'It's good to feel scared from time to time'

Julie
Tomlin talks to Katharine Viner, The Guardian Weekend editor whose
fascination with the Middle East led to her co-editing a play with Alan
Rickman

ASK Katharine Viner, the
editor of The Guardian’s Weekend magazine how she came to work with
Alan Rickman on the recent sell-out play about the life and death of
activist Rachel Corrie and she struggles to find an exact answer.

There’s a short-ish one: “Straight after Rachel was killed, extracts
of her diary and emails appeared in The Guardian’s G2 magazine and
Rickman apparently called the Royal Court and said, ‘This writing’s
fantastic, you have to do something with it’.”

The theatre then
decided they wanted a journalist to work on what evolved into My Name
is Rachel Corrie because “they wanted somebody who could give a
narrative drive but also a political context”.

Why the Royal Court brought Viner in to complement Rickman, “the theatrical performance guy”, takes a bit longer to answer.

It
goes back to Viner’s twenties when, because of her fascination with the
Middle East, she spent most of her holidays in places like Lebanon,
Syria, Israel and the West Bank, to the point where her brother
jokingly dubbed her a “trauma tourist”.

“It might make me seem a bit weird,” she admits, “but the Middle East was just one of my things. It’s always fascinated me.”

Not
long after she was made editor of Weekend in 1998, Viner was introduced
to Elyse Dodgson from the Royal Court’s international department
because of their mutual interest in the Middle East. She was
subsequently invited on a trip to Bethlehem to visit the theatres there.

“My
last trip had been quite traumatising and I decided that I didn’t want
to go on my own for a while. So that’s how it started. It really was
that random, a hobby that was certainly nothing to do with work.

“It was about six years ago that we first went together and now that’s led to the Rachel Corrie play.”

This
train of events reinforces her belief “in pursuing things because
you’re interested in them, because you don’t know where they might
lead”.

Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by a bulldozer in Rafah
on 16 March 2003, two months after she joined a group of foreign
nationals working for the International Solidarity Movement.

After
her death, her parents found diaries stashed away and decided they
wanted them published: “Cindy, her mother, told me they realised
straight away this was amazing material and, because they were shocked
by the way she died, they just wanted to get it out.”

G2 initially published extracts from Rachel’s diaries and emails, but her family discovered much more material for the play.

“Her
family spent a year going through the journals,” says Viner. “Rachel
wrote loads and loads of journals but they were all hidden under the
bed, they kept finding them in weird places.

“Sarah, Rachel’s
sister, told me she would blank out a day to read a journal and really
get very upset about it and experience the emotion, and then the next
day she said she got a bottle of wine and would just sit at the
computer and just type it – trying not to think about what she was
writing, because she’d read it all the day before.”

Eventually a 184-page document of “amazing material”

arrived
that Rickman and Viner had to decide what to do with. “We weren’t sure
at that point what sort of play we were going to do, we thought about
getting lots of other voices in there, was it going to be the story of
Rachel…

“But it was a revelation that it was brilliantly
written and from then on it was just Alan and me in a room fighting it
out over what we included,” she says.

That process, which began last October, was a “really intense experience,” says Viner.

“It
was a clash of cultures. It was very tempestuous – as those creative
processes tend to be in the theatre, I now know. We had fairly
different approaches – his theatrical, mine more to do with narrative
and structure. I was more keen on the stuff on Gaza and he was keener
on the stuff pre-Gaza, and sometimes there were words that I loved on
the page but he would say didn’t perform well. I think that’s quite
hard to understand when you’re a journalist because the page is all. I
learned quite a lot about that.

Things I thought were great just didn’t work.

“But
there were other things that I would really fight for that I felt, even
if they were slightly boring in performance, you needed to drive the
story on or to give some context later on.”

Coming up against
different questions to those she is used to tackling as a journalist
was refreshing, says Viner. The fact that she and Rickman were used to
working at different paces also threw up challenges.

“He would
say I was always clapping my hands and telling him to hurry up and get
on with it – the deadline girl – and he was always wanting to lounge
back and ‘feel’ the line and imagine it on stage.

“But I think it
worked. I like to think that by the end of it he was a bit more
deadline focused and I was looser on the performance things. I really
saw at the end of the process that the project needed someone like me
and it needed someone like him. It needed the two of us.”

Viner
now thinks Rickman was right to push for the inclusion of a piece about
working with mental health patients, but also admits to some
satisfaction that she pushed for the voices of Rachel’s parents to be
included.

Among the emails that Rachel reads in the play is one
from her father Craig that she received shortly before her death. Viner
can recite them verbatim by now.

“It was saying, ‘I’m very proud
of you but, as Don Remfert says, I’d just as soon be proud of somebody
else’s daughter’, which always gets a laugh, but it’s a devastating
line. He says ‘Hard-wired, can’t be changed in that aspect of the
issue’.

“It just gets me every time because all these emails from
her parents were just ordinary fears that all parents would have, and
for nearly all parents it’s fine and their kids come home. But for
Rachel’s parents, it wasn’t.”

In the event, Rachel’s parents were
pleased with the play, seeing it six times before they returned to
their home in Olympia, Washington.

Having spent two years since
Rachel’s death campaigning – they are currently suing the Israeli
government and the bulldozer manufacturer Caterpillar – Viner says the
family appreciated the opportunity to remember Rachel.

“It was nice for them to start thinking of Rachel as who she was in life rather than some political symbol,” she says.

“We
had written to them asking them for details of her bedroom and they
sent us a six-page, really detailed annotation of what was exactly
there.

“They said they enjoyed sitting and remembering what was in her bedroom and they wouldn’t have done that otherwise.”

Rickman has said that had Rachel Corrie lived, she would have had plays and novels pouring out of her.

Viner
says she was “struck and very excited by how good the writing was, how
funny she could be, but also how powerfully she wrote about Gaza and
what the occupation does to normal lives”.

Rachel’s diaries seem to have been written with performance in mind, Viner adds.

“Unlike
mine, there’s something theatrical about them, something about
communicating. They weren’tjust writing to yourself, ‘so and so annoyed
me today’, ‘I wish so and so would notice me’, like you do when you’re
12.

“She’s saying discovering boys made her life ‘a little more difficult. Just a little, and a lot more interesting.

Not ‘apparently he’s into Frankie Goes to Hollywood. I have bought the record’,” mimics Viner.

The ideas she expressed in her 1991 diary weren’t what you’d expect from a girl of her age, says Viner.

“You
could see the audience thinking ‘hang on a minute’ when they heard: ‘Is
that how life is, a new draft for every day, a new view for each hour?’

As
for her own diaries, Viner has given a friend precise instructions
about where to find them, and strict instructions about who should read
them should anything happen to her.

Having spent the first half
of 2004 judging the Orange prize – a task that required her to read 71
books – Viner says she “got used to wedging things in” but quips that
all this activity in addition to her day job makes her sound “a bit
like Ernie Wise – ‘I’ve just written a play’.”

Now that the
production has finished its first run – the Royal Court confirmed a
second run in the larger theatre downstairs in October – Viner says she
won’t be “leaping into any big projects” for a while.

“I really
need a rest now,” she says, although there is, of course, The
Guardian’s redesign – details dry up on this matter though. And she’s
recently gone on duty editor rota.

“Before I did my first shift I
realised that I was scared and that felt great because as a journalist
I haven’t been scared for a long time. It’s really good to be scared,”
says Viner, who is the only woman, alongside four men, on the rota.

Indeed, when it comes to her career, her maxim about following what’s interesting seems to have paid off.

She
didn’t grow up intending to be a journalist, but while studying English
at Oxford, she won a competition run by The Guardian’s women’s page.

“I
don’t want to sound (she mimes playing a violin)n because my background
isn’t like that,” says Viner, whose parents were teachers. But I
honestly thought journalism wasn’t for me, I thought it was for men in
suits in London.” The prize – “in typical Guardian fashion” – was to
edit the women’s page for a week.

“I came in and did it and I was
clueless, I hadn’t done any student journalism and I really didn’t know
about it. But I did this thing and it was like a revelation, I just
loved it so much.

“It was Louise Chunn [then editor of The
Guardian’s women’s pages, now at InStyle], who said, ‘I think you
should get a job in journalism,’ and that was it. I was off.”

Viner’s
first port of call was the offices of Cosmopolitan where she did work
experience and was “so good at making tea” they kept her on – as
features assistant and then news and careers editor under editor
Marcelle D’Argy Smith.

From there she went to The Sunday Times
Magazine as writer and commissioning editor, eventually moving to The
Guardian on its women’s pages, and then was deputy to Roger Alton on G2
for a “riotous 18 months”.

What she likes most about Weekend is the fact that “absolutely anything that’s interesting can go in it”.

Having
said that, she is careful not to fill the magazine with her own
interests, which include the Middle East, feminism and literature.

Viner writes opinion pieces for the newspaper when she wants to rant, she says.

Recently
she wrote an article, prompted by the death of the American feminist
writer Andrea Dworkin, that was partly in protest at the way in which
the debate about pornography has closed down.

At one point she
begins talking about how she related to Rachel “as a woman” but then
breaks off, pretending she is about to vomit.

It’s become less acceptable to talk about women’s issues in recent years, Viner believes.

“Feminism isn’t part of the culture any more. It’s all shopping and dieting, or detoxing – that’s what we call it these days.

“I
don’t think it’s journalism’s fault, but then all these articles about
a tiny bit of cellulite on a seven stone woman’s body are a tiny bit
depressing, really.

“I wanted to write it [the piece about
Dworkin] because I just don’t care any more – I’m bored with this irony
defence of men’s magazines that says it’s just funny, deal with it. I
didn’t agree with everything she said – I made it clear in the piece –
but Dworkin was someone who made you think, not someone who tries to
placate the men’s magazines all the time, which seems to be what
post-feminism is all about. I think I’ve got to the point where I just
don’t care.”

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