Have you rebelled against someone else’s dreary expectations of your life, and become something more unexpected?
Maybe my writing life is pretty dreary? I’m not sure, though it feels like it sometimes… all those hours in front of a screen stressing over bloody words!
Thinking about it though, any dreary expectations in the past were probably all my own… my early life was pretty blighted by fear – of my sexuality, of being different, bookish, the ‘clever one’ – none of which was easy growing up where and when I did. I could’ve easily given in to my own ‘mind-forged manacles’ but, thankfully, there have been moments when I’ve rebelled against those fears and moved towards possibility and opportunity. In every case, these leaps of faith have been fuelled by a potent mixture of grief and love – the two strongest and most complex emotions I know.
What in your life can you point to and say, like Frankie, ‘I Did It My Way’?
I have made some big, impulsive decisions and important choices to bring me to where I am right now in my life – thankfully, it’s all worked out so far… I’ve always, I’m glad to say, followed my heart. I never imagined I’d live anywhere other than the UK, for instance, and I moved to Lisbon for love, which is the best reason to do anything! I used to think that people who had no regrets lacked imagination – like you couldn’t envision having done things better in the past – but now I think regret doesn’t have to be a part of that realisation, especially with things you can’t change. I used to regret not coming out sooner (I was 23) because I missed out on so many of the normal teenage love and sex experiences and it was in many ways a very unhappy period for me… now, I just accept that as it is and regret has evaporated.
What creative achievements are you most proud of?
I think just not giving up is the thing I’m most proud of – that, and actually managing to finish things, especially when the amount of work involved, the level of ambition, and all the time it’s going to take, hit home. I’ve just had my debut novel published at the grand old age of 51 and there have been a fair few struggles, setbacks, and rejections along the way. I never really knew if getting published was something that would happen, and I take nothing for granted. I’m currently quite tangled up in the early drafts of my next novel and struggling to make some coherent sense of it. All creativity is an act of faith, I think – in yourself, in the work, and in the wider world. Getting my Creative Writing PhD was nice, too…
If there was one event in your life which really shaped you, made you the person you are today, what would it be?
I would have to say my coming out, which happened in two phases. The first was to friends when I was 23, folowing the death of another close friend, and the second to my family, aged 25, because I was madly in love and felt invincible. Repressing yourself in this way is one of the most suffocating, damaging, and traumatic thing you can do to yourself and coming out doesn’t solve everything, but at least you’re living your life more fully. I say it happened in two phases, but as lots of LGBT people know, we keep having to come out many times in new and various social and professional situations. Sometimes it feels easy peasy, other times still not, after all this time. You can spend your whole life unravelling this stuff.
If you had to make a song or rap boasting about your irresistible charm and sexiness, how would you describe yourself?
Hmm… I wouldn’t want it to be all just about me me me, and then someone else could the boasting for me. I guess I could do a duet with Frank Ocean in which he expresses an undying admiration for my various parts and describes in detail how he wants to fill my bussy all night long, etc, etc… is that the kind of thing you mean?
Have you ever made material sacrifices because of your integrity?
I have, yes, though I know it’s a luxury not everyone can afford. After 15 years as a university lecturer I gave up my secure, relatively well-paid position to focus on my own writing life. It has never once felt like a sacrifice – in fact, over time I’d come to feel I was sacrificing myself to the job. I made this decision following a couple of big family bereavements, and the impulse to assess my own life straight afterwards. These things have to mean something and are an appropriate catalyst for possible change. Now, as a freelancer, I’m much less secure financially but more creatively productive and quite a lot happier, which is what integrity feels like, I suppose. I was lucky to go to university when there were no fees to pay and I was given a full grant because my mum and dad had no spare money with which to support me. I worked hard at school because I got a fair bit of praise for it, and school was my sanctuary in some ways. Safety nets are important, but only you can throw yourself into the air and see if you fly. Having come from not very much, I know I can survive back there again.
Describe a public personality who exemplifies everything you’d like to be yourself, then another public personality who incarnates everything you’d least like to be.
Toni Morrison, who passed away recently, was for a long time my primary examplar of creative and personal integrity. The beauty, originality, and ethics of her work are things I have admired since I first starting reading her books, twenty-odd years ago. If I could achieve a fraction of any of that I’ll be delighted. She’ll always be a touchstone for me. If anyone is going to take on that mantle, I have a feeling it might be the American writer, Garth Greenwell, whose writing around gay male sexuality, desire, and emotion, as well as his depictions of gay sex itself, are breathtaking and unparalleled. He’s also a passionate advocate for integrity in writing, unashamedly ‘literary,’ and one of the best makers of sentences around.
In terms of the opposite, there are so many to choose from these days… I’ll pick Graham Linehan. Famous for co-writing Father Ted, he’s become a major anti-Trans rights campaigner, using his Twitter platform to insult, abuse, scaremonger, and disseminate dangerous misinformation about some of the most vulnerable people in our society, actively making their lives harder and putting them even more at risk. So much of the spurious rhetoric he and his ilk use – the “we must protect our children” stuff – I’ve heard my whole life used against the LGBT community as we’ve fought for the rights that have only ever been granted incrementally, after having to witness them being up for discussion. I live in a country which, like Ireland and Denmark to name just two, has gender self-identification enshrined in law and, of course, the sky has not fallen in and there has been no encroachment on women’s rights or freedoms as a result. Of course, it’s very difficult to fight bigotry with this kind of logic, but I’ll keep banging on about it as much as I need to.
If you were an Egyptian pharoah and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?
My iPod – I really can’t be without music for very long.
I’ll take a fully-loaded Kindle as well, as the only regret I currently have about dying is not being able to read any more.
Do you have a favourite joke, quotation or proverb?
“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.” Alice says this to the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland. Despite being a potentially dreary creature of habit, I’m pretty obsessed with the possibility of infinite change and fluid identities…
What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?