Helen Palmer grew up in Blackpool before heading to Goldsmiths to study literature. Now a creative writing lecturer, her academic career has taken her to the US and around Europe, where she now lives in Vienna. She tells Blackpool Social Club that although she left her hometown, the idea of writing about it never left her.

Helen Palmer’s debut novel Pleasure Beach (Prototype Publishing) unfolds on 16th June 1999 – a queer love story and spans multiple voices and styles in 24 hours.

The interconnecting stories of three 19-year-old women are structured and themed in the same way as James Joyce’s Ulysses. Hedonist and wannabe playwright Olga Adessi is struggling along the prom to get to her morning shift at the chippy with a monstrous hangover and trying to remember exactly what happened with Rachel Watkins. Rachel is a strange and fragile girl she had an encounter with the night before. Meanwhile, former gymnast and teenage mum Treesa Reynolds, is off to the Sandcastle Waterpark with her mum Lou and daughter Lulu, looking forward to a sausage and egg McMuffin on the way.

Pleasure Beach breathes and exhales the unique sea air, fish and chips, donuts and candyfloss scents of Blackpool, bringing to life everything the town is famous for, portraying the gritty magic and sheer unadulterated fun of the town and its people across a spectrum of sensory experiences and emotions.

Where did the idea to pair the styling and structure of James Joyce’s Ulysses with a story about women in Blackpool?
I had been toying with the idea for quite a while. I had been a fan of Ulysses ever since studying English at uni and feeling quite daunted by it, and then later when teaching with it, I remember feeling frustrated with the dominance of male voices. And I always wanted to write about Blackpool, for as long as I can remember. So eventually it just made sense to put these things together.

Pleasure Beach is written in a very distinctive, experimental style. Does writing in this way come naturally to you, or was it an intentional artistic decision? How did it help you to tell this particular story?
I was definitely inspired by Joyce in the way that he shifts between styles and voices all the time, but it actually also felt very natural for me to play around with different styles and formats all the time. I love to be playful with language, and I hope that the sense of playfulness comes through in the different styles.

The book centers the lives of three working-class women, living and working in Blackpool – stories we’ve rarely seen reflected on the pages of mainstream literature. Was it important to you to give them a voice?
I would say that class is a really important topic in the book, and that each of the three characters themselves come from different backgrounds even though they’ve all grown up in the Blackpool area. Olga says to Rachel at one point in the book “you’re posher than me”, and Rachel is described as being “privileged” because her parents have more money, so you could say Rachel’s background is maybe more middle-class compared to the other two. I think it’s hugely important to hear more working-class voices, not just in literature but in all art forms.

I kept thinking about how Joyce wrote Ulysses, which is entirely based in Dublin, from far-away places – Zürich, Trieste and Paris.

The characters in the book are very different to each other, and their voices stand out as entirely unique. Did you enjoy writing any of the characters more than others?
I enjoyed writing all three characters, although at the same time they brought their own challenges. The biggest challenge was getting over the fear of writing things outside my own experience, for example writing a character who was a teenage mum. I haven’t had that experience but I wanted to represent it. So I had to get over the fear of not sounding authentic and just go for it.

As readers from Blackpool, we felt the town come alive in the pages of your novel. How did it feel to revisit the town (figuratively or literally) in the context of writing a book?
It felt very nostalgic and also surreal, writing the entire book in places as far away as Sydney, London and Vienna. I worried that I had got too far away, literally and metaphorically. But I kept thinking about how Joyce wrote Ulysses, which is entirely based in Dublin, from far-away places – Zürich, Trieste and Paris.

Despite it being such an important symbol in British culture with an extensive historical impact, people don’t often write about Blackpool. Why do you think that is? Would you like to read more literature set in the town?
I would love to read more literature set in Blackpool. I have felt for a long time that it’s crying out for more literary representation. Hopefully there will be more writing coming! I’m doing some school visits in Blackpool this week and doing some writing workshops with them, and I can say there are definitely some talented young writers round here!

What advice would you give to aspiring writers from your hometown and beyond?
Write regularly – write when you’re happy, sad, heartbroken, angry: write all the time. Write as therapy. Write about the difficult stuff. Write what you know and don’t be afraid to go beyond it.


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