An Interview with Adelle Stripe

Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile is a novel inspired by the bittersweet life of the Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar, best known for her black comedy Rita, Sue and Bob Too. It is populated with a cast of real and imagined characters, set against the backdrop of the infamous Buttershaw estate during the Thatcher era. This is Adelle Stripe’s debut novel.

What drew you to Andrea Dunbar’s story?

I was fan of Andrea when I was a teenager and I saw Rita, Sue and Bob Too when I was in my early teens. I used to have one of those black and white TVs in my bedroom: my parents used to go to bed and I would watch all sorts of inappropriate films on Channel 4. It was pretty wild in the late 1980s! So that’s how I discovered the film. I loved Andrea’s writing, and that of Sheila Delaney and I wanted to be a playwright. Their writing spoke to me about my own life experiences; I felt a connection to both playwrights.

I grew up in a house without books. I didn’t have any idea how to get into university – the guidance wasn’t there for me. The dream sort of fizzed out at that point. I went to university when I was 30 and studied creative writing. Andrea was on the backburner until I was reminded of a Yorkshire television documentary – probably from ’89 – which had an interview of Andrea in a cinema, smoking cigarettes. I scoured the internet to find anything written about her, thinking that there must have been a book, but there was nothing. So I decided to write a book for myself.

What process did you go through to recreate her consciousness and her voice? I noticed the enormous bibliography.

It was four years of research. I spent lots of time in various London archives, studying her letters. There was no comprehensive chronology or press file on Andrea: there was lots of material, but nobody had mapped it out fully. Some of the material was unstable – things like hearsay – so I went up to the Buttershaw estate to meet her family too, to talk about her life.

At the book’s beginning, you write that this is “a work of fiction and an alternative version of historical events”. Like other work shortlisted for the Gordon Burn prize, such as Denise Mina’s The Long Drop, you take real events and people and give them fictional voices – in spite of the huge volume of research lying behind it. How did you feel about doing this with Andrea?

I looked at writers such as Gordon Burn and David Peace who, to varying degrees, use fact to create fiction. It took me a while to work out the right tone: you have to treat the characters with respect. Richard Holmes, the great literary biographer, describes the process as “making the dead walk again”. If you exhume somebody, you have to treat them well.

It was quite clear that this was not the historical truth, partly because nobody knows what the truth is. So much of the material around Andrea was uncertain and contested. You have to remember that she dramatised her own life on stage, although the plays are a manipulated, ‘through-the-glass-darkly’ manipulation. But just as she told her life story through drama, I thought it was possible to tell it through fiction.

In part, the novel is a reflection on the negative impacts of her own success on her health and on her relationships. I was struck by the cruelty of that. Her voice – which was one of the dispossessed, the much abused, and the forgotten – was manipulated by the press who covered her, and ultimately it didn’t benefit her. The quote that gave the book its title sums up that negative impact: she was described as “boot-faced with black teeth and a brilliant smile” and you write about how much she disliked that description! Do you feel, by writing this book, that you have in some ways corrected that injustice?

Yes. I was angry when I pulled together the press material: that Mail on Sunday article, which was the origin of that description, caused a lot of trouble for her on the Buttershaw. While she was writing plays, her success had little impact; it was when she started to write for the big screen that things went wrong. Rita, Sue and Bob Too attracted huge attention, despite being a low-budget film. Andrea was hounded by journalists, and lots of negative articles were written about her and the Northern underclass. Many of the critics thought the film was a satire – they couldn’t believe that people in the North actually lived like that. Hilary Mantel wrote a stinging review of Rita, Sue and Bob Too in The Spectator. It highlighted the North/South divide; most journalists were from the South. Critics would either patronise or put Andrea down. On the whole, it was all quite negative.

You open the book with the scene of her death, from a brain haemorrhage, in a pub. In doing so, you set this up as a fatalistic story – we know that it isn’t going to end happily. Why did you choose that approach, given the impact it has on the book’s tone?

I like that circular structure. I’ve always wanted to write a book that opens with the final scene, while the rest of the narrative comes around in a circle. I also wrote that scene last, because I had to go to the Beacon pub. It was the roughest pub I’ve ever been in: I was a little scared about walking in. It hadn’t changed at all since her death: it was full of drinkers from the estate. They all used to drink with Andrea, and her sister worked behind the bar. The visit cleared the final scene in my head.

You don’t use speech marks – why?

For pace! I wanted this book to be short: the sort of thing that you can read over three pints in an afternoon. The kind of book Andrea would have taken to the Beacon with her. I was inspired by short-form American novels, which suck you in and spit you out again. A number of American writers, most famously Cormac McCarthy, didn’t use speech marks; like them, I found that the speech marks cluttered the page. Ultimately, Andrea had a short life, so a short novel made sense. It’s a whirlwind of a novel for a whirlwind of a life.

Josh Kimblin writes for Varsity and is studying History at Christ’s College Cambridge.

The winner of the Gordon Burn Prize 2017 will be announced at Durham Book Festival on Thursday, 12 October.