In her most celebrated works, award-winning British novelist and scriptwriter Deborah Moggach has constantly displayed a strong interest in past eras, in different worlds and in atypical characters.
In her best-selling novel “Tulip Fever (1999), Moggach tells the story of a 17th-century Amsterdam painter who falls in love with a young, beautiful and bored wife of a merchant. Packed with several subplots and breathless drama, Moggach paints a distinct portrait of the Dutch capital that is both romantic and historically precise. Her knack for capturing the tiniest details – a distinguished feature of her work – immerses the reader into the heart of the city, with all its moral conflicts, economic turmoil and magical sentiment.
In “These Foolish Things (2004), a weary London doctor ships his old, foul-mouthed father-in-law to Bangalore, India, where he starts to re-explore his youth in a retirement house. This palpable deride for heartless, modern-day England is another theme that defines a substantial part of Moggach’s work.
Born to two writers, Moggach “grew up to the sound of typewriters but wasn’t interested in writing during her childhood. In the mid-70s, she went to live in Pakistan for two years; an experience she described as “liberating. It was there that she started writing, beginning with articles for a Pakistani newspaper. Shortly afterwards she released her first novel “You Must be Sisters (1978), an autobiographical account of her student days in Bristol.
Moggach adapted many of her novels for television, including “To Have and To Hold (1986), “Seesaw (1998) and “Final Demand (2003).
To date, Moggach’s most famous work is her inspired 2005 screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel “Pride and Prejudice. Directed by Joe Wright (known for “Atonement ) and starring Keira Knightley, the film was a major commercial and critical success, earning Moggach a BAFTA nomination.
Moggach’s last work was another literary adaptation of sorts: the mini-series “The Diary of Anne Frank which aired last January.
In a recent interview withDaily News Egypt Moggach discussed the themes of her work, scriptwriting, the frustration of working in Hollywood and her fascinating sequel to the most famous romantic tale in history.
Daily News Egypt: You seem to be quite fond of past eras and period pieces. You don’t seem to share the same sentiment regarding the present.
Deborah Moggach: I can’t really say I am. I can’t say that the past is any way better or worse than the present. I think it’s the same people, the same problems, the same jealousies, loves, hates, fears. I’m interested in the past, but I’ve always felt very reluctant to write about it because I always feel it’s too presumptuous to think that I know what it was like to a be a woman in 17th century Amsterdam.
“Tulip Fever came to me in a rush and I suddenly saw it very clearly, partially because of all those paintings. The Vermeer painting [upon which the novel is inspired] tells you about life so beautifully and in such detail that I felt I was there. I think that that period was a very narratively rich period and those paintings suggest stories to us and they all got little moments of drama.
In “These Foolish Things, you suggest that a decent life, especially for the elderly, can only exist outside the boundaries of England.
England is quite a tough place now. In Egypt, I was struck hugely by the cheerful good manners of the people in the streets. In England, it’s not very friendly now. It’s not such a happy place. I know that Egypt’s got huge problems, but England is not particularly sympathetic to foreigners coming to it. And for the elderly, we treat our old people appallingly; we ignore them and dump them in old people’s homes. They’re not part of people’s family lives near as much as in the Middle East or Africa or India or most other cultures.
How’s writing a novel different from scriptwriting?
Novel writing is much more interior. You have to retreat from the world. It’s like having a secret love affair. It’s a very profound experience, if it’s going well.
Scriptwriting is less deep because it’s much more collaborative; you work with other people all the time, you’re often working with a story which isn’t your own. You’re more of a technician in a way. But, you still need a good imaginative brain because you often have to profoundly change the book to turn it into a screenplay.
Were you intimated by adapting “Pride and Prejudice especially since the film was always going to be compared to both the Lawrence Olivier version and the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle beloved mini-series?
I was intimidated, particular by the Colin Firth sex god. (she laughs). I tried to forget that, and I tried to rethink it for a new generation. I wanted it to be the muddy hem version. I wanted the hems of their dresses to be muddy, I wanted us to see that there’s a real world out there.
It was very naturalistic.
Yes, very naturalistic. The story wasn’t just a comedy of manners. That world was seemingly so stable, but outside these beautiful houses was mud and poverty and squalor, and those girls had to get married off well, soon. If they don’t, they lose everything.
Some critics believed that Keira Knightly was too pretty for the role of Liz Bennet; that this version was a bit sexy.
I don’t think it was particularly sexy. I think it was funny and frank and truthful. The romance between Liz and Darcy is highly charged in the book. That is sexy, and that’s why we still love the book. Jane Austen understood something that many writers haven’t, and this is a woman who had no sex in her life. She understood that the basis of sex is antagonism, and that we know that they’re absolutely mad for each other, and they don’t. She realized how sexy that is.
The problem with Keira Knightly is she is too beautiful, and I was very worried when she was cast. You can’t ignore her as Mr Darcy does. She’s dazzling. But, the way that her beauty is, it’s very modern. That’s the way I excuse it. But the other thing is, hey, it’s the movies. In the movies, the heroine is beautiful. Jane Eyre had Joan Fontaine in the 40s, the most beautiful woman in Hollywood. It’s the movies.
Anne Frank is another iconic character you’ve tackled.
The writing process in here was much more daunting because not only were these real people, but also because they died a terrible death. I felt great responsibility, and so did the actors who wanted to honor their memories but not make it reverential.
We didn’t want Anne to be a heroine. She was just a kid, a normal kid in terrible circumstances, and she was often very funny, and she was often a pain in the arse. She wasn’t easy. She was a teenager for God’s sake.
I was involved in this project hugely and stayed all the way through the shoot. That’s different from the movies. Often with big movies, the writers’ job is sort of over once they finished writing the script. And if you go to the set, you’re the only person without a job. They’re sort of doing their big adventure together, and although they wouldn’t be there without you, you’re not really there necessarily. Actors simply move on from your script to their own world.
A number of your novels are being adapted to film. Are you concerned about what will happen to them?
Absolutely. Most of my novels I’ve adapted myself for television, but one or two have been adapted by other people. And I don’t like it. (She smiles). So, what I do to other people, I’ve occasionally had done to me.
It’s like you’re out of the house, and somebody went into your bedroom and opened your drawer with all your underwear and your bras and your panties. And then you come back to find your drawer open and find fingerprints on them. You feel like that, you feel somebody has been interfering with your own most private place in a way.
With “Tulip Fever, they [studio executives] brought in two other people who each had a different go at it.
That must’ve been horrible.
It was. The book of “Tulip Fever is a movie; it’s a very filmic plot and that’s
why Spielberg bought it. It doesn’t need much doing to it. But because it’s Hollywood, and they all have to put their paw prints on it, they all need to change it. And for the sake of changing, they all say different contradictory things. It doesn’t work, somebody else comes in, they tell whole different things, it doesn’t work again in a different way, and the story gets caught up in all that.
There many Hollywood stories of people finally submitting the first draft pretending it to be the twentieth draft, and everyone says, this is just great; this is exactly what we’re looking for.
When will “Tulip Fever be made?
Don’t know. There’re rumblings that it might be done this year.
It’s obvious you’re more comfortable working with British Television.
I’m much more comfortable with British Television, because they don’t mess your stuff so much, and they’re not frightened. Hollywood is frightened, full of executives who worry about their paychecks and appeasing to their bosses. British Television is not at its healthiest state at the moment, but it’s better than Hollywood; they treat the writers better.
What about British film?
That’s easier to work with than Hollywood. But again, films are more difficult than television. There’s more money at stake, it’s more calculated.
I heard you’re doing a comedic sequel to “Romeo and Juliet.
It’s for a movie, for a British and American studio. It’s 10 years on, and they fake their death. They’re quarreling; their marriage is on the rocks. They come back to Verona; they find the whole town in a grip of Romeo and Juliet madness. So they have to pretend that they’re happy. But Romeo get head turned by all the groupies, because he’s so vain, and Juliet becomes a very hard-bitten businesswoman. And their parents have to keep them together for the sake of the business. That could be really good fun.