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|| She wrote Brass at her mother's kitchen table, draving on her own wild adolescence to spin the tale of a girl's romantic self-obliteration in Liverpool's council estates. Editor Ella Christopherson caught up athome in Birkenhead, near Liverpool.|
ELLA: Your first novel, Brass, has been a huge hit in the UK. It reads like a reluctant love letter to Liverpool, where the book is set.
HELEN: I grew up near Liverpool and went to university there. When I was in school, the city began to feel very claustrophobic. There were few decent clubs or restaurants, and for such a culturally diverse place, there really wasn't a significant gay community. I moved to London after university, but after a hard stint there, I decided to move back up north. When I got off the train in Liverpool, daylight was just passing into dusk. I looked out at the cathedrals and the waterfront, and it was like seeing the city for the first time.
ELLA: I know that view both my parents are Liverpudlians.
HELEN: I fell madly, madly back in love with Liverpool. I rediscovered its blundering appeal. It's such a blindly optimistic city. Everyone has big, wild dreams that they never give up on, even into their old age. You'll go into a pub, and there'll be men in their sixties with beer guts and pipes talking about becoming the next Beatles.
ELLA: Brass is the coming-of-age story of Millie, a self-destructive nineteen-year old who seeks comfort in coke binges and casual sex while she tries to figure out what she wants from life. You've had a pretty wild life yourself. Was writing the book cathartic?
HELEN: I think first novels always are. They're the most honest and frank. Brass just poured out of me and onto the pages I wrote the book in only nine months. Every day I looked forward to getting to my computer and delving into Brass-land. When I finished, I went into a massive grieving period for Millie. I really missed waking up and going on adventures with her. I never saw Brass as a proper novel, really. It was more of a purge.
ELLA: But there's a sophisticated structure at the heart of the novel. The first-person narrative switches between Millie and her best friend, Jamie, and everything falls into place in the last quarter of the book.
HELEN: I wasn't aware of that when I was writing the book. My editor wanted to cut Jamie out and have the whole book narrated through Millie, but I really stood my ground. She also wanted to edit the sex scenes.
ELLA: That's crazy! The language in those scenes is really intense and raw, but that's the beauty of it.
HELEN: There are grammatical inconsistencies, and the same adjectives crop up again and again, but I think that sex is like that. It's urgent, it's flawed it's not poetic. I was living at my mum's when I wrote Brass, and I used to write the sex scenes the morning after I'd been out drinking I'm always horny then. It's kind of weird frigging yourself off when your mum's in the next room so I'd go downstairs to write instead.
ELLA: How difficult was it to get a publishing deal for Brass?
HELEN: I was really lucky. I've worked in a literary agency in London so I know that it often has nothing to do with the quality of the manuscript. There are so many unsolicited manuscripts that never even make it to the reader's desk. But I always trust my instincts. My religion is half-fatalism and half-existentialism. When I started writing, I had absolute certainty that this novel would be read by other people. Right from the word go.
ELLA: So how was working in the London media?
HELEN: I had a really crap job as PA to the director of a literary agency. I did everything from paying his bills to walking his dogs. I felt very objectified and unappreciated.
ELLA: How old were you?
HELEN I was twenty-four. I didn't know where my life was going. I stayed in London for nine months and got really run-down and depressed. I was eventually diagnosed with affective cycling disorder it's like bipolar disorder, but the cycles are far more rapid. But first I was misdiagnosed and put on the wrong medication, and I started to self-harm. My mood vaulted back and forth every ten or twelve days. It was so fucking tiring. Early on I resisted running home because I'd taken the huge step of moving to London when you go off into the big wide world, you're expected to come back with conquests and treasures. But eventually I needed to call a time-out and take a step back.
ELLA: You grew up in Warrington, right? It's a satellite town lodged between Liverpool and Manchester.
HELEN: Yeah. Warrington hasn't really got a personality. Nothing cultural like music or fashion had ever come out of there. Growing up, all I thought about was getting out. But this one dance club, Legends, hatched up there in the late '80s, and it became my life for the next three years I was going out nearly every night. It was a full-blown love affair with clubs, drugs, and a gang of people.
ELLA: You're only twenty-eight now you must have been super young in the late '80s.
HELEN: I was thirteen when I started going out, but I was even younger in many ways. I was naive and very childlike. At thirteen, lot of girls that age are already into makeup and boys, but I was quite bookish and dorky, and a bit of a tomboy. I wasn't ugly, but I was odd looking. I'd always been the kid the boys ran away from on the playground when we were playing kiss-chase. I have brown skin my mum's Sri Lankan Malaysian and I grew up in a staunchly white neighborhood. People try to downplay the role of aesthetics in one's childhood because it seems so superficial. But the way I looked played a massive part in my coming-of-age. When I hit puberty, in the space of six months, I grew breasts and had my braces taken off. I suddenly became aware of this power that, at its crudest, is concentrated between your legs. You've got something boys want. It's a very fucked-up currency.
ELLA: How did your parents react to your clubbing all night at such a young age?
HELEN: I put my mum in a really difficult situation. I'd be horrified if I had a teenage daughter who said to me, "This is what I'm doing. You've got a choice you can either let me get on with it, or you can try and stop me and I'll run away." My mum eventually she decided she'd rather let me go out at night than lose me altogether. She took a massive risk, but it paid off, because we became very good friends.
ELLA: I'm amazed by some of the things I thought perfectly logical as a teenager that, in retrospect, were totally unreasonable.
HELEN: Yeah. I convinced myself that I would die when I was twenty-three. That was the lodestar that governed my life, which helps explain my absolutely excessive behavior. For a long time, going out and doing drugs wasn't just something I dabbled in. It wasn't simply social or recreational it was full-on all the time. Ecstasy really obliterates your barriers.
ELLA: And distorts your sense of safety.
HELEN: I was getting into strangers' cars and driving to Scotland on a whim. I used to say, "If I have a daughter, I want her to be like me, I want her to be able to handle herself on the streets, blah blah blah." Looking back now, I think it's a fucking miracle that I'm still here, unscathed.
ELLA: You moved to Barcelona on your own in 1993, when you were sixteen.
HELEN: When I lived there the policemen were unbelievably corrupt. I had so many close shaves with them. There were a few in particular who patrolled the Ramblas and regularly harassed and even chased me. It's really scary to think they represented the legal, protective body.
ELLA: That's terrifying.
HELEN: Whenever I arrive in a city, I try to locate the gay area, because I know that's where I'll find like-minded people and feel safe. In Barcelona I took asylum in the red-light district, as it was right next to the gay district.
ELLA: You worked as a fixer, introducing prostitutes and punters in bars.
HELEN: I know it sounds seamy and dangerous, but I was just working for my mates. One of the transgender people I used to drink with said to me one night, "Here's a way of earning some money." You know, I've never been scared among sex workers. I'm much more threatened by a group of blokes on a stag night.
ELLA: How long did you stay in Barcelona?
HELEN: A year, in total. By that point, I was absolutely mentally shot from doing so many drugs. My mum had moved to Liverpool, so I decided to move there too and eventually went back to school. I went to university for my mum, really, because she'd been so supportive through everything. She's a nurse, and I was the first person in her family to go to university. It was a really big deal for her.
ELLA: You were twenty-one when you started at Liverpool University.
HELEN: I didn't have anything in common with eighteen-year-old students who'd just left home and were trying out weed and ecstasy for the first time I had stopped doing drugs by then. So I really threw myself into my studies.
ELLA: You studied sociology, right?
HELEN: I managed to study only sex the entire time I was there. [laughs] I've always thought sex was a fascinating window into human behavior. In my last year, I took classes on gender and sexuality, crime and deviance, and women and work. I wrote my paper on transvestite sex workers in Europe and Southeast Asia.
ELLA: I'm surprised you didn't study literature.
HELEN: I wanted to do a joint degree, but the literature professor who interviewed me was horrified by what I'd been reading. My book collection consisted mainly of chauvinist male authors Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dostoyevsky, Bukowski when apparently I should've been reading the classics. When Brass got published, I had a moment of retributive justice, though. I sent the professor a signed review copy.
ELLA: As an attractive young woman writing punchy literature, you're very marketable. Do you have fears about being typecast?
HELEN: I was really worried about that before Brass came out. I asked my publisher not to put an author's picture on the jacket or mention my life in Barcelona. But they did anyway. In retrospect, I'm glad they did, because it gave the book a push. So many first novels are stillborn. It'd be great to think that everyone responds to the potency of the writing, but, of course, that's not how the media works. It's an industry obsessed with youth and aesthetics my being female, under thirty, and of mixed race was no doubt a selling point.
ELLA: You launched into a second book immediately after finishing Brass.
HELEN:I got seventy thousand words into it, but it never really felt like a labor of love. I'd wake up in the morning and think, "Shit, I really can't be bothered." So I just scrapped it.
ELLA: But now you're working on a new book?
HELEN: Yeah. It's going really well this time because I'm totally in love with my characters. I was supposed to hand in a draft earlier this summer, but I reckon I'll need another few months. It's a big, complex novel that requires my planning, structuring, and editing chapters resolving narratives and backstories.
ELLA: Where do you do your writing these days?
HELEN:I've moved to Birkenhead, across the river from Liverpool. I'm in hiding. I can't exercise abstinence when I live in the city I get too wired on the whole vibe. But I can still see the Liver Birds and the lifeboats from my bedroom window. Nowadays I get up in the morning and walk down to the village. Yes, I have a village. I have tea in the tearoom, and then I come back home to write, or maybe go for a bike ride. It's very idyllic. Very Jane Austen.