1) Presumably as a performance poet, you’re used to grabbing people’s attention right off the bat. Was there ever a temptation to do something big and flashy and show-offy with the novel?
Yes, absolutely. I’m basically a performer and it’s always tempting to try to do something big and splashy. With the novel, though, there needed to be more space for the readers to find their way around and make their own judgements. You lose control of the book completely as soon as it passes out of your hands – you know that when you’re writing it, but nothing prepares you for the reality. Also, After My Own Heart weighs in at over 300 pages, so I couldn’t just shout lyrics and tell dirty jokes for the whole thing. That would have been intolerable.
2) Do you think having worked as a poet helped in terms of structure and linguistic discipline while you were writing the novel?
Getting my head around the structure of a novel was actually quite a challenge, whereas with poetry you can just get straight to where you want to be without any of the establishing shots or trying to explain back-story without boring everyone to tears – I really wanted to avoid the ‘idiot lecture.’ It was also a luxury, though, because poetry can be quite sparing and pared down, and with novels you have more room to spread out. I think the poetry comes through in the descriptions. There’s some quite rich language in places, particularly when it comes to sex and love, but not overpoweringly so.
3) Do you see any of the themes you explored as a poet as having carried over into the novel? Has there been some form of maturation between the two?
Yes, on both counts; I launched my first collection of poetry when I was 27, and a lot of the really bold, hedonistic poems in there were written when I was about 25. I still believe in those poems when I perform them, but the difference is that I wouldn’t write them now. There is a note of pensiveness and melancholy in the novel that’s definitely in the poems too, but isn’t so pronounced with them. After My Own Heart is very much about growing up, and a lot of my poetry is about refusing to; the two can coexist, but there’ll always be tension there.
4) Why work with Limehouse? Were there any particular benefits?
I decided to work with Limehouse because they were new and I wanted to be in on their journey from the early stages. I’d worked with Bobby (Nayyar, the MD) on two short story collections and I knew that he’d treat me and my book with respect. I also admire his commitment to diversity in publishing, both in terms of the business itself and the books he publishes. I also got some wonderful support from some of the other authors published in those short story collections, like Paul Burston, Stella Duffy, and VG Lee. That made me feel like being involved in Limehouse would be a really positive experience, and it absolutely has been right from the start.
5) You mentioned in an earlier interview that if this was a straightforwardly gay novel it would be easier to market – do you still think that? How would you market the book if it came across your desk at Bloomsbury?
I’ve often wondered whether, if I didn’t have that personal connection to the book, I’d be able to market and sell it more strategically. Originally I was worried that people wouldn’t see it as gay enough, or see it as a betrayal because the heroine identifies as gay and sleeps with both male and female characters, but so far the response has been extremely positive. I know there still might be a backlash, but in the run-up to publishing it I was struggling to think about who might actually want to read that story – turns out, a lot of people, with all possible backgrounds and sexual preferences. To be honest, I’m not sure if I would have done anything different to what I do now – grab a box of books, bribe myself with some wine and cake, and just get out there.