Your characters are out of the ordinary in contemporary literature. They are Working Class heroes, or Unemployed heroes. Did you want to give the floor to people who aren’t generally listened to? Was it a conscious purpose or was it obvious for you to write about what you knew?
A little of both. As a writer I mostly write the things I feel compelled to write about and often these things are about my own complexities with how I personally relate to society and individuals. I suppose I’m writing to try and understand my place in the world. However, I have always been aware that people ‘like me’ or those from community aren’t represented (or are often represented in a very lazy way) in the arts and I’m grateful for the opportunity to address that.
Do you consider you’re a part of a specific literary movement? Do you feel close to some writers, dead or alive? Scottish ones?
Scotland has a far stronger tradition in working class literature than the rest fo Britain: Janice Galloway, James Kellman, Alan Warner, Irvine Welsh, Lisa O’Donnell, Jenni Fagan, Val McDermid…the list of successful working class writers is long. I’d like to think I’m contributing to this movement though wouldn’t be so bold as to put myself alongside those names or consider myself ‘belonging’.
You describe the environment and the daily life of your characters with very accurate details. I was struck by the way you depict colors, smells and landscapes, and above all the food they eat, and the beverage they drink. Is what people eat and drink revealing of their social class, like an ice-cream float?
I love that you’ve noticed this! Yes, I believe how we eat, what we eat, our relationship to food shows so much about us as people and where we are in society. Food was a huge deal when I was growing up…quite simply, at the end of the week before our benefits cheque, there often wasn’t enough of it and a ‘treat’ like an ice-cream was a real celebration in our house. How much food reveals about the way we feel about ourselves, those around us and our bank balance continues to be a fascination for me.
In this regard, your French publisher has chosen to change the title of your second novel from Thirst to La couleur de l’eau (the color of the water). What do you think of this title?
This comes from a line in the book ‘as plain and everyday beautiful as tap water’. What is meant by that line is that when we truly love someone we appreciate not just the big beautiful things but every simple, banal detail. When you love someone everything about them, even the unremarkable, becomes imbued with beauty. I think it’s a perfect title for Dave and Alena’s love affair which is both very simple, in that people fall in love every day, and also life changing for them.
Your first novel, Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, was based on autobiographical elements. Where does the idea of your second one come from?
I wanted to write about love. When I was writing it I was coming to the end of a passionate but very unsteady ten year relationship and I wanted to explore what ‘love’ was – magic, need, luck, evolutionary programming? At the same time I was living in Hackney, London which is an extraordinarily energetic place and saw a man who seemed both tough and yet incredibly vulnerable and lonely. He became Dave and then I very much wanted to find find him a love and so I ‘made’ Alena. There is less of ‘me’ in my second book there is a lot of my own loves on those pages too.
In spite of all their difficulties, your main characters have a strong life force. They all have grown up with a loving mother. Do you think that everything is possible if a child has received true love from his mother?
I’m not a psychologist but, yes, I believe to feel loved as a child is a huge part of being a healthy adult.
Reading your novels, it is impossible to miss out on the extreme violence against women (physical, sexual, spiritual, the violence of being left). Men are rough, cowards whereas women face the problems. You can always count on them for anything. Your heroes are heroines. As in real life?
Not absolutely in every case – I know and have known many decent, strong, brave men. But in my case, yes the majority of women I have known have been heroes. I grew up in a environment where women held everything together, kept themselves together, because they were mothers and in often terrible circumstances. That had a huge impact on me as a woman.
You have founded the WoMentoring Project, which mission is to introduce successful literary women to other women writers at the beginning of their careers who would benefit from some insight, knowledge and support. Do you think it is more difficult for a woman to succeed in literature?
I set it up in response to a Guardian report which proved that women were being reviewed less than men, therefore they sold less, therefore often their contracts were either not renewed or they were paid less for their next books. There’s a cycle there, underlined by the general false belief that women write ‘unimportant’ books while men write books of ‘substance’. I was seeking to readdress some of that imbalance. The scheme is over 120 women mentoring for free and we have a waiting list for people waiting to offer mentoring – I think this is an issue we’re all too aware of but are at least trying to tackle.
Is female solidarity more important than class solidarity?
I don’t divide things this way. I was lucky to be brought up to be told that I should challenge anything that seems unjust. Solidarity is about standing up and joining your voice with those who don’t have as much ability to speak up.
The way you describe female relationships is very peculiar. Is there nothing to expect from men?
There is of course. More and more what I see in the people in my life (many of whom identify as queer) is that the binary male/female attributions are being rejected. I am a woman, I grew up in with a single mother, I had a ten year relationship with a woman, I have sister and many female friends who’ve shaped my life…I don’t think it’s surprising this is my focus.
Dave is very endearing. He is tender, patient, attentive, shy. He has traits that are usually supposed female qualities. Is he an ideal man?
I think, as a queer, woman I was interesting in slightly subverting those gender roles. Yes, Dave has more ‘feminine’ qualities and Alena could be considered to have some ‘masculine’ traits. Dave is far from ideal, perhaps that’s the point, he is flawed and a little broken…like most of us.
Dave and Alena find a special way to talk : the body language. They discover themselves more through gestures than words. They touch themselves, kiss, sleep together. Nevertheless they don’t have sexual intercourse. Is sex a kind of violence?
They do in fact have sex but it comes very late in the book. I think sex is a beautiful and fundamental part of life if it is trusting, honest, uninhibited. However, Alena has come to regard sex as an act of violence and with Dave she must slowly learn to unpick that thinking and instead learn to see it as an act of love, intimacy and closeness.
Dave’s dream is to travel and you travel a lot. (Vietnam, Cambodia, Russia. You live in Berlin and London). Is it central to your own stability, essential because you’re a writer?
I grew up moving around and that followed me into adulthood. I love stories, new people, new foods, new things to look at and different perspectives. I am constantly excited by all there is to see and learn out there in the world. I’ve been hugely fortunate to find a ‘job’ where that hunger for travel only benefits my work.
You travel alone. Is it a way to put yourself at risk, or because you are very independent, sociable, and because you like human encounters?
It’s because I’m independent, I like encounters with strangers, there is something about being totally alone which allows you to observe and experience something in it’s fullness without the ‘noise’ of someone else beside you. At the same time, I have travelled with people I love and that has a different sort of richness to it too. Ideally I do both when I can but I’d never not travel simply because I had no one to do it with.
You travelled through Russia and Siberia. Was it necessary to understand Alena’s background?
Yes, it had many purposes. I travelled to some of Siberia’s bleakest towns and tried to understand where Alena had come from, why she would take the risks she does. I also took the same train journey as Dave to understand how hard that journey might be for him. Finally, I wanted to take the reader to Siberia and I could only do that by observing tiny details to make it live in their imaginations.
You said that Russians are very hard and never smile. Did you feel lost there, without the words to talk to strangers, like Alena?
It was a very hard trip. I had travelled a lot but, since I am very open and friendly, am used to being embraced by locals when I travel. To encounter not only coldness but often hostility was very hard for me. That said, just like Dave and Alena lost in cities that aren’t their own with no language, when I encountered kindness it meant so much more to me.
Your characters, Dave for instance, are strangers in their own country because they don’t have the words to integrate other social environments. They are intimidated by culture (Dave does not dare to go to the Museum). Is it hard for him to understand that culture and art are for everybody?
I think this is a common problem and it goes back to the idea that if we look for our own lives, stories and societies in art and we cannot find them, we assume that art is not meant for us but ‘other people’. And if we’re not exposed to art it is hard to access the part of us, or the confidence to believe we might create something ourselves. It’s another perpetuating cycle. Much of my work for 2016 is going to involve going to communities who wouldn’t normally consider themselves writers and encouraging them to tell their stories and realise they have real value.
Before you decided to travel a lot, was reading a way to escape, go anywhere?
Absolutely. I never imagined I’d ever get to travel when I was growing up but reading allowed me to access new worlds, to push open my horizons.
As a young female writer, how have you been welcomed in the British literary landscape? Did you fear or feel contempt? Did you have the rules to adapt?
In the beginning had a lot of anxiety that my work might be rejected because I wasn’t like (nearly) ‘everyone else’ but I decided that I would stay absolutely true to my own intention as a writer and be myself, be honest about where I come from. I don’t think I’ve encountered fear or contempt but I do think I’ve subverted some preconceived ideas about the working classes and hope to continue to do so.
Do you consider yourself as a Scottish woman, or as a citizen of the world? Do you often go to Scotland?
I’m going to Scotland tomorrow! About half my work is in Scotland so I’m there a lot. I am actually half American, half Scottish but I consider myself a Londoner…a black sheep who found her island.
What are your projects? Are you working on a third novel? If so, what is it talking about?
I’ve just about finished my third novel. A ‘travelling’ novel what is set in London, France, Budapest, Sarajevo, Palestine, South Korea, Vietnam and South America. It’s about what it means to be a woman in contemporary society and the way women are often silently punished for failing to behave the way we’re expected to.
Interview published in New Noise n°31 – january-february 2016