DIVA meets the iconic lesfic writer to chat all about her brand-new novel
BY SOPHIE GRIFFITHS
Just when you thought you’d completed your lockdown reading list, best-selling author Joanna Briscoe is back with a brand-new addictive novel.
Now the author of six novels and several short stories, Joanna has delved into the realm of psychology with her work numerous times. Her first novel, Mothers and Other Lovers, won a Betty Trask Award in 1993, and her third, Sleep with Me, was adapted for television.
She’s been described by The Sunday Times as “a vivid and passionate writer” that “plunges headlong into sticky themes of desire, love and hatred, uncovering the unpalatable parts of the psyche with an unflinching eye.”
Her latest novel, The Seduction, explores themes of obsession, passion and desire in Joanna’s usual elegant and transgressive way. We caught up with Joanna to find out more about this page-turner of a tale.
DIVA: Tell us about your new novel The Seduction, what can readers expect?
JOANNA BRISCOE: Well, this has been called an “emotional thriller”. It’s certainly dark and twisty, but it’s also about relationships. It’s about flawed mother-daughter bonds, and about an obsessive love relationship between two women that will inevitably bring pain, but which is so compelling, neither of them can stop themselves. So, the novel’s about intense female bonds, but I also hope that readers get hooked and immersed, because a good plot is very important to me.
Are there any real life experiences in there or is it entirely fictional?
The central relationship in the novel deals with a female therapist and her patient, Beth. Like Beth, I was very curious about my therapist, longing to know what went on behind the mask, conjecturing, trying to find out, my curiosity hard to quench. I had a friend who actually had an affair with her therapist, and the whole experience was intriguing but damaging, so I wanted to look at the subject of taboos within therapist-patient relationships, at breaking boundaries, and transgressive love. That heightened consulting room fascination was an inspiration behind the novel, and from there I built a plot and characters.
Who is your favourite character within the novel? Is there one which you relate to most?
Beth, the protagonist, has to be my favourite, even though her therapist, Dr Tamara Bywater, was the most interesting to write in a way, because she has so many facets. But Beth is troubled, complex, essentially well-meaning and a loving mother. She messes up, self-sabotages, but she knows this and just can’t quite help herself. That’s what I relate to in her. The fact that she makes some pretty major mistakes, but knows her own flaws. She falls in love so hard, she is left vulnerable. I like how contradictory she is: over-sensitive and damaged, but also pretty determined to be strong.
How did you get into writing?
I wrote a lot as a child, loved English at school, and then went through various show-off future professions in my mind before I settled on writing, and committed to it at age 15. I did have a marvellous English teacher, and that helped. I’d written two full length novels by the time I left school, had had them rejected, and started on a third, so it took a lot of determination to get through that early sense of failure. I wrote all through my twenties, while earning a living as a journalist, and finally got my first novel accepted. My mother taught me to read before I went to school, and got a lot of books – she was a reader, as was my dear grandmother – and I just always loved novels. That translated into a desire to write. Well, a compulsion to write.
What inspires you to write?
I think a love of prose is first and foremost. But increasingly, over my career, I want to tell a good story. There are also lots of personal aspects that drive this desire – wanting to set the world to rights, expressing the roots of neurosis, re-writing childhood. Ideas do come to me, and when an idea lands, I feel a desperate need to explore it.
Through which motifs do you explore queerness in your work?
I don’t really consciously think this out. I write the story I want to tell, and that often involves lesbian relationships. I’m very much a card-carrying feminist, and I want to tell stories involving strong or complex women – or both – and I want to explore female desire and passion. I don’t really think in terms of “motifs” when I’m creating. I think they probably just express themselves organically.
What is the publishing industry like for queer women’s literature?
Compared with the past, categories like this have more or less dissolved. In mainstream publishing, the idea of the “gay novel” is increasingly redundant now, for good reasons. There is, at least within a section of our society, so much more acceptance of different sexual and emotional permutations. So my first novel was described as a “lesbian chic” novel, due to the time it was published (1994), whereas it’s now entirely normal to have queer characters in novels by straight writers, queer/gay writers, and for no-one to comment. The big relationship in my novel is between two women, and not a single reviewer, nor my publishers, commented on that. I wasn’t shoehorned into any kind of category. But I’m an out lesbian who is a pretty mainstream writer. If a novel is more specifically ‘queer’, addressing queer issues politically, or exclusively queer relationships, then I’m not sure. I wouldn’t like to comment, because I don’t have enough knowledge here.
Is there a strong queer community within the writing world?
Lots of queer writers certainly know each other, and support each other. But the writing world has less of a sense of “community” than a lot of professions, as our work is so solitary. The vast amount of our time is spent creating on our own. We tend to meet up at publishing parties. I’m friends with a lot of writers, but their sexuality isn’t what’s paramount here. There are probably communities I’m just not aware of. I’m very proud that writers like Sarah Waters have always been so open, and so critically and commercially successful, and supportive of others.
What tips would you give to young queer writers just starting out?
I would say – just write as you write. There is tremendous freedom, compared to when I was starting out. Take advantage of it. Write what you need to. More and more voices are now heard, and that’s fantastic. Of course, I’m talking from a privileged western perspective here, because there are huge taboos and dangers for queer writers in so many areas of the world, and each country and community will have its own restrictions. I feel that though there are many fights still to be won for us all, we can also mark the fact that – in this country – there is now a lot of freedom to be ourselves. The battle towards acceptance has been long and hard-won, and I think there are certain gains we need to celebrate.
Joanna Briscoe’s latest novel, The Seduction, is out now published now by Bloomsbury.