41: Fran Hill (Observational Humour)

Danielle Krage interviews author Fran Hill about ways to develop your observational humour skills as a writer. Fran is a former English teacher, and had a monthly satirical column about education in the Times Educational Supplement. She further shared her experiences in diary form in her memoir ‘Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean?’ And she published her novel, ‘Cuckoo in the Nest’ in 2023.  

Chapters

00:00 Introduction and Background

01:19 Starting the Satirical Column

03:09 Observational Humour and Learning

07:30 Transition to Writing

10:26 Discovering the Craft of Writing

11:17 Honing Observational Skills

15:00 Exaggeration and Specific Detail

19:19 Writing Poetry for Special Occasions

24:20 Challenges of Writing Fiction

28:30 Observation, Hypervigilance, and Comedy

34:34 Crafting Poems for Others

38:16 Writing with a Macro Perspective

41:07 The Inspiration for Character Development

41:24 The Power of Setting

42:14 Continual Learning and Growth

42:32 Where to Find More of Fran Hill’s Work

You can find out more about Fran Hill and her work here:

https://www.franhill.co.uk

https://linktr.ee/franhill123

https://twitter.com/franhill123

https://www.instagram.com/franhill123

CLICK HERE FOR TRANSCRIPT

Danielle (00:00.622)

Hey everyone. Today I have with me the fabulous author Fran Hill, who is coming to talk to me about observational comedy and more. So Fran is a former English teacher and had a monthly satirical column in the Times Educational Supplement. And she further shared her experiences as a teacher in diary form in her memoir, Miss What Does Incomprehensible Mean, which is so fun. And she published her novel this year too, Cuckoo in the Nest. So lots to talk about.

But before we dive in, Fran, is there anything else that people should know about you and your work and your connections to creating comedy?

Fran Hill (00:34.418)

Hmm. I guess what I’m thinking at the moment over the last couple of days, I’ve been sort of preparing for this and thinking… you never stop learning. Because you’ve really made me think about what is observational humor, really looking into it properly. And it just made me realize that you never stop learning and that, I don’t know… any other writers who are listening, it’s about learning your craft, but that never really stops.

Danielle (00:41.655)

Oh, I love that.

Fran Hill (01:02.966)

So I’m in my early sixties now and I didn’t really start writing seriously until I was sort of early thirties. And it’s only just now, you know, I’ve had a novel published, which has been my sort of goal all along. So yeah, keep learning.

Danielle (01:19.198)

Yeah, that’s perfect. I am also a voracious learner as well, hence why I have a podcast so I can learn from you too, which is awesome. And so I wanted to actually start with the column and we haven’t had anyone on the show before who, not that I’m aware of, who’s had a satirical column. And I’m just really curious about how that started for you.

Fran Hill (01:43.654)

Well, it was quite, I had a quick change of career, a sudden change of career when I was 40. So I was working in the NHS as a medical secretary, that was my first job. And I began, I went to do my English A level at the age of sort of 38, 39. Then I went to uni and did a degree and then I trained as a teacher. And I’d already started doing a little bit of writing in some sort of… faith-based publications, and I had a little column in what was a national newspaper then called The Christian Herald. And it was one of those back page humour columns, really poking a little bit of fun at the church and just Christian life in general. So when I became a teacher, I saw that there were columns in the Times Educational Supplement, or TES as it’s now called, because that was now my arena.

And so I pitched for, I think they had a little column called, Thank God It’s Friday, and it was just a, like a mini diary of the teaching week. And that is just right up my street. That sort of mini writing, because it doesn’t take so long as maxi writing. Um, and I pitched to them. So I got a few of those published and then a few smaller articles. And then I saw that, I think one of the columnists was leaving. I thought, Ooh, and that was a sort of 500 words once a month. I think I held that for about three or four years.

And I was writing about things…. I was looking at them today. Actually, I was writing about things like the fact that reports, you know, teachers write reports all the time, but actually, because you have to use so much euphemism these days in reports and not quite say what you would want to say. I think modern reports tell parents less and less and that just amuses me because reporting is meant to be informational and it’s meant to tell you what you want to know, but actually I think parents these days are probably looking at them thinking, what does she mean by that? So that I found quite funny.

Or the fact that one of the things that kids have to do in the English exam is to write a piece of writing of some kind in about 30 minutes flat. And I always used to say when I was teaching to the kids, we know proper writers don’t do that. You know, you draft it and then you redraft it and you look at it. No one’s ever going to ask you to write a formal opinion article in 30 minutes after this exam. And that always used to strike me as funny that…We were asking kids to do things that we wouldn’t do ourselves. You would never say, oh, just knock that off in 30 minutes and it’ll be fine. So it’s just things like little inconsistencies and the way education was run and things that used to go on in education. That’s what I was writing about.

Yeah, inconsistency I think is a ripe ground for observational humour.

Danielle (04:44.458)

Yeah, when you said that, I was like, mm, that’s good. I stuck a little flag in my brain there. And I love, again, like then you noticing where these sort of discrepancies are. And we have a word like reporting and we’re not really reporting. Already you’ve given me so much vocabulary, I think it’s interesting to think about. Because like you say, euphemisms have so much room for misinterpretation.

Whereas I definitely remember getting a report and I’m old enough that it was not euphemism, they just said it like it was and the hockey teacher said… Danielle lacks the aggressive nature, needed to be a good hockey player. And I remember thinking, yeah, that’s fair. She just called it out. I don’t know if it was laziness, lack of aggression. Didn’t want to.

Fran Hill (05:47.406)

Okay, yeah, I’ve written quite a few articles. There’s a magazine called e-magazine and it’s produced by the English and Media Centre and it’s a magazine for A-level students of English and English literature and English language. And so I did an article for them where I had copied a page of my school reports from 1975, never 76, and compared them linguistically, did a linguistic comparison of those comments, which were usually just one sentence or even one word like… impossible! Exclamation mark. Or…. possibly the worst examination paper I’ve ever seen… I think it was my physics teacher. And then I compared them with some reports that contemporary teachers were writing. And in every way, linguistically, they were different. And there was a lot of humour to be found in the comparison.

Danielle (06:16.814)

Fascinating.

Fran Hill (06:44.878)

Where teachers in the 1970s are just saying exactly what they think. And really just, well, like your hockey teacher is sort of sentencing you to, to years of sort of thinking… Oh, well, that’s not me then I can never succeed in that. Yeah. It’s fascinating.

Danielle (06:45.476)

Oh, that’s fabulous.And, and I love that you talk in different ways about…that your writing career has happened at different stages. And you’ve got like a lovely sort of timeline on your website of when different things happened for you. And I like that because sometimes you also hear writers just saying… Oh, you know, I wrote since I was six and I knew, always knew that was what I wanted to do.

I’m curious some of the reasons, like what role did writing play for you, do you think, when you were a young person and you’ve used the words like taking it seriously or writing seriously… when did you sort of see that happening for you?

Fran Hill (07:48.406)

Well, I always wrote terrible poetry as a teenager. And I think lots of teenagers do perhaps have a go and just don’t tell anybody, but it was interesting because I went into foster care when I was 14. And I’d been in foster care before, but on sort of temporary basis, but this was a permanent foster home. And in those early, very rocky months with my foster parents, when we weren’t talking, I would write them a poem and stick it on a little board. They put a little notice board up in my bedroom for me. And when we’d had a row about something and I just refused to talk to them, I used to write them a little poem and stick it on the notice board. And they used to write poems back. My foster mum used to have a go and write poems back. So early on, they were sort of a form of expression, you know, a way of…talking and saying things that you couldn’t say out loud to people.

And I think maybe poetry does that. It says things that you don’t, there aren’t really other ways to say those things other than to use suggestion and implication, which is you know what poetry does. But then when I was 17, I looked at all the poems I’d written, pronounced them rubbish and burnt them, which I don’t think anyone should do because I would love to go back to what I wrote.

And then really the only writing I really did until I was sort of early thirties was funny poems to ruin people’s occasions. So someone would say, oh, you know, it’s your birthday, Fran will write a poem. It’s the wedding, Fran will write a poem. So I used to do that kind of thing. Funny, entertaining poetry, which I still do. I still sometimes get commissions to do that and sort of write a poem to order, you know, a bespoke poem, which I really enjoy doing. But then in my early thirties, when my youngest daughter went to primary school, I signed up for creative writing classes and thought, come on, Fran, do something with this. And that’s when I found that writing funny poetry wasn’t the only type of writing that I could do. So yeah, it all started there really, I think, taking it seriously. Ironically, because most of what I wrote was funny rather than serious.

Danielle (10:26.598)

Yes, yes. I love that it’s got this lovely blend, and you sort of highlight that as well… that a lot of your work is both really funny and sad too. It’s that combination of being able to pull those things together, you know, particularly in your novel, which is wonderful. It’s a particular kind of blend that I love.

But I wanted to ask because I’m wondering if like you’ve always been someone that’s had really

keen powers of observation and always been able to capture that in some way or not. And if you are, like, if you feel like that’s something you’ve been able to do for a very long time, how would you help other people to hone their skills if they’re like… I want to be more observant and I want to get better at capturing it so I can remember it or share it. Any suggestions?

Fran Hill (11:17.386)

Yeah, I mean, I’ve never really, it’s probably only recently, to be honest, that I’ve thought of myself as someone who observes like that and writes in that way. But it’s more because other people have said, you know, they’ve read a blog that I’ve written or something, they say… oh, that bus journey you went on – I do write quite a lot about bus journeys – that bus journey you went on and that thing that happened….I would never have seen it like that. You know.

Or you’re the only person that could make 500 words out of that. You know, I miss a bus and then get into a funny conversation with somebody or something like that. And they’ll say…how, how did you make something of that? And I think that’s the key to observational humour is making something out of something that other people wouldn’t make something out of. So taking trivial, everyday stuff and making something from it and seeing things in it that other people might not really comment on. And that just seems to be the thing, the way my mind works is making some, taking something that’s really small.

And I think one of the definitions of observational humour is taking something that’s, you know, tiny and expanding it so that it almost becomes ridiculous or fantastical. And that’s when it starts to be funny. So I think that’s probably it. It’s like, what advice would I give? Yes. It’s not treating the everyday as everyday, but sort of making a note of things that happen to you day by day. And just things like going to the post office or queuing up at the doctors or, um, funny things that, that happened to you and you just think, oh. And I think maybe just hang on to that for a while. Think, is there anything I could make of that? And you can pick any incident. I think you could probably sit down at the end of a normal day and write down 10 things that happened to you and think, okay, is there anything in that? Because I remember at the time thinking, oh, that’s a bit weird. Well, that’s a bit fun. Oh, how fun, that’s funny.

And I think, is it Peter Kay, part of his comedy routine? He just keeps going, well, what’s that about? What’s that about? And that’s the key, I think, to finding the funny in it. Michael McIntyre does the same thing, talking about, there’s a very famous sort of routine that he does about what men keep in their man-drawer, you know, old bits of like screwdrivers and old mobile phones and that sort of thing. He does a whole routine on the man-drawer and really where does that come from? It comes from the fact that lots of people have a drawer that they keep bits of rubbish in and maybe more men do. I don’t know if that’s true but that’s just a fact of life. Lots of people would recognize that but it’s whether you can do something with it to make it funny.

Danielle (14:36.554)

I love that. And I also read that you said that you love the absurd and you’ve mentioned also about pushing things to be a bit more ridiculous. And do you have any suggestions for ways of, like you say…I love this idea of thinking about maybe 10 things that you’ve done or seen. Where does the absurd come in for you? Do you think?

Fran Hill (15:00.278)

I think it’s about techniques such as exaggeration, using exaggeration, so exaggerating a situation. So for instance, I was in the post office today and I didn’t realize this, but I’d packed up five parcels of different little bits of presents to send to various people. I didn’t realize that when I got to the counter, she was going to say to me, what’s in those parcels? And I thought that was just something that happened if you were sending things abroad. But I said.. um, I don’t know. Um, actually I’d have to try and remember what I’ve wrapped up because in each one there’s two or three things. I said, it’s just presents. And she wouldn’t let me, she wouldn’t let me go on that. She just said, no, I need to know exactly what’s in there. So I found myself in this queue telling her all the boring things I’ve, I’ve sent to people like tea towels and notelets. And the more I said it, the more I think… this is ridiculous, I’m having to confess. It’s like the confessional, I’m confessing my terrible present buying to this person behind the counter, as if I was in church.

And once you’ve got that idea, then I’ve already started exaggerating it. So then… what if? That’s the question I always ask myself when I’m trying to sort of create something funny. What if I had bought people, I’m just making this up now, but what if I’d bought people really terrible things? You know, like horrible presents, like dead frogs, and, you know, I don’t know, a bit of dog poo in an envelope. What if I’d been sending ridiculous things? Or, what if I was lying and actually I was sending like gold ingots or something like that? So it’s a case of…what if, and then exaggerating.

And I also think another key is using really specific detail. So I suppose staying with that sort of story, I might say that…rather than just saying, oh, I was ashamed because I was sending rubbish presents, what kind of presents, actually making up a specific detail. But I think it’s about stretching it, and stretching it and asking ‘what if’ again and again and making it bigger and bigger until you’re finding it funny.

But also, I think things like repetition, some of the sort of techniques that you use in any writing and that make writing effective, like repeating things or using understatements, some of those things are just as helpful in creating humour. But I definitely think exaggeration is one of the main ones.

And I was just looking up some descriptions today because character descriptions, you know, exaggerated caricature is another way that observational humour is used. And I was looking at a couple of P.G. Wodehouse’s descriptions of people. Like this one, he says, ‘he was white and shaken like a dry martini’. ‘She had a penetrating laugh like a train going into a tunne’l. I mean, that’s a brilliant example of… no one laughs that loud. I mean, that’s just ridiculous. But he stretched it and exaggerated it. Very specific image, which we can all relate to, and exaggerated beyond the rational. And I do think that’s the key.

Danielle (18:54.482)

Oh, it’s given me so much to think about. Because even as you’re saying it, I’m like, oh yeah, I can, I still have really specific character descriptions written by P.G. Wodehouse in my head that like….I remember the petrol station where I was reading the book out loud. And it must’ve been like eight years ago, but I remember this particular one about this child. It’s like, yeah, you’re right. But they are, it was big. It was exaggerated. So I love that. I love this idea of stretching.

Fran Hill (19:17.386)

And really memorable, yeah.

Danielle (19:20.254)

Really memorable. I love this idea of repetition because now I’m picturing you with all your parcels.

Fran Hill (19:25.522)

Yeah, there’s just one last one I had written down. ‘He was a tubby chap, looked as though he’d been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say when’. I just think that’s just so good. Yeah, absolutely.

Danielle (19:37.169)

Oh yeah, that’s quite visceral.

And do you still keep a diary now? Because your memoir, ‘Miss What Does Incomprehensible Mean?’ is in diary form and I’ve got some questions I’d love to ask you about that. But do you still keep a diary now? Or has that changed now that your writing life has changed?

Fran Hill (19:58.09)

Well, actually at the time when I wrote that, I wasn’t really keeping a diary. So I wrote that book as a diary, but I didn’t really keep a diary. I do keep, I’ve got loads of notebooks. So I suppose keeping a diary, I don’t really keep one day to day, but I do write things down all the time, um, that I think I might write about in the future, so little observations, or if I see something funny, because you know what it’s like, something funny happens to you. And then three hours later you’re thinking, I know I was going to write about something that happened today, but what was that thing? And I can never remember because my memory is shocking. So that’s really the kind of journaling I do. But yes.

Danielle (20:37.716)

Yeah, no snap. I love that. And, and yeah, I’d love to ask about the memoir. Because I was curious about the structuring and editing of it, because you make it look so easy and so natural, but I know it’s not to make it all just flow and make it seem, you know, like these spontaneous entries. What did you find helpful at the time in terms of structuring or editing?

Fran Hill (21:03.89)

One thing that was really helpful for structuring, because it’s a year in my life as a teacher, I had the school calendar. So I just took one of my school planners, those ones that teachers write in all the time, write all their lessons in and their registers and things like that. Although that’s probably all done on some kind of digital device now, so showing my dinosaur.

And it meant I could plan a whole school year. Um, because although the events in the book do occur, have occurred to me, have happened to me, I couldn’t put them in exactly as they were. So they’ve all been jumbled up, you know, different events have happened to different characters and in different places, because as a school teacher, even as a retired one, you can’t just write things that actually happened in the classroom or name people.

So I had the school year, I had the school planner. So I wrote in things like parents’ evenings and structured some of my writing around that. The diary form, because that was commissioned by an editor I already knew who was working for SPCK, which is a Christian publishing house. It’s the biggest one in the UK. It’s a big one, but probably not well known.

He’d been saying for years, you know, Fran, because he’d read my blog material, I think, and liked what I wrote, and I’d sent him other failed projects, which is another lesson learned is that… if somebody rejects one project, try again with something different, they’re not rejecting you.

And I think I went back to him four or five times and said, Tony, what about this one? And he’d be like, no, it’s not quite right for us. But he said, Fran, why don’t you write something like

the James Herriot vet books, like All Creatures Great and Small, only from the point of view of a teacher. And it wasn’t until I’d stopped sort of teaching in a mainstream school that I felt I could do that. And then I said, what do you think about writing it as a diary? Because initially it wasn’t going to be a sort of diary. And it was interesting because even though I’d been teaching English for sort of 20 years, I found the diary writing…. It didn’t come naturally because I’d never really written a diary in that style. He had to help me a little bit with that. Things like, to make it authentic, you don’t put things in your diary which you know about yourself. You can’t write down…oh today I went to work…that sort of thing. The things that you know about yourself.

So that took a little bit of tweaking and also, horrors, he was asking me to write ungrammatical sentences. You know, he said, you can’t just keep writing in beautiful grammar.

Danielle (24:05.543)

Oh no.

Fran Hill (24:24.534)

I know. Oh, no. Yeah, exactly. You can’t just write perfect sentences, Fran. You’re going to have to start some of these sentences without the subject and just start them with the verb and once I got into it, I was thinking, yeah, this is right. This works. So yeah, it was quite hard work. But once I was there, once I had that voice.

Danielle (24:36.194)

But yeah, but you clearly did a good job because you had me fooled. I was like, Fran is a professional diary writer. She must just be brilliant at keeping diaries.

Fran Hill (24:44.214)

Like Pepys! No, nothing like Pepys.

Danielle (25:04.402)

Exactly.

I love it. And when you came to write your novel, obviously you still have this like really finely tuned like powers of observation and…It also sounds like, I don’t know, but from the outside projecting, it seems like you’ve already developed a really strong voice by then in terms of this really, you know, beautiful blend of funny and sad. If you agree with me that those were strengths that you already had going for you, what do you think were challenges when you came to then like taking those observational powers into fiction? I’m asking this with vested interest because I’m also writing fiction and it’s kicked my butt quite hard. So what did you find challenging?

Fran Hill (25:38.346)

Yeah, I suppose what I found challenging, certainly the diary, my teacher memoir, Miss What Does Incomprehensible Mean, that was in my voice. And then when I was writing Cuckoo in the Nest, I decided to write it from the point of view of the teenager, who’s the main protagonist and she’s 14. So that I did find a challenge because it’s challenging not to write in your own voice, you know, to get that teenage voice. And this is a teenager in the 1970s, as I was a teenager in the 1970s. And although I had a teenage voice in the 1970s, recreating it is another thing. And a couple of people have said they think she sounds a little bit too sophisticated for a 14-year-old. And I sort of see where they’re coming from. On the other hand, I’ve taught some incredible 14-year-olds.

Danielle (26:34.871)

Mm-hmm.

Fran Hill (26:35.242)

So I sort of had to have confidence that I have actually taught some virtual geniuses in my time and they’re only 14, but they sound as if they’re about 37. And that Jackie Chadwick, my main character, she definitely has that kind of sarcastic edge to her voice. She looks at the world and she’s got this kind of, I suppose, bittersweet way of seeing things, which is similar to the way I’m seeing things, but maybe for different reasons. She notices things. I wanted to make her a real observer, and I’ll tell you, one of the other challenges with doing that was, I went on this workshop, which was about pitching your work and identifying…she was trying to, the person running it, was trying to get us to identify who was our main character, etc.

And I was looking at Jackie Chadwick, my main character, and thinking, this is interesting because actually she observes more than she drives the action. Is she my main character? Have I got this right? So I had a bit of a struggle there because actually there’s, one of the main thrusts of the conflict of the story is that when she gets to her new foster home, there’s another, there’s a daughter of the house already there who doesn’t want a new sister, and her name’s Amanda. And it’s Amanda who actually, it’s a lot of her actions that drive the novel. It’s her antipathy to Jackie that drives it. So I had that interesting… who is my protagonist moment? But I kind of stuck with it. I’ve stuck with Jackie.

One of the new things that you’ve made me think about, and I knew this was coming up, and I was thinking in terms of, observational humour. I was thinking about hypervigilance because, um, when someone grows up in a, you know, in a traumatic situation as I did, and Jackie does in my, in my novel, you, hypervigilance kind of becomes a way of being so that you are always watching. And It made me think, you know, to what extent…They always say, don’t they, that comedians, a lot of comedians have had really tricky starts to life. You know, there are lots of comedians who’ve been very depressed and they’re completely different people on the stage, you know, they can do the clown thing. But it’s really made me think over the last few days about the link between… I wonder if anyone’s ever written a thesis on it because I’d love to read it, the link between hypervigilance and comedy.

The link between growing up in traumatic situations, learning to have to watch everybody because you don’t trust the world, and being able to see things in a way that other people don’t, that you see the detail because you’re always looking for it. And I just think that is so interesting, a concept. So I think that’s what I’ve done with Jackie Chadwick, that character, she watches because she has to watch just to make sure that she’s safe. And yet that somehow can also be made funny. Not sure how that happens, but it does.

Danielle (30:07.058)

I think that’s an incredibly astute observation. And if someone hasn’t written up, I’ve never read that, but it makes so much sense to me. And I’m like, oh, Fran needs to write a thesis on this. Because yeah, it is fascinating because there is a certain kind of privilege almost to feeling so relaxed that you don’t need to pay attention to things.

That you feel so safe that you can just sort of….like I know, I’ve met certain people in my life and I’m like…wow, they, they don’t even feel like they need to pay attention. And that to me seems like such a bizarre state. So I think that’s very interesting. And I think that the term hypervigilance is really interesting. And that’s a very interesting link. It makes a lot of sense to me. And also interesting, like you say, then how we make the jump to that being also to comedy.

And it sounds like humour’s always been part of your voice as well. And I am like self-declared very geeky when it comes to comedy about how it relates to humans and what function it fills and why we do it. I’m really quite serious about it because I do think it’s this amazing biological mechanism that can diffuse things and connect us and yeah.

Fran Hill (31:27.206)

It’s all sociology. It’s sociological, isn’t it? It’s all about how humans behave. And observational humour is very much looking at how humans behave. I love the… I follow on Twitter or X, that Very British Problems… ..Very British Problems… It’s all about politeness. Lots of it is about…politeness, the things we do to be polite. And, you know, what does it really mean when you say to somebody…oh, thank you, that was lovely? You know, it could mean loads of things. It could mean, I absolutely hated it. Or the polite things we do to try and leave or to try and get rid of guests, you know, at the end of the evening. And you say things like… anyone else want a cup of tea? Or, ooh, busy day tomorrow, you know.

Danielle (31:55.735)

Yeah.

Fran Hill (32:19.682)

I’m really fascinated by politeness and especially living as a Brit, you know, we’re known for our politeness strategies. And it’s something we used to study. Something I used to teach in English language, in linguistics, is politeness strategies, because they are a thing, the kind of way that you use language in order to…say something. Again, we’re back in the euphemism, aren’t we really? But the way you’re trying to say things, you’re trying not to say…will you please leave my house? It’s late.

And there are all kinds of ways of doing that. Understatement, exaggeration, using different kinds of wordplay. It’s really fascinating as a subject. So I think that’s observing how people behave and how people talk.

Because it’s something we all do and that’s why it’s so relatable, I think, observational humour. Because it’s something we’ve all, it’s a situation we’ve all been in. And in fact observational humour doesn’t work if what you’re observing is something that only a minority of people do. It’s got to be things that we all recognise. Otherwise it doesn’t resonate.

Danielle (33:39.614)

Yes. And that’s the perfect way of putting it. But as you say, you have the power and have developed the powers to take that small thing and unpack it and convey it in a way that then someone else can come along and recognize it and have that laugh of recognition and resonance. But it takes that extra time and craft to pull it out into the light and say, look. Look at us doing this funny thing. This makes no sense. Why do we do this?

Endlessly fascinating. Oh, I love that. I have like a thousand more questions I want to ask you, but I’ll just ask you two or three more. One of them is you’ve mentioned your poetry and I was looking at the service that you offer on your website for people who have weddings, but also funerals. And I was really curious about that because then you’re…taking other people’s observations of their loved ones, which to me is completely fascinating. So it’s not an easy question, but just anything that you’ve learned or thought about in terms of taking people’s observations of their loved ones and then you crafting it into a poem.

Fran Hill (34:55.122)

I think if we’re specifically talking about funerals, it’s interesting how if you ask people, because what I would normally do, I’d normally find out how big or how long a poem somebody would like, and then ask them, have a phone conversation with them and just write some notes as they’re talking to me about their memories of the person who’s died.

What was that person’s special possession? What was that person’s favorite place to be in the house? Did they have any specific memories of holidays with that person? So I’m looking for as specific information as possible. And what people normally say, you know, after the finished article is, I could never have put it into a poem. You know, I couldn’t…have put those things together, right? They’re all my memories and they’re all my observations of that person. But for somebody to be able to put it in a poem and then for it to be delivered just gives it such more emotive power.

And also as I’m writing a poem like that, I’m making connections and links between the things that they’ve told me. So very often, say you had about six verses in a poem, I might find that they kind of collect into themes. So one verse might contain a couple of memories and one verse might be about possessions and one verse might be about a birthday and something that happened. So yeah, it’s something I really love to do is to take this random list. So that’s for funerals or weddings or any occasion, a random list of observations and then craft them together. It’s just such a lovely thing to do. And I think people love to smile at funerals. They like those sort of memories that have made them smile. And so, you know, I think I can’t remember quite what I say on my website, but I think it is that, you know, I’ll make something that is not, it’s not going to be belly laugh funny, like I might do for a wedding if I could, but it’s going to be gently humourous.

And people really seem to appreciate being able to smile when they’re remembering that person.

Danielle (37:25.33)

I think that’s beautiful. And throughout the course of this interview, you’ve mentioned so many different kinds and sizes of writing, whether it’s being able to write six verses in a poem to, I know that you also, I read you deliver poems and monologues out loud… and the diary entries in the book. And I loved this term you used early on, like the micro and the macro. I think that’s amazing in terms of these sort of different frames for seeing things.

When you’re pulling it out to the macro, like for example, you mentioned that you’ve been working towards, it sounds like really consistently, this novel which is kind of as macro as you can get… any parting advice for the macro, which can be quite like brain melting for writers to hold.

Fran Hill (38:16.602)

I mean, I’m a planner. I do tend to like to know where I’m going, yeah. I tend to, the way I’ve developed things, because Cuckoo in the Nest was published in April, but before that I’d written probably three novels, which I’ve tried to have published, or three quarter novels that I’ve given up on. And I do like to plan, and the more I write, the more I plan. And…what I’m doing at the moment is I end up writing a synopsis first, which is the ultimate planning really, because then you know everything that’s going to happen. But that does help me. That doesn’t mean to say things don’t change, but I do like to know where I’m going.

Of course, the synopsis ends up being the least funny stage of writing a book. Because it’s not really meant to be funny. It’s just this happens, then this is going to happen. But I suppose within that synopsis, some of those ironies will show in the narrative, which, you know, end up tending to be quite funny.

But yeah, I tend to like to plan. I’m not one of these pantser people who just starts with an idea and then goes with it. I mean, Cuckoo in the Nest began actually as a result of a prompt. So it did start as one idea. I’d been thinking for a while of writing a novel about fostering, about foster care. And, I was meeting with a buddy over lockdown and we gave each other a prompt. Each couple of weeks, just a random prompt. And I think that one started with the prompt yellow. We said, Oh, let’s write about yellow things.

Danielle (40:09.67)

Oh.

Fran Hill (40:10.978)

So it could have been about a banana. I mean, history could have been completely different. But I wrote about this yellow room, that this foster child being walked around her new room and the foster parents have painted it yellow and they see all kinds of optimism in it and she doesn’t see the optimism. And it’s interesting because actually when I first wrote that scene, I wrote it in the foster mother’s point of view. Her showing the child round and I read it and read it… I thought this doesn’t work so then I just swapped it to Jackie the teenager’s voice and then she sort of popped out like a jack in the box, well Jackie in the box actually… um all sarky and a bit bitter and not wanting a new home at all but seeing things about this foster mother, noticing the way she stroked the wall like it was a cat, I think she says. And that’s when my character began. But from there, I then made a fairly detailed plan of what I thought would happen.

Danielle (41:24.11)

That’s so fascinating because I remember my response when reading that scene and I was… because I feel like I’m not very good with setting. I feel like that’s like one of my sort of weaker points…. And when I read it, I was like, oh, that’s such a perfect choice for showing the different  emotional landscapes and approaches and investments of these characters. And like just in this one, like beautifully condensed concept.

And I was like, oh, that’s so clever, so intentional. And obviously it is, it’s both. So, so interesting that actually came from a prompt. But then obviously, because you bring all the, like emotional truth to it, of course it’s not just any old banana, it’s something that’s very resonant. How fascinating that came from a prompt. Oh, I love it.

Fran Hill (41:55.805)

Oh, thank you.

Danielle (42:14.514)

I’ve learned a lot. We started off in this conversation today talking about continuing to learn. I’ve learned so many things. I will have to listen back and make some notes. So thank you. I’d love to know for listeners who want to find out more about you and your work, where’s the best place to send them? And of course, I’ll also put this in the show notes.

Fran Hill (42:32.21)

Oh, thank you. I think my website is probably the best place to go. So that’s www.franhill.co.uk. But I’m also on Twitter and Instagram as Franhill123. The handles are the same.

Danielle (42:41.154)

Perfect. Great. And I’’ll put that in the show notes. And thank you so much, Fran. What a delight getting to speak to you today.

Fran Hill (42:54.922)

You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.