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.
Your second novel, Corazon was a very different beast from Stone Baby; was that intentional on your part or did it just come out that way?
JD: Oh yes, well it just came out that way. I have a strong interest in the hidden ways Society is formed, syphilis being one of them. Syphilis dictated huge social changes such as women′s suffrage and great art but it′s never discussed. So of course being thrilled by all this, I ran off and wrote a book about it and HarperCollins were horrified, genuinely. They hated the book, me, the word ‘syphilis’, the concept, the title, the lot. They wanted me to write a cute sequel to Stone Baby about how Lily, the main character, runs off to London and drives around in a Mini solving cosy mysteries in a bowdlerised version of the music industry. Really, I′m not kidding here. They thought I was the most uncooperative, stupid person going because I wouldn′t do it. They kept asking me if I didn′t want the money and I kept laughing, so they refused to do any promo as a punishment. That′s how the big publishing houses go on, like kids. Anyhow I loved writing Corazon, and did a lot of it on site in a house just along from Ronda, Andalusia. The cafes, parks and bars etc. in the book are real places, people go on Corazon tours of Ronda. I′m going back there myself shortly – great place. However Corazon was the final nail in the coffin of my commerciality – I never got a major book contract again. You win some, you lose some, syphilis is still one of my favourite things – oh, unless you have it, of course. Then I′m deeply sorry for you. Try to avoid it is my advice.
Your third novel, Billie Morgan, came out from Serpent′s Tail. It felt – still feels – like your most personal book.
JD: It is. I used my life as material. You can do that if you can become dispassionate about your past which I have had to do anyway to some extent in order to live with what I′ve seen and done. There are a lot of real things in that book including the head in the bottle scene. That′s real. It′s no secret I have struggled with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, mostly due to stuff like that. There′s only so much real life horror and violence you can witness before your mind goes, “fuck that for a game of soldiers”. I had therapy and all that but it′s still there. But I wanted people to know what it was really like in a British outlaw biker gang at that time, when they were at their height, kings of the street. Now they′re mostly sad bands of sub-EDL fascists hiding their beer bellies in the clubhouse. Gangs come and go, that′s how it is. As I say, tribal.
Billie Morgan is a very dark, harrowing novel – nightmarish at times. Where did the darkness in that novel come from?
JD: My head…
Billie Morgan was nominated for the Orange Prize. It often feels like your work doesn′t get the recognition it deserves, so did that come as a shock?
JD: Oh yeah! It was horrible! I hated it! It was one of the worst things that ever happened for my writing career. Of course I′d like to be universally loved and admired for my work, designated a national treasure, who wouldn′t – and have lots of money on the strength of it and get sent freebies from every fashion house going etc, but not at that cost. It was really stressful and nasty. I was in every newspaper in the world, literally, which you′d think would be perfect but not if you′re put in as a complete freak show, the ′tattooed biker chick′ who – shock horror – can actually read and write! The literary world are deeply snobbish and intolerant of The Other and universally drew their skirts in and put me in Coventry. It was the final end of my commercial writing career. They couldn’t forgive me for being me and I couldn’t enjoy the fuss. In the end, all the writers except Lionel Shriver (who thought this utterly pathetic and swiftly and publicly distanced herself from us), banded together to support each other, best woman wins, and I said if I won I′d split the money with them just to put twos-up at the massive corporate machine that the Prize is. I meant it too; it would have made me laugh. Anyhow, that was it for me. They succeeded in preserving the integrity of their tribe against the outsider. That′s life. They could have bloody well given me a new phone though, the cheapskate bastards.
One recurring theme in Billie Morgan – and to some extent in all your novels – is a very scathing attitude towards the media and how they use and package people.
JD: I grew up in public as a writer because I was the fashionable poet and ‘It Girl’ for a while in the 1980s, on the front cover of Time Out, interviews in every music paper (because of my music associations), magazine and newspaper, photo shoots, modelling contract – you name it. Also I′ve worked with bands for 30-odd years. I′ve seen how people who appear perfectly nice, courteous human beings become monsters the minute they write the piece or do the broadcast. How the mass media are dominated by ego and cocaine, to be honest, coke-head thinking, or alcohol thinking, imagining they′re so much more important than anyone else, that they are justified in doing or saying anything on the long-lost grounds of ′investigative journalism′. That′s a sad bit of hypocrisy. They just want to make money, that′s it. Nothing else. They′ll cheerfully destroy anyone to do it. Really. That′s not an exaggeration. There′s no anger or passion in it, just greed. I write what I see, a lot of writers shy away from realistic descriptions of the media in case the media turns against them. The media occasionally turns against me but I′m generally so far beneath their radar I get away with it. Anyhow, if they don′t like it – tough titty. I wasn’t put on this earth to make people feel comfortable. That′s not my job.
The other novel you wrote for Serpent′s Tail was Borrowed Light, set in Cornwall. A lot of the book centres around the actions of an obsessed stalker, but there′s also a sort of supernatural theme with the character of Angel, who we′re told was ′born without a soul′. Angel is soulless in the sense that there′s no real character to her; she′s just a ′blank screen′ other people project their fantasies on, usually to very destructive effect. Was that idea the inspiration for the story, or did that just come up as you wrote it?
JD: No, I′ve known people like Angel. There appears to be no reason that they′re like that but they are. Psychopathic – in the true sense of the word, wholly unable to comprehend and totally uninterested in others except as useful props to their lives. We′re just furniture to them, again there′s no passion in it, they′re not mastermind criminals, and they′re just missing bits, bits you can call a soul – the ability to empathise, love. I wanted to show that and also explore stalking properly because we’ve had a lot of stalkers – some homicidal – and it′s a matter of degree. Angel is stalked but then, Astra pretty much stalks Luke though she’d be horrified to see it that way. It all depends on your angle of vision. Some people call it ‘romantic love’ while others might see it as stalking. I also spoke to a lot of people about their experiences with stalkers and time and time again it came up that they knew something was very wrong but their friends and family thought the guy/gal had ‘a bit of a crush’. In one case a young woman I spoke to left her hometown to get away from the guy and her parents cheerfully gave him her new address on the grounds he must really love her to go to such trouble and she ought to marry him. He ended up in jail because of his actions towards her. It′s a fascinating but repellent piece of human behaviour and society′s attitude towards it is very ambivalent.
Your latest novel Wild Thing is published through Ignite Books. Can you tell us a bit about Ignite?
JD: I set up Ignite with Steve Pottinger so I would never have to be told what to do again by some publisher with no idea what they′re on about. We wanted to put out our books and others by people whose work we liked, like Dave Barbarossa and Justin Sullivan. We′re just doing it and seeing how it goes. Steve does the admin and all the hard bits. I′m decorative. It′s not hard to set up an indie company if you don′t mind working and are prepared to do what it takes. Same as anything. It cost about £2,000 for the necessary software which I had from my inheritance so I thought, better to do something useful with it than spend it on sparkly pink crap off the internet which I would have if I didn’t think about it.
Wild Thing has a similar premise to your poem ‘The Chicken Boy’ – an illegitimate child concealed by a fanatically religious family and growing up feral. But it′s also the story of Annie Wynter, a former record company PA turned social worker, and the men she loves – the young rock and roll singer Johnny X, and the feral boy, Adam. It struck me as not so much a love story as a story about love, and about how wonderful and terrible it is.
JD: That′s correct. It′s a kind of redemptive terrible tragedy. I was particularly interested in the way society these days deals with bereavement – it gives you six months then you′re supposed to ′get closure′. This of course is rubbish as anyone who′s lost a loved one knows. It never goes away. It becomes more bearable over a long time but it can still get you sometimes. Society also consistently underplays the power love has these days as if it′s a bit unseemly and it should all be sickly sentiment or Playboy, when in fact it′s the most ragingly powerful and driving emotion we have and if you devalue it, you don′t know how to deal with it when it comes. Not that you can deal with it because it′s uncontrollable. But at least you won′t be too surprised. I′m amazed anyone buys the media version of how life should be lived, I really am, given they see what is done in the name of love every day. Also, age gap relationships are interesting because I′m in one and it′s very difficult, not between us, but in that society takes a very dim view of it, people freak out. But again, love is love, what can you do? As long as you don′t harm anyone deliberately, it′s not their concern how you love.
Your most recent CD of spoken word material is The Black Dahlia; how does that differ from the preceding one, Spirit Stories?
JD: Oh it′s much heavier, less gentle. Spirit Stories is beautiful and very accomplished musically. It′s easy to love Spirit Stories. Everyone who hears it bonds with it immediately. Even the ones who think they hate poetry. Not disrespecting that in any way but having done it I wanted to make something different, more challenging. Some of The Black Dahlia is positively scary. I wouldn′t listen to ′Desert′ on headphones in the dark alone. It was cool making it though and designing the genuinely amazing origami art packaging which is an integral part of the project along with the videos. I like holistic things. Everything is connected in my world. Connections are the most important thing to study.
Finally, what′s next for you?
JD: More of the same until I drop dead. I′d also like to state these have been by far the most interesting and best researched questions I′ve been asked in a very long time. Thank you for your interest in my work and all the best to anyone reading this.
Joolz Denby, thank you very much.
JD: Hey, my pleasure, fella.
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