Long And Winding Road To Malta (And Artistic Expression)

Add more to your reading experience, listen to this playlist of Lizzie Eldridge's favourite songs whilst reading this feature on her.

Some people are impossible to read; they are masters of the ability to mask emotions.  Others are the opposite with their faces transmitting their feelings.  Within minutes of meeting Lizzie Eldridge I could tell where she fell in this divide.

Born in Yorkshire but raised in Glasgow, Eldridge spent most of her early years searching for an artistic identity with which she was comfortable.  Indeed, one might say that it was that search which led her to Malta and her artistic blossoming both as a theatre director as well as an author of acclaim.

“Originally I came to Malta in 2005.  At that time I was working in Edinburgh where I was teaching theatre and had set up a theatre company.”  

“I got an e-mail from Toni Attard who wrote to me about this project he was working on and at the same year he got money for me to come to Malta.  I was going through a phase in my life where I was sick of academia, really sick of academia.  I was thinking about what I could do differently and my thoughts kept coming back to Malta.  Eventually I moved here in 2008.”  

That she ended up working in theatre was not that surprising for someone who came from an artistic family.  “My dad is, was, is, a professor of Sociology at the University of Glasgow.  My mum was always musical, playing the piano.  My brother is a professional jazz pianist,” she says.  

“My sister is now teaching sociology.   Sociology kind of runs in the family.  I studied sociology along with theatre.  My daughter has just graduated in sociology.  But it was always a creative family.  We were always doing small performances, the three of us for our parents.  I was always writing and performing from a very early age.”

Lizzie got involved in theatre when she was around thirteen, joining a drama group after first taking on some Scottish Drama Workshops.  

“Then I went to university and I was very young when I went there; I was only sixteen: a baby!  I studied theatre, got involved in the student theatre group and we did a lot of stuff.   I started writing for theatre and when I was twenty one I actually won a prize in a Scottish youth drama writing competition.  Playwriting isn’t really my thing but I dabbled a little bit.”

Her life, however, was far from planned.  “I graduated at twenty but I didn’t have clue what I was going to do.  Not. A. Clue.  So I went travelling around Europe, I went busking as I played the violin so I carried it with me.  And that’s how I made my money.”  

“Then when I was twenty two I decided that I was really getting old and needed to settle down.  The only thing that I could think of was doing a PhD, so I did that.  In the process I had my daughter and my thesis on this dead French playwright Jean Anouilh who isn’t really famous or anything outside of France.  It kind of combined Sociology and theatre.  But I stopped doing any practical work because I had a small baby and also lost confidence.”  

“Still I was always playing music at the time with my daughter’s father in a band.  I was writing but I felt a bit hemmed in with the baby and the PhD and thoughts of getting a proper job.  I had to really think about getting money for the first time.”

As she speaks it is unmistakable that these weren’t happy years, something that she eventually confirms although her face clearly gave this away much earlier.  “I look at my twenties as a bit of a black hole really.  I was very miserable.  The baby arrived when I was twenty three.  I still did the PhD in three years.  When I was 25 I got my first job at Cardiff and there I got into directing because I had the lack of confidence to act.  Instead I directed a piece that I wrote myself and which was quite good.”  

“Then my mum died which was a bit of a nightmare.  And the relationship split up.  So 1997 was not a good year.”  

Of the two, you get the feeling that it was the loss of her mother which hit her the hardest, so much that she feel the need to return home.  “It was a really difficult time and I just wanted to get back to Glasgow.  I was in Wales and I wanted to go home.  So I got a job in Edinburgh and moved back to Glasgow in 2000.”

“My daughter was 8 and I was commuting on a daily basis which was pretty tough.  I was relying on friends and family.”

All of this didn’t help her struggles with the creative urge.  “In 2001 I felt that I was not doing anything creatively and a friend of mine gave me a book called the Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It looked a bit hippy but I decided to do it.  And I think that there was something magical about that book.”  

“Basically it was all doing a few things like writing in the morning, artist’s dates where you go somewhere you’ve never been to get out of your comfort zone.  You draw pictures of where you are now and where you would like to be.”  

“I was always going that I wanted to be a freelance artist.  But I lived in Glasgow and had a small child.  In Glasgow life is much more expensive.   You have to earn more money so the idea of being freelance in Glasgow was impossible.  So I carried I carried on doing the book and the motivation kicked in pretty quick.”

“Things were happening even though I was a single mum and working in Edinburgh.  All of these things were sent to try you and it wasn’t like it was a bed of roses; it wasn’t, it was difficult.”

She had earlier started working on Vandalism, a book that deals with the complex emotions of love, death and passion, writing whenever she got the time.  Now however the loss of her mother gave her added motivation.  “In 2004 I got Vandalism back out and thought that I needed to get working on it again.  So every night I would get back home from work and sit down writing on whatever computer I was using then.”

“I thought that I needed to get in contact with the second person to whom the book is dedicated.  I hadn’t seen him in seven years.  I looked on the internet but I just couldn’t find an e-mail.  And then, out of the blue, I got an e-mail at work from him.  I thought, Wow!”

This led to a trip to New York in order to reconnect and renewed her impetus.  Yet it was quickly followed by a quick comedown.

“I got back to discover that my daughter had decided to move with her father and his family in Wales,” she recalls.  “This was followed with a couple of months of grieving and feeling very sad.”

Situations like that tend to become turning points from which one either spirals out of control or else pick a different path.  “I decided that I needed to get and out and do the things that I couldn’t when she was there.  So that is how I set up the theatre company which eventually got me in touch with Toni Attard and that is how I came in Malta.”

To an extent, the move was fuelled by a desire to escape from an environment that was both limiting her creativity and provided a constant reminder to what she had lost.  There was no concrete plan, not even around something basic on how she was going to earn a living.

A chance meeting with actress Pia Zammit led her to try teaching English to foreign students. Initially Lizzie scoffed at the thought – she rolls her eyes as she thinks at that first reaction – yet is now thankful for it as “it is my bread and butter.”

That she is still teaching years later is proof of the importance of this job.  For an author whose work deals heavily with human relationships, that she gets to meet so many different people from such diverse backgrounds is an added perk.  “If you wanted then, yes.  There are so many people and so many stories.”  

“You find out things that are heartbreaking and take your breath away.  And you also hear so many funny things.  But you’re always being stimulated.”  

“When I was teaching theatre I felt that I was always giving and never getting anything back.  With language it is much more equal.  There is something really joyful when you see people understand something in English.  There’s something really joyful about it and sharing stuff on our own cultures.  So it is a massive learning experience for me as well.  Whereas teaching theatre was…I don’t know…academia just wasn’t me.”

Lucky meetings and being open to opportunities seems to be a constant in Lizzie’s life: during the same year that she started teaching English, she got an offer for a trip to Madrid which she accepted.

“This guy who had invited me to talk about theatre projects could speak perfect English and Spanish.  But at the last minute when I was packing I threw in my pocket Spanish dictionary.  At the time I could speak primitive Italian but I couldn’t speak Spanish so I put in my dictionary and thank god that I did.  Because this guy met me after four hours and told me that he needed to go somewhere for work and I never saw him again!”

“So there I am, in Madrid thinking ‘what the hell am I doing here?’   I couldn’t speak any Spanish and most of the people couldn’t speak any English.  I spent my time walking around the centre of Madrid because I didn’t want to go far in case I got lost.  I was walking around in a kind of daze.”

“On the final day I said to myself that I needed to get my act together, get my dictionary out, show people what I wanted to say and try to get a taxi to the airport.  So I walk down my street to the Teatro Espanol.  I’d already been there but not for long, and whilst there I turned and saw a statue.”  

“I started walking towards it and…oh my god…it was (Federico Garcia) Lorca!  I hadn’t seen it before.  Lorca had always been this big thing in my life.  I started looking at it and felt really safe! I started asking for taxis and got there in the end.  It was a bit of a nightmare trip but I kept thinking that I needed to do something with the experience.”

Lorca had long been a passion of hers and coming across his statue felt more than symbolic, it felt providential.  “That was the trigger for Duende, in a roundabout way.”  

“It took me into the novel and I just started writing.  In about three months I had around fifty thousand words.  It was serious writing.  I just had to write and write and write!  Not about my experience but it was triggered by it and lots of other stuff.  It just came.  I was thinking, ‘I need to write this novel, I need to write this novel’.  I lost a job actually which was good because it meant that I could write.”

Duende is set in the early twentieth century and has the Spanish political upheaval of the time in its background.  That must have been difficult to research.  “Oh man, I know!” she replies.  “The first fifty thousand words I wrote without doing any research.  All I knew was that there was a civil war, that Franco won, there was a lot of infighting on the left and that Lorca was killed in the first days.  I didn’t know why they shot him.  So I really knew nothing.”  
“In the meantime, my characters have started to breathe and they’re living.  And I wrote this chapter, Jose – one of the main characters – is a philosopher and he’s giving a lecture, teaching philosophy in the University of Madrid.  I finished writing the chapter and I thought that this could be the University of Glasgow in the 80s.  I didn’t sound right, it sounded too clean.”  

“I found this book – which apparently is a very good book but again it was a random chance – called Spain 1808-1975 by Raymond Carr.  It goes all the way back to the inquisition and through it I discovered that Spain was in a bad way well before the Civil War.”  

“I found all this stuff and was wow.  It was really timely because I had all the characters clearly defined and now I could fill in the back story.  That works for me.  I tried to write something else a couple of years back but I gave up because I was doing the research and then write which I found to be suffocating.”

“With Duende it came the right way round because you could interweave it with the story that was already there and alive.  It worked.”  

“In the novel there are a number of real life characters like Salvador Dali another Professor of Philosophy called Ortega y Gasset which I only came across in my research who was a major figure in the intellectual left.  They are not big characters.  Garcia Lorca is there as well.  In the beginning I thought that I couldn’t bring these people in the book, that it would be ridiculous and stupid.  It would be terrible.”  

“But then I realised that if my characters didn’t meet them it would be strange.  Jose is an artist and a philosopher in Madrid so if he doesn’t meet them then he would have to be living in some hole in the ground.  So then the real life figures came in.  Lorca stayed.  He comes in and out of the novel.  In the end they find out that he was killed.  So Lorca became a really important thread in the book.  He isn’t a main character but his presence is there and strong.”

If Duende’s origins was borne out of difficulty, its publication was equally convoluted.  

“Oh God!” she recalls.  “Even while I was writing, I was thinking that I needed to get it published.  So I got some A4 envelopes, put in my manuscript and sent it to some publishers.   I’d go to the post office every weekend.  I then got these nice rejection letters!”

“Then I was surfing through the internet and came across a competition to get your book published.  I entered and managed to win.  So I thought, this is great!  It got published and was on Create Space on Amazon.”

“But then in 2013 I realized that I had never heard from these publishers and wasn’t having any contact with these people.  In 2013 I thought that I needed to publish Vandalism and these people were saying that they would publish it.  Thanks God that didn’t happen.”  

“I wasn’t getting any royalties and had a hard time getting in contact with them.  When I did I told them to give me my books back, give me Duende back.   So they did as in, it is no longer on Amazon.  So I was like sh*t man, I don’t know what to do.”

Eager to see her ‘baby’ on the bookshelves, she took on the project herself.

“I wanted to have it back there (on Amazon) and there was this friend from school who I was in contact with on Facebook and he agreed to help me.  Then I saw the work of Damien Ebejer and I thought that his work was perfect, that it was Duende.  So I asked around about him and after a month I got in touch to ask about the possibility.  He was really nice, we met and generously told me to choose the one that I wanted.   So I found the picture for the cover.”

In the meantime, her other body of work had suddenly come to life.

“I had sent some of Vandalism to Chris Gruppetta asking him what he thought.  He was really nice even though at the time my main aim was to see what he thought.  He had read Duende and told me that commercially it wasn’t feasible in Malta.  But with Vandalism he asked me to send him a bit more, and then a bit more until finally he asked me for the full manuscript.  So, at the same time that Duende was being taken off Amazon, Chris was offering to publish Vandalism.”

“So 2014 was brilliant as I was working on the self-publication of Duende, Damien Ebejer had given me to go ahead to use his painting and in October Duende came out again on Amazon.  Luckily for me it included the reviews that it had up till that time whereas usually you lose them.  People ask me how I did that but I just shrug my shoulders as I have no idea how that happened!  At the same time there was the editing of Vandalism going on.”

“Then last April (in 2015) I had a book launch for Duende at the National Musuem.  That was a lovely event, really special.  Then in October Vandalism was published and it was like, Wow, that’s amazing.”

Of the two books, it is Vandalism with its hugely evocative cover and the emotion laden story that has proven to be a public hit.  So much that it has been shortlisted for Malta’s book of the year by the National Book Council.  

“I was on a cigarette break at work and I checked my e-mail, which I normally don’t as it was quite a busy day with some seven and a half hours of teaching, and I got an e-mail with the announcement.  Which was amazing.  It came out of the blue.  I couldn’t believe it.”

Lizzie has the tendency of labelling whether a year was good or bad, something that comes through several times during our conversation.   It might be a coincidence but her two books were born in years that were, by her classification, bad.

So, when she starts talking about her current situation where she’s “writing another novel but at the moment life has got too crazy what with the promotion of the books” could it be that at the moment she is in a good enough place to come up with a story that drives her to write?

“Someone once said “why would you write when you’re happy” and to an extent I think that’s true,” she reflects.  “I suppose that there are people who write when they’re happy.  I’m trying to show myself that you can write when things are going well and that I can write about dark stuff when I’m not in a dark place.  You know what it feels like so you don’t have to be in it.”

Still, projects are moving and the creative juices flowing.  Her theatre career is buzzing and her writing is continuously finding new audiences.

“Duende is never going to be on the best-sellers list because of the kind of book that it is.    But, having said that, there’s a Spanish lecturer of English Litterature in Madrid and he read Duende.  Out of the blue he got in touch and he said that you’ve got the Duende.  And I though, that’s really nice.”  

“Anyway so he kept in contact so he’s more or less definitely agreed to translate Duende into Spanish at the beginning of next year.  So, that would be amazing.”

Her whole face is smiling at this point, her joy at how matters have panned out clearly radiating off of her as she talks.  For Eldridge is a person who lives and seemingly treasures every emotion but is eager to share it with all those around her.

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Lizzie Eldridge's Vandalism, nominated for the 2016 National Book Prize, can be obtained directly from Merlin Publishers.  Duende, on the other hand, is available from Amazon.

The illustration at the top of this article is by the immensely talented Inez Kristina.  Follow her on Instagram.

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