The journalist Maureen Cleave talks of meeting one of your students from UEA who described your course on Autobiography as Fiction as life changing. What was the idea behind the course you devised and taught as Literary Fellow?
I’m more interested in which student MC was talking to on the train. Was it Psycho 1 or Psycho 2? They both hated me at first but I won Psycho 1 over with my sociopath charm. I liked to write things on the blackboard which were never explained.
Lies are easy to believe in but the truth sounds false.
I threw someone out for mentioning Hemingway. The Dean, Lorna Sage, said to me, ‘You can’t do that!’ And I replied, ‘But I have done it.’ Now that I’m older and more idealistic I can see that my younger self was a bit hardcore.
The night before my first seminar Dangerous asked, ‘Aren’t you nervous?’ No. ‘You don’t seem to have prepared anything.’
He was right. I hadn’t. I’d been writer-in-residence in Wormwood Scrubs in a room full of murderers and a boiling kettle. Most of them had killed women ‘on impulse’. My biggest worry about a group of students was that they might smell.
I started by telling them to write 500 words about losing their virginity. One boy said, ‘I think I’m still a virgin.’ So I said lie, make it up.
‘The truth when it’s overdressed sounds like a lie.’ Spying on Strange Men
I wanted to leave my students with the tools to convert their lives into fiction. But of course some people just aren’t good at writing. They have a book ‘in them’ and it should stay there with their liver and kidneys. I love Mozart but I don’t think I have a Mass in C Minor ‘in me’.
How much does your autobiography influence your fiction?
‘The short answer is that it’s all “real”. It came out of my head. Everything in there is real. Even the things invented and imagined.’ Spying on Strange Men
People ask if my characters are ‘me’. Of course they are! I’m Maria Money and Vivien Lash. I’m also Carole Morin. We’re not interchangeable. But who else would they be?
I don’t explain my books. I leave some blank space for the reader’s response. I’m not sitting on their shoulder as they read. But I am in the bookshop with a hammer forcing them to buy.
Fiction isn’t real life. It’s reinvention, imagination, entertainment, and structure. The boring bits are edited out.
‘God isn’t in the details, He’s in the structure.’ Spying on Strange Men
Writing is hard work. Even when you start with the raw ingredients – a mad family, a sense of humour, talent…it’s hard work. But you do get to sit around in silk pyjamas all day.
When did you start writing Spying on Strange Men?
I started writing the story that became Spying on Strange Men in London. It was called Party Fears Three an homage to Billy Mackenzie who had recently died. Party Fears Two is my favourite pop song. I made it Three because I like to change things and the book’s a love triangle.
I was devastated by his death which is odd because I didn’t know him. My husband did. Mackenzie’s death affected me in a way that Ian Curtis’s didn’t. Curtis seemed born to die. Mackenzie should have outgrown his gloom and become an eccentric old man. I think our work is similar. It’s the duality of glamour and spirituality in his voice that attracts me. His toughness and fragility; darkness and laughter. He could be a character from one of my books. I always meant to send him a copy of Dead Glamorous.
I rewrote Party Fears Three a few times. It was called Creepy Neighbour for a bit. It developed from a story to something longer. Longer for me means more than a 100 pages. I have a short attention span and don’t like to bore readers with unnecessary details. Why take 50 pages to set a scene when it can be done in a few lines? So. The book was finished. And then Dangerous (Carole Morin’s husband Don Watson) came home and said, ‘We’re going to Beijing!’ Like James Lash, he travels a lot for work.
So I decided to take the manuscript with me. To read it one last time before sending it off. And then I got pneumonia, which gave me time to think. And then I wrote the Spying on Strange Men about a woman who loves her husband but wants to kill him. It’s kind of Double Indemnity without the insurance policy. She’s insuring her heart against him. And her boyfriend is really rich so they don’t need money to escape.
You have travelled a lot. How much do you find that a setting affects the writing that you do there?
I tend not to write about places until after I’ve left them. A bit like using old boyfriends as characters when you don’t love them anymore. Sometimes I reinvent the settings until only Dangerous can guess where it is. Setting is important to my work. It affects the mood and atmosphere, and could almost be a character. With people and places I tend to love or hate them.
Your character, Vivien Lash has been on Twitter for some time now. Does she have a life of her own?
She has her own column Shallow not Stupid. And now she’s writing Travels with My Spy.
Vivvy copies me, which I’ll take as a compliment because I wouldn’t like to get into a punch up with her. But even though she thinks she’s copying me, she sounds like her self.
‘Vivien Lash is a girl with a future but not a past.’ Spying on Strange Men
Is there really a James Lash?
Is there really a God?
‘James is so secretive he has secrets even from himself.’ Spying on Strange Men
Your permanent address is in Soho. Do you prefer living in the heart of a big city?
Yes I feel nervous anywhere I can hear owls hooting but know I’m home when my creepy neighbour howls at the moon. I grew up in one of Grandfather Money’s buildings in the centre of Glasgow with a view of the gasworks and cinema. He had the decency or bad taste to live in one of his own slums. I didn’t know it was a slum until later when I’d escaped.
I loved all the characters, Pearl the Swinger and the Man with the Painted Heed. I thought it was normal that my Aunt Vagina lived next door. And Grandfather Money’s pub was downstairs. And my retarded cousin Junky Jenny was in the basement, where you keep them. It was all ice-cream without the jelly and the occasional flying stiletto when my mum was having one of her mad turns – hence her name Maddie.
My husband Don Watson loves hearing stories about me growing up and he told me to write it down. I was so familiar with the material I couldn’t see the story. But I always do what he tells me (and steal his ideas) so I did and the result was Dead Glamorous – my most popular book. So far.
I thought that I’d written a lot about my childhood but actually there’s only one childhood scene in Dead Glamorous, a flashback. The screenplay is different. Maria Money is 16 in that. Now I’m working on Liberace’s Love Child which is about Maria Money before she escaped and reinvented herself as Maria Money. Or maybe I mean Carole Morin before she was Maria Money. First she was the child assassin Mung-Bean.
‘When I was 7 my mother hired me to murder my father. I’d always wanted to be an assassin and I had to get the job done by my 8th birthday.’ Liberace’s Love Child
Spying on Strange Men is a classic love triangle. Did you read Wuthering Heights as a child and if so what effect did it have on you?
I’d call Spying on Strange Men a twisted love triangle but I read Wuthering Heights when I was seven. I stole a copy from the library. We weren’t allowed books in the house because they’re ‘dirty germ traps’. My mum had a shelf of fake leather books which my dad used to hide whisky behind. I died of embarrassment every time a visitor tried to pick up a book and realized it was fake.
The library was forbidden so it became exotic and sexy in my imagination. I was dying to get in there and read a book!
My cousin was a drug dealer so drugs were never exotic to me. Just a bunch of fat greasy haired losers in a room smoking, then later injecting heroin and mysteriously staying fat for ages. Eventually they died.
It was always dark when I went to the library, eyes peeled for paedophiles. I had to crawl under the shelves to the Adult section. The children’s area was full of picture books wee shites had crayoned on.
I sat under a big plant reading Wuthering Heights. I’d already seen it on tv. Olivier was never really my idea of Heathcliff. I erased him from my head and superimposed a Catholic pyromaniac I was secretly in love with. Catholics were forbidden. So I was always sneaking into Mass, lighting candles and saying more Hail Marys than anyone really needs to. And this boy had burned down the school. He appears in my next book Liberace’s Love Child.
When I wrote Lampshades, my first novel, I thought I was copying Wuthering Heights. No one else noticed.
What about Graham Greene’s End of the Affair?
I used to talk to Graham Greene on the telephone when he lived in France and I worked at Granta Magazine which was my first (and last) office job.
I would call and say, ‘Would you like to write something for us Mr Greene?’
because the boss was too chicken to phone famous writers in case they weren’t nice to him.
Mr Greene, who actually preferred to be called Mr Graham (something about a fat uncle) would decline to write anything for us. He always thanked me for calling with elaborate politeness then declined my increasingly generous offers of wonga for words.
He asked me if I was ‘as beautiful as my voice’. Or maybe that was Kapucinski. He was always more of a flirt. ‘Africa, you must go to Africa, you will fall in love with Africa.’ I can still hear him whispering that into my ear. And I did go to Africa and had all my dresses stolen before the Aga Khan’s party but that’s another story.
So, I read The End of the Affair when I was in Hanoi and mistaken for ‘Graham Greene’s Eurasian daughter’. I never confirmed or denied this story because it came with a free room in the Hotel Metropole which at that time was the only 5 star in Hanoi. The one where Jane Fonda hid under the swimming pool/bunker while the Viet Cong did their thing. Or was it Ho Chi Minh?
I later became obsessed with Neil Jordan’s movie The End of the Affair. I was secretly in love with Ralph Fiennes at the time. I’ve gone off him now of course. But I watched it ten times on a flight from Hong Kong. The lady next to me found this disturbing and made several attempts to explain that I was allowed to change channels and watch another movie. But Cantonese just isn’t my dialect. I can say, ‘May your child be born without a butt-hole’ in Mandarin and order watermelon juice which is good because I’m addicted to it. Problem with Chinese is that the tones are easy to get wrong. You can think you’re asking your driver to stop over there and really you’re saying you need to shit urgently.
At the debut reading from Spying on Strange Men at the Bookworm in Beijing you played the music of Glasvegas. What is it you like about them?
I use a very short piece of music to signify that the performance is about to start. I intended to use Party Fears Two but I saw a poster for a Glasvegas show in Beijing and that reminded me I like their duality. Glasgow Vegas. And I like singers who use their native accent. And it’s both upbeat and heartbreaking which suits the tone of my work.
Obviously some Scottish artists appeal to you but you resist attempts to describe you as a Scottish writer.
I have a strong Scottish identity. I have an accent though I’ve lived most of my life in London. I’m glad I grew up in Glasgow with the gloom and glamour and plastic jobbies. But I wouldn’t want to be labelled a Woman Writer even though I’m definitely not a man. And I think Scottish Writer has some unfortunate associations.
Last century when I was commissioned to write my first novel, Scottish writers were being bullied by a purple nosed publisher to write in dialect. Well my voice is authentically Scottish. I’m an educated Scottish person who escaped. My voice is as valid as a whiny cunt who lives in a council flat and doesn’t quite speak English. That doesn’t mean I have to sound like Evelyn fucking Waugh either.
I’d like to be called a Good Writer. To quote a review, “Carole Morin is a Fucking Genius. Fact.” Fucking Genius will do. And I’m a Soho snob – call me a Soho writer if you want to.
Your husband Don Watson in a profile in the Herald has compared your writing to Jane Bowles, the wife of novelist Paul Bowles. How do you feel about the comparison?
I love Two Serious Ladies. It has the best last line in fiction. ‘Certainly I am nearer to becoming a saint…But is it possible that a part of me hidden from my sight is piling sin upon sin as fast as Mrs Copperfield? This latter possibility Miss Goering thought to be of considerable interest but of no great importance.’
But I don’t think my writing is like Jane Bowles’. I think he means I’m original. And if you’re original you don’t write like someone else. I’m always being told I look like people too and usually I don’t.
When my first book came out a ‘friend’ said to me, ‘I could write like you if I felt like it.’ And I replied, ‘I could never write like you.’
But it’s a huge compliment to be compared to Jane Bowles. I like everything she’s written even her whiny letters.
I’ve also been compared to Sylvia Plath, Nabokov, Francoise Sagan, Anthony Burgess, Salinger , Emily Bronte, Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker and Alan Bennett! Some critics are just so sucky.
My favourite quote is ‘Sylvia Plath with a sense of humour.’ I like duality, possibly why I have an evil twin. If I kill myself I’ll have to use laughing gas. But I’ve missed the deadline for dying young.