Tell me about you, as an artist. How do you define art? What art do you make?
I come from the DIY ethic of punk: my post-punk band The March Violets set up its own record label in the 80s. When I moved to Manchester in the late 80s its industrious, can-do, will-do, stuff-you-if-you-say-I-can’t-do attitude was a good fit, right from the start.
I write. Not to provide answers. Rather, I’m exploring the questions that roll around in my head, and am wary of easy conclusions. I’m not interested in creating narrow worlds. I want to tell stories that create possibilities of non-conformity. It’s always been important, and never more so than now. Stories that break the mould and toss out the template. Stories that aren’t part of the relentless onslaught of blue for boy meets pink for girl. In the words of Emily Dickinson, ‘to tell the truth but tell it slant’. Stories where we celebrate ourselves – complete with all the marvellous, uncomfortable, colouring-outside-the-lines contradictions we encompass.
Your third novel, The Night Brother is out this summer – a tale of gender, sexuality and being true to yourself and, unlike your previous novels, set in the North. What inspired you to tell this particular story?
You know that point in your life when you realise there’s a plan?
That happened around age 6. It was followed pretty much immediately by the realisation that I wasn’t going to go according to It. I’ve a suspicion that this notion will resonate with - well – pretty much everyone reading this. I’ve never been good at fitting in. Bits of me have always stuck out at the wrong angles.
I guess it’s no surprise that I write about folk who don’t fit, either. I revel in ordinary worlds set off-kilter and this informs my own fiction. ‘The Night Brother’ is set in down-to-earth, industrial nineteenth century Manchester. However, the central characters – Edie and Gnome - are possibly my oddest creations to date. After all, the novel has been described as ‘Orlando meets Jekyll and Hyde’…
However, it’s important that my characters are not token weirdoes, their strangeness reduced to some clunky plot device. It felt important to have first-person viewpoints for Edie and Gnome, so that they speak for themselves. Fiction about unusual beings is often told from a third-person perspective and they remain ‘other’. I want my readers to get under the skin of the characters and feel empathy, which is far more powerful and profound than sympathy.
Nor have I any desire to preach (memories of being forced to sit through church sermons as a child). ‘The Night Brother’ is not a diatribe. It’s a novel, and to quote Tom Clancy: “just tell the damn story.”
Your work explores gothic and LGBT+ themes – how would you describe the link between these genres?
Ah, the Gothic! Abject, unreliable, dangerous and downright weird. Which also pretty much sums up how the straight world regards the LGBT experience, IMHO.
Yet, we endure, despite existing on the fringes. Forced out of society, outraging its rules and conventions, we shiver on the borderlands, wind howling around our ears. We are sold a mirage of blissful normality, where if we could only squeeze ourselves into an impossibly narrow and constricting mould, then we would be happy. If only gays and lesbians – or vampires - could assimilate, then everything in the garden would be lovely. Huh.
A long while back, I learned an important lesson. I am not doomed to exist with my nose forever pressed to the window, looking in at the people playing happy families. I flip that concept on its head. I am an outsider through choice. I’ve not been thrown out of society: I defy it. I band together with like-minded souls and create my own communities and networks, thank you very much.
All of us have cobwebbed dungeons in the psyche. We ignore personal darkness at our psychological peril. Far wiser, in my humble opinion, is to explore the haunted castle and face those fearsome ghosts.
You started your career in spoken word and have since become a novelist and essayist, what advice would you give to young people who are trying to transition between writing forms?
It’s funny - I’m often asked if I’m going to give up writing poetry now that I’ve had three novels published. It’s a bit like being asked if I’m going to stop wearing trousers now that nice skirts are available.
I haven’t transitioned from spoken word to novels, leaving one behind. I continue to write poetry (both performance and page – people do love their separation and their labels, don’t they?), creative non-fiction, song lyrics, short stories and yes, novels. I sing in The March Violets, plus perform cabaret as Rosie Lugosi and as half of The Time Travelling Suffragettes. All the above are simply different expressions of imagination. I guess I regard writing as being on a spectrum rather than in boxes.
As for ‘advice’ - I prefer to offer encouragement. Here goes.
Write what moves you. If you are blessed with a diversity of ideas, don’t listen to advice that says you should stick to one thing, as if it’s somehow greedy or dangerous to write across different forms. FFS. When did repressing part of our creativity ever help? Think of it as Multiple Tabs Open (thanks to Kerry Hudson for that one). Or, to quote Iggy Pop: ‘Diversify’.
From tweets to novels – it’s all writing. Write what you want to write and let the label-makers call it what they want. Ignore haters who moan that you take up too much space, or are too big for your boots. Make your writing the best you can. Spread your wings. Go for it, and best of luck.
You’ve written and performed under the name of Rosie Lugosi. What prompted you to use a pseudonym and what did it teach you about yourself as an artist?
Manchester’s vibrant alternative/LGBT scenes provided me with an initial creative home. In the 90s & noughties, I began to develop the performance persona of Rosie Lugosi the Vampire Queen, who flourished alongside other LGBT Manchester-based costume characters such as the marvellous Chloe Poems & Divine David.
Rosie Lugosi is a fabulous alter ego. She gets to say all the things we are not supposed to say, wears the things we aren’t supposed to wear. She embodies the defiant and transgressive power of unconventional female sexuality: the predatory vampiric villianess who never gets staked. Six foot tall in six-inch stilettos, clad in glittery corset, towering wig and fangs, she performs queer femininity and performs it all wrong.
It’s a real pity that we’re allowed to dress up as kids, but when we ‘grow up’ we’re supposed to stop being playful and wear beige. Not me. Show off? Yeah, and so what? Show-off exemplifies the power of rebellion. The ‘I am here and I count, and mean something’ so frowned on in little girls. Big girls, too.
I love the pizzazz and energy of exploring performance characters. However, Rosie Lugosi doesn’t represent the whole of me. My writing hasn’t stayed in one place and I haven’t either. Which leads neatly on to…
You’ve been working on a musical project called ‘Time Travelling Suffragettes’, which was showcased at HOME back in February. What prompted you to want to explore the suffragette movement through song? What direction are you hoping to take the project in next?
I’m inspired by the enduring influence of Music Hall and its power to subvert whilst being thoroughly entertaining. For a long while, I’ve wanted to work with the classic songs of the nineteenth century, and bring a fresh twist to them.
This is where suffragettes came in, and not only because the suffrage movement began in Manchester! I’m dismayed at the way that suffragettes are being rewritten as Nice Ladies In Hats who did nothing more radical than drink tea. They were dedicated to direct action, took life-threatening risks and endured imprisonment and state-sanctioned torture to stand up for the simple right to have a voice in government.
I played with the idea of the songs a suffragette might sing if transported to the present day, where she expects to find a Brave New World in which inequality is unknown. As a result, I cast a queerly suffragette eye on popular songs such as ‘The Boy I Love Is Up In The Gallery’, ‘I’m Shy Mary Ellen’ and ‘Hold Your Hand Out, Naughty Boy’, and more…
Upcoming gigs include Bradford Literature Festival on 7th July. You can check out our page here.
What advice would you give to emerging writers and performers when it comes to approaching publishers and venues with their work?
I’m not one of those individuals with vast reserves of inherited wealth who went to a posh school, or whose dad works in publishing. If you are one of those folk – go for it! For the rest of us mere mortals: keep going, even when it’s tough. Keep going especially when it’s tough.
Again – I can only offer suggestions, not ‘rules’.
Don’t wait for people to beat a path to your door. Get out there. Support writing communities and networks, in real life as well as online. If there isn’t a writing group that works for you – build one that does. Check out open mic and open floor events near you. Taste what it feels like to hear your words out loud. Listen to others. Learn from brilliant words that sparkle; learn even more from those that don’t.
Make your writing the very best you can. Send it out. Someone out there loves your work: maybe they just haven’t seen it yet. Mourn the rejections (they will happen) and learn how to celebrate the successes (they will happen, too). Seek out opportunities. One recommendation is the excellent and 100% free Comps & Calls, set up by the great north-west writer Cathy Bryant. Take chances. Be open to what comes your way. Try really hard not to sabotage yourself too much of the time. Try really hard not to be a d*ck. Be excellent to each other. Keep going.
What does the future hold for you in your writing career?
I don’t know. I don’t need to, either.
Sure, I have goals and dreams. That’s really important. For a start, I keep writing. I’ll stop writing when I run out of stories, I’ll stop singing when I run out of songs. Which will be sometime after (not before) I breathe my last breath. This is the road of my life and I’m enjoying the ride.
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
Why thank you! I perform at a variety of readings & events, and love nothing more than being part of an audience and listening to the inspiration of other people’s voices. If you’d like, you can check out my website. There’s a regularly updated gig list.
Plus, I am super excited about the launch of my new novel ‘The Night Brother’, which is set in nineteenth century Manchester, the city I love and am proud to call home.
Sum up your experience thus far in one word
What, me? One word?
“The harder I work the luckier I get”.