Three fair heads clustered around the water jug on the table, like witches around a cauldron: something magical was brewing from these three women, who were clearly finding things in common other than the fact that they have all published exciting new novels which have been tipped for major success. They come from different regions of England and different areas of experience as writers: Kitty Fitzgerald, originally from Ireland but now based on Tyneside, has written several novels, plays and screenplays before selling her new novel Pigtopia to Faber and Faber; Joolz Denby has been an extremely successful performance poet, and lives in Bradford, where she has set her novel Billie Morgan; and Cathi Unsworth lives in London (near Portobello Market, which she says is the one thing above all others that keeps her in London), and her novel The Not Knowing draws on her experience as a journalist. Rachael Ogden, Literature Officer of Arts Council England, North East, chaired the session.
The evening began with readings from each of the guests. Cathi Unsworth spoke briefly about The Not Knowing, introducing the characters and the themes ("It's about how we fetishise violence," she told us, and how different the real thing is), before reading from the book's opening passage, an atmospheric evocation of the mean streets of North London:
The moon was in the gutter...A second passage described Diana, the heroine, reading the book within a book which so deeply impresses her: this structurally daring device allowed her to introduce the touching figure of the abused and neglected child, Wierdo (and to display a rich Norfolk accent at the same time).
Reflected in the sky.
Joolz Denby commented that one common feature of the three books was that all three talked about the sense of being an outsider; she had recently been invited to speak about the experience of "falling in with a Bad Crowd", and although she would clearly not have chosen those words herself, she did say that it is often the Bad Crowd who are most receptive to outsiders. In the extract she read from Billie Morgan, the heroine describes her adolescent self: who feels more an outsider than a teenager? And in Billie's case, a disapproving and respectable mother reinforces her sense of not belonging. Billie and her mother came vividly to life in the dialogue, which Joolz read with panache.
Which left Kitty Fitzgerald feeling that "It's not a good idea to go third; people set standards." Nonetheless she boldly invited the audience to"imagine I'm a thirty-five year old man, with deformities and whose language is not up to scratch," Jack Plum's use of English is certainly idiosyncratic, and its use of vocabulary is circuitous but it is also rich and evocative; later, Kitty would explain how long it had taken her to reach that voice (as Jack says of something else, "it was not a task of simpleness"). She also read a passage in the voice of Holly Lock, the teenage girl who is initially alarmed by Jack's desire to be friends.
After the break, Rachael Ogden launched a period of questions by asking the obvious one: where did this shared interest in outsiders originate? All three writers answered in autobiographical terms. Kitty Fitzgerald was an immigrant herself, born in Ireland but brought to England as a child, standing out as the only child in the school with an Irish accent, and then, as she lost that accent, standing out again when the family visited relations back in Ireland. Cathi Unsworth had similarly felt marked by her accent, although her displacement had been between different counties of England. Joolz Denby had developed a chameleon-like aptitude to match her accent to whoever she was talking to, and now had to take care not to do so inadvertently. She had been sent to a private school, where she had been educated in the skills required of an executive wife, such as entertaining and shopping: not surprisingly, she thought this was stupid and, feeling an outsider in her own family, started looking for a new one which she found among the bikers.
The less structured discussion which followed this introduction moved on from accent to narrative voice, favourite writers (the American Harry Crews was warmly recommended), feral children, the wild boar which Kitty has adopted at Bede's World (her name is Millie) and the tendency of publishers to want more of the same: Kitty had been asked to follow Pigtopia with a book that would do the same thing with dogs, while Joolz's publisher had wanted her to follow her first novel, Stone Baby with a sequel in which Lily moves to London and becomes a detective. Neither of these books is ever going to happen.
We Love You
Mary S. Lovell
& Margaret Elphinstone