What’s missing when you delve into the history and societal workings of Scotland from a American point of view? Well, if you’re looking at a paperback romance novel in an airport, there’s certainly no lack of rugged men in tartan, picturesque fog, swooning beautiful maidens, and a criminal overuse of the word highlander. What’s missing, then, is the reality, the culture, and, yes, even the richest parts of the folklore.
Amy Hoff gave me the pleasure of sitting down and debunking the silly stereotyping by doing something very simple: telling me about her life and her fantastic creations. Not only is she a scholar of folklore, but she also started an amazing theatre company in Glasgow called Cult Classic that sets to the stage geek classics, such as Good Omens and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog. Plus, Cult Classic has created a new webseries called Caledonia that meshes all the joy of a good CSI episode with fantasy. What more could we nerds want? Oh, and if you didn’t think Amy Hoff was kick-ass enough, I checked out her about page on Cult Classic’s website and found out that she’s also a folk singer, belly dancer, dance teacher, and former street fighter.
You’re a nerd of many stripes, but let’s start out with the formation of your theatre company, Cult Classic. Give us a rundown of its formation. Where did your inspiration come from?
I was in this medieval combat society, which is where a lot of people in theatre company come from. So we got to together and talked about what we wanted to see. They would say they wanted Dr. Horrible on stage, and I would say, “Why don’t we just do it?” It was actually really hard to get the rights. And after we got them, Joss Whedon decided not to give out the rights for the stage shows anymore, for whatever reason. So, in the end, we were literally the only live show of Dr. Horrible in the UK.
But, when I called Terry Pratchett’s agent for the rights for Good Omens and told him about putting the book on stage, (I was pulling paper clips out of paper – that was my job at the time, it was really boring) he was really excited about It. He said, “That’s a great idea! Let’s do it!” We’re still friends, even!
Good Omens was absolutely fantastic though. There’s a part where [Crowley and Aziraphale] grow big wings and I was like, “Oh my God, how am I going to do this?” I wanted to do a big background thing with shadows, so we got these little pieces of glass for the lights that have wings etched on them. Unfortunately, they didn’t look how I wanted. But then the actress who played Madame Tracy walked past the light projector, and I was like, “Stop right there!” It was perfect! People are still raving about it, and it was an accident that made it.
People are still so excited about Good Omens that some still have the poster for the show as their Facebook cover photo! I’m so, so proud of it. It was – now I have to be really careful saying this – the only official amateur adaption.
How was the adaptation process of Good Omens, it being a thick novel and all?
What I did originally was I took the book and wrote it as play directly word for word. But obviously, if I kept it that way, it would have been about four hours long. It was so sad, my favorite joke was with Crowley and the plants. I wanted it in there, but it wasn’t necessary. The show was already two and half hours anyway, and you know you can’t put [the joke] in. It was like that in The Man in The Iron Mask. You just can’t keep everything you love…I still felt Good Omens went a little long, but I went through it again and again and I couldn’t take out more. It has to be two and half hours – well, at least, my version does. But, again, I’m very proud. People would find me outside of restaurants and tell me how great they thought it was, and I’m just a director of theatre! People really don’t know me, so it’s fantastic when they come up to me.
How about Caledonia? I understand that it’s a supernatural crime drama where a human detective must help creatures from Scottish folklore solve a crime in their midst. What was the writing process like for that in contrast to your theatrical productions?
The good thing about that adaptation is that the hard work is already done because I’m writing it. The big difference is that once we’re done with the show [at Cult Classic], we’re still not the owners of the story. We did Caledonia so we could keep it and not have to give it back, which is always hard. We wanted something to actually hold on to. I have written four of these books [that are the basis of Caledonia] – I wrote them on the Seoul subway. I started this story, I adapted my books, and now I’m making it myself. It’s fun because we can affect [the story] because it doesn’t have to be done a certain way. I had a lot of fun writing it!
I thought the humor was fun, especially with Magnus Gray tossing his hair around in slow motion.
I’m so glad Christopher is playing him, because he has the most beautiful hair!
What was your inspiration to marry CSI with folklore?
I specialize in monsters and how folklore spreads on the internet (I really love monsters, but selkies are my favorite thing. I know people say they aren’t monsters, but in the terms of my studies, they are). However, what I see the most on the internet is the wide disconnect between how America views Scotland and what it’s really like in the country. My Scotland is drugs and needles and stabbing. Once I stepped into the porch outside my apartment, and it was full of blood and there were needles everywhere! There was this women in puddle of blood with a needle in her leg. I called the police, but they wouldn’t come. That is my Scotland. Americans have this whole fantasy thing about it, and I have a problem with that. Just stop looking at the shortbread tin crap and look at the real thing!
The point is, from my studying, there is a disconnect. If faeries existed, they’d be living a life that’s quite dark in Glasgow. That’s why the first episode is called “Even Faeries Have Drug Problems.” Don’t get me wrong, I love Scotland so much, but people don’t know what Scotland really is. There’s magic there if you look for it, but there’s a lot of dark stuff. I don’t want people to get mad, but I want it [Caledonia] to be true. I’ve lived in the culture of Scotland for many years, and then I see this shirtless ripped guy in a kilt and I’m like, “What is that?!”
Also, there’s never been a black and white divide between the Scottish and English. Perceiving it that way is really dangerous, because you get this uninformed involvement – for example, the IRA was actually heavily funded by Chicago Irish. I just want people to see the Scotland that’s there. I want to say “This is Scotland! This is what it’s like! This is how Scottish people actually sound!”
Also, because of all that, I wanted all the magic to be a little bit crap. Like when [Dorian teleports with Leah] and they turn up in a cupboard. There are budget cuts in their [faerie] world. There’s no fancy anything! It’s like, “Yup, here we are, and our world is kinda crap also.”
What brought you to folklore in the first place?
You know, I never actually thought of it. I suppose it’s because I’ve been writing since I was seven years old. I really like storytelling and looking at why we tell stories, what it says about people, and what it says about what we want to say. For example, fan fiction is very participatory. I saw somebody commenting on the Avengers movie, and it was very deep. I thought, “Wow, people are so invested in this that they come up with their own stuff!”
That’s what folklore is! People embellish how folklore is made. It’s how it was told around the campfire. I want to take how global fan fiction and the internet are and use them. I’ll be addressing immigrants in Caledonia, for example. I’ll have a Korean character in the next one. I want to start in Scotland and branch out.
Your specialization is in the spread of folklore on the internet. What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve found thus far?
Well, people are creating new things. Slender Man is the best example. Like, take belly dance. Belly dance is maybe a hundred years old. It’s a young dance, but people want to insert antiquity for validation. It’s the same thing with Slender Man. People are pretending that Slender Man is from all of these old stories, but some guy just made it up. It’s only on the internet. Its fascinating! It’s new folklore.
What’s your favorite Scottish faerie tale?
Wait, I have to actually think about this. Glamis Castle in Scotland has a lot of stories about it. It’s really pink too, which is hilarious. Oh, there’s a room that’s walled up because of Earl Beardie. He played cards and dice and was this violent bad guy. Anyway, midnight came around and everyone backed away [from the card game] because it was Sunday. And he said, “I don’t care, I’ll play with the devil himself!” and the devil shows up and walked into this room, where they played for so long that the door got bricked up. The story goes that they’re still playing to this day.
It was great, one time I was doing a tour at Glamis and I ended up joining up with the guide because it was, well, me…and she went over to a door, opened it, and said “This is where they’re still playing cards!” and it was a broom cupboard. I love how Scottish that is.
Another secret walled-off room supposedly contains a mystery so awful that any time over the centuries that stonemasons discovered it, they either died on the spot or fled from the castle, never to return. It’s questionable if any of these stories have a basis in truth. That’s the great fun of storytelling; one grain can grow an incredible story. Glamis Castle is considered the most haunted castle in Scotland, so there are countless stories about it, some of which are a bit odd – for example, there’s the ghost of a woman who wanders the grounds and points at her mouth, because she has no tongue. That’s all there is to that particular story, but you could spend a lifetime – and I have! – researching the monster and ghost stories of Scotland without learning all of them.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I don’t know if I mentioned this, but I have a rare degenerative disorder called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, and to that end, one of my characters (Milo) is technically disabled. That is, unlike mer-people in films, he’s stuck with his tail in the water or out of it, so in order to get anywhere, he has to use a wheelchair. This makes for some difficulty, given that he is the primary forensics expert! I just wanted to add that in case it was of any interest.
Of course it is, Amy, it just goes to show how intricate and authentic your creations are!
Let the awesomeness soak in, folks! Amy Hoff intends to bring us a world of faeries, forensics, and all-around, grade A geekery. Plus, she’s a pretty rad, butt-kickin’ lady. If we’re all lucky, Amy’s ambition of getting Caledonia published as either novels, a TV series, or both will come to fruition. The world needs more wonderful art, so let’s support a budding work. Head on over here to check out Caledonia, and here to see what Cult Classic has got going on. Subscribe to the YouTube channel so you don’t miss an episode!
If you need a little extra persuasion, I give to you this PSA from Amy Hoff herself: “Come on, there are Scottish accents, good looking men, and kilts, what’s not to love?”
The illustrious selkie boys, Magnus and Dorian Gray (They’re not in kilts in this but…just look at them. Loooooook at them).