Actress and writer Joanna Pickering recently spent time in Paris as part of a full writing scholarship from The Rohm Literary Agency to work under the guidance of agent and NY Times best-selling author Wendy Goldman Rohm and Margaret Atwood’s lifelong agent and editor, Phoebe Larmore.
In this interview with Close-up Culture, Joanna opens up on her time in Paris and the growth she experienced as a writer. She also talks about a number of her upcoming projects, including her principal character in a new TV series pilot – Street Smart – in the US, role in the Danny Boyle-produced film – Creation Stories – and her screenplay that has been awarded a top 15 mark of distinction to be mentored by a Touchstone/Disney production executive.
Q: How was your experience working alongside and learning from legendary female writing figures such as Wendy Goldman Rohm and Phoebe Larmore?
A: It was an honour. I had the opportunity to strengthen my writing craft from Wendy and Phoebe’s expertise. If you are writing with leading writers, you can see the difference. My technique is more fine tuned. Intuition is essential, but knowing the rules before you break them is vital.
They took time to give me empowering feedback for my own talent and work. I feel more powerful as a writer the more experiences I have like this. I’m grateful to all the support I receive and I recommend these opportunities for professional writers, as you create your own writers room before sending it to major studios or management for their notes.
Q: Can you give us insight into your writing process? And how this experience has helped you grow as a writer?
A: I write intensively for first and second drafts, often from intuition alone, after a long dreamlike period. A writer friend of mine, Emily Carmichael, advised me never write more than four hours a day. But, for early drafts, I produce this material in an intensive time burst, working non-stop for days on end. It’s not always worth keeping, but then, it exists. Then, I go about rewriting daily, and employ Emily’s advice.
The Paris retreat was great as it was effortless to keep focus and a routine. I had a 9am start on a boat on the Seine (the office). We finished at 6pm. Then we would socialise but keep brainstorming. Teamwork is important in life as an artist—you question the project, characters and ideas, over perhaps yourself and your ability which can happen if left alone too long.
Q: How was life in an artistically stimulating setting like Paris? Any stories to share?
A: Paris is the dream. I lived there in 2008 when I was a very young actress and writer. I went with just enough money to rent a small room in a garret. It was winter and I had my note book. The garret overlooked the Parisian rooftops and each morning I could see The Eiffel tower. I cut my hair, styled myself as if in a Godard film, and lived on baguettes, cheese, and French red wine— and I kept my diary. I self published three years of these journals under a pen name. It received praise and was compared in style to Patti Smith’s Just Kids (it was written a year before) by the literary circle in UK. It was this response that pushed me to keep writing beyond a hobby.
To return to Paris, a decade later, as a Hollywood represented writer with leading figures supporting me financially— to write—that is bigger than the initial dream.
Q: Is there another place in the world you’d love to travel to and spend time writing?
A: Buenos Aires, Argentina—and I did it, but I would go back. I wrote my first play there, Dream Etiquette. I saw Patagonia. I drank wine from Mendoza. And then my laptop was stolen along with some Christmas gifts at Retiro bus station—a shanty town lies behind. I didn’t do back-ups. I lost everything. I learnt the hard way: always back-up work, every day before going to bed. Now, I love to write at my desk in New York City like a very boring, professional writer—but all these memories and stories from travelling the world are there as soon I close my eyes.
Q: Do you have a favourite piece of writing from travelling?
A: My favourite piece of creative writing came from Morocco. I went for three days and stayed a month. I lived in a divine Riad in the old town of Marrakech, with mosaic tiles, a spaniel dog, and a small turtle. I dressed head to toe in white. I have intense sensory triggers and Marrakech flooded my mind. Perhaps, as only Cairo and Mexico City have before.
I had to escape to the mountains. I arrived at a little place called Setti Fatma with seven waterfalls. I wrote and hung out with the berbers. Nothing Dries Sooner Than A Tear is published with Burning House press, you can read it here. My editor, C.C O’Hanlon, moved to Morocco with his wife shortly after reading this and he said he was partially inspired by this, so that is beautiful feedback that really means something to me.
Q: Can you tell us anything about the work you produced on the trip to Paris and any other writing project you have coming up?
A: I’m still working on my full play, Beach Break, about the dis-credible victim. I created two characters in which I could explore issues of assault without actually documenting the events, as they often get further sexualised. I wanted to look at the break down of relations in the aftermath.
I have a new play in early stages which I am excited about. It explores the grey area neglected in The Me Too movement. I’m also writing a TV pilot. These were all read with Rohm Agency. I also work with a theater group in New York, Primitive Grace, who’s literary support has been vital.
Q: As well as being a writer, you are an acclaimed theatre and on-screen actor. One of your upcoming roles is in the TV series ‘Street Smart’ directed by Guillermo Ivan. What was it like working with Guillermo and being a part of this gritty NY show about the opioid epidemic?
A: Guillermo did not direct the pilot as of his schedule. We worked with Gotham Productions and creator Tony Welch, Jon Ofario from Goodfellows and the fantastic Mauricio Bustamante from Lee Strasberg where I trained. That is a little dream to work alongside him. It was small budget but I think it suited the gritty nature of the show. I hope it is picked up for network. I play a spoilt brat housewife living on an allowance.
Q: You also have a role in ‘Creation Stories’, a Danny Boyle-produced biopic about Alan McGee. Tell us about your role.
A: A small role in the Danny Boyle film—which actually takes the same preparation to flesh out the character and bring to screen and so it was lots of fun.
I play a functioning smack addict. There’s a lot of layers and in some ways I found it harder working with a small role. I have full respect for day player roles, and what they come in and do with star casts– and I loved working with Ewen Bremner, who is incredible. I hope he wins a BAFTA.
Q: Interestingly enough, you worked with writer Dean Cavanagh and McGee on the experimental film ‘Kubricks’ in 2013. Tell us about that project.
A: I received a phone call to be in a very experimental film called Kubricks, directed by Dean. I asked for the script and received a 100 page brochure on quantum physics. I have a degree in pure mathematics, with subsidiary courses in quantum, so you can see why this matched up.
Q: We are seeing a lot of biopics at the moment. Is there a figure you would love to make a biopic about (as a writer or an actor)?
A: A TV series I have created is inspired by writer Emily Hahn — she travelled the world, wrote 54 novels and more than 200 articles and short stories, and for The New Yorker, and not many people have heard of her. My screenplay for this was just awarded a top 15 mark of distinction to be mentored by a Touchstone/Disney production executive.
Q: You have supported a number of social causes and hosted panels for empowering women in New York City. How do you want to use your voice in the coming years? Any advice to share?
A: I want to keep sharing advice and empowering other artists. Panels are a great way to give younger artists a stronger female voice. I was just telling one of my mentees—follow up! So many artists assume if they do not get a reply, it’s rejection—follow up. You don’t need an immediate reply to get what you want—you need to stay on the radar.
Photos by Peter Tainsh, styled by Joanna Pickering. Location: London
For anyone interested in joining the next writers retreat contact agent and NY best-selling author Wendy Goldman Rohm: https://www.pariswritersretreat.com/
Follow Joanna’s latest films on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm2984746/
Visit Joanna’s website: www.joannapickering.com
Follow Joanna on Twitter/Instagram: @joannapickering