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Author Q&A: Lauren John Joseph

The story of a doomed affair, At Certain Points We Touch (Bloomsbury) begins at 4am on February 29th, as its narrator realises it’s the anniversary of their lover’s death. Piecing together art, letters and memory, they set about trying to write their story. Ten years earlier they fall into bed with Thomas James and a tale of attraction and repulsion begins. Violent, intoxicating and toxic, it’s a queer first love story that ends and begins with in betrayal and tragedy. The debut novel of the Liverpool-born theatre maker, it has been described as a “stone-cold masterpiece” by “a shocking new talent”. An Evening with Lauren John Joseph is Blackpool Central Library on 5th October, hosted by local creative Joseph Doubtfire and free to attend. Register here.

As a working-class child in Liverpool you were told that writing was not for you. As a trans adult the publishing world seemed impossibly out of reach. How did you come to defy the odds and how does it feel to have now published At Certain Points We Touch?
Yes, I took it very hard when my grandad told me writing books wasn’t for the likes of us, and I very much took it to heart. I continued to write though, not exactly furtively but, let’s say, for myself. It seemed impossible that anyone would ever look at it, or consider it seriously. I’ve been writing my entire life, always hoping against hope that one day I’d have the right project for the right publisher and finally it happened. So, yes I’m quite thrilled, especially now it’s out in the world and people are writing to say they’ve just picked up a copy, or that they’ve started reading and have fallen in love with it.

You have written for stage and are also a performer. Have your other creative outlets informed your fiction writing?
My stage work was initially a response to the frustration I felt towards publishing. Since I was a teenager I had been trying to get an agent, trying to get published and constantly being given the brush off. Nobody ever said, “This is garbage,” which might’ve been easier to process, but rather, “We love this but don’t know what to do with it.” I suppose nobody thought it would be possible to market a writer like me until pretty recently. Writing for the stage was a way to take what I had, i.e. a voice and a body, and put my work out into the world. I was always very influenced by artists like Penny Arcade and Karen Finley who use a very intimate form of direct address, I think that comes through in the novel too. Like them I also run graphic sexuality and social commentary up against absurdist humour and spiritual reflection.

The book was inspired by a personal loss. Has it helped you process your own grief?
Absolutely. I cried endlessly through the writing, and the editing, and the proofing, but by the time we were sending it off to press I felt that the sorrow had left me. It was like three years of intense therapy I suppose you could say. It wasn’t just that I was coming to terms with a loss which I had been absolutely incapable of processing, I also let a lot of guilt go, and found a wellspring of joy which I had cemented over. It has been a transformative experience, and it’s only just beginning.

The book has elements of autofiction and metafiction but defies genre. Did you set out to be experimental and are there any authors whose work you were inspired by in this respect?
I was actually extremely worried that fans of my previous work would think that this book was a cop out, because it’s much more conventional than most of my back catalogue. That was a big worry! So I sent it to some of my favourite writers, Olivia Laing and Chris Brett Bailey, and basically asked, am I a sell out? When they both liked it, when they said that it was work worth pursuing I felt assured that I hadn’t entirely lost my cred. I’d like to think that this book expands genre, rather than defies it, because I set out to write a very generous, inviting book, rather than one which was walled off by any kind of intellectual snobbery. I accept it’s a pretty nutty read, but I’ve tried to bring as much lightness and irreverence as possible, to hopefully stay agile even whilst bearing
such heavy themes.

“It’s ludicrous to demand that your own experience be centred in all art. It’s the work that is furthest from you that can often be the most worthwhile.”

Tell us about the importance of place and time to the novel.
I thought a lot about time and place whilst writing this book, specifically how the two things are basically the same thing, space-time. Thinking about that really flipped my lid, and I became fascinated with attempts to treat the two as one material. Originally, not only was the narrator writing about their travels, they were also travelling whilst writing. Although I took this through line out in the edit, the sense of swimming through space-time remains I think, this sort of weightlessness,
a floating in history.

Queer fiction is growing in diversity and visibility and your book offers an honest and unabashed representation of queer culture and sex in mainstream publishing. How can we celebrate that without pigeonholing the book as queer fiction?
Yes, that’s a tricky one, more a question for the marketing team I think, but I’ll give it a go! There’s a sense often that if you encounter work written from an entirely different experience than yours that it won’t resonate, that it won’t be for you, but that’s really delusional. It’s ludicrous to demand that your own experience be centred in all art. It’s the work that is furthest from you that can often be the most worthwhile. Reading Angela Davis for the first time in my early twenties was for me such a pivotal moment. Her work had always been framed to me as writing for and about black women, communists, Americans, terrorists, whatever, and I was none of those things. But when I did pick up a copy the whole universe was there; her work is so human and so vital, so humbling. How could I have been so ignorant and narrow-minded? After reading her I found my own understanding of what books can do was really expanded. So, yes I want this book to represent queer people, and to be part of the celebration in the community itself, but I also want it to be an invitation which brings people into that community, or into allyship at least. To be honest, I’m pretty sure that if you weren’t queer before you read this book, you would be afterwards.

This interview originally appeared in Big Issue North. You can buy the weekly magazine from The Old Electric, Springfield Road.

Reclaim Blackpool - Mapping Sexual Harrasment
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    Antonia Charlesworth Stack is a journalist and editor from Blackpool. She was deputy editor of Big Issue North magazine and is editor of Blackpool Social Club. Antonia is also the founder of Reclaim Blackpool, a women's safety campaign that began life as an article she wrote for Blackpool Social Club. She's a contributing author to the Lancashire Stories anthology with her story about a Blackpool performer, The Call of The Sea. The book is available for free in libraries across the county.

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