Interview: TV Writer Paul Abbott’s Childhood was “Shameless”

There is an old writing adage that says writers should write
about what they know. But successfully following that advice first means
knowing something worth writing about. Fortunately for British television writer
Paul Abbott, the creator of the hit UK drama Shameless (successfully remade this year for the U.S.), that was the
easy part.

As horrifying as it might sound to some, the alcoholic,
abusive and frequently criminal shenanigans the Gallagher clan gets up to week in and week out on the hit Showtime
dramedy aren’t all that different from how Abbott actually grew up.

On Shameless, the Gallaghers
are a large dysfunctional family with absentee parents and kids who disregard
all authority as they raise themselves. Plus, they have access to copious amounts of alcohol, drugs and sex.

Abbott’s own family was large as well, totaling eight
children, with Abbott being the second youngest. His mother abandoned the
family when he was nine-years-old, leaving his ne’er-do-well father in charge
of the brood. Even that was temporary, however, as two years later, his father also
left, leaving Abbott’s pregnant sixteen-year-old sister to take charge of the

If you’re a fan of the show, all of this sounds familiar.

One difference between Abbott’s family and the fictional Gallaghers
is that Abbott didn’t have a gay brother (although Abbott and three of his
brothers did have some same-sex experiences, not uncommon for teenage boys).
Instead, the character of Ian (Cameron Monaghan, in the U.S. version) was inspired by one of Abbott’s nephews, while the affair with a
married shopkeeper came from Abbott’s own life.

So how did Abbott go from poor kid in the estates of
Burnley, Lancashire in the United
Kingdom to award-winning television creator?

Circumstances that might have destroyed another man by
turning him into, well, the drunken, irresponsible Frank Gallagher, only inspired Abbott to become something
different. recently spoke with Abbot about the circumstances in
which he grew up, how he escaped, and how that nephew became an inspiration for Ian.

Asked how he turned out so differently from his racist,
anti-education family, Abbott says “I’m not sure. I don’t know because I think
it’s fair to say out of 10, I’m the only literate one. And I wasn’t mega
bright, just brighter than the average.”

But being brighter than average, as well as the second
youngest of eight in a dysfunctional family, also meant Abbott had to find
different ways of coping with his chaotic family life. “I was the second from
the bottom,” says Abbott. “So I would say I learned how to write as a means of
talking without being contradicted. Because in a big family it’s, ‘Shut up!
Shut up!’ So I would write, ‘F*ck you!’”

But Abbot did more than just tell his family to shut up. He
actually dreamed of being something more than what they believed him capable of.
“I would just sit and type and pretend I wanted to be a journalist. [But] just
wanting to be a writer was crucifiable as well.”

But that didn’t stop Abbott from becoming a keen observer of
humanity – and by extension, a successful writer. Says Abbott, “Learning how to
navigate things made me a really good writer. I was writing by the time I was
15, and I think my first radio play was when I was 19. I realized how I’d
learned to observe human behavior without opening my mouth. I did not dare open
my mouth until I was getting paid for it.”

Abbott isn’t just getting paid for his writing these days.
He’s also received a great deal of success and critical acclaim. Abbott
received two BAFTA TV Awards, an Emmy and a host of other honors  and
the remake has pulled off the difficult feat of jumping across the Atlantic and
finding an audience in the U.S.. Even better for Abbott, Showtime just announced it was picking up a second season of the series.

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