Matilda Leyser is the author of No Season but the Summer, a novel that combines the Greek Persephone myth with modern day England, climate change, and, ultimately, a story about mother-daughter relationships.
But being a novelist is just one of her second chapter stories, after running away from words to join the circus (amongst other things!)
Matilda is a theatre-maker, writer and artistic director of Mothers Who Make. Prior to becoming a mother she worked for 10 years as a circus aerialist, collaborating with diverse theatre and dance companies and making her own work. She came down to earth in 2008 and became an Associate Director with Improbable. She became a mother in 2012 and considers motherhood, and her writing, to be far more dangerous endeavours than being a circus aerialist.
You can find more about Matilda and her various pursuits at:
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On The Second Chapter, serial careerist and founder of Slackline Productions, Kristin Duffy, chats with women who started the second (or third… or fifth!) chapter in their careers and lives, after 35. You’ll find inspiring stories, have a few laughs, and maybe even be motivated to turn the page on your own second chapter!
The Second Chapter - Coming Down to Earth with Novelist and Mother Who Makes, Matilda Leyser
But I couldn't stay away for too long because I'm always so excited to speak with women who have changed their lives and their careers after 35. So I'm thrilled to be back here with you doing it. This week's guest is quite the multihyphenate herself with multiple life changes and currently several simultaneous careers.
When I read about Matilda Leyser's book, No Season But the Summer, I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. It's a novel that combines the Greek Persephone myth with modern day England climate change, and ultimately a story about mother-daughter relationships. When I heard that it was also part of her second chapter story, I couldn't wait to chat with her, and I'm really excited she's here with me today.rk. She came down to Earth in:She became a mother in:[:
And I couldn't type, I couldn't do it. But it was the best thing that could have happened to me because it meant I had to really slow down.
I had to realize that writing is actually a creative activity. I still associated words with the academic and not really realized that I could treat an empty page, like an empty rehearsal room.[:[:[:[:
I think I'm on my fourth chapter. But
but really really glad to have the acknowledgement that life can have more than one story in it.[:
life. I don't Think any of us really hold one or two roles.[:[:
So tell me about your childhood growing up with words.[:
'cause that had the cultural shift had taken place in that span of time. So I was born in Islip, in Oxfordshire. To two medieval historians. And we now we're a family of, so my parents had four children. My eldest brother is also a medieval historian. And then my sister is a very high powered scientist.
She was at Cambridge for many years, even Dame Orlene, Liza. Um, So a very academic heavy household.
And, Yeah and a dilapidated house that I think in some instances was literally held up with books as well as bricks. There were certainly tables, shelves certain furniture items that were, the legs.ithin Oxford as home and the [:[:
I know from reading about you that you went to school or went to university to actually study words,
but then afterwards ran away to the circus. Now in my mind, that's something to become an aerialist, I imagine, lifetime of training and bravery and 'cause I think it's scary.
How did you do that after university and how does one run away to the circus[:
I did love words and stories. I still do. So I did want to, and when I was very little, I wanted to be a writer. So I did I didn't just go to university and read English literature because that was the expected path, which it was, but it wasn't, I did also want to do that. But then afterwards had, did need to do something different.
So really I say I ran away to join the circus because, it's a good line, isn't it? But really, I feel it's a bit of a cheat because I went to circus school, which, is not that, it's not really so rebellious as just running away with a[:
in this romantic cinema way.[:
Do that partly because I don't know if I'm rebellious at heart. I love being a student oh, a chance to go leave university and then go to another kind of school. Brilliant.[:
I'd be the
most learned person in the
So much we barely recognize them as metaphors anymore. That actually circus is all about physically embodying. So I think that was part of my attraction to it.[:[:
But it you basically where it's transitioned from a kind of seen as a commercial marginalized art form the big top model, going round, doing a glitzy act to It's been trying to get in there as a serious art form and has to a large degree, although there's still issues around its status and a kind of ongoing uneasy relationship between what it gets called traditional circus and new circus and whether those labels are helpful or just divisive.
But I the very existence of a circus school actually was part of the kind of new circus brigade. And that has really flourished since the Millennium Dome and the presence of circus within that whole celebration within the uk that a whole cohort of circus performance came out of.
And going back to your original point undermining the idea that you had to be born into it and trained since you were a toddler. One of the things that's been fantastic about the kind of explosion of circus arts in the country is the recognition that it actually.
They're both do involve a huge amount of training and at a certain level are really accessible and really empowering because actually if you just go to a, a class once a week for a year, you can do some trap pea and people find that sexy and exciting and liberating because it's still got this kind of romantic mystique about it.
And also because of the literal physical experience of pulling yourself up and holding your own weight is exciting. I think partly because of the link back to the metaphors that I was talking about that, that we live by[:
And as someone who grew up with books and know you, I know that you climbed trees and did things like that. My, that was my sister. I was the one sitting under the tree[:[:[:[:[:[:[:
there was a little bit of overlap. The first show I did with Improbable, I spoke about trying to retire from the air and come down to ground, and I did about the kind of, three, three minutes of aerial in that show where I, and climbed on the set quite a bit.
But essentially I spent my 10 years in the air which was fantastic. And because circus was fashionable and on the Up, opened up extraordinary opportunities to perform, at the National Theater The Globe at Klein born Opera. But ultimately also frustrated me. It started closing down the doors because of the. Assumptions, which I was busy trying to undo, but couldn't undo them fast enough around, around circus and circus performers. And the kind of often circus became like a thing that you know, when I collaborated with theater companies we were the sexy, clever thing that was brought in to spice up the show, but had a kind of marginalized and different segregated status from the actors who were still were the ones that got to say the words.[:[:[:[:
The words were what I started with, so I need to think of, it's so all of that. And I started realizing that I was although it seems daring and exciting, it's easy to hide behind the skills ultimately 'cause you can, it's like an amazing party trick.
You can climb up a rope and hang upside down and do a twirl. And actually what I was always interested in was vulnerability and that it stopped feeling vulnerable even though I was 10 meters in the air, it wasn't really vulnerable. So at that point I knew I had to come back down and face the fact that I come from a family of Oxford academics and I love words well as moving that.
So I came back down and the first job I got oh, I know what I did. Sorry. I also ran away. I ran away from the circus. 'cause of a comment a director I was working with made I went and did the absolute opposite of, I did an MA in European classical acting, Which was really outside my performing identity going and doing like a classical acting training felt really excitingly outside of the frame of my identity.
But I guess was a reaction to what I was just talking about with the ariel, where I was like, damn it, I'm gonna go and do this actor training that all these actors who get given the words have done.[:
And I auditioned for that. I say auditioned with quote marks, which you can't see 'cause you're listening because the way that improbable auditions is not like any other company that I've worked with. And um, it is a good story because one of the first things that they said to me when I went into the sort of interview audition was, this show is really a show about trying to get ELA, a new girlfriend. And, I said at the time sorry, I, you can't gimme the part then 'cause I'm taken 'cause I was with someone. And lo and behold cut to, I am now married to Fela McDermott. So it, the show worked[:[:[:[:
They're really core to the next chapter that's coming up.[:
And, all the things were, was it all sort of a device thing or were you writing along the way? I guess is the question[:[:[:[:
And And not long after that I enrolled in A M F A in creative writing as a, because I like being a student. So then I[:[:
So it's very nice when yeah, when somebody else does it.[:
And I can con maybe following the structure is a better way to put it, but I'm like, oh, it would be so good just to, first I have to do this, and then I have to do this instead of, okay, which project?
How do I do it? What's next? What's first?[:[:
Just to have some structure like that. Sounds really good.[:
So I'm in the process of trying to move to Kent. With our whole family where I'm doing two things, probably more than two actually. But two things I'm gonna name now one is to found a creation center at the very wonderful boar place, which is a site in Kent.
And that will be a home for Improbable, which is something we've never had, we've never had a creative home. We've been very itinerant as a company, taking our practice out into different venues and institutions and contexts. So this is like a sort of like a final chapter for the company in terms of its bringing it home, creating a home, and bringing so that there's a legacy.[:[:
And because improvisation is core to Improbables practice and to mine as well as a writer now improvisation like circus, interestingly enough, it suffers from a, has a troubled status as an art form and is often not really taken seriously. It feels really exciting and important to, to found a home for it.
And for all those artists and actors and theater makers that don't have a home, that don't get to work in a prestigious building, but still need a space to work. So that's a big vision, very ambitious project. And then concurrently to that, my safe space, although, it won't be safe in the sense that I'm hoping it will push me, I've enrolled, guess what?[:[:
So there's, luckily at Kent University, there's a doctorate program called the Contemporary Novel Practices Research. So basically you get to write a novel and that's your doctorate.[:
Your next novel, I[:
So like, I've had a whole decade of not being a student. That's just too long.[:[:[:[:
Oh, am I gonna survive?
What am I gonna do? Finding a way to sustain my creative practice output identity felt absolutely key when I became a mother.
And the kind of, I was fascinated by and distressed by the ways in which motherhood Still had so little status was still like just a mum, a sort of slightly embarrassing thing versus how hard work it was versus how political I felt it was. In the sense that I was so keenly aware that I was being this new person's like I interpreter of the world and that's a major and extremely powerful job and not simple, and yeah, very influential, in terms of the future.[:[:[:[:
And at the same time, I felt the two were extremely closely linked. The language of creativity borrows from the language of motherhood. We conceive of an idea. Often people talk about giving birth to or nurturing a project. And I noticed how my children and my work required many of the same skills and resources from me in terms of sensitivity, flexibility improvisation stamina.t night. So I was like, so I [:
Because literally that was the other thing I noticed was the sort of stark segregation of space on becoming a mom. That either I was in playgrounds or one o'clock clubs or spaces where the children were literally in the middle of the room. The adults were literally on the edge and nobody was interested in any other identity that I held other than my mum nurse.
Or I was in rehearsals or meetings where I was stubborn enough to bring my child, but they weren't welcomed and they certainly weren't expected. And the only identity that anybody was interested in was my professional one. And there wasn't anywhere where I could be both or be valued or visible as both.
So that felt like a real gap. Like I was like, I want that space. So that's what I created. And. Wonderfully and completely unintentionally. That's bloomed into a an international movement and there's now mothers who make groups in Australia as well as across the uk. So it's become a kind of ongoing project and for me, piece of research into how those two identities speak to each other.
And I'm just got some funding, which is very exciting to introduce the kind of forward slash into the names. So it's m slash others who make, because I've realized that the word mother is highly problematic for many people. For many reasons. And actually the thing that's at the core of my interest is how caring and creativity speak to each other and how This thing that is often marginalized from creative practice and seen as something you should leave outside the door.
How actually if we could learn from the extraordinary skills and resources that people hold in caring roles, develop and if that could feed into the cultural landscape, then I'm excited by what that might, what changes that might start to make happen.[:
And I, Sophia, I can't think of her surname, but she's an ultra runner and recently she did a race, but her child's still breastfeeding and she does these races that last, 24 hours and more. So she breastfed her daughter, her daughter, I think on the trail. And it became this thing amongst athletes that, here's this woman, everybody was talking about it, but it's it's something out of necessity, but it shows other women that like you are still an athlete or you're still a creator, or you can still be a politician.
You know what, everybody has to start accepting that, women are in. These settings or carers of any type, as you say, are in these settings and we need to learn to make our space more fluid.[:
But also I think the profession, whatever it is, loses out. I think the obviously I have most experience in the field of the arts, but that, that landscape is poorer for marginalizing those people that having to step out 'cause of their caring responsibilities.[:
there's a lot of talent and a lot of variety that gets lost.[:[:[:[:[:en of my Oxford Ade academic [:
And letters. Yeah. And I had a kind of epiphany actually to weave in another live chapter. What happened when I went on this writing m f a was I got r s I, my arms started hurting from typing, and I thought it was most unfair. It was triggered because I because of my aerial. So I used to get very over pumped forearms from climbing the rope and somehow typing triggered the same kind of response, but[:[:[:[:
I had to realize that writing is actually a creative activity. And it meant, I also realized that I could apply everything I'd learned as a circus artist and a theater maker to my writing,
Which I hadn't, somehow or other I had still kept them segregated. I had still associated words with the academic and not really realized that I could treat an empty page, like an empty rehearsal room.[:[:
The editor stays out the room, or, although that's not really possible, but, at least I play with the bringing this embracing of the unknown, not knowing what's happening. Everything I'd explored as a, as I said, on stage to the written word,[:
and then I can think about them,
then I can play[:
You just turn up and write every day, just like I'd turn up and climb a rope, it, it was really helpful to think of it as the similar kind of training.
And I did a week with a really wonderful writer through my m f a called Linda Barry, who's written a book called What It Is that and she got me writing by hand again rather than typing.
And really being able to to see it as that kind of training and that the things that came out as a kind of wonderful byproduct, but not the focus. You turn up and you do the right, you do the work, you keep your hand and um, uh, the hand on its feet. So I had a word bag through the Linda Barry that I made that had, it was full of words and I would, every day I would pull out a word and I would start writing.
And one day the word said spring. And that word began what then became a novel. And I literally pulled it out as it happens. Had no idea at the time a, that I was writing a novel or that I was growing a baby. But I did grow, pull that word out the same week that I conceived my son. So the book and the baby, the motherhood did really begin together but neither of them were planned.
Like I didn't know I was making a book or a boy at that point. and as I said, mothers who make emerged from my need to keep writing once I was mothering with a child out in the world as opposed to inside me. And It did steadily support me as well as me supporting it through the writing, which happened very slowly on my children's bedroom floor over the, 11 years since then.[:[:[:[:
She was being a really wonderfully active granny and did a lot of childcare to enable me to write. So that's been ongoing. And like many novels, it's a sort of scantily disguised memoir.
And I was, I guess what specifically drew me to the myth aside from that is the unlike many origin myths 'cause it is an origin myth.
It's an ancient Greek origin myth of the seasons. Because because Persephone goes down to the underworld. Every autumn Demeter,, the goddess of the harvest is in grief and therefore, all the leaves fall from the trees. And then because she comes back every spring, the buds return, but in most origin myths, for example you know how the elephant got its trunk? The, at some point the elephant had an ordinary sized nose and then it got stretched. And every elephant since then has already has a long trunk. It doesn't get[:[:
But in this, because of the nature of the myth and the seasons I was really fascinated by its lack of closure. 'cause it's not a done deal. Like the, if you take the myth seriously, it's still happening. Every year in order to create autumn for Stephanie goes down to the underworld. And every year, in order for spring to happen, she comes back to her mother.
So I was, because of the also lack of closure in a mother-daughter relationship, I found that really fascinating. And the very first scene I wrote which has some relationship to the very first scene in the novel now, was of Persephone coming back up to the Earth and what struck me straight away was, my God, that's a heck of a commute.[:
But to think of her actually clawing her way back through the blackness of the underworld into and being, coming out to the light and, yes. Anyway
very powerful imagery to think of it in such a different way.[:
That thing. That's what I love about those stories that have survived in different versions for so long is that they're it yeah, it's all in there. It is something I made up and also not at all, it's all that's what the says she does.[:
Something about it that, that makes it more modern is obviously that, that there is an environmental element that, it we're facing now. I know that you don't want to guide what people take out of the novel, but how did the environmental thing, how is that an important[:
obviously it's a very, it's something I, like anybody, I feel like anyone writing now can, you can't really ignore it anyway. It's, it is the sort of frame within which we're writing and living. But then also I certainly didn't intend to write a novel about the climate crisis.
That's a really terrifying idea, both because I don't feel qualified in terms of my knowledge, but also I think, literature or art that has a kind of, that is issue based Can be wonderful, but it's also really difficult sometimes because of that thing that you just named that's important to me, which is that I don't decide already what the reader or audience should take away from it.
And it seems to me that with issue-based work, you very hard not to decide, not to that, that, for that not to be a statement that I want you to go away and think this, and I don't want that. So the mother and daughter relationship was key for me, but also I realized at a certain point I needed to commit to this idea that they were living now.
And that once I made that commitment, that immediately made it feel much more dangerous in a really exciting way. Not least because, if you're dealing with that relationship now, This, given that this is an ancient Greek origin myth of the seasons you can't ignore really, really can't ignore the climate crisis.ed when I started researching[:
And actually the boyfriend I was with before I married Fela McDermott was a was up there in the trees in the Newbury protest of the nineties. So I had some personal experience of that work I um, was really drawn to how the tactics of, living in the treetops or digging tunnels had so many rhymes, metaphorically with the myth of up and down and like circus really were these larger than life. But in real life, like real life myth kind of thing. They're like the there's that famous Italo Calvino book, the Barren in the Trees about somebody that lives in the treetops. And I guess I love the idea that people really did, people did go and live in the treetops and they built walkways between their homes and it is the same impasse that drew me to circus, that all those metaphors made real.
We turn into figure of speeches and I find that fascinating.[:[:
So rather than bringing the myth up to the moment, actually bringing the moment to the myth, if that makes sense.[:[:
The kind of dreaming isn't something that you can segregate. It's everywhere. Woven through everything[:
once that we started with. ' art, life career, creativity. It's just, as you mentioned with mothers who make just that, We're not, we shouldn't be separated.
This is professional me, this is personal me, this is creative me.[:[:
It seems at least that you have you ran away to the circus. You ran away from the circus, running away from words for a while. But it definitely feels like you've come back and found the respect and maybe the joy that comes with[:[:[:
What I was told when I went into the improval rehearsal room for the first time was there's only four things you have to do, only four things you ever have to do in this rehearsal room on stage in life. And it actually comes from the the fourfold way by Angel's Arianne, and you ready for it?
The four things are,[:[:[:[:
pay attention. Number three, tell the truth. Number four, don't be attached to the results. It's number four. That's the real bummer for me.[:[:[:[:[:[:[:
getting the space together, the continued success of mothers who Make and the continued success of No Season, but the summer.[:[:[:[:
We'll have to ask Matilda if the name stuck.[: