Laurie Penny is best known – in the UK at least – as a political columnist and activist, writing for the Independent, the Guardian, Time Magazine, Buzzfeed, Vice, Salon, The Nation, Medium and was a contributing editor at the New Statesman. She is – or at least was – a familiar face on British political discussion TV and radio shows, and has written a number of books on feminism, such as Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism, Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power and Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults. Back in 2012, the Daily Telegraph called her ‘without doubt the loudest and most controversial female voice on the radical left.’
But if you have been watching or listening to said British political shows, or reading newspaper columns, there has been a lot less of Laurie Penny of late – and a lot more of the likes of Owen Jones and Ash Sarkar ticking similar pundit demographic boxes.
Well, Laurie also has a bit of a geek history. I first met her in the pub with Kieron Gillen, after he created a character in Iron Man based on her. Warren Ellis wrote the foreword to one of her books. You can see here interviewing Neil Gaiman. She contributed to the 24 Panelscomics anthology commemorating the Grenfell tragedy as well as the Occupy Comics volume.
And she was also brought to the attention of Joss Whedon, who became a fan of her work and invited her to pitch for the writing room on his new HBO TV series The Nevers. She got the gig, which seemed to go so well, she is now writing the second season of Netflix show, The Haunting.
I got the chance, ahead of San Diego Comic-Con, to ask Laurie a few questions.
Rich Johnston: Laurie, in a world where we are clearly only allowed to be one thing, you should still be writing political treatises, newspaper columns, going on the Sunday Politics to argue with Tories, what on earth do you think you are doing, doing something else?
Laurie Penny: I haven’t stopped doing journalism and essays. I’m still running my Patreon, and I’m on the hook for a giant feminist theory book which is slowly getting finished in whatever spare time I manage to claw out. I can’t do TV and radio as much, because I’m thousands of miles away- I miss London, I really do, LA is full of wonderful people but it’s a very strange city. When I first came out here, a bit of me wondered if I wasn’t somehow abandoning my post. That sounds wanky – I’m not under any illusions that the work a political columnist does in weird dark disingenuous times like these is anything like as important as, say, an environmental scientist, or an immigration lawyer, or a teacher, or a nurse. But then I realized two things. Number one, I’m quite good at this- and you know what, after slogging away in the trenches of the culture wars for a decade, I’m allowed to do something that I’m good at that makes me happy. And number two – stories matter. Big, ambitious, mass-culture storytelling is another way to move the world ever so slightly and delight people at the same time. Ultimately, all politics are narrative politics. And the kind of projects I’m working on are the kind that fly right in the face of the big, dull, violent stories that have captured the political mainstream. The alt-right comes directly out of a shallow trench of white male outrage that only ever heard one story about the world and their place in it.
Rich Johnston: Hollywood is stereotyped as a world full of false faces, backstabbers and functioning psychopaths who have found your true calling. What part of writing and reporting in and around the Westminster bubble prepared you such a very, very different world? And what of your ‘special set of skills’ from your ‘other’ life have you been able to use in this new world?
Laurie Penny: Look, friend, I come from internet feminism. I have spent ten years with less than no job security being paid not very much to bang my head against the internet, trying very hard to keep my belief in basic human decency above water while hundreds of people every day rip apart every facet of my personality and politics and tell me how and why I’m a worthless piece of shit who deserves to die. This is fine. It’s just fine. I hear every day that Hollywood is a terrifying snakepit of drama and abuse but I’ve met a loadbearing amount of actual grown-ups here. Maybe I’m naive – actually scratch that, I’ve always been naive, but I hold on hard to my belief that most people are trying their best. Ask me again in two years.
Rich Johnston: So has there been any bleed-through from your previous life to this one? I know Joss is a fan, but has anyone else over there heard of the Morning Star, let alone the New Statesman?
Laurie Penny: The strangest skills carry across. The years I’ve spent transcribing interviews help when it comes to banging out naturalistic dialogue, and it helps to be able to edit to strict word counts, too. Hollywood can be a little insular- but that’s why it’s awesome that people are now coming into TV writing from all sorts of different backgrounds. In the Haunting room, I sit across from Rebecca Klingel, who got her start by writing horror stories on Reddit. One of the things I appreciate most is being able to let my subcutaneous starry-eyed manic fangirl run rampant, getting to be silly and excited about everything. I get to be the OG fan! Just today I self-indulgently had a t-shirt printed of one of the lines from Haunting which I’m convinced is going to become a meme when it’s out, and almost nobody will understand why I’m wearing that t-shirt until 2020, but I just can’t wait.
Rich Johnston: I had mention of him earlier… what was Neil Gaiman’s role in this journey?
Laurie Penny: Neil Gaiman is just… this guy, you know. Actually, when I was offered the job on The Nevers, it was Neil who
told me to be brave and get out there and work very, very hard. That’s one of the many things that’s great about Neil – he’s 100% whimsy but zero bullshit. Neil is a very good person to know, but he’s also a very good person in general. I hope one day to be able to be even half as generous and patient with younger intense weirdoes trying to do a very odd combination of jobs. I was also lucky enough to get to work with the great Jane Espenson on The Nevers, and she had a lot of wonderful advice. You can never repay these things, only pass them on if you’re lucky enough to get that far – and to anyone else in that situation, that’s what I’d say. When the time comes, be ready to pass it on.
Rich Johnston: Can you see yourself as some kind of trendsetter in this regard? One to be copied? Am I to expect to find Owen Jones writing Jessica Jones, or Ash Sarkar working on Homeland?
Laurie Penny: Well, I’m definitely not the only journalist who’s jumped across to TV writing- I’ve met several, though nobody yet from British journalism. Selfishly, I hope Ash and Owen and all of the others keep doing what they’re doing for as long as they can manage, because Britain needs people who can talk back to the Tory bullshit in an engaging way- and it’s a difficult, draining job in ways that people who haven’t done it, won’t understand. I’d love to see what either of them would work on- I’ve known them both for a decade, I remember Ash as a cool teenager at the student occupations in 2010.
Rich Johnston: How has the process, the experience, the demands changed between The Nevers and The Haunting of Bly Manor for you? You told me The Haunting was going to be so epic and I had no idea… can you give me some idea?
Laurie Penny: I’m not allowed. I wish I was allowed. The strangest thing about TV writing is that it’s all so cloak and dagger. We had a security talk in the first week, and it was all the same stuff I learned how to do interviewing activists and anarchists. Now I’m on my second show, I’m far less rabbit-in-the-headlights. One thing I wish more people understood is that when you have a writing team working on a giant show, yes, people go off and write their individual episodes – but everyone gets to contribute to everything. And that’s amazing! By our powers combined! I want to be one of the MVPs on any writing team. When I was invited to try out for The Nevers, Joss and the team took a huge gamble on me – I was untested and I banged out my sample on a phone while I was on a boat in the middle of the Mediterranean reporting on a cryptocurrency cruise. I hadn’t seriously considered working in TV writing before, and I had no clue what it involved. When that room wrapped, I realized – hang on, that was great, I want to go again. So I hustled hard to get on Haunting, and it has been epic and gee golly you’re just going to love it. It’s properly literary and exciting. We have some brilliant twisted geniuses working in this room.
Rich Johnston: So… are you pitching your own shows? Any bites?
Laurie Penny: Yep, I’m writing a pilot- in between Haunting and the book and the column and features and trying to sleep and call my sisters occasionally – because that’s what you have to do to prove you’ve got the chops. I’m excited by that little story. But who knows what will happen? Right now…I just want to go again. I’ll ride this ride till I’m sick or they close the park. I’ve still got a lot to learn, and learning is fun, and at the end of the day it all makes you a better writer. I only started nine months ago, so it’s a bit soon to say ‘right, I’m ready to be a showrunner’. Maybe someday! I’d really like to get to work on more adaptations of books. Someday I’d love to adapt The Dispossessed. Or the Vorkosigan Saga. Or Jo Walton’s Farthing books. Or anything KJ Charles has ever written.
Rich Johnston: One final question – as a left-wing Jewish Brit who publicly endorsed the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party… did you get to see Panorama the other night?
Laurie Penny: Oh god.
The Nevers is to air on HBO and The Haunting of Bly Manor on Netflix, both in 2020. And don’t expect Laurie Penny to be gone from British politics, journalism and the like… we are after all about to start living in very interesting times, and she has her Patreon for a reason.