Elodie Rose Barnes talks to author, performer and singer, Rosie Garland, about discovering the magic of words as a child, being an outsider, the importance of reading poetry out loud and the feminist gothic found in her novels.
Rosie Garland is an author, performer, cabaret queen and singer with post-punk band The March Violets. Her award-winning poetry, short stories and essays have been widely anthologised, and she is the author of three novels and several poetry collections. Her latest collection, What Girls Do In The Dark, was published in 2020 by Nine Arches Press. She is a secret medievalist and Time-Travelling Suffragette, and is proud to have been blessed by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
I first came across Rosie Garland’s work with her first published novel, The Palace of Curiosities. Several years late to the Victorian party (the novel was released in 2013, having won the Mslexia Novel Competition in 2012), I was nevertheless drawn headlong into this fascinating, slightly fantastical, slanted-reality world. Two things struck me above all: the depth of language that made this nineteenth-century London seem real, and the presence – no, the dominance – of outsiders like myself. Not to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it, but the main characters are far outside the bounds of what was and is considered normal. It was a wonderful re-awakening, after a period of disillusionment and not reading very much at all, to the possibilities that books hold. Having followed Rosie’s work since, and having been particularly struck by What Girls Do In The Dark, I was excited to talk to her about her creative practices, the power of reading, and what, exactly, makes a poem sing.
I was originally going to start by asking what drew you to writing, but given the broad sweep of what you do creatively – writing poetry, writing fiction, writing song lyrics, cabaret, performance – I’m going to rephrase it and ask what drew you to words?
What drew me to words was realising how marvellous they are. I have a strong, visceral memory of being read to by my grandmother – the one out of my four grandparents who was lovely (we all have one!). She always had time for stories. Even when I was too young to understand the words, she would sit me on her knee and read fairy stories while I looked at the pictures and listened. I understood there was a connection between the sounds and the squiggles on the page, and through some amazing alchemy the two were connected, but the first experience of the power of words was hearing them spoken. As a result, when I started writing my own stories, I was grounded in the sound of words and all their richness.
The stories themselves also had a lasting impact. Through fairy stories, I understood things can happen that seem illogical. Fire-breathing dragons can wander into a story and wander out again. People can do magic, and bring about the unexpected. Houses can disappear then appear again. As a result, I’ve never had a problem with bending reality in my own writing. Sure, I read more than fairy tales; but I learnt something important when young and impressionable.
Which other books and writers have been major influences on you and your writing?
This is such a hard question, because there are so many! To name two of the multitude – Angela Carter and Edgar Allan Poe: I first read The Pit and the Pendulum at age nine. I was probably a bit young… it was terrifying! However, it introduced the idea of different kinds of reading pleasure than the saccharine kids’ books on offer. I could enjoy being thoroughly scared. It was exciting and safe at the same time – a new experience, which made a big impression.
I’ve always read widely, though, not just magic realism and fantasy. I enjoy the classics – the Brontës, Dostoyevsky, Jane Austen – but I’m not snobbish about so-called ‘genre writing’. Writing snobs can do one. To me, reading is reading. I was, as you can imagine, the geeky kid who was always left on their own, and that was compounded by living in rural England where the achievement bar was set pretty low. That kind of isolation as a teenager isn’t much fun. Finding these other worlds, created by people who were just as weird as me, was hugely important. A lifeline.
Do you find there’s an overlap between all of your creative practices?
I’ve thought about this, and it’s a really interesting question. I don’t have a hard-and-fast answer. I don’t see my writing as something I need to compartmentalise or label, per se. However, I have a lot of different things to say, and some forms seem better suited than others when expressing certain ideas.
For example, the Time Travelling Suffragette character (created in 2018 for the centenary of some women getting the vote in the UK) was designed to make fun of the idea that misogyny no longer exists, and to remind people how far we’ve come in terms of equality but also how far we have to go. It was a serious message using bawdy humour and by queering music-hall songs. I’m far less likely to do that in a novel.
Similarly Rosie Lugosi, my alter-ego lesbian vampire queen, was about exploring and performing ‘forbidden’ kind of female sexuality. She was a way of foregrounding and expressing some of these things that were unsayable in any other form when I created her at the end of the 1990s. Queerness wasn’t a great topic of conversation back then, and she was all about disobedient queerness. I had the ability, through Rosie Lugosi, to be a gender outlaw: a woman pretending to be a woman, Judith Butler taken to extremes. It’s something that I couldn’t have experimented with in any other form.
That idea of looking at different things through different means really came across to me in The Night Brother. I read that very much as an exploration of alter-ego, of the different personalities that we all have in one body, and how we all express those sides in different ways. Obviously the characters of Edie and Gnome take it to an extreme, but as I was reading I was wondering how much it was indirectly influenced by the idea of Rosie Lugosi.
No one’s ever noticed that before! I don’t think I had any intention of doing that when I was writing the book. It’s a great illustration of how, when a novel is completed and out in the world, it belongs to the reader as well as the author. Everyone will read it differently and will see things I hadn’t even thought of. I find it a massive compliment that a reader has found space in my writing for their own thoughts and ideas.
And it’s another example of using different forms for different expressions. The Night Brother ‘needed’ to be a novel. I don’t think I could have explored all those ideas in poetry. Similarly, I’ve written poems on subjects that wouldn’t fit the novel form so well… For example, my latest collection What Girls Do In The Dark explores ideas about death, life, the universe, spiritual and physical connections, and I was able to explore them in a more indirect way with metaphor and allusion. That wouldn’t have been right in a longer form. Having said that, though, I increasingly find that I’m less bothered about form and labels. I don’t fret about whether something is a poem or a flash fiction or a hybrid piece; I’m more concerned with what the words are doing in heads and hearts, and I think that’s particularly reflected in What Girls Do In The Dark. One of the wonderful things about the publication process with Nine Arches was the fact that at no point did anyone ever say, ‘I don’t think this is a poem’, even though a couple of the pieces had been previously published as flash fiction and some of them stretch in unruly shapes across the page.
There’s a difference, though, between shape and form, and the labels that people put on things. Shaping lines is sometimes necessary to get the meaning across, but when a ‘form’ is slapped on something that can really limit it. Do you find there is a transition at all, for you, between writing poetry and writing prose, or is it just what it is?
When it comes to short forms, the meniscus is very thin. I can slip between poetry and flash very easily. I honestly think flash has more in common with poetry than it has with the short story. What does feel different, however, is making the transition from shorter forms into writing a novel. A novel is a big commitment. I have characters in my head with complex story arcs and trajectories, and have to live with them for a long time. Novel-writing is a hungry process that demands a lot. Poetry and flash are also demanding, of course, but there’s less of the ‘long haul’ element. It can take a few years to get from the beginning of a novel, when I usually start with the rough idea of a character, to the final edits. Having said that, I can take years getting a poem right! Once again I contradict myself, which is how it should be.
I never consciously wanted to write a novel. I’d been writing poetry and short stories and song lyrics and writing something longer never occurred to me; until one day I had an idea that was too big for even the longest of short stories. The idea wouldn’t leave me alone, and so I wrote it. Result – my first unpublished novel. I wrote three more before my first published novel, The Palace of Curiosities. Being persistent and bloody-minded is vital for a writer!
The Palace of Curiosities brought in all the themes that readers have come to associate with you – the gothic, history, queerness, feminism. How do those all link together for you?
They come from my passions. I have eclectic and wide-ranging interests, and I believe everything is connected. As I said earlier, I was always an outsider. I was a reader, I was queer (although I didn’t have the word for it as a kid), I was adopted – so grew up in a family slightly different to everyone else’s. I developed a sense of otherness that has spilled over into my books. All of my characters are also outsiders in one way or another. And as a woman – particularly as a queer woman who doesn’t conform – feminism is important to me. We have moments when our lives turn on a dime. A major turning point was age 21, when a college friend of mine was the last woman murdered by the Yorkshire Ripper. That blew me out of the water.
I’d always believed that the world was essentially a safe place as long as you played by the rules. Yet my friend had played by the ‘rules’ all her life. She was one of the ‘nice’ girls and none of that prevented what happened to her. I also noticed how it marked a turning point in the police investigation, which was upped because she wasn’t a sex-worker. It made me think about whose lives are considered valuable by society, whose experiences count, why it always seems to be men making those decisions, why those divisions are even there in the first place. How could it not?
To move back to history – particularly the medieval – it ties in with my old fascination with the spoken word. When I went to university I was offered the chance to read Beowulf. Just like with my grandmother’s fairy stories, it was the sound and the rhythms that caught me. Poetry a thousand years ago wasn’t designed to be written down, and there’s something magical in the musicality of these words. There are undercurrents and rhythms of old English poetry in my own work now. It was a passionate love affair that hasn’t ended.
Do you find that you read your poetry aloud when you’re writing it, even if it’s not destined to be performance poetry?
Absolutely. I find reading aloud a vital tool when writing and editing, not just in poetry but in all my writing, even novels. It’s a sense of the rhythms needing to be right. If it feels jerky and uncomfortable out loud then I guess the reader may feel jerky and uncomfortable reading it.
I’m not keen on the division we’re told exists between so-called ‘page poetry’ and ‘performance poetry’. For me, a poem is best when it works both as a written and a spoken entity: if it doesn’t come off the page as a living thing, then, well, it’s dead. Maybe that has sprung from being a singer and lyricist. Musically we can train our ear to what works. Why not do the same with writing? I often think of a line or paragraph that doesn’t work as being ‘out of tune’.
What’s coming next for you?
At the moment I’m working on edits for my next novel, so I’m effectively living with the characters! It’s not been the easiest novel to write, but thanks to the inspirational advice of my fabulous agent I have persevered and made breakthroughs.
Lockdown also brought an exciting opportunity I wasn’t expecting. I was approached by a poetry filmmaker, who wanted me to write the text for a biographical film. We’ve been collaborating online – she’s sent film clips and I’ve used them as inspiration and a springboard into writing. Is it poetry? Is it flash? Does it matter? It’s wonderful to explore a hybrid, in-between space. It’s stretching me into something I’ve never done before. Which is what every writer dreams of.
Rosie Garland’s collection of poems, What Girls Do in the Dark is published by Nine Arches Press and is available to purchase online now.
Lucy Writers and Elodie Rose Barnes would like to thank Rosie Garland for allowing us to publish this interview. Feature image of Rosie Garland is by Absolute Queer Photography.