Interview: Lily Dunn

Nilgin Yusuf interviews Lily Dunn


“Everyone has a right to their story.”

Lily Dunn is a writer, teacher and lecturer in Creative Writing and narrative non-fiction at Bath Spa University and recently completed her PhD at Birkbeck. Her novel, Shadowing the Sun was followed by A Wild and Precious Life, an anthology of recovery stories, co-edited with Zoe Gilbert. Her recent memoir, Sins of My Father: A Daughter, A Cult, A Wild Unravelling, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) was described by The Spectator as an ‘astonishing and valuable’ contribution to the genre. 

I met Lily Dunn when I attended her course at the London Lit Lab entitled Writing Compelling Memoir in 2021. As I prepared to write my own dissertation, an exploration of childhood and formative influences on my future as a writer, the course brightly illuminated this personal form of creative non-fiction. 

Dunn’s recently published memoir, Sins of My Father, was driven by a single burning question. Why, when she was six years old, did her father leave the family home, including her mother and brother, to join a cult in India? Through personal memories, interviews with family members, the examination of photographs, dreams and reading around alcoholism, addiction, abuse within public schools and coercion within cults, the author is simultaneously detective, psychoanalyst, therapist and scholar.  But crucially, she is a daughter who needs to understand. Here, Lily Dunn discusses her process, catharsis and why the hybrid memoir is making its mark on contemporary literature.

Why is the literary memoir gaining popularity right now?

When we hear ‘memoir’, people often think of the celebrity memoir or misery memoir. But I’m interested in the literary memoir, which has sub-genres and might be seen as a hybrid memoir, one that combines the life story with literary criticism, cultural commentary, or art history. Memoirs may, for instance, venture into biography, travel writing or literary criticism, so it’s becoming a more expansive field.  

Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun might be placed in the nature section but it’s a memoir about alcoholism and self-realisation. Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations looks at femaleness, illness, feminism and art.  A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa is a beautiful memoir about being a mother in a domestic space but is combined with the translations of an Irish poet whose story has not been explored in history, so Ní Ghríofa reclaims this woman’s story. Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh is deeply ingrained in her own traumatic childhood but also the political situation in Ireland. By reading these books, you’re getting wonderful, personal emotive stories while learning something of history, culture or politics.  

Can anyone write a memoir?

There’s still some stigma around it. Some people think, ‘well, who are you? Why are you writing a story about your life?’ Everyone has a right to their story. I think people increasingly turn to real-life stories. Social media is part of this but also, the sheen of celebrity becomes too superficial, uncomfortably so, in times of strife. For obvious reasons, there’s been recent interest in the stories of care workers like Adam Kay’s, This is Going to Hurt, based on diary entries of his life as a doctor, which was also dramatised for TV. 


Describe the craft of literary memoir.

I always tell my students they need to write with the reader on their shoulder and ask themselves, ‘why does this matter beyond me?’ It’s imperative it goes beyond a personal story. When I read Educated by Tara Westover, I realised the form could be powerful and affecting and change the way people think and feel. 

When I teach memoir, I focus on how to make a story compelling, how to apply fictional techniques to non-fiction including scene-setting, drama, dialogue and engaging with the senses. You must feel compelled to interrogate something within and be prepared to expose parts of yourself and explore what some people may feel is private, not for publication.  

How has the process of writing, Sins of My Father, helped you? 

There’s something profound about going through the process of researching, writing, rewriting and crafting a personal story, and it becomes more detached from you the longer you live with it. Through the process of trying to understand somebody and reading around certain behaviours, whether that’s addictions or joining a cult, you start to see that person as a type and that can be helpful because it somehow depersonalises it, taking away its power to hurt you.

What was the most challenging part?

In the early parts of the process, stuff was churned up. But, once you get through that, you have the material there, then the crafting and making of it into a beautiful thing becomes really empowering and satisfying because it starts to give something back to you.

When I was going through my marriage separation, I felt compelled to write out some of the more traumatic events of my past, particularly those that involved my dad in the last years of his life, when he was dying of alcoholism. They came out in a fit of inspiration and a need to get the experience on the page but it was painful and I often ended up crying. 

It must have been cathartic?

The book evolved with my natural curiosity and the whole process of facing up to difficult tasks can teach you a lot. I was also going through therapy and having to face things because my life had been turned upside down. Writing changes as you change but it’s important to take your time. You can’t knock something like this out quickly. You need to take care; the longer you give yourself to reflect, the better it will be.

Can you speak about the role of imagination in memoir writing?

I had to reimagine things I hadn’t directly witnessed, so this was a process I engaged with a bit. But the trick with non-fiction is to always be upfront and honest. As long as you tell the reader what you’re doing, you remain a reliable narrator and that’s imperative.  You could argue I don’t have the right to step into my father’s skin but I wanted to get close to him in order to understand him, so I had to do it this way. 

In the opening scene, I desperately needed to understand how my father could get himself into the state where he responded to a scam email, which proved to be his undoing. I’d visited him many times in that house in California and so I knew of his routine. He was very deluded by the end of his life, lived a repetitive existence and we were in close contact. So, I wasn’t creating something I didn’t know.  There’s something about committing to the detail in an intimate way which almost takes you closer to the truth. I wanted to give as good and as whole a picture of his life as I possibly could, and I’ve been told that the attention to detail in those imaginary scenes brought another layer of compassion and love. 

Although this is a book primarily about your father who is largely absent, your mother is a constant presence. How has your relationship evolved?

It’s hard to write about someone you’re close to, but I asked her to read the final draft before it went to the publisher which allowed her to feed in some small details or say if she wasn’t happy with something, and that process was important because she was a part of the production of the book. 

As a child, me, my mum, and brother were a unit. There were fractious times when I blamed her for my pain, but like so many single mothers she was the ‘unsung hero’. My dad was the starry one who had always taken my attention, which I imagine was hard for her at times, but I hope this book is something of a tribute to her. She remains fiercely protective and proud of my brother and me. It’s the world against us. So if anyone is unhappy with the book or the way I’ve articulated or depicted something that has affected them, it’s not just me that has to deal with it, it’s all of us. 

The mother is often the one who stays, therefore unglamorous and underappreciated. But this book was also about allowing her personality and character to come through. I feel it honours her and is the story of so many women who are left with the children, and rarely acknowledged for the important role they have. 

This memoir isn’t about settling scores. I found it deeply empathetic. Was that important to you?

Empathy is important to any writer. We’re all drawn to faulted characters because faults make a person more real. This book was never about blame. It’s more interesting to present the facts as they are and let the reader make their own decisions. I’ve never stopped loving my dad. I wrote this book to give myself a voice, in the shadow of my father’s choices, which so often were noisy in their selfishness and destruction. 

Has writing Sins of My Father brought you peace?

I’m no longer in the shadow of the grief over my father, and my life is in a more settled place. My publisher made me realise I didn’t have to forgive him and it’s more about freeing myself from his influence. It’s possible to hold somebody in our hearts but understand what they did was unforgivable yet not let that ruin our lives.  I sometimes have pangs of guilt that I did this without his consent, but then I remind myself my voice was hidden for much of my childhood because of his disregard. I also attempted to really understand him through the process of writing this – it could have been such an entirely different book – and through writing this, I’ve dignified him. It’s not necessary to forgive in order to free yourself.



Nilgin Yusuf is a London-based author and journalist who recently graduated from Birkbeck’s BA in Creative Writing. Her monologue, George which explores isolation and human connection was selected for the Lost Souls Monologues podcast and can be heard at  An extract of her own memoir, Ink: An Alphabet Book recorded for Birkbeck Arts Week 2022 can be heard at nilgin_yusuf on Instagram. Currently working on her play and first novel, find her on Twitter @nilgin or contact

Interview: Charlie Higson

Richard Norris asks Charlie Higson about his young James Bond book, Silverfin.

“I wanted to show how the destruction of innocence can make an ordinary boy, a killer.” Charlie Higson

From writing characters for Harry Enfield, (Stavros, Loads of Money) TV’s Saturday Night Live and The Fast Show, Charlie Higson’s adult and kid-based novels have shown the world he’s got it all covered. But how does this giant of TV and literature take the world’s most famous secret agent and reinvent him? I spoke to Charlie at his home in North London, about how he developed his first young James Bond novel, Silverfin.

As a wannabe writer, sitting with Charlie in his living room, glasses of water with a laptop recording sitting next to them, I realise how privileged I am to know the man. Like Rik Mayall, Charlie Higson has made a huge impact on aspects of my life, so it was a thrill for him to agree on being interviewed about a character we share a common interest in, James Bond. His first of 5 in the series entitled Silverfin, find a pre-Fleming Bond at the beginning of a most dangerous and exciting life as an Eton school boy.  

How did it start, for you?

I’ve always been a writer since I was a Kid. Because I enjoy the process. I enjoy making stuff up and just by writing something down, you can create a whole world and it always struck me as a sort of magic. And so, you know that’s almost the easiest form of creativity as you know. As a kid, most people will probably find writing easier than say drawing. You can tell the whole story and create characters, a world all that stuff and so I wrote to entertain myself and for the love of creativity and I carried on writing through my teenage years and when I went to university.

Did you come up with the concept of a young James Bond?

I was approached by the Ian Fleming estate. It was all very secretive, they came and said they wanted to revitalise the literary side of Bond and remind people where it came from. They wanted to get new Bond books written by proper writers and I’m thinking, how do you write a new James Bond? How do you do something with Bond that’s not been done before in the books and films. I didn’t know really know where you’d start and then they said they wanted to show his early life and do it for kids at which point I thought ah yeah, that’s quite exciting because we’ve never seen that. There’s room for me to bring something of my own trip. At the time I’d been looking to write for my three boys. I wanted to write an action-adventure thing that they’d enjoy. 

So, you had the plot just nowhere to place it?

Almost. As they spoke of the idea, the plot for the first book sort of sprang already formed straight into my brain. I thought I could put into the book everything that boys love to do and everything that I loved in books when I was a kid. I needed to set out my story. I needed to set out the level of kind of threat and intensity of the book in that first chapter so that kids’ reading it would know if they wanted to keep reading this book? Was it going to be too much for me or am I going to really get into it?  Also, I had to set up how this is going to be a big, exciting world with this (Bond) stuff and because I didn’t have that great device that Fleming came up with. This is your mission get to it, yeah. I couldn’t have him as an actual teenage spy. He had to be an ordinary school kid who stumbled on all these adventures. So instead, I tried to make his early school days as exciting and as James Bond like as I could but scaled it down to a level that kids could relate to.

“Fleming said ‘if you get the everyday details right, that gives you the licence to add elements of fantasy.’ Charlie Higson

How did you research a huge character that really has no background?

Before writing the book (Silverfin) I had never been that keen on research.  I just wanted to get on and write the story. The only real time that we do find out about his background is in the penultimate novel You Only Live Twice, where everybody thinks Bond has died and M writes an obituary that’s printed in the times. That tells us all the back story that’s what I really had to go on. But the hardest part was knowing what it was like to be a schoolboy at Eaton in the 1930s. The librarian and Historian there showed me around there. I was fortunate enough to find an old diary, written by a boy about his experiences in his first year in the Thirties. It’s funny when you’re writing a historical book. It’s the little things, the sort of ordinary domestic details that can trip you up. You need to know what things were used at the time. 

The challenges in creating the man audiences know as action man James Bond just a kid, must have been a nightmare? 

People always used to ask me, who’s your favourite Bond, yeah, and obviously, for men of my generation, it’s Sean Connery. And again, it’s like which of the Bonds is the Bond in the book. I tried as far as possible to make the Bond in the book as much as possible like Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Old school. Also, we can’t pretend that we haven’t seen all those films so all of that did feed into the books and you know there’s a certain energy from the films, so what I was putting into my books and my bond was a sort of amalgamation of the best bits of all of them but at school. I wanted to show how an ordinary boy through the awful things that happened to him could grow up to be a killer, an assassin as it were. And there is huge mythology that has built up around Bond. There are all the trappings that you must have to make it a Bond and so I wanted to try and use as much as that but on a scale that kids could relate to. It was quite tricky because what is Bond known for? Driving fast cars, living in hotels all around the world. Eating in restaurants. Drinking lots of alcohol, smoking and having sex with lots of women and his job is to kill people. None of which you can have a 13-year-old boy doing in a children’s book. It’s a perfect fantasy for a bloke because he’s cut away from all responsibilities and burdens that in real life you have to deal with. There’s a classic structure to a James Bond book. Bond is given the mission by M. He approaches the villain. They have an initial competition. He gets close to the villain, enters his world and meets the girl along the way. He’s captured by the villain. Is tortured, escapes, comes back kills a villain and then sleeps with the girl. I had to work out how I do some of that. It’s a bit unsavoury having an adult torturing a child, so I did come up with different ways. The adult tortures James Bond by forcing him to drink a bottle of gin. That is a rite of passage all teenagers go through. We get hold of a bottle of gin with our mates and go to the park and drink it, puking up thinking we’re going to die. I thought yes, that is a good way to work these kinds of adult things into the books. As a writer, you draw on real life experiences. As it was about growing up and being a teenager, you can put all that stuff in it but in the guise of being just an adventure book.

“One of the other continuation authors said before about writing these books was that your polishing somebody else’s gold”

Was it difficult, to hand over your Young James Bond to another writer?

I wrote around 5 Bond books and well, it was my choice. I didn’t create James Bond and I wanted to write something that was mine. But having done those books I feel I could write a whole new one. As a new adult James Bond novel. I’ve gone inside the world enough.

Beginning the Creative Writing B.A at Birkbeck aged 52, Richard Norris’s experiences through his previously self-employed life as a DJ, Song Writer/ Producer and Pre-school music teacher, are rarely reflected in his writing. He sways away from non-fiction and towards his lifetime fascination with the darker side of comedy, horror, and science-fiction. At 55, Richard, now a delivery driver, looks forward to completing the M.A and releasing his “warped” stories into the world. He hopes that reading his interview with author, comedian and friend, Charlie Higson, is as much fun for you, as they had doing it.

Interview: Shon Faye

An Interview with Shon Faye, Author of The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice


What inspired you to write this book?


I didn’t really want to write it. I got approached by a literary agent who is still my agent and it’s normally the other way. The author goes to the agent, but she contacted me through a friend and asked if I had ever thought about writing a book and I was like, maybe, but like, I’m definitely not gonna write a book about trans issues. I just don’t wanna be pigeonholed in that way. And then I obviously ended up literally writing a book called The Transgender Issue. I think the reason being was that I was a freelance writer, like a journalist and culture writer, before. And there was such a growing hostile media narrative around trans people, particularly trans women, that it started to drain all of my energy in terms of what I was writing as a freelancer, because I just felt compelled all the time to correct misinformation or use my platform to talk about these issues. And so I kind of thought that one a book creates a different platform and a different medium to say a newspaper column or a magazine column and allows you to have the more in depth conversation you might want to have and you gain a readership and a platform that way. So some of my reasoning was strategic. And then in terms of my own career as a writer, I just felt like if you’re a minority writer and a trans writer specifically, I just feel like there’s not really much cultural space for you to write about other things until you’ve in some way addressed your identity. So for me I thought this will also provide me the opportunity to put everything about this aspect of my identity and my politics into one volume and allow me the freedom to move on and write about other things. So there was kind of a personal advantage to it and a critical advantage to it.


In your book you mention your privilege, saying that your own experience isn’t representative of that of the majority of the trans community. With this in mind, what was your goal in writing this book?


I mean the privilege disclaimer I sort of simultaneously hate that about leftwing writing, like modern leftwing writing, but also understand it. I sometimes feel like when people have to make this kind of confession of their structural privilege before they start speaking about leftwing politics it can get a bit tedious. But nevertheless, I was kind of aware that if I was going to engage in this book, it had to be addressed. One of the reasons that I was given the opportunity to write a book is that I went to Oxbridge and all that stuff. So in many ways, apart from the fact that I’m trans, I come from a very similar background to the media in Britain that I’m critiquing and the reality is I can’t undo that. I don’t think these levels of educational or class stratification that we have in Britain are just, or fair, but nevertheless I benefited from them. And so I guess what my intention was is, well, what can you actually do? There’s no point being overly remorseful or guilty for these advantages, but I guess the social justice approach is to think about how you implement them for the purposes of, well, I guess here it’s that I have a degree of platform forwarded to me or interest or publishing contract forwarded to me. And I can use that opportunity to elevate the voices of trans people that don’t typically get media platforms. So, that’s why the book isn’t a memoir about me and I tended to interview firsthand trans people that are maybe having a tougher time than me. People that are still struggling in the arena of class, for example, or race or disability. So the intention there was to elevate trans people’s voices that aren’t typically heard in the mainstream.


I felt it was important not to dumb down and oversimplify because I do feel people will keep up with you. I feel like a lot of the problem around minority issues is that we treat the majority of the population like they can’t comprehend these things. I try to introduce some basic concepts and then hopefully people will come with you in terms of growing complexity around the topic.


I wanted it to be read. When I first first pitched the book I remember I was dating a guy at the time and his parents read The Times, they were Tories. They were middle-aged, never met a queer person before. I kind of want these people to be able to read this book as equally as a young millennial. 

You mention widespread prejudice and misunderstanding concerning the trans community. What do you think are the first steps to challenging these perceptions?


I think there’s a mistake in assuming that people understanding the depths of your experience is necessarily going to change things materially in your life. 


I’m much more interested in where there’s structural discrimination against trans people, where there’s a material harm, whether that’s low income or healthcare inequality or pathologization in healthcare setting.


In the 20th century, you see this process where medical transition becomes more of a viable option and quite quickly psychiatry takes hold of that process and starts framing trans people as mentally ill. Saying that this is a mental health condition and these people are disturbed so that we need to treat them to stop killing themselves. A lot of that sort of pathologization has been reversed, but there’s still seeds of it everywhere, trans people as mentally unstable, they don’t really know what they’re talking about, their opinion on themselves and on gender is less reliable than cisgendered persons. Trans people experience a lot of mental health problems, but that’s because of how society treats us, it’s not because we’re inherently unwell, but I think that kind of pathologization really shapes how people view trans people. It’s quite easy to be seen as unstable or sick in some way and that’s something that I think a lot of trans people, including me, have experienced.

You argue that capitalism and the patriarchy are oppressing all minorities, not just the trans community. How do we achieve solidarity between minorities?


Solidarity politics, they’re not about, we agree on everything or you understand me perfectly, my internal experience and I understand your internal experience perfectly. They’re more about recognizing that we have similar oppressors or similar forms of oppression and therefore it’s in our better interests to kind of fight them together.


Some examples would be in the US in the sixties and seventies, the Black Panthers, black power movement, having allegiances with the gay rights movement. In the eighties when you had gay rights groups supporting striking minors.


One of the things that the right wing does so effectively is, because they are only consumed with money and power and confining money and resources to their small elite group […] it’s very easy for them to work together. Like the Christian right in the US is these big megachurches and then the traditional Republican capitalists and they work together so well because they have the same interests, right. Even though they’ve got quite different ideologies. And I think the left is really bad at being like, oh, you’ve said something wrong, I don’t agree with this at the moment. And I’m gonna work with you. 


The right loves to divide and rule. It’s very invested in making different marginalised groups fight each other, whether that’s white, working class people who are encouraged to think that working class people of color are taking their resources or anti-trans feminists who think trans women are invading their spaces and taking their resources.


People are encouraged to think that their own oppression, the declining standards of living, is to do with another minority group rather than to do with a powerful elite doing it intentionally. 


Is this book for trans people, for cisgendered people to understand the challenges facing the trans community or is it asking people to challenge the gender binary and their own understanding of their gender?


I was at a festival on the weekend and a trans friend was like, “oh, congrats on the book. I haven’t read it by the way. Sorry.” And I was like, to be honest, you don’t really need to read it. It’s not really for you. I mean obviously I’m glad that lots of trans people have read it. And I wanted other trans people to like it because it’s a very socialist book. I feel like there are a lot of trans liberals and a lot of trans people who haven’t quite made the link with socialist politics and I’m just as invested in socialist politics as I am in trans politics.


But it is for a mainstream audience, which is like necessarily cisgender people. It is one of those books that’s designed to turn around a public conversation. And to do that I do need to reach, I wanna say middle England, but like at least a huge wave of the population. I’m never gonna reach committed bigots, but I think there’s lots of people who flirt with transphobic ideas in their head, and it’s because they’ve never really been challenged. A book is a good way to challenge people. I think people are more likely to shift their opinions in private when they’re not feeling threatened.


Natty is a creative writing graduate of Birkbeck University. He claims to have written poetry from a young age and at one time believed he was a distant cousin of the Infrarealism movement.

Interview: Toby Litt

Toby Litt is a writer. His résumé is extensive – novels to songwriting, opera collaborations and poetry collections … And creating a comic book character, Crystal Palace, who will feature in the live-action series Dead Boy Detectives on HBO Max. Toby’s story ‘The Retreat’ won the 2020 University of Essex Short Fiction Prize. His latest novel, Patience, was published by Galley Beggar Press in 2019 and was shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize. Toby is also a Reader in Creative Writing at Birkbeck University. His latest work is A Writer’s Diary, sharing a page every day from a year in his life via Substack. (Substack, in case, like myself, you’d never heard of it, is a web platform pushing an alternative to literary boundaries of the last century; its aim is to “allow writers and creators to run their own media empire.”) I’ve read an entry a day of A Writer’s Diary, (Strapline: ‘A year in my life and my life in a year – birth, death and commas.’) since its launch January 1st this year, and each entry has captivated me for different reasons. Each page is so unique in its tone, content, purpose, yet each one retains the familiarity of being in the company of a bloody good writer. His style challenges the reader to think deeply into the everyday and reflect on our emotions. It’s personal for the reader, addictive and impressive.

Hi Toby. Thank you for being here for me to find out more behind A Writer’s Diary. 

What’s your synopsis of this work? The inspiration behind this diary?

Thanks for being interested. When I finished Patience, I felt I’d done something unexpected – for myself. I’d written something I didn’t think I was capable of writing. This partly came out of the voice of the narrator, Elliott, who is very free in his word-choices and associations, and partly out of Elliott’s situation, which is that he is paralysed. He lives in a Catholic home for children whose parents – for one reason or another – can’t care for them. He sits all day in his wheelchair. The Sisters either put him facing a window down into a courtyard or facing a white wall. He can only see what’s in front of him. But he finds it fascinating. He sees everything in what might seem like nothing. In a way, A Writer’s Diary is me trying to continue that generous way of looking at the world – Elliott’s way – and what is in front of me, most of the time, is this desk I’m at right now and these pens, pots, notebooks, this hardboard work surface, these conditions. It may seem like very little, but I find it opens into greatly curious things.

It seems budding authors will have to embrace learning how to publish online, using platforms like Substack. Tell me about your experience of web publishing, your thoughts on writers building and running their own “media empire”? 

My experience on Substack, so far, has been very positive. Most published writers experience a delay of a year or two between finishing a piece of prose and sharing it with non-professional readers. Usually, by the time a novel came out, I was far more into the next novel. I had to fake myself, the writer who wrote the previous book, in order to speak about it. With online publishing, there’s no time-lag, and less of that kind of fakery. I’m talking to you about what I’m writing.

As for the “media empire” thing – I’ve been very aware, since leaving a big publisher, that lots of those jobs (marketing, publicity) were done for me by really good people with great contacts. I’m not them. But even big publishers now expect their writers to self-promote, to have marketing ideas. You see debut novelists creeping onto Twitter six months in advance of their launch date, because they’ve just been told what the total marketing budget is (isn’t). I think it’s better to try to feel at home in those online spaces, and see what’s sustaining in them, rather than to try to pimp off them or add them to any imagined empire. Neil Gaiman may have an empire, I have something more like a shed.

The diary form is personal, exposing. Many writers can fall away from plot into the splurge confessional. What are your tips here to confess in a controlled engaging manner?

This question really is a great chance for me to make an arse of myself, isn’t it? I’d say that, like lots of forms of writing, a diary becomes interesting when you’re not writing something for the first time. You can keep a note of the events of each day, and that can be wonderful to look back on. But the best short stories I’ve written have, I think, been attempts to get a story right that I’ve previously failed at. If you’re splurging a confession, then it’s a first go at a new story. But if you’re looking back at failed confessions, and picking out your own dishonesties, that’s when it’s a rewriting, and I think that’s when it can become more than this happened and then this happened

All the diary entries already exist, but you’ve, to use your words, written, rewritten, moved around, and plotted. The entries vary from a single word to a page… I sense each entry gets edited by your mood each day. Are you editing the entries again daily? Can you tell me more about your process here?

 It’s one of the excitements and weirdnesses of this form – a new publication every afternoon. I’m still nervous about each one. Right now, I’m nervous about today’s. Most entries get a few small changes, but one or two have been completely rewritten. That’s come out of me feeling something was lacking in what was in there already, rather than me importing something from real life. I’ve got a developing sense of real-time pacing. A page-turn is twenty-four hours, not just half a second. A single word entry can have far a greater moment. It’s not just clocked and then flicked away from. I think, in future, I’ll be cutting more.

What are hopes for A Writer’s Diary upon its completion? 

I’m very glad to say that Galley Beggar Press are going to publish it on January 1st 2023. When it’s out, I’d like people to read it as an attempt to do something new in writing – although I know books like The Luminous Novel by Mario Levrero exist, and behind them Virginia Woolf’s diary. Part of that new thing I’m trying can only happen this year, before the entries become static, and can no longer be anticipated as taking place tomorrow or in two week’s time.

Lastly, is anything else you would like to give to the MIR readers and budding writers?

Along with Liz Jensen, Chloe Aridjis, Monique Roffey and others, I’m one of the organizers of Writers Rebel, part of Extinction Rebellion. We’re committed to bringing up the Climate and Ecological Emergency whenever we have a public platform (such as this one). That awareness is the basis of all we do, write, contribute. I’d like to give MIR readers a chance to get involved with Writers Rebel. You can contact us at We’re looking for volunteers, blogs for the website, but mostly for people to join the protests that will be happening in September 2022. We – all of us – have to give ourselves a liveable future.

Thank you so much for your time, Toby. 

Sign up to A Writer’s Diary for free.


Alice has lived and worked with an invisible disability for 20 years. Her writing draws on this experience alongside humour. She is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. She loves horses, dogs, lols and libations. And she hopes you enjoy reading her work!


Interview: Kimberly Campanello

Rasmus Meldgaard Harboe interviews the poet, Kimberly Campanello.

The oak box is heavy. The poor librarian has carried it out from the depth of the archives and placed it in front of me, here in London Poetry Library’s study area. I’m opening the lid and looking down at a stack of 796 sheets of semi-transparent vellum paper. On the sheets are printed small explosions and intense streams of sentences, words and, not least, names. Because of the transparent paper, I’m able to sense the next three-or-so sheets as I start picking up the sheets and reading the visual poems, one by one.

Each sheet represents one of 796 dead infants and children. All of them died at a mother and baby home in Tuam, Ireland, between the years 1926 and 1961. The home was run by nuns from the Catholic organisation Bon Secours on behalf of the Irish state. It was the local historian Catherine Corless who found the many children’s names when in 2013 she discovered a register listing their deaths, tangible evidence of the children’s existence. According to the register, the children died of illness or malnutrition. The oldest was nine years old.

Following Catherine Corless’ discovery and massive media attention, the Irish government established a commission in 2014. After six years of investigation, the committee was unsuccessful in finding any register of burials of the dead children, but excavations were carried out on the grounds where the mother and baby home had been. In 2019, authorities confirmed that there were remains of dead children discovered in a discontinued underground sewage tank.

While the case was initially circulating in the media, the poet Kimberly Campanello sent an email to Catherine Corless. Campanello explained that she wanted to create a work anchored in the story about the Tuam children. That work is MOTHERBABYHOME, and that’s what’s standing in front of me at London Poetry Library.


RMH: Those 796 names of dead children must have felt like a very tangible thing, there’s so much identity in a name. What was it like to get your hands on that register?

KC: I think I felt similarly to how Catherine Corless and the people in the village feel about those names. The survivors are still reading out those names, and there’s a lot of community and public art that uses the reading of names as a gesture because it’s so powerful, as you say. You know, it’s all we have in a certain way, our names or the names of others. That was why I had them on each page and knew I had to proceed with the full work, a page for each name. I took all the causes of death away from each name. It felt important to me to not associate those names with their cause of death and instead I list those all together in one poem. Most of them were probably entirely avoidable or treatable or were induced by the conditions in the homes. I didn’t want to erase them, but I wanted them to be located differently so the names could ring out on each page. Working this way with poetry allows you to think about the location and placement of language, to judge the position of language.

RMH: Where did the initial idea for MOTHERBABYHOME come from?

KC: I had already tried using found text to what I thought was a strong effect. I wasn’t inflicting my own outrage and point of view on that text, but through using that language, manipulating that language that already existed, I think those feelings are there. It’s not the poet saying, “oh this really terrible bad thing has happened, I’m gonna tell you about it and all the ways in which it’s bad”. Which for me just feels inadequate a lot of the time. I had an idea about the visuality of the poems. The kind of shattered found language that I was messing around with using the found text and then printing it out on tracing paper. I thought that what I needed to do was make 796 visual poems. If I was going to deal with this subject, I needed to deal with it fully. I needed to put my own poetic aims aside, which is a very different artistic move than most poets make when they’re writing about something political. Because otherwise, I wouldn’t really have any business doing it, you know?

RMH: Aside from meeting Catherine Corless and getting your hands on her files, how did you approach the work?

KC: I set up Google Alerts on my Gmail with the words TUAM, MOTHER and BABY. It’s a kind of digital humanities at work. I had all this source material coming into my inbox, and that’s how I found the things that I used as my source material, which was everything from blog posts that are really politically horrible to the news articles to records to survivor groups.

RMH: Talk to me about the practicalities of creating these visual poems. Are you InDesign savvy, or do you swear to scissors and a glue stick?

KC: No, I just use Microsoft Word.

RMH: Really?

KC: Yes! It’s really dumb of me.

RMH: Sounds like a nightmare.

KC: I’m not a visual artist, I have no training and no tech. I’ve had people saying to me, particularly other visual poets or people who are in the art world, that I should really just get InDesign. But if I do that, it’s almost like cheating because the challenge of Word offers creative possibilities. 

RMH: All these poems are printed on transparent vellum paper. Was it ever going to be just on ordinary paper?

KC: No, definitely not. One of the poems, one of the very early poems that becomes iconic throughout, that image just kind of came to me as a sort of visual impression. Then it was like, how do I make that work? I was playing with doing that with little pieces of paper, which is how [the American poet] Susan Howe works with overwriting. A lot of the poets that I really love do those things. The placement of language and the material is just as important as what’s being said. It’s no surprise, right? You just have to go to The British Library’s manuscript exhibition to see historically how that’s just a thing.

RMH: I love that exhibition.

KC: Yeah, I love how the presentation of text just changes everything. So, the vellum idea—it’s not actual vellum, but it’s called vellum—I think it will last longer. They say that our books today will not last very long, the paper is cheap and will degrade. That’s why the MOTHERBABYHOME box is oak, and why the vellum is high-quality paper.

RMH: Which brings me to my next question, what was the idea with the box?

KC: On the one hand, the box is a coffin. The children weren’t buried in coffins, even though there were advertisements for coffins put out to tender, and the nuns had money to buy coffins, but apparently, they didn’t buy them. They were using state funds and not using them for what it was for. So, in contrast, the box was made with a sense of care. But the concept is also that the poems are on A4 because it’s bureaucratic. It’s my alternative report to that which was being produced by the commission. My report is a report on their report because all their interim reports are in there, and all the reactions to the interim report are in there. It’s a report on all the reports. It is, I hope, a subversion of that report which was profoundly rejected by survivors and human rights experts.

RMH: You say that there was only one way that you could create this huge body of work. Have you ever had second thoughts about how it turned out?

KC: I haven’t had concerns about it since finishing it but while I was doing it, obviously I did. During the process, it was important to me to confirm with the people who were affected that this made sense. I have since had a few human rights experts and survivors contact me saying that this is the real report. It’s not because of anything I did, it’s because of what they had already done, which is reflected in the work and which I’m just presenting, which is what I’m trying to do by making poetry from a kind of ritualised bureaucracy. 

RMH: It’s bureaucratic in many ways, isn’t it? Just imagine those mother and baby homes and the power that those nuns would have wielded. The nuns had all the money and power, and then there were the mothers and the babies. That echoes the social divide.

KC: Absolutely. The nuns, the church, religious orders, both Catholic and Protestant, ran a lot of things on behalf of the Irish state and were renumerated for it. And of course, we have the same situation today with private and state providers of support for refugees and asylum seekers or children in care, for example, that are using money but not protecting people’s rights and in fact are treating vulnerable people terribly. Part of why I proceeded with this was that I don’t think this is Irish exceptionalism. Yes, it’s a very specific thing that happened there and it was specific conditions that lead to it. Social, political, ideological, religious. However, the overall shape of it and many of the specifics are similar in other contexts and persist.

Rasmus Meldgaard Harboe is a writer and arts journalist, born in Copenhagen and based in London. He works in the Danish and British publishing industry and is the presenter of a Danish literary podcasts. Rasmus holds a BA degree in Creative Writing from Birkbeck School of Art.

Interview: John Harvey

I first met John Harvey in the 1980’s when we appeared on the same poetry bill at Huddersfield Art Gallery. He was already a legend in the Northern and Midlands poetry circles as an author and publisher. Among other achievements, he co-founded the poetry journal, Slow Dancer, which published two pamphlets by Simon Armitage, The Walking Horses and Around Robinson, before Simon’s career took off.

John evolved into a world-renowned crime writer. His signature detective, Charlie Resnick, walked the streets of Nottingham, where Harvey was living at the time; the first Resnick book, Lonely Hearts, was described by The Times as one of the 100 most notable crime novels of the 20th century. John received the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger for Sustained Excellence in Crime Writing, and Resnick spun off into two BBC TV series and a stage play.

John officially retired from writing in 2021, though that didn’t stop him publishing poetry in The North and London Grip, and creating Summer Notebook, a collection of short poems largely inspired by his regular walks on Hampstead Heath.

We met in his home in Tufnell Park, where we ran through his astonishing career and discussed the life of a commercial writer.

Craig Smith: How did you become a writer?

John Harvey: Writing, in my case, had almost nothing to do with wanting to be a writer and practically nothing to do with having something to write about. After twelve years at the chalk face, I was looking for an alternative to teaching.

A friend, Laurence James, had been working as an editor, and later as an author, for the New English Library, who published pulp fiction. Lawrence was writing a series about Hells Angels but was busy on another project, so said, ‘Why don’t you have a go?’ After I’d submitted, with Laurence’s help, an outline and a sample chapter, New English Library contracted me to write 50,000 words for £200 plus royalties. Then, when I delivered the manuscript, they said ‘Give us another one,’ and offered £250. So I resigned as a teacher, thinking I could always go back if it didn’t work out.

I co-wrote several series of Westerns with Laurence and Angus Wells. We talked about the basic storyline and main characters, then we wrote alternate books. Over a period of five or six years, I wrote 12 or 13 books a year. You didn’t get paid a whole lot, so you needed to write a good number of books to get by.

I found, to my surprise, that if you sat at 10 in the morning and stayed until 3:30, you had a lot of words. In four weeks, I had 50,000 words, which was a 128-page paperback. As a beginning writer, which I still was, it was like being paid to practice, to learn how to tell a story, to keep the readers’ interest, to balance action against dialogue.

Eventually, I got a little bit restless, and the market for Westerns dried up.

It was remarkable that your first writing was paid.

If I hadn’t been paid for it, I wouldn’t have done it. I’ve always seen myself as a commercial writer. I write to make a living, except for poetry, of course.

CS: What did you know about cowboys or bikers?

JH: Cowboys were easy because the readers wanted a regurgitation of the myth you get in John Ford or John Wayne movies, rather than any serious attempt to write about what it would actually have been like. Biker books were Westerns on Harley Davidson.

CS: What did you do next?

JH: I went from pulp fiction into writing for television and radio. The first major thing I did was a television adaptation of Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns for the BBC, which led, a few years later, to Hard Cases, a six-part series for Central Television about a group of probation officers and their clients. This was filmed on location in Nottingham, which gave me the idea of writing a police procedural in the same setting – hence Resnick.

CS: What did you know about police work back then?

JH: I wrote to the public relations department of Nottinghamshire police and said ‘I’m planning to write a novel about a Nottingham-based detective, could I talk to someone about it?’ I didn’t want to drive the streets in a police car at 1am, I wanted to know what the routines were. How many people were on duty, who came in in the morning, who made the tea?

Later, I worked with a serving police inspector in the Nottingham force, right through until Darkness, Darkness. He’d been involved in the policing of the miners’ strike, and had very ambivalent feelings about the way it was policed. Later still, I got to know a senior officer in the Met. At his suggestion, we did some joint sessions in London libraries, where he talked about crime and I talked about my books. After that, I would run stuff past him, as well as my Midlands contact. I’ve always had somebody that I could run my stuff by to make sure I got the procedures and the acronyms right.

CS: Were there writers you tried to emulate?

JH: I was influenced by a Scottish writer, William McIlvanney, who wrote three novels about a Glasgow-based policeman called Laidlaw, as well as the Martin Beck novels by the Swedish writers, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

There was a move towards what I hoped was a greater authenticity. It was social realism plus crime. Crime gives you the story, but the background is social realism. I was working toward a picture of Nottingham that was as accurate as possible, where the characters were as accurate as possible, and the storyline opened up things about living in that place, while providing a narrative to follow.

Instead of writing 12 books a year, I wrote one book, so I could expand those parts which I couldn’t linger over in the shorter stuff. I could spend more time on character, on describing place. I could have some kind of political attitude, if it fitted with the story. I could be more careful about language. I could do a lot more rewriting. There was no rewriting on the early stuff because there wasn’t time.

I had plenty of time to write the first Resnick novel, Lonely Hearts. I had time to revise it. I had a proper editor who went through it and told me ways in which it could be improved. I had an agent. I was operating on a wholly different level.

CS: Did you know it was going to be a series at the beginning?

I didn’t. But I had been working in series with the pulp stuff so it was no great surprise when the publisher suggested it.

My agent sent out the first 50 pages of Lonely Hearts, plus an outline, to the major mainstream publishers. They all turned it down except for Tony Lacy at Penguin, who asked to read more. It’s always amused me that, when he read the full manuscript, his comment was to the effect, ‘This is better than I’d anticipated!’ It was Tony who first asked if I saw it as part of a series. And, I said, ‘Oh, yes.’ Obviously, the idea appealed to me.

CS: When you wrote the second Resnick novel, what could you presume about its readership? Did you assume they carried over from the first novel, or was it was an entirely different audience?

JH: I’m not sure if, at that stage, I was too clear about it. It wasn’t until the third book that I realised that what readers responded to was Resnick’s character. Initially, I thought it might be an ensemble piece. But it became clear from readers’ and publishers’ responses that what drew them to the book was Resnick, rather than the subsidiary characters.

I gave Charlie one or two characteristics of my own. He loves listening to jazz so I could write about jazz. I gave him hobbies that suggested a rich inner life to stand against the grim work he does. I didn’t want him to be a grim man, living on his own, dealing with awful things. I thought, ‘Who’s gonna care? I’m not gonna care.’ There needed to be aspects of him that people could respond to in a positive way.

I gave him a Polish upbringing. I wanted him to be of the city of Nottingham but somehow not of it. I assumed his parents moved to Nottingham as refugees during the Second World War, and that he’d been brought up there but saw himself as an outsider. I wanted this insider/outsider thing. I tried to signal that by having him buy Polish gherkins from the deli stall in the market and making strange and ornate sandwiches.

It became evident that readers took those elements of the books to heart. That’s why they’re buying the books, and it’s why those books sell in series.

CS: Were you aware of the passage of time in Resnick’s life as the series went on?

JH: I regret not keeping 6”x4” cards with dates and names. It would’ve been a great help, instead of going back to the earlier books and trying to work out, ‘What was so and so’s name and when did such and such happen?’

I was constantly fudging it. ‘It was Resnick’s birthday, but he wouldn’t say which one.’ He was always older than the people he worked with, but not so old that he should retire. I think by the time of Darkness, Darkness, he was probably in his early 60’s. I should’ve been clear about that stuff but, having fudged it from the beginning, I carried on fudging.

CS: How did Resnick end up on TV?

JH: An independent company got a contract from the BBC to film the first two books, which we did on location in Nottingham. Each one appeared in three parts. It was Resnick: Lonely Hearts; Resnick: Rough Treatment.

CS: How did it feel to break a year’s work into three parts?

JH: I loved it. I’ve always loved adapting other peoples’ books for radio and television drama. Back at grammar school, we did something called parsing, which means you read an article say, in the Times, then created a 50-word summary in readable prose that picked out the salient points. That stood me in good stead when it came to adapting work from one format to another.

CS: And how did Resnick become a play?

JH: Giles Croft commissioned me to dramatise one of the Resnick novels for the stage and I chose Darkness, Darkness, which I thought would be the most interesting because of the way it dealt with the miners’ strike. Giles suggested Jack McNamara as a potential director. Jack worked with me from an early stage, workshopping the script with mostly local actors before the main casting. It was really hard listening to my scenes for the first time, realising very quickly which bits did not working. Jack was basically saying to them ‘What’s wrong with this scene, what are the weaknesses?’ And I was saying ‘There aren’t any fucking weaknesses, talk about the strengths, for God’s Sake.’ We argued quite heatedly at times but, in the end, I was only too happy to accept his ideas. Well, most of them.

One thing I realised I’d been missing as a writer was being in an audience with several hundred people, most of whom responded in a positive way, not just to stuff I’d written but to stuff the director and I went through in rehearsal to figure out how to make work. If I had to choose one single favourite thing from all the writing I’ve done, working on Darkness, Darkness and seeing it evolve for the theatre would be it.

CS: How did Slow Dancer come about?

JH: I met an American called Alan Brooks on an Arvon Foundation poetry course. We had similar ideas about poetry. He was living in North London, quite close to me. Our work was getting turned down elsewhere or was being published in badly mimeographed magazines, so we thought ‘Bugger this, we’ll start a magazine of our own’.


We created a nicely produced magazine containing our work and the work of other people we liked. Alan had a friend, David Kresh, who ran the small press poetry section of the Library of Congress, who suggested American writers to publish in our little English magazine that few people in the States would have heard of. And, although I applied for grants, my writing subsidised the poetry.

CS: So this was while you were writing pulp fiction?

JH: It began when I was writing pulp fiction, then continued into Resnick.

CS: When you write fiction, do you have a pen and paper at your side, ready for the next poem?

JH: I wouldn’t say one thing fed off the other. Poems occurred to me when I wasn’t thinking about writing, late at night or listening to music or out walking.

CS: Did your prose benefit from your poetry?

JH: I thought more about my choice of words. What poetry teaches you is to be selective and precise. It encouraged me to use only one adjective instead of three.

CS: How did you spot Simon Armitage so early in his career?

JH: What impressed me, as much as the actual writing, was Simon’s commitment and self-assurance. There I was, thinking I was doing him a favour by asking if we could publish one of his poems in Slow Dancer, and he’d already had it accepted by the Times Literary Supplement.

CS: What does success look like for you?

JH: Early on, it was ‘Are they going to commission three books in the series? Can we get another series going?’ I was working on four or five Western series at a time for different publishers, because working on one Western series with another writer didn’t pay enough to live on. So success, initially, was placing books with a publisher, getting them written, seeing the artwork: the same thing that goes on with any book, the excitement of seeing the finished book. Those books never got reviewed so it was a matter of self-indulgent enjoyment. The fact that publishers wanted them was how we made our living.

When I started writing for radio and television, I got more concerned about what people said and what people thought, about what the reviews said.

With television and radio, the enjoyment was watching or listening to the finished thing. Being in the studio when a radio play was being recorded was especially enjoyable, because it’s you, the producer, about three technicians and the actors. They want you there because inevitably time becomes a crucial issue. The producer’s assistant will be clocking the time and working out how much you’ve got to lose, so you’re rewriting all the way through.


IMAGE: Molly Ernestine

Interview: Naomi Booth

Naomi Booth is a novelist, short story writer and academic from West Yorkshire. She is the author of two novels (Sealed and Exit Management), a novella (The Lost Art of Sinking), and an academic text (Swoon: A Poetics of Passing Out). Her short story, Sour Hall, was included in the Audible/Virago collection, Hag.

Naomi’s fiction is so beautifully written that it took me a while to spot the horror that underlies it, (even though Sealed is billed as Eco-Horror). Through her lost and drifting characters, she explores how we cope as human beings when family or community are denied us, either through personal tragedy or societal breakdown.

Our conversation trundled down numerous sidings as we discussed our shared geography of West Yorkshire and South London. And while she forensically analysed the serious business of writing fiction, we laughed a lot.

Craig Smith: Did you always write?

Naomi Booth: Yes, I did. I was susceptible to getting lost in my own stories as a young child. I had the feeling that the real world was no more real than what was happening in my imaginative world. There are a number of events in my childhood that I now find difficult to ascertain the veracity of because my mind has embellished them so extensively.  

In my 20’s, I did an MA in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of Sussex, which was when I started to think seriously that I might turn this thing I’d always loved doing into something I could produce for other people.

CS: There’s a real sense of place in your stories, a going away and a coming back.

NB: Lots of my work travels between Yorkshire and other locations, particularly London. There are well-trodden narrative paths for characters graduating from the North to the South, the coming-of-age stories that see a character leave behind what’s often characterised as insular and backwards, those stereotypes of cultural and economic deprivation in the North. I’m interested in ways you might subvert that. The Calder Valley, for instance, is a place I come back to again and again in my work. I lived in Hebden Bridge for a couple of years, and my parents now live on the moortops above Todmorden. When I was a kid from Dewsbury going to college in Huddersfield, I met a group of people who made music and danced and wrote poetry who were from the Calder Valley. It made me think of the Calder Valley as a crucible of art. I often get asked about the North and my work, and there are specific places in the North that I return to, but I’m also wary about certain constructions of the North: the Lakes and Sheffield, Newcastle and the North York Moors are wildly different places.

CS: What other northern writers do you read?

NB: I grew up with Ted Hughes and the Brontës as big literary presences in my life. There was always that sense of a landscape that I knew, that I’d walked in, having inspired literary work, and that in turn was inspiring for me. Many of my favourite contemporary writers come from the North of England, writers like Jessica Andrews, who wrote Salt Water and who works wonderful magic in getting across voice, place and character. One of my earliest loves was short fiction, and Sarah Hall made a big impact on me, especially the relationship between land and narration. I’ve recently read new work by Tom Benn and Melissa Wan that I’ve loved—and I’d recommend the recent anthology, Test Signal: New Writing from the North, for anyone who’d like to read brand new work. 

It’s been my good fortune to be published by Dead Ink, who are based in Liverpool. They’re an independent press working as part of the Northern Fiction Alliance, and publishing with them has helped me to learn more about writers and publishing in the North. These publishers are not necessarily focused on what you might first think of as ‘northern writing’. They have a global outlook. For example, People Trade Press in Leeds are the world’s leading publisher of diasporic writing from the Caribbean. Comma and Tilted Axis Press are brilliant publishers of work in translation.

CS: How do you approach dialect?

NB: I work with many students who develop writing that is true to the spoken language of particular areas, and there are lots of brilliant experiments in capturing dialect. I can think of a number of Scottish writers who do this particularly well. But capturing regional speech patterns can be tricky: English is not a phonetic language, so attempting phonetic presentation for particular characters has always seemed risky to me—the writing risks inadvertently reinforcing the idea that certain voices are the standard by which others are judged. What I tend to do is include dialect terms when a word is different, like ‘me sen’ for ‘myself’, but I don’t attempt to render accent on the page. For me, it’s about giving enough clues in the language of the kind of voice that you’re dealing with but, hopefully, without othering particular voices.

CS: Your characters walk away from community or embrace it, depending on their situation.

NB: I’m interested in where the communal fails, and in where and when characters are able to access support or communal undertaking. For me, Sealed is about the attempt to create yourself as an entirely sealed entity, using the macabre exaggeration of this particular condition, where you are literally sealed in. The final stages of the novel are about the impossibility of being able to exist as a single entity during points of crisis, of having to embrace the communal, and of that being both a possible source of horror and celebration.

I’m really interested in female relationships, particularly the way the figure of the mother is overloaded, is required to act in the way a functioning community or society might, and what happens when that isn’t possible. In my narratives, I often depict mothers who are removed or unavailable to fulfil that role for various reasons. So, what is life like with insufficient mothering? I would say that all mothering is insufficient if you haven’t got a functional social structure working around us.

CS: How do you approach research?

NB: I think of research in two stages.

The first is the idea stage, where I explore the ideas I want to bring together. Often, those present themselves to me through direct experience or through reading around certain topics. For instance, my first book, The Lost Art of Sinking, was inspired by research into the literary history of swooning, (This research became the academic text, Swoon: A Poetics of Passing Out, which was published by Manchester University Press).

There’s a secondary stage of research, where I look for the sort of detail that makes the world of the characters come to life for the reader. For Sour Hall, for instance, which tells the story of two female dairy farmers, I watched a lot of videos of cows being born, and read about milking and farming. One of the pleasures of writing, for me, is attempting to get the lexicon right, the precise details that someone would use in the world that you’re attempt to describe.

CS: At what point do you do that research?

NB: It varies from book to book. In Exit Management, I needed to learn about Hungary before drafting sections about a character who was born close to Budapest. So, in that case, there was research before I drafted, then I drafted, then I researched again. ‘Exit Management’ is a term from HR that started the idea for the book. I was thinking what a horrible euphemism ‘exit management’ is, and came up with the idea for the novel. Then I did more research into HR practices to make certain elements of the novel (hopefully) plausible. 

CS: Three of your four books use the present tense. Does present tense work well with horror?

NB: Tense is one of the final things I decide on. I’ve re-written entire novels to change the tense. Present tense is not necessarily my default. The Lost Art of Thinking started in present tense and then moved to past tense. But for horror, I think present tense has often felt like the right choice because it doesn’t give away who might survive to tell the story; it creates a sense of the end of the novel being radically uncertain.

The work I’m currently developing is mostly told in present tense but moves repeatedly into future tense. It’s actually a past tense narrative, because we know from those moves into future tense that there is a moment beyond the story being told. But it remains in present tense because there’s something about the immediacy of the experiences I’m exploring that works best in that tense. It’s a novel about obsession, and present tense is, I think, very useful for communicating experiences that are totally consuming.

CS: In Sour Hall, George pretends the boggart doesn’t exist. In Exit Management, Lauren and Callum both pretend to be something they’re not. There’s a conflict between appearance and reality in many of your stories.

NB: I’m not a natural plotter. I don’t write in a plot-driven way. I work with settings and characters and ideas. But I’m interested in the things that people conceal from each other and the things they conceal from themselves. That trajectory is in all my work: a main character or several main characters who don’t have the language to express the things that trouble them or that have harmed them. So the way that I approach plotting is often to work with what is concealed: when I’m teaching, I often find myself saying that the most interesting thing about a character will be the thing that they can’t say to themselves.

CS: But there’s a lot of hope in your stories.

NB: I hope there’s an openness in my work. I spend a lot of time editing the endings of my fiction. Because my work deals with difficult subjects, such as violence and loss, and I’m prone to pessimism, I often have to work hard to make sure my endings aren’t too hopeless. I try to find the balance between hopelessness and possibility. If you seal something off too completely, if you make something too pitiless or too desperately optimistic – first of all, I don’t think that’s true and, secondly, the ending is the place where the reader takes over, where they create a sense of what might emerge from this mess the author has presented, so you have to leave the right kind of provocation for them to take over.

CS: How do you engage with politics?

NB: Eco-politics informs a lot of what I do, grappling with how we got where we are, how we manage this collective repression that many of us – myself included – go about in our day-to-day living, as though we’re not in an emergency situation. I’m interested in animating that question of how we exist in a world that we know is full of suffering, and what kind of thinking do we do to adapt to or to challenge the world around us.  

CS: Talk me through your writing and publishing history.

NB: During my MA, I spent several years writing 2000-word short stories: for a long time, I never thought I would write anything longer than 2,000 words! But I extended my work while doing a PhD, and on the basis of my short fiction, I got an agent. The short stories were taken as an indication that I might one day work on longer form fiction.

The first thing I published was The Lost Art of Sinking, a 24,000-word novella. It was published by an independent poetry press, Penned in the Margins. Sealed was written just after, quite quickly, in about nine months, and was hardly revised. Exit Management was a much longer journey. I had a rough version that I abandoned. When I went back to it, having not read it for two or three years, I saw it with fresh eyes. I gutted it and rewrote it, and was very glad that the earlier version hadn’t ever been published. Some books take a lot longer than others to mature, and for you to be able see how to revise them.  

It’s taken me about fifteen years of writing short fiction to publish a collection of short stories. Animals At Night will publish this year. None of my original short stories have survived in their initial forms, but the ideas behind them, the very first little stories that I wrote, have evolved into the stories in this collection.

CS: Do you have a writing routine?

NB: I find that each book, along with practical constraints, dictates its own routine. I wrote Sealed in 40-minute bursts before work each morning. Early morning writing hasn’t been possible for me since I had a child, but I’m now in the fortunate situation of having windows of time to write. I teach at Durham University, and I have portions of the year where I’m able to write. Still, there are whole stretches of the year where I don’t get to write, for work and family reasons. I find it useful now to think in terms of the span of a year: what can I achieve in a year? When in the year can I work? There’s a lot of value in fallow periods, I think, when ideas can gestate, I try to take heart in that when I haven’t written for several months.

CS: What was your experience writing Sour Hall?

NB: Audible employed an eminent professor of folk law, Carolyne Larrington, to identify folk tales that were at risk of dying out, and they commissioned women authors from around the United Kingdom and Ireland to write short stories based on those tales. I was given the folktale of the boggart, which is predominantly connected to Lancashire and Yorkshire. We were given absolute freedom with regards what to do with the original source material, which in my case was a newspaper report of a farmer fleeing a boggart. Virago created the print edition, and it was great to have a publisher with a feminist history making available the work of female writers who were revitalising these folk traditions. The story was then adapted by a brilliant script-writer, Laura Kirwan-Ashman, as an audio drama, and listening to her reimagining of the work was one of the best experiences of my writing life.   

CS: What does success look like for you?

NB: It means having the chance to continue to develop my work by writing different things. The chance to learn from the thing I just published in order to develop my craft, my scope and my thinking about writing. There are similarities among the pieces I’ve written, but they’re also all quite different, so being allowed to do new things—that feels like success to me. And while I’m sure every writer wants a sizeable readership, most important to me are those experiences where you feel like you’re being read carefully, where people give your books a generous and thorough reading, through reviews, or academic work, or just in conversation.


Interview: Eileen Myles

‘People go on these pilgrimages to become ‘other’ in order to become artists. I began other.’


Eileen Myles came to New York from Boston in 1974 to be a poet. Their books include For Now, I Must Be Living Twice/new and selected poems, and Chelsea Girls. Pathetic Literature which they edited, will be out for Grove Press in November 2022. Eileen has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and in 2021 was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts & Letters. They live in New York and Marfa, TX. 

I first met Eileen at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2017. I was working on a queer writing project at the time and a few months after our meeting, Eileen agreed to do a short interview about their then new book Afterglow: A Dog Memoir

Five years after our initial meeting, it was an absolute pleasure to sit down and chat with Eileen about life, writing and their new work. 

In For Now you describe literature as a profound aspect of wasting time, which is what my writing process looks like a lot of the time. I find it difficult to get anything on the page until I have edited it in my head. Do you have a preferred writing ritual, schedule or method?

I do and I don’t. In the past it was more structured: get up, do a little reading, exercise, meditate, begin to write, and that would be the perfect version. That has worked and sometimes, if I’m at an artist colony or a very closed situation, I still do that. For a while, if I was free or found myself actually thinking about writing, I would begin then. My willingness became so tricky that if I saw the horse, I had to jump on it immediately. Lately though, I have returned to something that looks like writing as the first thing possible. It requires a little bit of caffeine, but to really not even allow the morning reading – I’ve gone through structures of getting up quite early and beginning to write before it even seems like I have a consciousness. I find that is really good, because there is actually a lot more there than I would have guessed. I do find that more than anything, consistency is the best thing. No matter when I’m writing, whether it’s first thing or later in the day, what matters is that I do it every day to stay in the world of it. I find breaks are the hardest thing; you have to become that person again.

Do you feel that your poems must be spoken/performed to be understood in the way that you intended? Does that matter or is each person’s interpretation of the words as valid?

No, it doesn’t matter to me. I mean, I think that those of us who love poetry know that you want to get the breath of the poet. If I love somebody’s work, I go out of my way to hear them because I want to put a body and a voice onto the work, but I feel like the work has to exist in both fashions – in all fashions. I think it’s so interesting that a lot of my books are now audiobooks. It’s so much fun to make an audiobook. To take something that you’ve written over a long period of time and then spend three days in the studio with somebody, reading it to them and hearing it in its entirety, it’s such a pleasure. It’s anti time in a way, because when I write a book, I do assemble it as if the person were going to read it straight through, but I know that very few do read that way. The recording is absolutely that, it is a straight through reading of it. I think that the real pleasure is understanding that your writing has become an audio file that can now be unleashed in all kinds of settings all over the world – when somebody I don’t know tells me they have been painting or creating while listening to my work, or travelling cross country while listening to my work, I feel so honoured and so delighted. As postmodern writers and artists we are doing something that’s partial. We are well aware that it is never a total work and it doesn’t fill all the pores. You’re writing in relationship to everything in the room and all the rooms you’ve been in and all the media that exists, and so to realise that your work is received in that way is so wild and fresh. 

Are there any compromises you made that you regret regarding your work? Anything you would have done differently?

I don’t think so. Writing a book is when I have that fear. Right now, I’m writing a book and I’m working on a section, and my hope is that this will be a very big book. 

I have never ‘sold a book’ in advance of writing and yet I feel like just the thought of having the gun of time to my head, in terms of somebody else’s reception and what I would get if they receive it well, that is kind of a compromise. Just today I was thinking, what if I told a publisher – actually, I can’t give you this for another year. 

I mean, what would they do? Would they take away my right to write? 

The work has to be that radical. I’m really against rushing. I write fast though that’s just a hunk of words, but then where do they go? That’s where the whole editing process comes in. I’m very effusive as a writer, but that still doesn’t mean the process is quick in any way. At least three times, I’ve taken ten years on a book. The book I’m working on now, I conceived of it in 2013 and wrote a little bit of it that year, so supposedly nine years have already passed on this book, but I didn’t really start writing it until the pandemic. It’s very glacial, my process, and that seems important. 

Being mixed race, working class and a lesbian there were many spaces I felt othered in when I was growing up. I distinctly remember feeling the class divide at university and trying to change my voice to fit in. I think the answer will be ‘no’, but did you ever feel the need to assimilate in your younger years?

You’re right, no. But I’m sure that I did in certain ways because I’m human, and you always want to get into ‘the club’, whatever it is. I feel like when I learned what people were reading, I began to read that, you know? In lots of settings, even when I began to write, I felt like I knew nothing about it. When I began to write about art, I felt like I knew nothing about art and so I felt I was very much tracing the influences and reading the press releases like, ‘ok now I have to read this.’ I don’t work like that anymore. 

The greatest way I felt my class is that I didn’t know anybody. I came to New York and I didn’t know anybody. What I slowly discovered, especially through girlfriends, is that people had gone to good schools, the same schools. These people were in New York with people they had gone to high school with, so there was a long assurance of them being talented insiders who knew people. The fact of not knowing anybody made me even more of an outsider. If anything, I think I was a little braggy. I think I did the opposite of assimilating; making much out of the fact that I worked in bars, that I was working class. 

People go on these pilgrimages to become ‘other’ in order to become artists and I began other. There was less of a sense that I had to get some dirt on me, I began with the dirt.  

Who are the lesbian writers that interest you?

Renee Gladman, I love her work, I think about it. We don’t see each other very often but I feel that there is a kinship and an excitement about her work. British poet Sophie Robinson is a writer whose work is very important to me. Birhan Keskin’s Y’ol is an amazing book about love and lovers and loss. She’s gigantic for me. Camille Roy’s recent book Honey Mine is really great. Historically, Violette Leduc’s La Batarde is one of my favourite books – but I don’t necessarily think that much about these people being lesbians, it’s more that their work means so much to me.

The term ‘lesbian’ writer brings me onto my next question. Labels. Labels such as gay, black, woman are always attached to a writer unless, of course, you’re a cis man, in which case you’re just ‘a writer’. You’ve previously been described as a Rock & Roll icon and lesbian icon – how do you feel about these labels?

The closer you get to a world that’s your own, the less they apply and exist, but it’s almost like as you get into the ‘larger world,’ they seem to thrive on those. I was called ‘punk poet’ in a review in 2000 and ever since then, I have been a punk poet. I mean, one of my least favourite phrases is ‘bad-ass’ – what does it even mean? We don’t just get queer or lesbian labels, it’s female. Men are not bad-ass, they just are supposed to be rough and strong and rowdy – well at least that’s one of the versions of what they are supposed to be. Labels are a corrective. They are always preceded by this silent utterance of ‘this is not what a lady should be’. I had a poetry collection come out a few years back and the review didn’t mention the work. It just talked about me in terms of culture – they referred to my earliest work as very ‘bad-ass.’ I was in my 60s, with my selected poems, and they were talking about things I had done in my 20s – all they had to say about me was what I looked like. It’s weird though, because labels can also mean that kids who are looking for their ‘kind’ will find us.

I think it is brilliant how you are constantly using your platform online to promote and raise awareness – most recently the dog shelter and East River Park campaigns – do you feel that with having an online presence comes a responsibility, and how do you feel about that? 

Having an online presence is akin to having a reputation or a version of fame. There are writers who are unwilling to be on social media, who regard it as a waste of time or beneath them. I think they are completely right, but for me, I think that those things (social media platforms) came into being at a time when I was getting more attention and it was very interesting to use them as an artist, first. 

I was in New York, I had a new dog who had huge amounts of energy, and we began walking. It was this wonderful experience of documenting, which lead directly to East River Park. Whereas in the past, I had gone to the park specifically to run or meet people for walks, my new dog meant that we were down at the river every single day, going over bridges I had never gone over and really exploring the park and getting to know it. I was using the camera on the phone to take pictures. I’ve always liked taking pictures but never had a way of sharing them and so using Instagram gave me this tool to show what I love and how I love. I’m a very visual writer and so for me it was interesting because it was like a consciousness working through all this different media, and it was really fun to write in pictures for the first time. Then several years later, when I realised this park that I love was endangered and I had these thousands of followers, I thought ‘we can mobilise’ and we created marches for the park. That was really amazing. 

The ways in which a city can be a killing machine of all kinds has become abundantly clear to me now: killing the underclass, killing nature, killing trees, killing animals – anything that can’t be monetised. It’s funny, I think to myself, ok, if I’ve become someone ‘famous’, someone with a lot of followers, I should be able to use that to do something. What’s interesting is, that isn’t always the case. Right up until they were chopping down the trees in the park, no magazines or papers, some of which have asked me to write about their topics, would let me write about mine. It’s been an education, but I still feel good about it. Self-promotion is the exception for me on social media and not the rule and that makes me feel excited about the medium still. 

The flip side of having social media, is the desire to get rid of it, stop it completely. I feel like that would be an anti-studio, a new place to write – a world that doesn’t have those tendrils. I think that’s very exciting and I don’t know when I’m ever going to exercise that option, if ever, but it looms. 

What are you working on at the moment? You mentioned a big project, can you elaborate?

I have an anthology coming out in November called Pathetic Literature which is something I’ve been interested in for a long time – to reimagine the pathetic. There are 105 writers in it and it’s going to be a very exciting book. 

Then I have a novel that I began in 2013 called All My Loves. I am so formed by the people I have been involved with, sexually of course, but I mean little things – like composting! My last girlfriend composted, and I had never thought of doing it, had no interest in it and now, I compost. The whole process became interesting to me. Everybody who I’ve ever been involved with is with me in some way. That idea was the inception of the book, but it’s spread into other topics too. I decided the book would be large, so decided to throw the idea of love, larger – to make it very wide in terms of what love means. I think the book is becoming a kind of cabinet for all sorts of things. The challenge will be to make this piece of furniture something that is accessible, while still being weird. 



Photo by Eileen Myles.

Interview: KASIM ALI

I’m interviewing Kasim Ali the day after his debut novel, Good Intentions, is published. Having just finished reading the book, I’m keen to discuss its wide ranging themes with Kasim. It’s principally a story about first love, from the perspective of Nur, a young British Muslim man, but takes on urgent topics from racism to anxiety to the importance of family and trust.  

We speak via Zoom, where Kasim’s a friendly, energetic and enthusiastic conversationalist. He’s so easy to talk to and generous with his thoughts that we speak for well over our allotted hour – roving beyond the scope of my questions to the gift he bought for himself to celebrate the publication Good Intentions (“I kid you not, the biggest fucking desk I could buy!”) to representation in publishing, contemporary Muslim identity, the way writing is perceived as a career choice in the UK, to his publication day treat (an afternoon off to see the new Batman film).

Published by 4th Estate, Good Intentions is out now. 


SD: I want to say straight off how much I enjoyed Good Intentions – it was really thought provoking on a whole range of themes. Could you talk a bit about the book’s evolution?


KA: Thank you… I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I had the idea of exploring anti-Blackness in mind for a really long time. The community I come from in Birmingham is very South Asian, majority Pakistani, all Muslim, so I grew up surrounded by people who looked like me. I never felt that alienation that I know a lot of people who are not white specifically do feel when they’re growing up. But [when] I got to secondary school, there was an influx of Somali families – and they were also Muslim, so they went to the mosque with us, prayed with us, partook in Ramadan and Eid – but they were not South Asian, they were Black. And that’s when I started seeing a lot of anti-Black sentiments from my community. And when I was a kid – it’s hard for me to say – but I never really thought anything of it. It just happened around me. [As] a kid, you’re not really questioning a lot. I had this friend, she and I were very close, and one day I was walking her to her bus stop after school. And my mum drove past and I recognized her license plate and I thought Oh shit, she’s seen me with the girl. She’s gonna think we’re dating. So I get home and my mum inevitably asked the question, who was that? So I say she’s my friend, don’t worry about it, we’re just friends. She’s silent for a second, and then – I remember this so vividly – she says You shouldn’t hang out with girls like that. At the time, I was maybe twelve or thirteen, I thought she meant girls outside my family – I’d been told Muslims don’t date. It was only years later, when I was at university retelling the story, a friend said, she was being racist – it’s because she was a Black girl. It destroyed me a little bit to think it was true, but at the same time, it was a sort of epiphany. I started thinking about all the other stuff that people in my community were saying about Black people, and the way we discuss them, talk to them, treat them. So the idea of anti-Blackness in South Asian communities has been on my mind for about ten years. I always thought I would explore it, or at least I thought it should be explored in, like, a really academic way that can look at colonialism and the Empire and trace the narrative of where this is coming from, and what we should be doing. I never thought I was smart enough for something like that, so I was just waiting for somebody a lot smarter than me, more academic than me, to write this kind of book. 

And then two things happened. Number one, I watched Master of None on Netflix, [with Aziz Ansari]… and I got really annoyed, because Netflix is huge. [Ansari is] a huge comedian. And he had an opportunity to portray Muslims as being varied, nuanced, complex. But actually, what he did was portray Muslims as people who don’t really like their religion. [Ansari’s protagonist] spends a lot of time in the first season, you know, drinking alcohol and eating bacon, and he doesn’t really pray, and he has sex with white women. This is the same old stuff that we’ve been fed all this time – that in order to assimilate, you have to abandon your religion and your culture. And that’s just never been true for me. [For] my family, and the people that I surround myself with, we are Muslim and we are British – and those two identities coexist. 

And then I watched The Big Sick [written by Pakistani-American comedian and writer Kumail Ali Nanjiani]. And objectively, it might be a good film, but I was really frustrated with the way that Kumail portrayed his family, and brown women specifically. Why does every interracial relationship have to be a white person plus a non-white person?  I’ve seen interracial relationships of black and brown, or a brown person and an East Asian person, or a black person plus an Asian person – I’ve seen so many of those iterations and they’re so much more interesting to me. 

So in March 2019, I said fuck it, I’m going to write this, and I’m going to write the version of this story that I want to see. So I’m going to write about Muslims who find a space for themselves within Islam. [When] I look back now, I was really grappling with a lot.

SD: What was your ultimate aim in telling the story ‘warts and all’ – with all its aspects of shame and awkwardness and taboo?

KA: Authenticity is something I was striving for, throughout the entire process. It was the thing I felt was missing from Master of None and The Big Sick – they weren’t authentic, to me… they didn’t feel like my kind of story. I wanted to write a book that felt sincere and genuine to the world that I come from, and the life that I’ve lived – messy and complicated. Sometimes, when we talk about representation, we talk about wanting the most positive iteration of representation. But while I understand that there is a need to portray Muslims as being good, wholesome people, that’s not actually what we all are. There are lots of Muslims who are incredibly strong in their faith, living their lives according to Islam, and they’re really happy doing that. [But] there are loads of Muslims like me – I don’t pray, I can’t remember the last time I touched the Quran – you know, I fast and I celebrate Eid, but it’s a balance. It’s true of me right now that I am not a “good Muslim”. So I really wanted to write about a flawed Muslim, someone not the perfect iteration of themselves. And that’s the whole point of the book – while Nur has these good intentions, he’s not perfect. I really wanted to present that idea of a complex Muslim character: you may not agree with the decisions that he makes, but you can appreciate this is what he would do in those moments.

SD: Yes, he’s very believable. Nur has to face some really difficult facts about his own prejudice in the story. I thought your depiction of relationships, especially as they live and breathe through dialogue, was really authentic – your characters come alive on the page. Are any of them based on real people?


KA: I’ve never dated a Black girl. That relationship is pure imagination. The other relationships… there’s some wish fulfillment: I [wrote] about the kind of male friendship I wish I’d had – as intimate and vulnerable and open and honest as my female friendships. I wanted to write about male friendship because I find it really interesting, and I think it’s something we don’t often read about. Saara is based on me at university. I was that person who gave big speeches at parties about, like, the Palestine-Israel conflict. People would be like, whoa, it’s 10pm, everyone’s chillin, don’t do this. But that was me. Me and my really good friend, she would talk about feminism, I’d talk about Islam. I’m almost mocking myself… I was so serious [at university]. Saara is very cool, and she knows everyone, and she demands respect and attention wherever she goes… that was not me [laughs]. 

SD: I saw on Twitter recently that you were highlighting the work of non-white male writers – do you worry that male writers of colour are missing out in favour of women at the moment?

KA: It’s an interesting conversation because I also work in publishing. So I’m coming at it from both ends. This is my perspective: there are lots of older white male writers who are doing splendidly, earning lots of money and selling lots of books. But where are the younger male writers? And more specifically, where are those younger male writers who are writing literary fiction in the vein of Sally Rooney, or Candice Carty Williams, Megan Nolan, and so on? And then to drill down even more, where are the young, non-white male writers who are writing in that space? Candice Carty Williams has done incredibly well with Queenie, and deservedly so – but it’s fascinating to me that we don’t have a non-white male equivalent writing in that kind of space. So when I wrote the list for Bad Form, I was coming at it from a selfish perspective, because I was looking at all these [new publications for] 2022 lists, and wondering, why is my book not appearing on this list, and that list? As I was perusing these lists, I realised there’s lots of women – where are the men? But also, non-white men? Do we not exist? At first, [the Bad Form piece] was just an elevation, it was just me wanting to find these writers, and make lists that anybody could access and go and buy their book if it interests them. But now it’s become a broader part of my work – let’s have a discussion; is publishing doing enough to bring those writers in? Clearly, it’s not, but how do you bring those writers in? Who is gatekeeping? 

SD: Talking of Sally Rooney… how do you feel about being described as her male equivalent [in a Times headline in February]?

KA: Terrified! I haven’t processed it. It’s fascinating and terrifying and exciting and joyous… all the emotions! I don’t know – it’s such a big compliment. I’m so glad that the reviews are good. Obviously, you worry as an author that people might not like your work. And I am so grateful for the team I have, the editors and the publicists, for doing all that they’ve done for this book. I’m immensely grateful to be in this position, because I know it doesn’t happen to everybody. 

SD: I’m keen to talk to you about regional representation. As a northerner myself, it was a real pleasure to read a book about urban people that doesn’t even mention London – I don’t think London comes up even once. Was that deliberate?

KA: Absolutely. Here’s the thing. London is not the UK. London is not the UK! It’s as simple as that. When I was writing this, I said, I’m not touching London – not going to go there, not going to talk about it, it’s not going to be one of my characters’ aspiration to move to London. I come from Birmingham and I have family who live in Bradford and Nottingham and Sheffield and Derby and Leicester and Liverpool – all over the place. And it just baffles me: why are we so hyper-focused on London, when there’s so much more happening across the whole country? To be very simplistic about it, it’s just stupid. We’re not all people in London. We exist all across the country. I know what it feels like to be from Birmingham… people always talk about how Birmingham is like, the shittest city in England, with the worst accent. I’m like, Have you ever been to Birmingham? It’s filled with so much beauty and art and creative talent, and there’s so many interesting things happening there all the time. So when I was writing, my attitude was very much fuck London, as a place of importance. 

SD: Right on! Being from Liverpool, I really relate. Can we talk about mental illness? I think the book contributes in a really positive way to the cultural conversation about mental health. It was really interesting to read about a central male protagonist with mental health issues, because we don’t read so much about male mental health. Was it important to you to break down some of those barriers? 

KA: Yeah, a hundred percent. When I wrote the book, I actually worked for an independent publisher, Trigger, who publish mental health non-fiction, so I learned a lot about mental health there. I’ve dealt with stress and anxiety and a little bit of depression, nothing to the level of Nur, but it’s been a factor in my life. And as I’ve learned about it, as I’ve grown up and learned the language in which to talk about my own mental health, I realised that there are many people in my family, both men and women, who have gone through the same things, but they don’t talk about it. So I wanted to talk about it from a South Asian perspective, but also from a male perspective. It was really important to me to have specifically a South Asian man talk about this thing that affects so many people – so many people, I think nearly everyone in the whole world – and yet, bizarrely, we just don’t want to talk about it.  

SD: On the question of selfhood in the 21st century: one thing I took from the book is how much more complicated it can be for the children of immigrants – this dual identity. To what extent do you think Nur’s experiences is universal, within the male Muslim context? 

KA: He does have a universal experience in terms of parents, and their expectations. Specifically for South Asians. When I talk to white British friends of mine, their parents are quite relaxed – they’re involved in their children’s lives, and they care about their children, but they’re a little bit detached. When I talk to my non-white friends who are children of immigrants, their parents are intimate, close, they’re asking questions all the time… some of my friends are 28, 29, and still live at home with their parents because they haven’t got married yet. So it’s interesting to see that divide. It’s very specific to immigrant experience. There’s a point where Nur is talking about his dad: the fact that his dad came over to England when he was just a kid, and he didn’t know the language – and how hard it is for [Nur] to relate to that. There’s that sense of owing something to the people who came before you.. that you should be grateful, and you owe them your whole life. It messes with your mind, because quite often you’re thinking about the decisions you’re making in your life not as your decisions but as their decisions. [But] I do think people who don’t come from Nur’s background, whether they are white British, or different kinds of non-white person, I think they can relate to him. Because we’ve all had those conversations with our parents, we’ve all been in situations where we’re hiding something from them, or disappointing them. It’s interesting, because [when] I wrote this I was writing it just for myself. But in reading it back, I’m like, this book is kind of for everyone, everyone can see something in it that they can relate to. 

SD: What’s your next book about?

KA: I actually wrote book two before we sold book one, which is such a great thing that I did for myself, because now I don’t need to think about writing it! It’s about friendship. I wanted specifically to write about the breakup of a friendship and how that can really impact your life. I think that friendships are really, really important. I often feel we give romantic breakups this huge space in society and culture. We’re constantly talking about them, and every song is about love and breaking up with the person you love, and all that kind of stuff. When I’ve been through a friendship breakup, it’s kind of devastated me and broken me for a little while – those are things that I’ve had to work on to get past – so I wanted to write about that, because it’s really important to me to portray something like that. And once again, it uses a non-linear timeline. I guess I have a thing!

Sarah Davies is a London-based writer from Liverpool, currently studying for her Masters in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, while also working as a freelance arts and culture specialist.  Her fiction often explores invisible power dynamics and the unsaid.  Her short story The 662 was published by Five on the Fifth, which you can read here, and she tweets as @DesiaVarsha.


“That Really Happened”: An interview with T.S. Eliot Prize Winner Joelle Taylor by Amy Ridler

Joelle Taylor is an award-winning poet and author. She founded SLAMbassadors, the UK national youth poetry slam championships, as well as the international spoken-word project Borderlines. She is a co-curator and host of Out- Spoken Live, the UK’s premier poetry and music club, currently resident at the Southbank Centre. She is the commissioning editor at Out- Spoken press 2020 – 2022. Her poetry collection C+NTO & Othered Poems was published in June 2021 and is the subject of Radio 4 arts documentary Butch. C+NTO, named by The Telegraph, The New Statesman, The White Review & Times Literary Supplement as one of the best poetry books of 2021, won the T.S Eliot prize in January 2022. 


Joelle is reading from her T.S Eliot prize winning book, C+NTO, at Waterstones Gower street in two hours. We order our drinks at a pub close by and find a quiet corner. As always, her energy is electric…

AR: How does it feel? Has it sunk in yet?

JT: It comes in tides, it’s a bit like the sea. When it was first announced it was just pure shock, followed by elation, and then a little bit more shock. I’ve just been carried away by the waves of various interviews and suddenly there is a real validation, a real joy in being interviewed by well-known media outlets. I was in a bit of a bubble and then I stepped away and, well I’m still in shock. But really enjoying it. 

On my way here today to meet you, and every so often since it has been announced, I have a moment where I just stop and think… ‘Yes. I did. That actually happened.’ 

It’s pure joy, and not just for me. I’m still getting a lot of messages from butch women, and different members of the queer community getting in touch and then, of course, there is the outpouring of love from the spoken word community. 

AR: When the news was announced, Twitter was blowing up – my feed was filled with the news. Has the spotlight been a bit overwhelming or are you relishing it?

JT: It was a completely overwhelming experience but in the best possible way. I did panic a bit. I’m used to attention because I am a performer, I am on stage, but I can control that attention. It’s always been very controllable – whoever the audience is in the room and then maybe a smattering of people on social media, but this was crazy! It spooks me that I haven’t been able to respond to everybody. Even good friends of mine. I’ll be walking down the street and suddenly realise – I haven’t replied to them yet! 

It was coming at me from every angle. In a sense it would be more tangible if it was 30 years ago and there was a knock on the door and I got 4 boxes of mail, you know? That would have been more tangible – easier to deal with, you could separate it all out and work through it. But I’m not complaining. I did a lot of crying, it was very moving. It has been a magnificent connecting experience.

AR: C+NTO not only brings visibility, but makes it impossible for butch identity, and in a wider context, lesbian history and experience, to be ignored. I remember seeing you perform at your Songs My Enemy Taught Me launch and thinking, I HAVE TO WRITE ABOUT THIS. I got in touch and you very kindly sent me some of your writing, including a section of C+NTO. I did write about it – I named the final chapter of my dissertation ‘Our Whole Lives Are Protests.’

Your work is so important- I imagine there has been an outpouring of support from lesbians around the globe – what’s that like? 

JT: It’s been amazing. I knew I was likely to get online abuse – I’m talking about butch women. It’s a historical piece as you know and I thought to myself, I’m writing this book, and I need to be honest. Honest about what it was like, and what it feels like for me, but I wanted to be fairly nebulous in the sense that I want a universal. I want anybody that feels they don’t fit their body to find their place in it. Anybody who has ever had a friendship or a loved a friend whose known that amazing sense of radical community to find their space within my book. 

Right from the start, I went out on the road with it. Taking something out there is the antithesis of Twitter – everyone is in the room with you. Every flavour of the LGBT+ community is in the room with you and they are all responding in the same way. All so full of love and joy, even though it is an incredibly depressing piece, but because we don’t get to hear it spoken about; that’s what gives you the sense of joy. It’s giving the voice to something that isn’t spoken about in mainstream culture. It’s been incredibly supportive. 

I know what I’m writing about, and I think a real book is not meant to be instructive, it sets the scene, asks a couple of questions, maybe a couple of declamations, and then you do the rest of the work. The responses have been amazing – young butch femme couples are reaching out. The looks on their faces in the audience! I’m an elder, for me it’s really important that this hidden culture, this much maligned culture – because its women – is being elevated, even just a little bit, again and reinvestigated, particularly by younger communities, so that we have the sense of who we all are. I didn’t write the book with any political aim, I wrote it because I was full of grief. I wanted to talk about my friends and I wanted to talk about another grief, which is walking around London and seeing nowhere we used to have. We have 1 bar. People say, ‘there’s a few lesbian bars around’ – there is 1. 1 left. Our bars were our homes, our community centres in a lot of respects. People want these spaces, they want to create those spaces again – including sober spaces.

AR: I have been showing videos of your poems in classrooms around London for a long time, but to be able to talk about your work with students, and tell them that you won the prize – just in time for LGBT+ history month – was amazing. 

One of my students said that seeing someone who looks like you, makes her want to take her creative writing more seriously because, ‘people like us are going places.’ She’s sent me 2 short stories since. Visibility is so important. If you could have seen someone who looks like you when you were a teenager, writing and performing, what would that have meant? 

JT: That is incredible. It would have shortcut 30 years of journeying, much of which was full of obstacles because of the way I look. It would have meant I could have been myself instead of everyday getting up, trying to look like someone who should be in school in a workshop. That was the biggest panic for me, everyday – that’s why way into my 40s I am still dressing like a punk! I couldn’t find a way of looking that was normal, that was me. 

To be able to shortcut that I think is a real power. 

It would have meant I had someone to really relate to. To argue with and to not be like, because it’s really important that whilst we respect our elders and what they’ve done, we also find what they didn’t do, and make sure we work on that for the next generation to find fault with. That’s the way we develop and evolve. 

I think one of the things I’ve been thinking and talking about – how it used to be. When you went into the pubs, people think it was just like popping into any bar – It wasn’t. It was like going somewhere and being met. Greeted by someone who knew you, as you walked in the room, even if you had never met before. You’re young, and some elder butch would come over and welcome you in, make sure you were sat alright and keep their eye on you, to make sure you’re safe and welcomed – because the welcome is such an important part of a culture that is despised. Suddenly, you’re outside the door and you’re hated, by family, friends, society, and inside the door you are welcomed. This incredible shift, created by 3 inches of wood. Those figures are so important, not just when you are young and new to scene, but all the time. My friend Roman is still that person for me, and for a lot of people. Roman remembers. Roman remembers the old ways and is passing them down. 

AR: Who are your go to poets, either poets that have inspired your work OR new poets who you think are shining?

JT: There is some brilliant writing out there. I am hugely inspired by Danez Smith. I was lucky enough to be able to bring Danez over from the states for Outspoken a few years ago, to perform. Don’t Call Us Dead had just come out, it was a really amazing incredible performance- the books incredible, the writing, the passion, the power, the uncompromising nature of all of Danez’s work. I’m part of the spoken word Slam community, and there has been links with Danez for a long time, since they were a kid – they wouldn’t have necessarily known who I was, but I’ve always known who they were, through young slam projects. 

What inspires me is the way they balance between spoken word and the page. It’s that balance. 

Equally, Sam Sax. Kaddish is a superb performance, the writing is off the hook. I’ve had dinner with Sam Sax and they are an exceptionally lovely human.

Fatima Asghar, If They Should Come For Us is one of the best poems that I use in workshops, its beautiful. 

Momtaza Mehri, is going to knock everybody sideways – absolutely stunning writing, her poem Glory Be To The Gang Gang Gang is the best praise poem that’s ever been written. She just does this thing that mixes working class, Muslim and Somalian identities together to create something that’s very new, very fresh. Academic but kind of street. Antony Anaxagorou because he challenges me every day. I can list poets for hours! I’ve just done a list of my 5 LGBT+ poetry collections and it’s actually very difficult to find women who are writing these ground breaking books. Where is Adrienne Rich? Where is Audre Lord? Who are they? Caroline Bird has written some of the most amazing poetry around lesbian subjects, particularly Dive Bar, about Gateways. It’s astonishing. I love it. I’m just very lucky to be inspired by listening to different voices every day and I think there are some really interesting non-binary and trans voices coming through. 

AR: Does this recognition feel like an honour to the community, and more specifically to the women who influenced your work? It was already an honour to the community, but has the level of publicity that comes with the prize elevated that?

JT: Absolutely. It feels like a memorial to them. There are far more than I listed in the book. I made a little list on my phone. Obviously I never tell people their real names, but there is a huge long list. It’s not just for the 4 women I talk about – they are amalgamations of people, plus me, I am in every character as well – it’s for people who aren’t explicitly talked about in the book. What I’ve been getting in the feedback is that it feels like that for a lot of people, about their friends. 

It’s about grief and loss as much as it’s about butch culture. I think I was trying to get across – and what comes across stronger in the stage play –  is the particular grief of how butch women die. I talk about specific instances in the book – violence, drug abuse, alcoholism, suicide, as well as corrective rape and getting battered. There is a real grief in not being able to control our bodies, even after death. It bears reminding younger LGBT+ people that its only very recently that if I suddenly die, my wife can inherit my money. Those things don’t seem to matter when you’re younger, but when you get older, you start thinking: who IS going to look after me? Where am I going to go? And of course, many gay people don’t have that. Some of us lost our families very young, and many still do, in that sense of exile. It has been a memorial, not just for those mentioned but for a lot of butch women, and gay people in general. 

AR: If someone had told you, when you first started out, that in 2022 you would win the TS Eliot prize – what would you have said?

JT: Oh man, have I got to wait that long!? (Ha). 

No, If someone had told me when I was 22 that I would win this in 2022… It is absolutely mind blowing. 

Because I’m from a working-class community, I have two sets of friends. One set is all about poetry and literature, they really get the enormity. The other is all about who we are and where we’re from – and that means when you get something like the Eliot’s or the Booker, or anything like that, whilst your working-class friends are pleased for you, they’re not that involved. They haven’t dreamt of winning the Eliot prize, but they have all been there for me 100%, and I’ve been really really grateful. 

AR: What’s next? 

JT: I’m doing a lot of touring! I’m off to Australia for a month and it will be the 3rd time I’ve toured across Australia. I’m touring to less places this time, but the size of the events are considerably different. I’m doing Adelaide Writers Week at the beginning, which I’ve done before and it is one of the best festivals I’ve ever been to. From there, we go to Melbourne, for one night only at the wheeler centre, which I’m really excited about because it’s a place I haven’t toured. It is also the home of Butch Is Not a Dirty Word magazine, and the home of a vibrant lesbian culture, so I’m told. Then I finish with 2 events at Sydney Opera house. The tour is threaded together with about eight performances, panels and masterclasses, most of them are remote because it’s difficult to travel across states. Then, when I come back, I’m taking up a poetry fellowship at the University of East Anglia, where I will be terrifying students as much as possible (Ha!). I’m doing a residency for Liverpool University for a week, then off to Finland, Belfast, and Edinburgh International Book Festival. 

BUT really, the real work is that I am finishing The Night Alphabet, the book that I started in 2018 AND I’ve been commissioned to write my memoirs. 

…and the big big big BIG thing is that C+NTO has been adapted to a 2 hour live musical stage show. We did a section of it in November and we are trying to find a home. I still need to do some work on it, but the aim is that by the end of this year that will be done, ready to tour in 2023. It has the most amazing actors in it, I play Jack Catch. It’s going to have a lot of circus skills in it, and inside vitrines, maybe some DJs from the bell, the door of Gateways, a cigarette burning – So, I’m trying to bring the book alive. I’ve changed the story slightly, to make it clearer, but you’ll have to come and see.

The atmosphere at the Gower street event, reflects the excitement that has been buzzing in the LGBT+ community since the prize was announced. Joelle steps out on stage, impeccably dressed, and the applause is overwhelming. Sitting amongst the people in this audience feels like community. It feels like coming home.

Amy Ridler is  a writer and English teacher in East London, where she runs the LGBT+ society. She has written about her experiences as an ‘out’ teacher, most recently in a chapter entitled ‘Miss, are you part of LGBT?’ for Big Gay Adventures in Education, which was published by Routledge in 2021. She has worked with the queer, feminist Live Art Theatre company Carnesky Productions as an associate artist since 2009 and continues to be a member of the company’s advisory board. She is currently an MA Creative Writing student at Birkbeck.
Twitter: @amy_ridler