World of Words: Janet Behan on her own creative career

Niece of the famous Irish playwright Brendan Behan, Shoreham-resident Janet Behan is a celebrated actress and playwright in her own right.

In no more than 10 words why do you write?

It keeps me sane. Saner. Sane-ish?

What prompted you to become a writer in the first place?

We have a tradition of writing in our family and it’s part of my sense of identity. We also have a strong theatrical tradition and I started out as an actress, but that’s a hard thing to combine with children, especially as our first-born has special needs, so the writing sort of took over about that time. Having said that, I’m still an Equity member. Hope springs eternal!

How did you get your first proper opportunity?

I was asked if I knew anyone who could adapt the book Brendan Behan’s New York for the stage. With uncharacteristic chutzpah, brought on by sorting a mountain of laundry, I replied “Yes. Me.” Turned out I couldn’t, but my play about Brendan emerged from the attempt.

What’s the worst thing about being a writer?

The guilt when you know you’re putting it off. That, and showing what you’ve written to someone for the first time.

What’s the best thing about being a writer?

The process of writing itself, especially when you’ve struggled to communicate exactly what you mean and you finally get there, or at least close. It’s like solving a puzzle, very satisfying.

Of what are you most proud?

My play, Brendan at the Chelsea. Not just the fact that I wrote it, but that I didn’t give up. I persevered and now the play that I wrote in my kitchen while the laundry piled up has just completed a run in New York and is about to open in Belfast, Dublin and Derry. There’s a great lesson in that. Which, I admit, I am constantly having to re-learn.

How do you know when your play is properly completed?

No play is ever properly completed. It’s a collaborative art and a contract between the audience and all the artistes and craftspeople that bring it to the stage, a living thing, so there’s always room for change. That said, if you’re in the audience and they are laughing where you wanted them to laugh and nice and still in the serious bits, then you’re in good shape.

Can you name a book or play or poem that changed your life?

The Female Eunuch. And Middlemarch.

What do you think is the secret to being a good writer?

It’s a matter of taste, but if you look at Middlemarch, for instance, there’s a wealth of perception about human frailty allied to the well-founded hope that what interested the writer will interest the reader. And it still does, all these years later. To be honest and brave and persistent like George Eliot – you can’t aim any higher than that.

What are you working on next?

A completely daft comedy for the radio.

What are you most looking forward to about the future?

I aim to be sitting here a year from now saying “Good woman, you wrote every day for a year. Now you can dig the garden with a clear conscience.” Gardening is far too seductive.

What would you say to you 21 year old self?

Pull your finger out.

Complete the sentence: If you’re happy and you know it...

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