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Q&A: David Harrower

First Published 10 May 2012, Last Updated 14 May 2012

As David Harrower’s Edinburgh Fringe success A Slow Air comes to the Tricycle theatre, we learn a little more about the Scottish playwright and his love of baking.

Harrower’s play, already a hit in Edinburgh and New York, is the tale of estranged siblings. Morna works as a cleaner and spends most of her time drinking. Athol lives 50 miles away and owns a floor-tiling company. When Morna’s son makes contact with his uncle, it triggers a life changing series of events.

Official London Theatre posed Harrower a few questions to learn more about the playwright/director, whose other plays include the Olivier Award-winning Blackbird, and his latest production:

What spurred you to start writing?
I’d explored washing dishes and driving a delivery van to their very limits.

Who has inspired you? 
Shakespeare, Chekhov, Williams, Bond, Beckett, Tom Murphy, Brian Friel, Mamet, Spark, Franzen, Atwood, Heaney, Les Murray, Paul Muldoon, Tom Paulin, Kathleen Jamie, Michael Donaghy, David Greig, Albert Ayler, Robert Wyatt, Peter Doig… this list could go on for pages.

What do you consider your big break?
Probably the staging at the Traverse of Knives In Hens. Prior to that, getting 19 out of 20 for a short story I wrote at school for an English exam. I’d had no expectations of it  whatsoever and was off school the day the teacher read it out to the class to what I was told became an utter, still silence. It seemed to affect the whole class because practically all of them came to me and remarked upon it. I’ve been chasing that one dropped mark ever since.

What is the finest performance you have seen?
Recently, Cate Blanchett’s Lotte in Gross Und Klein. Inspirational, bewitching and with deep emotional intelligence and empathy. And I can’t shake from my mind, the image of Cate/Lotte dancing and flitting her way between a series of diagonally-placed desks.

What is your favourite play by another playwright?
Hamlet. The Seagull. The Sea by Edward Bond.

From where do you draw inspiration?
Most things – no, make that pretty much everything to do with other people. I’m glad I stay home so much, I’d be deluged.

From where did the idea for A Slow Air come?
The assumptions, expectations and beliefs – and views of Scotland the nation – felt and largely unarticulated by different generations of my extended family. 

How have your views about the piece changed since you first began writing it?
This is a really difficult question and brings up – because the piece is very personal – so many clashing ideas and frustrations and doubts that I’m not going to answer.

How do you find directing your own work?
Mystifying, frustrating, on the odd occasion, enthralling.

What is the best advice you have ever been given?
Grind the b*****ds down.

What has been your greatest extravagance?
It’s yet to come and is in the early, careful stages of planning.

What is your fondest childhood memory?

I have a serious, vaguely alarming lack of recollection of great swathes of my childhood. Probably the curve of a white beach south of Tarbert, Harris in the Outer Hebrides with the sea charging towards the shore. The memory is unpeopled though.

Do you have any superstitions?
Used to have loads but have whittled them down to 13.

Do you have any regrets?
Now you’re asking… several hundred probably but none that I’m going to paraphrase.

How would you like to be remembered?
Great writer who really came into his own in the second half of his life. Good father. Careful, generous lover. Great bread-maker. Awesome company. Champion encourager.

What do you do when you’re not writing?
Try to attend to other aspects of life but you never quite forget…

What book, film or album would you recommend to a friend?
Tom Paulin’s Crusoe’s Secret
Kathleen Jamie’s Findings
Robert Bresson’s film A Man Escaped.
Robert Wyatt’s album Rock Bottom.

If you could only eat one meal forever, what would it be?
Spaghetti with clams from the coast of Barra.

What will always, without fail, brings a smile to your face?
My eight-month old son, Sorley, catching my eye suddenly and taking a moment to register I am the same man as before.

If I wasn’t a writer I would be…
An artisan, maverick baker.


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