Val McDermid & Sian Cain on the publishing landscape for LGBTQI+ writers
Part of the International Literature Showcase

The second International Literature Showcase of 2019 has been revealed, with 10 compelling LGBTQI+ writers chosen by none other than Val McDermid. On this special episode of the podcast Val joins us to talk with Guardian Books Online editor Sian Cain about the selected writers and how the publishing scene has changed since Val’s first novel was released in the 1980s.

See below for a transcript.

Click here to explore the showcases, curated by Elif Shafak and Val McDermid.

The International Literature Showcase is produced in partnership with the British Council.

The NCW Podcast is hosted by Simon Jones and Steph McKenna.

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Sian Cain: Maybe I should start with the caveat that I’m Australian, so I am the sort of observer of what you might call the British canon, or an outsider to the publishing industry here. But I was kind of amazed to read about your story and the fact that your crime novel was the first British crime novel with a lesbian detective, and that was in ’87 which was not that long ago.

Val McDermid: Well it was certainly in my lifetime! It never occurred to me that Lindsay Gordon wouldn’t be a lesbian. I suppose because at that point some of the American new wave feminist writers had been writing with lesbian protagonists – writers like Barbara Wilson and Mary Wings – and so the door had been pushed open a crack for me, I suppose, in terms of the possibility. I didn’t think about not writing a lesbian character.

One of the reasons it felt important to me was that when I was growing up there were no lesbian templates, so for me it was a real struggle to understand the possibilities of my sexuality, and then to come to grips with them. Because there were no books, there were no films, there was no TV, there were no lesbian sports stars, there were no lesbian pop stars, it felt very isolating and I felt very isolated. So one of the things that lay behind the creation of Lindsay Gordon was the idea that there would be something that people could turn to and see a reflection of a possible life, I suppose. You know, Lindsay could be yourself on a good day or indeed a bad day, or she could be your fantasy girlfriend or your fantasy best friend, but there was the idea that there was something out there that would make you feel you weren’t the only person in the universe who felt like this.

S: And it’s interesting that you use that word ‘template’, because of course then you’re part of establishing something afterwards, whether you’re aware of it or not at the time. You’re setting the precedent for the writers that would come after you, and that’s sort of why I was so pleased when I saw the ten writers that you chose for the showcase – that they’re all relatively young, relatively new. I think it’s easy sometimes, that we look at the Alan Hollinghursts of the world and the Sarah Waters of the world and we think that perhaps the gay voice and the bisexual voice and trans voices are perhaps more established than they are.

V: I think what’s exciting is that this is not a battle or a stance we took once. It’s important that people see a continuity going forward, that there are continuing to be new LGBTQI voices out there, taking it forward, talking about what it’s like right now to live in that place in the world. Not necessarily books that are specifically about being gay, or trans, or lesbian, but that have those characters within the landscape of the world they’re writing about. And what excited me particularly about this list was the range of subject material, the range of styles. We have poets, we have playwrights, we have short story writers, we have novelists. The exciting thing is that all those voice are finding a space in the literary world today. It’s not like it was when I was starting out, when every lesbian piece of work was a struggle to get published.

Initially I was published by the Women’s Press because there was no mainstream publishing house that was interested in publishing a lesbian novel. I remember some years ago now, it must have been in the 90s, I was working with a television production company trying to develop some of my work for television. One of the things they suggested was to do a series with Lindsay Gordon, and they contacted the head of drama at a major broadcaster, who sent a letter back saying “I cannot believe you would be so stupid as to suggest we would want to do a lesbian drama.”

So you know, every generation has its battles.

So you know, every generation has its battles. I’m not suggesting for a moment that it’s easy now for LGBTQI writers to find a space in the published world, but the door is open wider than it was 30-odd years ago when I started.

S: And so then observing, over those 30 years, what are the things you think that have changed most, then? In terms of the literary sphere of the LGBTQ voice. Obviously the big publishers are on board these days?

V: Yeah, I think that’s been the principle change. That access to the marketplace, if you like, access to the audience. It’s difficult to really make progress when you’re being published by small publishers who don’t have much of a voice. What’s also I think really powerful is the increasing strength of independent booksellers. There was a time when it looked like independent booksellers were all going to go under, but there’s been a resurgence of their position and I think independent booksellers are much more willing, much more inclined to look at things that are not just the best-seller list churned out by the big, commercial publishers. Because they know their readers. They have the power to hand-sell to people, on the basis of “look, I know you like this book; you’re going to like this one.” And that’s one of the ways that any kind of niche publishing, niche writing, gets into people’s hands and moves from being a niche that’s read by a handful of people to something which had a much wider readership.

S: It’s interesting, because I used to work in a bookshop, in Blackwells in Oxford, and I was on staff there and they asked whether I would put together an LGBGQ section, for the fiction level. And it was a really interesting question, because it was this idea of were we going to be separating them from the wider body of literature and therefore somehow ghettoising them, or were we making a statement as a shop that we recognised the importance of this particular voice, amongst all the others, and that we’re providing a safe area where people knew they could come and find those books easily, without being bothered?

V: I think the answer is that you do both. You know, I do sometimes say to booksellers up in Scotland – “you should have me in three sections. You should have me in the LGBT lit section, you should have me in the crime section and you should have me in the Scottish literature section. So I think that’s the way to go, to cover all the bases, not just to sort of ghettoise writers. I think it’s good to have an area for people who specifically want to read books with a particular direction, for whatever reason, because that’s where they find themselves because they’re questioning their own possibilities and they want to have a sense of the world on the other side of the fence, if you like, from the one they’re on.

But also, I think, it’s important to have those books in the general stock, so that the browsing reader and goes “oh, that looks interesting,” and they might not have gone to look for it in the LGBT section.

S: And of course there are so many books that have a gay voice, or a queer subplot. All these sort of things where it’s not necessarily the driving force of the book. It can be woven in and we see this in some of these authors that you’ve chosen. Quite incidental but very important as well.

V: Yeah, and I think that indicates a certain coming of age. That it now becomes just part of the landscape. That was what I was always trying to do from the beginning, and I suspect that’s why the Lindsay Gordon books are still in print all these years later. These books have never been out of print, because they’re not issue-based. They’re not based around the idea of the struggle to come out. I wanted to write books that had the lesbian characters as just part of the cast of characters. Their lesbianism was an important part of who they were, an important part of their history, of how they came to be in the place that they’re in, but it wasn’t the only thing that defined them.

S: Well, let’s talk about some of them. I want to start with one of my favourites: Andrew McMillan.

V: When I think back to the kind of coded messages that poets like Tom Gunn and WH Auden had to pass on, who were forced by the conventions of the time into I suppose lines we all learned to read between, in those terms Andrew McMillan’s work is all the more astonishing.

In his latest collection, Playtime, there’s such tender insight into the process of growing into himself. There’s no shame. No sense of looking over his shoulder to see if he’s going to get into trouble for writing so openly. I think that’s a great indicator of where we’ve come.

S: Yes, there’s that complete absence of shame and the joy and the cheekiness in his poetry which makes me love how he writes. It’s so amazing when you see him do readings and he’ll be in a space that’s not necessarily a gay, male audience, and the romance he can inspire in people regardless of their sexuality, just because of the longing and the romance in the ordinary lives that he shows in his poetry, is really amazing. I was so taken aback, when he read ‘Urination’ from his collection Physical, when he won the Guardian First Book Award, and there was this collective ‘aaaah’ when he finished reading. He’s such a powerful, poetic voice.

V: And I think the beauty of this tender and fierce poetry about men loving each other is that it’s written in the same terms that a heterosexual poet would have at their disposal. There’s no sense that these are things I can’t say because I’m gay. There’s that same openness and, as you say, cheekiness. It’s delightful. It’s the way that men have written about women, and indeed women have written about women, over the years. It’s without shame and it is what it is, exactly what it is.

S: And so, maybe, let’s talk about someone who can perhaps be posited as an opposite. Luke Turner, Out of the Woods. This is a memoir and it’s looking at his youthful encounters with men in London’s Epping Forest, and you do get the sense that he’s quite troubled by his sexuality.

V: At the beginning of the book he’s come out of a five year relationship with his girlfriend, and he’s very clearly feeling cast adrift. He’s lost his home, he’s lost the relationship that was the centre of his life, even though he knew it had issues he didn’t want it to end the way that it did. He turns to Epping Forest as somewhere he’s known since childhood, as a way to almost explore what’s ailing him, and the forest and its environment felt like almost an extended metaphor for a sense of loss and his need to explore the side of himself that had failed to find full expression in the past.

His sexual encounters in the forest, his casual sex in the forest and elsewhere, feel like encounters with himself as much as with the strange men he fucks there. It’s as if they give him the possibility of giving in to his own sense of loving risk, and yet on the other side of the coin he never quite rejects his Methodist past and upbringing. He still enjoys churches, and hymns and the grace he sees in his parents.

S: Well, that’s it. The interesting thing is that personally with this book coming out, it’s his first book and it’s been amazing in terms of the timing. A lot of men in my life have begun conversations about recognising that perhaps their sexuality is a little more fluid than just purely heterosexual and I’ve given Luke’s book to all of these men, because I think it’s really captured a perfect moment, where having quite open conversations about the possibilities of gender and sex and sexuality, he’s laid it all out in a way that must feel really very self-flagellating and vulnerable. But I think it’s a very necessary book, just about purely masculinity.

V: Yeah, but I think you should give them the Andrew McMillan as well, to counter it with some joy. It’s not just sexuality that drives this memoir, it’s the relationship between history and the present, between the grotty side of urban life and the weirdly uneasy atmosphere in the forest. It’s really not an idyll, and I think it’s very brave of him so vulnerable. He’s not trying to pretend that he’s not as lost in his life as he was at the time of writing this. It’s difficult for a writer, because once you’ve put it out there you’ve put it out there.

S: You can’t take it back.

V: You can’t. And at least with fiction you can pretend it’s not you. But when it’s admittedly a memoir there is no hiding place, so props to him for having the courage to go down that road.

S: Shall we perhaps talk about one of the women that you’ve chosen? How about Mary Paulson-Ellis? I actually hadn’t heard of her until you put her on your list, Val.

V: Well, her first novel, The Other Mrs Walker, was Waterstones’ Scottish Book of the Year, and I think it’s an extraordinary novel. It’s a very distinct and unique voice. She calls the book “the murderous side of family life: the dark, the quirky and the strange”, and it’s all of those things. It’s a really beautifully constructed book, and the characters are fascinating and it just draws you in and you’re always being wrong-footed by the way the story goes.

Her second novel, which is out in September, The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing, is again this complex structure that moves back and forth in time. It deals with a web of relationships that span the centuries, from the First World War onwards. It’s the interweaving of men’s lives across three generations; the complex connections as lovers and friends, from boyhood to decrepitude. The stories are anchored by the eponymous hero, Solomon Farthing, who is an heir hunter.

S: I’m rather jealous that you’ve got to read that. I haven’t actually read the second book yet.

V: I was delighted to get an early copy. It’s out in September and I think it’s a satisfyingly fat book, but it never feels like it’s overlong. I raced through it because I love the weaving of those relationships and how you, over the period of the book, understand more about these lives. There are surprising shocks along the way. And of course it’s ultimately about the inheritance both literal and metaphorical, and people care about inheritance even when the estates seem pitifully small. The loves and loyalties that permeate the book are anything but small. I think it’s an absolute stonker of a novel.

What’s a common feature between these two books is actually something that a lot of people who fall into the broad sense of LGBTQ, what they feel about their lives at some time or another: the sense of being square pegs in round holes. And I think a lot of us have felt like that at one time or another.

S: Talking about The Other Mrs Walker, it sounds quite similar to the second novel, in that she’s talking about mixed-up identities and you have the mysteries around these three women in this family, and it’s very much you can see that she’s a writer that’s fascinated by family secrets and you can see how that would appeal, perhaps to someone who has got that background and, that sense of a private life and a family life and how those things mix.

V: She’s also got, I think, a really fantastic writing style, and you can see a kind of line of continuation through writers like Sarah Waters, and Ali Smith and Jeanette Winterson, to writers who are writing I think the kind of prose that makes you almost step back and take a breath. It’s lyrical, it’s elliptical, it asks questions. It makes you desperate to read on.

S: It’s like a mystery.

V: All great fiction is a mystery. All great fiction reveals itself as you read. I just love the wee details that just ping out at you. I think the whole book is a treat, frankly.

S: That why when I read The Other Mrs Walker I did think of Sarah Waters. It wasn’t necessarily historical surveying, or just the constant twists and turns of things, it was that compulsion, I think, to keep reading. I felt that with Sarah Waters as well.

V: I think one of the things also that Mary Paulson-Ellis does as a writer is that you don’t have to be writing about gay characters or gay issues to bring a different sensibility to the work. I think most LGBTQ writers have felt that ‘outsiderness’ probably from quite an early age. A sense of difference, but not always understanding wherein that difference lay. And that gives you precisely the detachment you need to be a good writer. To look at the world, to understand it emotionally, but also to be able to read it in a way that someone on the outside looking in sees things.

S: And that’s interesting, calling it back to yourself, when you started writing you knew that you were establishing a template and that you were writing a lesbian detective when there weren’t any lesbian detectives in British crime writing. That we are now at the stage where young, queer, gay, bisexual, trans writers, that feel like they don’t necessarily need to write about those things.

V: Absolutely. It’s become part of the landscape of the literary world. You don’t have to write terrible, angst-ridden books about coming out anymore. And the lesbian doesn’t have to die, you know?

S: Let’s talk about Fiona Mozley. She’s another interesting young writer. Can you tell me what it was about her and about Elmet that made you want to put her on the list?

V: I think it’s an intense exploration of what it means to be different. And some of that difference is about gender and about the expression of gender, but a lot of it is about just being different in the world. You discover the truths of one family’s life, within a sort of meditation I suppose on the Yorkshire landscape that unfolds. It’s lyrical, it’s ethereal and it’s also brutal. It’s a small, close family unit that has removed itself from the world, almost, and yet there’s space within that for some kind of difference. It’s a world that has isolation, simmering violence going on all the time, but it’s also a world that can encompass Daniel, who is more like his mother than his rage-filled father, and Daniel likes to make things nice. That’s something that’s commented on quite neutrally by his father, but it’s not done as an insult or even as something which seems strange to him. He simply mentions it in passing – “You like to make things nice.”

So this is a world where you think that kind of gender fluidity would cause ructions within the family, but in fact it doesn’t. I suppose it reminds us that creed encompasses a world of difference as well as similarities. It’s an amazing book. It’s like Badlands and Beauty. It’s a cross between Wuthering Heights and Hansel and Gretel – the original Brothers Grimm version, not some Hollywood Disney version.

S: Hansel and Gretel is a very good comparison! That’s an interesting thing, the dynamic between Daniel and his father, because his father is so masculine and Daniel in so many ways is very feminine, but there’s never that clash there. His father loves him. His son wears crop tops and his hair is long and he behaves in ways which could perhaps be classified as feminine, but his father loves him. And that’s such a wonderful, tender heart that is aside from all the violence.

V: It’s a kind of lyrical gothic thriller, almost. But it also hints at some different kind of life for Daniel, who says himself at one point “you have to appreciate that I never thought of myself as a man.” And that’s a very interesting statement, in the context of masculinity within the book.

S: Fiona said that she feels like she could never write a novel which didn’t have queer characters at its heart. Which is a really interesting statement to make, for a first time novelist. It makes you really wonder what we are going to see from her over the next two decades.

V: And it’s clear that queer characters are becoming quite central in what you might call mainstream literary fiction. I was a Booker Prize judge last year and we shortlisted a novel by Daisy Johnson called Everything Under and at the heart of that is a queer character. I have to say it didn’t turn a head in the judging room. It was just discussed purely on its own terms, amongst the other book. It’s really heartening that this is happening, that there is this change.

Clearly there’s always a long way to go. You only have to look at social media to see the levels of homophobia, misogyny, transphobia that is still out there by scared people hiding behind fake names, to understand that there’s still a substantial tranche of the population who have a long way to come, but we are moving. We are moving forward with every generation.

S: Let’s talk about Kirsty Logan, then. She won the Polari First Book Prize for The Rental Heart. What was it about Kirsty that made you want to put her on? I think she’s fascinating, particularly for The Grace Keepers, which was this watery dystopia. I have a particular fondness for environmental dystopia. And The Gloaming as well, which she’s called “a queer mermaid love story”, and when I saw that I went “oh god, I have to read this.”

V: There’s a great quote from the beginning of The Gloaming that’s always stuck with me: “The sea always wants things to change. The land wants to stay the same.” And that’s kind of the pool that we find in ourselves, I think. That’s a tension that I think Kirsty explores in her short stories and her novels.

I chose Kirsty because I think her work is really intriguing. It asks questions of us as a society but it also uses these ideas of myth and strangeness. She gives us the fear of loss that comes with change, but also set against that the eagerness to embrace what might be a possibility. And there are some very strange possibilities in her writing. She has a fantastical imagination that embraces mermaids and human statues – it’s rooted I think in the impossibility of pinning things down to the prosaic. I love that sense of just taking off and your imagination can go anywhere.

Her latest collection, Things We Say In The Dark, which I’ve been lucky enough again to steal and advance copy of, is fabulous in the literal sense. It’s got feminist fairy tales laced with horrors that leap out of the dark and leave a sooty hand print on your soul. The stories are interspersed with what at first sight might be autobiographical notes on the author’s domestic life with her wife, but that’s as much a fable as everything else – or is it? We’re left with all these questions at the end a book which seemed to be rooted in absolute, everyday reality. I think there’s an exciting sense of always being wrong-footed by the possibilities here.

S: I think we can perhaps link Fiona Mozley, Daisy Johnson, Kirsty Logan, Julia Armfield who has written a short story collection called Salt Slow, this use of fantasy and a sort of Angela Carter blend of horror and play. These characters that don’t fit categories, all woven in. It’s a really exciting pocket of young writers at the moment that are weaving in this Angela Carter vibe into their fiction.

V: You’ve just made Salt Slow move three places up my to-be-read pile on my table. That sounds really, really interesting. I like this strand that challenges our sense of the prosaic, the everyday. I think we all need to have a bit of fantasy and a bit of magic in our lives. This also feels quite unforced. It doesn’t feel like “here I am, I’m going to tell you something fantastical” – there’s a matter-of-factness to the way Kirsty narrates her stories. You think, well, of course you’re a mermaid!

You see, I come from Fife up in Scotland and we actually believe in mermaids.

S: On that topic, Rosie Garland. Similar taste for magic and the fantastical.

V: Rosie’s work has, I suppose, I always think of it as having a sort of glitter – a fairground light to it. It’s got that big, boldness in the way she addresses the fantastical, I suppose. She won the inaugural Mslexia novel competition with her first novel, The Palace of Curiosities. Sarah Waters described it as ‘a jewel box of a novel’. It’s set in 1850s London, so Sarah Waters would know what she’s talking about!

Her latest novel, The Night Brother, is bold and dazzling. It’s a tale of hermaphrodite doubleness in fin de siecle Manchester, which is not necessarily the venue you would think of when you think of fin de siecle – you think of Paris, and Expressionist and Moulin Rouge. But this one’s set in Manchester and it really, really works. It’s magical realism, I suppose, in the style and substance but she uses the strangeness of that fantastical world to examine and explore notions of belonging and identity, gender and sexuality, and those big questions that we all go through at one time or another. How we define ourselves, how we define our place in the world.

She does all this in a really rich and full style of writing. Stella Duffy said that “Rosie Garland writes in a tumble of poetry, desire and passion”, and that’s right. It’s all there on the page. You can hide all sorts of serious engagement beneath the sparkle in the dark.

S: That’s a lovely phrase. She’s another writer that’s interested in that idea of the misfit and what can exist outside of what society calls ‘normal’. And that you can flourish when you find what you might call ‘your people’.

V: There’s a real energy to her writing, an engine which swirls through the pages and sweeps you along. As readers we need to know where this book is going and how it is going to get there, and how she’s going to make all these pieces come together into an extraordinary whole – and she does it.

S: Let’s talk about poetry, then. Keith Jarrett, I mean, I had never heard of Keith Jarrett and I actually found it quite difficult to get hold of his collection, Sela. How did you hear about him, because he’s amazing?

V: I hadn’t heard about Keith Jarrett before I started working on compiling this list. But a friend recommended his work to me and said that I should really be looking at this if I wanted to have a sense of an extraordinary poet working in this field. So I went off and I read the book and I was indeed blown away. He’s a poet, he’s a fiction writer, he’s a playwright, he’s currently completing a novel exploring the migration of religion from Caribbean to London. He’s had plays on at the Old Vic, on BBC 4, and he’s a poetry slam champion. So I don’t know why he’s not a name on everyone’s lips!

His writing is about finding himself, I suppose, in the contradictions and oppositions of his world. He grew up very much in the biblical tradition and that gave him the great, rolling music of words and stories, and then on the other hand you have south London youth culture with DJs and the different jazz of hip hop and heavy bass. I think the Caribbean of his roots and the outer-inner city of zones 4, 5 and 6 have this sort of collision that he’s trying to find a way meld them together. It seems to me that there’s a lot in his collection, Sela, which I highly recommend, about what it is to be a man, and what it feels like to be him. A foot in both camps, which many of us have at one time or another, can make it feel like we belong in neither, but he seems to be entirely focused on making a kind of new synthesis.

S: That’s thing. He’s writing about Caribbean identity, about London identity, about being a gay man of colour, about masculinity, about all of these things which perhaps would feel a person overwhelmed, or unsure about themselves. But there’s this thread of confidence and thread of subversiveness in all of his writing that kind of leaves you feeling like he’s completely in charge.

V: Even the acknowledgements in his book of poetry are in verse, and it’s wonderful. The rolling cadences of his verse are fabulous.

S: There’s so much defiance there. It makes you want to applaud.

V: Yeah. I can see why he might be a poetry slam champion, because there’s a real force – it’s like a wave when you get verse like that. It comes at you like a wave which just keeps rolling, and it’s beautiful.

S: I recommend if people are after Sela you can order it of course, but if you’re looking to get a sense of his work there are clips of him on YouTube at slam events. He’s incredibly charismatic.

On poetry, Colette Bryce.

V: A very, very contrasting poetic voice. But nevertheless I think extraordinarily powerful. Colette grew up in Northern Ireland and her poetry is deeply rooted in that place and its culture and its politics. She’s one of these writers whose language seems quite simple, but actually what’s going on there is a profound engagement with identity. She’s won so many awards over her career that if I started going into them now it would take the rest of the podcast. She’s a remarkable poet. But as well as the politics and the history element, there’s a strong, autobiographical element to her work. She writes about Northern Ireland a lot, and she says that “say nothing is still a powerful rule there.” She clearly believes in saying something, all sorts of somethings in fact, and as well as the politics she refuses to stay silent about emotional truth.

For me, also, there’s an understanding that to be that honest in poetry, whether it’s about politics in Northern Ireland or about love, it comes at a price. Her words are extraordinary, she’s someone who rewards careful reading and re-reading, because there’s a real

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