Twelve Questions

Sarah Daniell poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions with Rachel Lang

Rachel Lang says writing good characters involves being an 'emotional detective.' Photo / Natalie Slade
Rachel Lang says writing good characters involves being an 'emotional detective.' Photo / Natalie Slade

If the history of Kiwi TV drama were adapted for the screen, Lang would be its hero. She has been writing New Zealand stories for the small screen for more than two decades. Outrageous Fortune, the Almighty Johnsons, This Is Not My Life and Nothing Trivial (to name a few) all bear the hallmarks of her sense of irony, humour and style.

Where were you when JR was shot in Dallas?

In my lovely, grotty flat in Wellington. We even had a new-fangled remote, which connected to the telly on a cord. This was very exciting, until the kitten thought the remote was a toy and chewed through the cord. Technology has many enemies, and often they're quite small.

To which of the female characters you've written do you most relate?

All of them, because every character has an aspect I can relate to, or something I would like to be more or less of. Although I do have a soft spot for Jane, in The Blue Rose, which we're shooting now (played by Antonia Prebble).

Jane is more like me than most of my characters, and named after two of my literary heroines - Jane Eyre and Jane Austen.

When has life eerily imitated your artform?

Blair Strang did say that some of Nothing Trivial was spookily like his life. But I swear we didn't know he had a problem sharing a bed when we wrote that story ...

What surprises you about television?

That it's still such a popular and useful medium, and hasn't been outmoded yet. I'm quite pleased about this.

What's your coping mechanism for writer's block?

Keep writing; push through the pain. Or walk away, and do something else. Go for a walk, or go buy more bananas for your 14-year-old, who eats a lot of bananas. The dull stuff is often stimulating and you can trick yourself into feeling creative, especially after another banana run.

When we're storylining, we usually just go to the loo. We have found there is a story elf who lives in the toilet and often gives useful or surprising advice about story problems.

What has writing revealed to you about Rachel Lang?

I am better and worse than I thought, and if I think about something long enough, I can empathise with almost anyone. I remember reading an article about a serial killer, and his psychology, and thinking, "Oh yes, of course, from his point of view this is all completely fair enough!" Then I realised this was possibly worrying.

What piece of screen dialogue can you quote and most love?

I was on a plane and someone else in another seat was watching When Harry Met Sally, one of my favourite films. Even with no sound, I realised I could supply most of the dialogue. But my favourite line is not, 'I'll have what she's having'. It's, 'I would like some pecan pie.' I am not sure why I find it so funny. Nora Ephron, who wrote the screenplay, is a huge influence on me.

Who or what would you like to come back as, when you slip off?

I quite fancy being something not exotic, but useful in an unexpected way. Like a fungus.

What quality must a writer have to make characters that connect with an audience?

Curiosity; a genuine love for flaws, joys, despairs and foibles. Mostly you have to love your characters and never judge them. I think the best thing about being a writer is it requires you to be an emotional detective - a job which is part logic, part intuition - working out what someone would feel and why, given their personality and circumstance - how they talk, how they act, and what they hide. It's endlessly fascinating. If you sympathise with and understand your characters, then the audience can sympathise too.

What riles you?

The alarming number of people who walk into the road without looking; school league tables; asset sales.

For what show would you do a cameo?

I'd probably go well on Mad Men, because I like the clothes and I have the boobs for it.

What unsung hero would you like to see celebrated, and why?

She's not unsung, but I was sad to hear of the death of Margaret Mahy. Also delighted that her work and achievement have been so joyfully and fondly celebrated. I had the pleasure of working with Margaret on children's series Maddigan's Quest and she was naughty, unconventional, tangential, lyrical and zinging with ideas. She also loved The Terminator and Predator.

- NZ Herald

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