expression for a particular story or theme? Is there something about live performance that you think lends itself particularly well to addressing the issues we encounter in Fragments?
Being an artist is a tough gig and rarely do we have the luxury of determining when, how and where our work will appear. I don’t decide in any methodical or rational way the form of expression that I think will suit a story. More often than not, the art form is determined by external influences – funding sources, connections, time (and timeliness of the issue), whether the priority is the output or the artistic journey and growth. Writing can be a prism of sorts, casting new light on issues that affect all of us, that appeal to our shared humanity. For Fragments I was drawn to the immersive nature of theatre – the power, emotion and artistry that compels the audience to step into the troubled interior worlds of the young characters.
I had never written a play before 2013 so I’m still learning. That year, my mother came down with a mystery illness that soon tore the lid off a litany of undiagnosed issues and the start of her dementia. I moved to Australia thirty years ago and wouldn’t change this decision for the world. But being an expat, even when both cultures share a language, can be challenging, especially when living on opposite sides of the world. My thoughts, fears and frustrations took shape over a few days as a one-act play, which was selected as part of a competition for a brief run in Melbourne. I was always an avid theatre-goer and tend to write character-based work in a dialogue-heavy sense, so dramatic writing seemed to be a natural fit.
Nothing can compare to seeing your work come to life on the stage, distilled through the eyes of a director, who brings their own sensibilities and vision to the work, and embodied by performances so compelling that you suspend reality for a few hours. I was immediately hooked! But no sooner had Fragments enjoyed its sellout debut season than the pandemic hit, forcing theatres to shut down all over the world. As a result, the very notion of theatre has changed and new paradigms are still emerging. No longer is this art form confined to a building with an audience sitting in a fixed position. I’m still trying to figure out what theatre can do today and where my work fits best.
The monologues in Fragments can stand alone, but they also blend together beautifully, giving directors and actors a refreshing degree of flexibility, and the possibility of bringing aspects of themselves into the performance. Was this flexibility always part of your vision for Fragments?
From the start, I knew that I was writing Fragments for a young (secondary school) audience, though I always hoped, and still believe, that the work will have broad appeal to families, educators and health professionals. Once work is published or produced, it’s fixed in time but I wanted to keep Fragments current and contemporary. I also wanted to give schools the option to produce (or study) Fragments as a unified work or to select pieces, depending on which issues resonated in their communities. So, the decision to write in modular form – a series of monologues – was made early on. The challenge (right up to production) was how should the monologues overlap and dissect, to what extent should the characters feature in the lives of each other, and whose journey should sit on top of monologues, driving the action, adding tension and shifting the stakes? To avoid spoiler alerts I won’t mention how I resolved this issue. People will need to read the book to find out! :-)
The monologues are each so distinct and believable. Can you tell us a little about the approach you took to writing them?
When I write fiction, I become the characters. It’s almost as if I’m performing or channelling (sounds wacky, I know!). When I’m in the zone, writing is almost a mystical experience and I am often surprised by what comes out. If I don’t have a good sense of the character, or if I’m not in touch with the emotions at play, or the stakes don’t seem believable, the tap drips a few words rather than flows.
Remember being in your late teens? Everything’s so new and desperate and raw that when some drama unfolds you get all worked up, and you just have to tell someone because whatever happened, and whatever you’re feeling, is HUGE! So, you’re up on the phone all hours of the night, totally wired, and there’s no way you can sleep until you work through whatever drama has just detonated in your world. That’s me, writing YA, whether a novel or a play – at least in the early stages. The massaging and structural work come much later. My process for writing non-fiction is more methodical. I would never start without a decent outline and idea of where I’m headed.
When writing for performance there’s always an element of letting go and leaving space for actors and directors to bring your vision to life in their own ways. In what ways do you feel this has benefitted Fragments in its productions to date?
Yes, you’re absolutely right. Playwrights need to learn to let go. Writers spend so much time conceiving the work, crafting the story and polishing the words that they sometimes develop, even unwittingly, notions about what a performer should do, or how a line should be punched. But often the words that sing on a page fall flat on the stage.
The production team has great artistic scope in bringing a script to the stage, but I soon learned that this a gift (not a threat lol) and that my role as the playwright was to clarify and collaborate about the intentions of the work. Each performer connects with the work in a unique way, bringing their emotions and experience to the characters they inhabit. It was eye-opening to work on the floor with such a talented cast, and director extraordinaire, Shelly Higgs, to toss around ideas, to devise a few scenes and see where that led us. Creative exploration and development in a safe, healthy and collaborative environment is a joy and a privilege. That’s where the magic happens.
For the digital adaptation, I’m enjoying the role of Executive Producer. I like working with the big picture, supervising both the creative content and finance, delegating work to a very capable team. Shelly is back on board, this time as Creative Director, along with Dan Sanguineti (Sanguineti Media) as Producer. Dan had the brilliant idea early on to engage eight young directors, one for each monologue. This offers great potential for creative expression but has certainly complicated logistics a bit ;-) Some of the concepts pitched by the directors have blown my mind. The young actors are equally amazing. My intention was always to deliver eight separate films – slices of life from each character – but also a full version of the work, telling the overarching story. The challenge will be for Shelly and me to ensure that the pieces hang together as a unified whole – creatively, conceptually and cinematically – and in a way that honours the intention of the work.
In reading Fragments, I was particularly moved by the characters’ perceptions of other people having their lives together, juxtaposed with the reality that the people who seem the most ‘together’ have often just perfected their act more. I’m finding that this holds equally true for adults, which made me wonder about the reactions you’ve had from adult audience members to this aspect of the play?
It’s not surprising to me that the majority of YA fiction readers are adults. I think the issues we all struggled with in high school stay on simmer and crop up later in life in the most unexpected ways. And, despite social media being the centre of the world for most teens (and adults), the angst-fuelled issues of high school haven’t really changed much over the decades.
I’ve been absolutely thrilled with the response to Fragments. Anxiety and depression seem to be the top issues that people identify with. On opening night, men and women, young and old, came out of the theatre in tears. Families were hugging, teens were talking. People lingered in the theatre lobby, sharing their thoughts, connecting about what they had just experienced. In the months that followed, people who I had never met contacted me to share how much the work meant to them. A few audience members told me they had sought professional support after Fragments when they recognised themselves in the characters.
I wrote Fragments to invite conversation about mental health issues and to reduce stigma. And I’m thrilled to say that the signs are very encouraging that it is doing just that. I hope that publishing the book, and adapting Fragments to film, will bring the work to new audiences and continue to build on important conversations about issues that matter.
I was very taken with the authenticity and believability of the characters’ voices. Can you offer any advice to writers in their approach to writing teenage characters, particularly their modes of speech?
Young people often communicate through expressions, inflections, eye rolls, text-speak, grunts, laughs and favourite movie lines and routines. They can be judgmental, and are always discerning, able to detect artifice a mile away. Maybe that’s why their vocabulary seems to change weekly – so the adult world can’t keep up! My advice is to surround yourself with teenagers. If you don’t have any, borrow your friends’ kids ;-) Watch teen movies, old and new. Read a lot of YA fiction. Go to a mall and grab a table in the food court next to some high school students for a master class in drama and lingo.
A young voice needs to come across as organic and idiomatic, not stilted and contrived. I used to live in a group house in Washington, DC with a bunch of German law students including a prince, but that’s another story. :-) Despite being fluent, some of their English was so formal, so textbook that it often seemed like they were speaking a different language. So much of YA fiction reads like an older person trying to sound like a teen. I think it was relatively easy for me to write in a young voice because it wasn’t long ago that my kids were navigating high school. And because I seriously think I’ve never really grown up.
You’ve been reworking the script in response to COVID-19, and adapting it to the digital space. What has this process been like?
The process has been eye-opening, daunting, challenging but very exciting. I love how the adaptation has brought my earlier work full circle (in the 1980s and ‘90s I wrote and produced videos, along with a few documentaries). But so much has changed from a technological, artistic and cultural perspective – it’s like I’m relearning everything. In fact, thanks to COVID-19, I’ve been on a continuous learning journey the past few years. How to edit author videos, navigate Zoom and online presentations, master a few script and design/layout programs, jump back into the world of screenplays, learn how to adapt work across art forms, explore new writing forms (memoir and essay), find my inner visual artist and more. It’s been productive and rewarding but, on bad days it’s been utterly exhausting – practically, in terms of time spent that I can’t afford to spare, and mentally. Also, writing about mental health issues sometimes throws me into a weird head space. So that, coupled with COVID/lockdown, an ongoing learning curve and more, has sometimes been challenging.
In simple terms, plays are more about words and film is more about what you see. However, the digital storytelling process is quite different from theatrical work, at least in the classic sense of work being performed on stage in a theatre. Live theatre has a smaller, more intimate scale and you are viewing the action from one fixed position (though that is changing these days, with multi-angle shots in digital theatre). Articulation and gestures are important. I think you can get away with a bit more on the screen though perhaps I shouldn’t say that until the Fragments shoot! There are more scenes in film, you can play around with timelines more easily, and you can create a totally different world through special effects. Of course, both forms of storytelling feature character, plot, dialogue, a narrative arc and other shared elements.
For the Fragments adaptation, I’m not trying to reimagine or reshape the work in a fundamentally different way for film. Instead, I’m trying to find the right setting, visuals and approach to convey the existing story in a different medium. The eight directors have been fantastic in this regard, each bringing their vision to the work though, due to budget and time constraints, some of these visions have had to be pared back ;-) I’m amazed at the screen talent in Canberra, both in front of and behind the camera, and am honoured to be working with such a talented and collaborative team. I’m enormously grateful to artsACT, and the ACT Government, whose continued support has made Fragments, and its many manifestations, possible.
What’s next for Maura Pierlot?
The film adaptation of Fragments is likely to keep me busy through the end of the year. Meanwhile, I’m working on my next play, sussing out development opportunities and funding. These days, artists need to wear many hats to tell their stories. We need to be creatives first and foremost, but also number-crunchers, organisers, students, collaborators, team players, brainstormers, politicians and good communicators. That’s where business skills come in handy. It’s important to know how to get things done, how to find money, how to assemble a capable team, how to market and adapt, and more. I also have a few community projects in the works that have been sidelined due to COVID, but which I hope to launch soon. Last year, I enjoyed diving into the essay form and would love to find time to write more. More recently, I’ve been toying with memoir.
Where are the best places for people to find you online, and to follow the Fragments journey?
There are several ways that people can connect with me. I’m on Instagram and Twitter (@maurapierlot). On Facebook, I’m @maurapierlotauthor. I have three websites: maurapierlot.com; thetroubleintunetown.com and fragmentstheplay.com. And, of course, there’s good old-fashioned email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks again for your time, Maura. I’m really thrilled to be able to share your thoughts about Fragments, and spread the word about this extraordinary and much-needed work.
Thank you so much, Cameron! It’s always great to reflect on the writing process and to think about one’s journey. I’m incredibly proud of Fragments and would love people to connect with me and the work, and to talk openly about mental health with the people in their lives. The book, Fragments: Journeys from Isolation to Connection, is out on 1 October and available at all major online retailers including Booktopia (bit.ly/FragmentsBooktopia), and most bookshops including The Book Cow in Canberra (bit.ly/FragmentsTheBookCow).