Sometimes people lose their heads over young writers. They read their work through tinted lenses, and fling huge advances at them. But Gwendoline, one of the raft of young lovelies with publishing deals, can actually deliver the goods. And did I mention she's one of my favourite living novelists? With two novels under her belt, Cold Water (which won her the 2001 Betty Trask award for first-time novels) and Sick Notes, and her third, Joshua Spassky, due for release in May 2007, Gwendoline kindly let me
interview her about writing, Morrissey and Manchester.
Gwendoline studied at Manchester Metropolitan University, where several other famous types have been students over the years - among them Linder Sterling and The Queen is Dead photographer Stephen Wright. Oh, and me. But it seems that Gwendoline's studying there happened by accident. She only decided to join MMU's Creative Writing Masters programme "on the morning I had to register. I did love my English degree there and so staying on was an attractive idea." Is the course any good for budding scribblers? "I don't think these courses are the least bit invaluable; they can give you a kick, but then you need your own driving force. Writers will be writers no matter what. I'm sure courses can teach
people to write books and get them published. But that's a whole different thing to being a writer. That's something you either get or you don't; if it comes first in your life, and first by some considerable distance too. You have to read as well, tens of thousands of words a day for years and years and years."
Gwendoline has been writing for as long as she's been able to hold a pen. "I think I've been writing nigh on twenty years now. I was always at it." While studying at MMU, she worked at the Night & Day bar in Manchester's Oldham Street, where the cool go for a pint. She doesn't work there anymore, although "I did three shifts over Christmas because somebody had 'flu, otherwise I've not been on the staff for a couple of years now." This probably spawned the idea for the setting of Cold Water, her fist novel, that was published in 2002. Carmel, the protagonist, works in a bar, though it's far from the groovy den of The Night & Day. This is a dive bar in the American style.... I like working here, mostly: sleeping in the daytime and living the days in the nights; meeting people and listening to stories, while the blue spotlights swim over the banks of bottles behind me.
Her characters are people on the fringes, and yet live at the centre of the city's heart. They seem to belong in the city, and the city belongs to them. Carmel's joy is in walking the city: On icy Manchester evenings I like to
stride, to thrust my hands deep into my jeans pockets and exhale towards the stars, blowing out streams of white smoke. Kevin just sloped along like a teenager, and that irritated me. The rest of the time, she isn't a particularly cheerful young woman. Her boyfriend dumps her by saying, "You don't seem like the happiest of people... I'm finding it a bit draining, to be honest." I didn't know what to say. I just said oh right. Didn't ask anything else or cry or enter into a discussion.
Her portrayal of young women is perhaps one of the reasons why I'm such a fan of her work. I'm not one of those ambitious career-types who pop up continuously in chicklit, shopping merrily on the High Street and worrying about the latest fashion (in fact, just the other day someone asked me, in flabbergasted tone, if I really did work in a library for a career. A career? Oh, you mean the job I have to pay the rent?). Instead, the merry melancholy of Gwendoline's
cityscapes are far more where I can identify my own self, and I would think that many other women my age feel the same. In Sick Notes, Esther decides not to leave her flat, echoing her youth: I stayed away from school for the best
part of my final two years, writing myself sick notes. She abdicates from socialising and is immersed in a grotty existence. I start using the string attaching the tag to my teabag to floss under my nails. A glamourless
lifestyle which, if most people were honest, is how they live.
In fact, there seems to be a gap in contemporary fiction that Gwendoline makes up for, where we exist in a literary landscape of Oxbridge-educated novelists churning out cliched crap about London. My reading habits of the past few years would have been poorer had she never got into print. Gwendoline herself doesn't give a stuff about any perceived gaps. "I don't really care. I'm not worried about 'a gap' so much as the void.... Not that the void needs *filling* per se but you have to make offerings to it. Does that make sense? It does to me anyway."
Should anyone try a Withnail & I-style drinking game with her novels, where each drink downed in the novel is similarly quaffed by the reader, you probably wouldn't get through the second chapter before losing the ability to focus.
Working in a bar perhaps doesn't help - Esther, the protagonist of Sick Notes finds herself with a few shifts at a bar as well, and has a bedroom full of empty bottles; "a couple of dozen, half-sized bottles, gin mainly, crowding at the
end of the bed."
Friendship is an important theme in Gwendoline's novels. Family members blur into the background, but in Cold Water, Carmel has Margi and Shelley, who work in the bar with her. In Sick Notes, Esther lives in a flat with Donna, who shares her love of drink and messy ways. Donna is a friend from childhood. I think of the "South Bank Show" Smiths documentary we watched together years and years ago: Linder Sterling saying that her and Morrissey went on long walks together: 'very intimate but very separate at the same time.' That's my credo for friendship. And in Cold Water, As far as friendships and relationships go, I've never gone in for visits and constant phonecalls. The daily emotional weather report makes everything bland and cheap. Yet friends come to replace family, something which happens to many young people when they move to a city, away from their parents: Esther hasn't spoken to her mother
And then there is the way she writes. I can't help admiring, enjoying, what she can do with words. There are unfinished books everywhere: resting open on my bed like pitched roofs, like dead birds. She has a way with a simile, does Gwendoline Riley. Her weather descriptions are beautiful, and I think it's a failing of a lot of other writers to think, "Oh, this bit's in the city, no need to bother with writing about the weather." My fingers are chewing the coins in my coat pockets as I plough on through the curdled snow lumps in the gutter, avoiding the pavements with their polished crust of pockmarked ice. She writes like a less-hysterical Elizabeth Smart; whereas Smart wrote while possessed with obsessive love, Gwendoline’s characters perhaps wish they could be as obsessed, (at one point Esther goes off sex completely. "If boys stayed over they kept their jeans on.") and yet find nothing but fleeting friendships, alcohol and music to protect them from loneliness.
Gwendoline's novels come with their own soundtrack – fictional bands for the characters, where they go to gigs, snog singers and relive their teenage years. In Cold Water, Carmel is obsessed with a band she saw as a 14 year old. On the train home from Liverpool after their gig, Carmel looked at my reflection in the window and at the houses and high-rises outside, feeling everything, everything tauten with a new significance. Everything was charged. It takes merely two sentences for Gwendoline to completely sum up just what it's like when you see a band, hear music, that you can relate to and at the same time hastens you on and forces your mind to peel open. I have my suspicions that this band could be Marion, the Macclesfield-based mid-90s indie band who have recently reformed in the shape of Jaime Harding and Phil Cunningham gigging together. Other readers have suggested this too, even novelist Joel Lane, but
Gwendoline tactfully avoided my question. "I certainly used to like Marion. I went to one of Jaime and Phil's gigs at Night and Day but got distracted by other events, anyway they seemed to be just as terrific as ever." Indeed, it's pertinent to mention Marion on this site, as they supported Morrissey on a leg of the Southpaw Grammar tour and Johnny Marr produced their second album, The Program, and played on their single "Miyako Hideaway". And hil "from
Marion" Cunningham is now in New Order (which band also features Bernard Sumner who was in Electronic with Johnny... but you knew that anyway). Just one of those cyclical things that makes the world feel like a novel....
And while we're on the subject of music... what about Morrissey? When Esther writes DON'T GO OUT on her hand in biro, my mind couldn't help displaying an image of teenage Morrissey sculking about his teenage bedroom. Has he nfluenced her at all? "Well he's not so much an influence, but he confirms things for me. Simply put - I agree with everything he says and does. He's a complete outsider. I went to see him at the G-MEX the other week and at a certain point I realised I was experiencing true happiness. How strange. I was with my friend Kelly, and during 'I've Changed My Plea...' she spontaneously kissed me on my left shoulder. It was like one of Seymour Glass's haikus when she did that."
Manchester is a central character in her novels, its Victorian streets and Brutalist buildings providing the backdrop 'for her characters' wanderings. With this in mind, it's fun to guess just which bits of Manchester she's referring to. Some places are mentioned by name, such as the list of places on Oldham Street where Esther has worked in Sick Notes: "smiling at customers who bought something I liked in Vinyl Exchange; folding musty seconds in Oxfam Originals; elbows on the counter in the Northern Quarter Café." Others have meaning only when you've actually been to these places. "I walk up to my old favourite cafe, on Piccadilly Approach. It smells of Dettol and sausages and white bread." I think this could very well be Antonio's Cafe & Takeaway, which always has one broken window covered in soggy cardboard. I was once in there when a loud Manc voice declared he had recently been released from Strangeways. I went to the counter for some toast and heard him exclaim "Look at the arse on her – it's better than Kylie's." Was that supposed to be a compliment?
Yet for all that Manchester provides the setting for her first two novels, America stands in the distance beckoning her characters. In Sick Notes, Esther has recently returned from New York, and one character says to her, "If you had anything about you, you wouldn't have needed to go away to sort yourself out... you could've gone to Davyhulme." And there, also, is an example of the wry humour that pops up in her prose. In some respects, it could be said that Gwendoline takes her cue on how to write about Manchester from American novels with realistic urban backdrops; she has been compared to Bukowski by some reviewers. Gwendoline has been to America several times. And what did she get up to there? "I just wandered around really. I've spent time in New York and San Francisco and Asheville and Indianapolis. I tend to just read all day and write all night and try and get into an interesting adventure every three weeks or so. I do love it over there. It can be quite gruelling to be so isolated but then I find myself coming back to life, just from being away and living in my head so exclusively." In fact, her third novel, out in May, swaps her usual setting of Manchester for America. "It's set in Asheville, North Carolina, which is where Zelda Fitzgerald died. It's about several ancient problems. I really wrote my heart out. Can't think what to say."
With all the reading that Gwendoline gets up to (and the same is true of her characters – Carmel in Cold Water gets her books from Central Library (one of my friends actually borrowed Cold Water from Central Library and was excited to see the place mentioned in the novel) – it's intriguing to know who Gwendoline's favourite authors are. I did once read that she admired Michael "Mr Linder Sterling" Bracewell's novel The Crypto-Amnesia Club, but her list is: "Salinger, Fitzgerald, Dostoevsky, Proust, Kafka. They're the ones I read most. I also like Vollman, Saroyan, Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, Alan Bennett, Hjalmar Soderberg..." And what's she reading at the moment? "While I was in San
Francisco this summer I picked up a book called Another Life by Yuri Trifonov, and having read that I had to get the rest of his books, and I'm just finishing the last one of them, The Old Man. I also just finished A Chance Encounter by Rachel Cohen, I've got the letters of Turgenev and Flaubert on the go, and I'm about a chapter into The Unpossessed by Tess Slesinger. Next up is Quiet Flows the Don. My Mum's reading that at the moment. She described a scene in it to me where a girl tries to kill herself with a scythe...It was a graphic retelling!"
As I mentioned earlier, Gwendoline is one of my favourite contemporary authors, but how did I 'find'’ her? Some broadsheet had a supplement sponsored by a mobile phone company, trying to create a young yet cultured image. And so Gwendoline featured in it, the pouting representative of contemporary (young) British fiction. She really didn't seem happy with the bullshit, and the journalist who interviewed her described her as a "sourpuss"; I loved Gwendoline immediately, and rushed out to buy Cold Water. What did Gwendoline think of being called a "sourpuss"? "It seemed fairly typical." 3am Magazine, however, labelled Gwendoline as "Camus in hotpants". Frequently, reviewers have pointed up the apparently autobiographical elements of her work, and Gwendoline says, "I think it's fairly typical, again, and really dopey." In some respects, these sorts of media hoopla are quite annoying. When Sick Notes was published, Gwendoline was interviewed for City Life, Manchester's equivalent to What's On (where she'd even had a stint as literary editor) and appeared on the cover. Did it feel odd being on the cover? "No, it didn't feel odd. Why would it feel odd? Except every week the cover star would have a tagline ending in "... Comes Home", i.e. Peter Saville Comes Home, Oasis Come Home, and then they did the same for me, and I hadn't even been anywhere."
Gwendoline’s third novel, Joshua Spassky, is published on 10th May 2007 by Jonathan Cape.
Sick Notes was published in America as Tuesday Nights & Wednesday Mornings, with additional short stories.