Poet, novelist, spoken-word performer, artist (most famously for the albums and singles of rock band New Model Army) and tattooist, Joolz Denby has been producing a powerful and varied body of work since the 1980s, much of it gorgeously dark and unsettling.Whether she′s touching on the terrible things humans are capable of doing to one another or the beauty and terror just under the skin of the visible world, her work offers rich pickings for those who appreciate dark fiction.Simon Bestwick was on hand to catch-up with Joolz.
How would you describe yourself?
JD: Tired. Seriously, very tired at present, but I have a holiday booked so that′ll sort me out. It′s two months away but I′m packed already, how sad it that? Aside from that I guess I′d describe myself as an artist/storyteller. People often ask me how I can do so many different things like writing, poetry, performance, recording, drawing, designing, painting, tattooing, but if you look at that list it′s really just two things, art and writing, and in my mind they′re very much the same – just telling stories.
One thing that really stands out about you as an artist is the sheer range of stuff you do. Most people would be content to be really bloody good at one thing artistically – be it poetry, spoken word, fiction or art. Yet you′ve built up an extraordinary body of work in all these areas, set up shop as a registered tattoo artist, managed bands, curated exhibitions… not to mention an impressive workload! How do you do it?
JD: I don′t have a social life. People laugh when I say that but it′s not a joke. I made a decision to put work first but it wasn′t hard. I′m not very sociable anyway and I love my work. I′m actually a shy person though people don′t believe it because I get up on stage and talk, but that′s much easier for me than going to a party. I like to be as good as I possibly can be at anything I do, it makes me happy. However that doesn′t mean always doing things the public might admire, it often means making mistakes and failing at a project then struggling to get it right, or learning something from the bottom up like tattooing, in which I had a full traditional apprenticeship aged 49. That was hard. People think that′s because I don′t take instruction easily but it wasn′t that, I never mind being instructed in something I want to learn. It was because as you get older it′s harder to learn things – so learn everything possible while you′re young is my advice.
Your work is very distinctive: it′s neither happy-clappy nor fashionably cynical and while there′s great anger at human cruelty and social injustice, there′s a deep humanity and compassion as well. There′s also a lyrical appreciation of the beauty of nature and the power of love, together with a genuine sense of the numinous. Do you feel that′s a fair assessment?
JD: Yeah. I dislike cynicism in art, I think it cheapens the work, and I am always very moved by natural beauty. People annoy the living fuck out of me sometimes, much as I love them, and I′m often short tempered. Also I′m constantly astounded at the breadth and depth of human ingenuity when it comes to doing harm, but I believe kindness is the greatest gift possible. On both a global and personal level. I understand the deeper world that exists around us and I know we can to a degree tap into it. I have had genuine experiences of being one with what we might call Gaia for want of a better word, just for a few moments, but worth everything. I am devout in my faith – a plain, Stoic kind of Paganism – but have no interest in proselytising whatever. We come to it or we don′t.
Your work overlaps into different genres and there are many themes that you address, but in this interview I′d particularly like to focus on where your fiction and poetry touches on psychological horror and the supernatural. Do you read within the horror field and has it influenced you over the years?
JD: The horror and supernatural work I read tends to be the older sort – Lovecraft, because he is unintentionally hilarious and every time I see the word ′gibbous′ it reminds me and makes me laugh. I read a modern guy called Michael Gruber who has done some really good spiritual/psychological fiction in the form of thrillers, he′s really excellent. Obviously I love Stoker and that kind of thing. I used to read Stephen King but I do think he′s highly overrated if you′re over 14. I like anything that explores a bit deeper or pushes ideas along a bit and often ′genre′ (stupid concept) does that infinitely better than mainstream ′fine literature′ as the Edinburgh Book Fair puts it so tactlessly. I read everything and anything really, except modern poetry. You have to draw the line somewhere…
One definition of horror is that it affirms the ′normal′ by showing us the ′deviant′ in monstrous terms – as something to be destroyed or normalised. Thankfully no one ever convinced Clive Barker of that! Your characters tend to be outsiders of a kind – not romantic rebels, but people whose natures or experiences place them outside the mainstream. Some, like Billie Morgan, seek a place to belong, while others, like Astra in Borrowed Light, are lucky enough to have one already. Is it a conscious decision on your part?
JD: I suppose it reflects my own life experiences. I have never belonged anywhere, had no family to speak of except my father, a committed Stoic and soldier-scholar, and spent a lot of time with marginal groups such as outlaw biker gangs and musicians. I go with the philosophical idea of The Other against which ′normal′ Society defines itself as ′normal′. I indicate the word normal because I don′t believe there is in reality any such thing but it′s a construct that allows people to build tribal groups, tribal being humanity′s natural formation.We seek protection from the terror of the Big Sky in tribal groups with comforting dress and behavioural codes, taboos and hierarchies. Human beings are very scared a lot of the time, both in big and little ways.
Your poem ‘Shapeshifter’ [from the collection The Pride Of Lions] revolves around an encounter on Saddleworth Moor with something that may be much more – and worse – than a wild cat. Is it true that this was based on a real experience of yours?
JD: Oh yeah, scared the shit out of me. I was a climber when I was younger and my climbing partner and I had been out on the crags. We stopped for a piss in a layby on the Moor and as I was about to get in the car I looked across the bonnet to see what I now know was a large Lynx. Speechless I pointed to it and my partner also saw it then like an idiot got out of the car and went up to it. It ran off a little way and stopped again, he followed, it ran off a little way and this was repeated until he couldn′t find it. Now I think it was trying to lead us away from its den. We drove off in silence then he said ″did that happen?″ And I said yes. We didn′t really talk about it after that. It was so unreal and uncanny. Later I read several reports of a Lynx sighted in that area. There are a lot of places to hide on the moors and they stretch unbroken for miles, right across the county. Hence in Wild Thing, Adam can live undetected on the moors for years. If you wanted to get lost there, you certainly could, yet it′s within a few miles of a city in many cases.
One quality that the best horror has is the willingness to go further, to take its characters to places that none of us would want to go to in real life. Authors like James Ellroy or David Peace do that, but I never feel they give a damn about the characters. You′re the opposite: there′s a great sense of empathy and emotional involvement even with people like Sean Powers in Stone Baby or Tim in Borrowed Light – and yet you often, as the Big Issue put it, “write your characters into the abyss”. What drives you to do that?
JD: I suppose I′m like that as a person. I don′t judge, it′s pointless. People will do what they want in the end, be that bake a cake or serial murder. Terrible stuff happens to people every day, some of which they bring on themselves, some of which they don′t. There′s no point in pretending these things don′t happen. ″The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it″, as Flannery O′Conner said so rightly. I have no patience whatsoever with people who willingly and knowingly cause others, or animals, harm but I do understand why they do it, however repulsive I find the act. Male writers often pride themselves on keeping their distance from emotion, being cool, I′m not cool and I don′t give a shit. It′s easy to love if you accept it will always involve pain. Pain isn′t the end of the world, it′s just crap, and then it eases over time. We can bear a lot more pain, both physical and mental, than we think we can. It′s a good teacher but a bad master.
Your first novel, Stone Baby, appeared in 2000. Novels about serial killers are ten a penny, not to mention done to death, but this was a new – and very powerful – take on the theme. How did it come about?
JD: Because Peter Sutcliffe, ′The Yorkshire Ripper′ or as we in Bradford prefer to call him, That Murdering Bastard, dominated my city′s history. There was a lot of quite brutal speculation about whether his wife Sonia knew of his activities and condoned them, but I thought it was more complicated than that. So I did a shed load of research like normal and if you do that you realise quite quickly that it′s actually easy for these men to maintain a perfectly ′normal′ existence and at the same time harbour deeply perverse and dangerous fantasies and thoughts. They just compartmentalise their lives absolutely. So at home they′re the ordinary working stiff, they have a job etc. and unless you cross the point of their obsession you′d never know. Most people with perverse psychologies never get the opportunity to act on them and no one ever knows. Anyone can and will be thinking anything, you never truly know another person because you can′t access their deepest inner thoughts. We′re all alone in our heads, playing with whatever we like.So my heroines just think the killer in Stone Baby is a bit of a prick, faithless, a liar. It doesn′t occur to them to imagine anyone they know is a murderer. What are your friends doing when you′re not there?
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