Writers talk — Jan Bolwell

Posted on May 22, 2013 | Comments Off on Writers talk — Jan Bolwell

Jan BolwellJan and I have been good friends for a long time. Her production Dancing in the Wake begins its Nation wide tour under the auspices of Arts on Tour NZ  (reviewtour dates). This is a play about Lucia’s troubled journey to be a dancer, daughter of James (Ulysses) and Norah Joyce.


I write plays and non-fiction so initially it is the idea, rather than character and storyline. It rumbles around in my head for sometime before I commit anything to paper. I learned something useful from the renowned Amercian choreographer Twyla Tharp. Tharp has numerous file boxes of different dance ideas, and she simply tosses notes, cuttings etc. into these boxes until she is ready to select one of her boxes and begins to work concentratedly on the idea. I do something similar whether it is a play, memoir or piece of choreography. I find the process of gathering material helps me frame and develop the work.

Planning — do you plan your entire play before you write a word?

Planning is not my strong point. It is something I need to work on — getting a good structure. Actually I am better at doing this when I choreograph than when I write. In writing plays my technique is to write a series of scenes — in no particular order and then play with their sequencing. It can lead to some surprising discoveries. I then have to find the through line of the play and to work to find connecting threads. I like this process – it is intellectually challenging.


Walking is wonderful as a stimulus for thinking about writing. I do it all the time, especially when I am about to launch into working on a new scene. How lucky I am to live beside a beautiful beach! Coffee is always a great idea, and with my laptop I like to vary where I write — sitting up in bed, out in the garden or in our rumpus room. When I was still working for Massey University and on the road a lot, I wrote my plays in a series of motel rooms, and I still associate those plays with particular towns throughout the North Island.


When I began writing plays I decided it was a waste of time to write something that was never going to be staged. How else would I find out whether or not it was any good? All my plays have been staged because I produced them myself. Re other writing I am philospohical about rejections, and I am lucky not to have experienced many rejection letters — so far!


I was in the theatre performing ‘Standing on My Hands’ when Roger Steele came up to me and said he would like to publish Milord Goffredo, the story of my father’s World War 2 experiences.  I’d had academic stuff pubished before but this was my first piece of academic writing.  I was completely astonished and then very happy. Both for my father and for me.