Novelist, poet, singer and cabaret chanteuse Rosie Garland is in town for a brief, but busy, spell at the Fringe, guesting at various free shows. She spoke to Max Scratchmann about her varied artistic repertoire…
So, Rosie, three novels now: Palace of Curiosities, Vixen and The Night Brother. Performance poet. Chanteuse. Burlesque artiste. Then there’s your Rosie Lugosi persona. Plus you’re the singer for The March Violets. That’s quite an assortment. Which one is the real Rosie Garland?
Do I have to limit myself to one? No? Goooooood.
I never thought I’d have one novel published, let alone three. But let’s start at the very beginning… I come from the DIY ethic of punk, so it was a natural progression that I’d sing in a post-punk band. Prowling around onstage in black leather and lace. What’s not to like?
As for Rosie Lugosi – she’s a fabulous alter ego; the vampiric villainess who never gets staked. Six foot tall in six-inch stilettos, clad in sparkly corset, top hat, fangs and hoisted cleavage, she gets to say all the things nice girls are not supposed to say, wear the things nice girls aren’t supposed to wear. She’s an exaggerated (honest!) part of me, but equally she isn’t the whole.
I love wrestling myself into a costume – It’s a real pity that we’re allowed to dress up as kids, but when we “grow up” we’re supposed to stop. Not me. Life’s too short to wear beige.
OK, let’s talk books for a moment. Tell us about your new novel.
It’s called The Night Brother (Borough Press), and is set in 19th century industrial Manchester. Exploring the furthest limits of sexual and gender fluidity, this is a story about the vital importance of being honest with yourself. Every part of yourself. After all, no-one likes to be kept in the dark. The central characters – Edie and Gnome – are possibly my oddest creations to date. After all, the novel has been described as “Orlando meets Jekyll and Hyde” and “a genderqueer fairy story for the 21st century.”
I’ve never been good at fitting in. I guess it’s no surprise that I write about folk who don’t fit, either. I’m fascinated by people who won’t (or can’t) squeeze into the one-size-fits-all templates on offer and the friction that occurs when they try.
To quote the inspirational Angela Carter, “I write to ask questions, to argue with myself, not to provide answers.” I’m exploring the questions that roll around in my head, and am wary of easy conclusions. I’m not interested in creating narrow worlds. In the words of Emily Dickinson, I like to “to tell the truth but tell it slant.”
And you won the Mslexia Award for Palace of Curiosities. Would you say that was your “big break” – and do writers need a “big break”, do you think?
To quote Eddie Cantor, “it’s taken me 20 years to become an overnight success!”
Publication sure didn’t fall into my lap. Here’s the short version: it took four and a half novels, three agents and over 12 years. However hard I tried (and I did try), nothing seemed good enough. Twelve years of “Can you make it more…? Can you make it less…?“ I’d pretty much given up. My agent stopped replying to my emails. My confidence was shot. As a last fling, I entered the 2011 Mslexia Novel Competition. And won.
That was the turning point. Within a week, I had a fabulous new agent. Within a fortnight, she sold that winning novel – The Palace of Curiosities – to HarperCollins UK. The rest, as they say, is history.
If I learned anything it is to keep going, especially when it’s tough. Someone out there loves your work – but they need to see it. So get it out there. Do it now.
Has becoming a novelist changed your life and do you still get time for poetry and performance? I understand you’ve been doing a load of stuff about the suffragette movement recently?
It’s funny – I’m often asked if I’m going to stop writing poetry now that I’ve had three novels published. It’s a bit like being asked if I’m going to stop wearing trousers now that nice skirts are available… I love writing, full stop, whether it’s poetry, flash fiction, lyrics or novels. I guess I regard writing as being on a spectrum rather than in boxes.
And if I didn’t sing, I’d be miserable. I’m working on a new musical project called The Time-Travelling Suffragettes. I’m inspired by Victorian Music Hall and its power to subvert whilst being thoroughly entertaining. For a long while, I’ve wanted to work with the classic songs of the nineteenth century, and bring a fresh twist to them.
I played with the idea of the songs a suffragette might sing if transported to the present day, where she expects to find a Brave New World in which inequality is unknown. As a result, I cast a queer eye on popular songs such as The Boy I Love Is Up In The Gallery, I’m Shy Mary Ellen and Hold Your Hand Out, Naughty Boy and more…
You can see a showreel at my webpage.
And how about your band, the March Violets? Any new tours planned?
Along with The Sisters of Mercy, The March Violets were one of the first drum-machine based bands of the 1980s, our roots well and truly in punk. We were wild, grungy and goddam it, wore too much black. We were also unusual in having a female singer and a male fronting the band, my partner in crime being Si Denbigh.
The Violets Part 1 took a bow in 1986. Original members Si, Tom Ashton (guitars) and I kept loosely in touch over the years. In 2006 the loosely tightened up, and we decided to put on a homecoming gig in 2007. It started as a one-off, but several things happened. Firstly, hundreds of people turned up, delighted to see us back on stage, none of them shy about showing their appreciation, and demanding that we did more gigs. Added to that, we realised we had new songs bursting out of us. In fact, we released our first album for 30 years: Made Glorious. Download here
Plans are on hold right now, as one band member is pretty ill – but to this day we haven’t seen or heard a bad review. Or even a lukewarm review. That’s a hell of an achievement. It’s been a hell of a ride.
What do you think of the Fringe?
I love the buzz of connecting with an audience, whether that’s at a festival, in a bookshop, or a museum at midnight… and The Fringe is a true favourite! The atmosphere is fantastic – on both sides of the mic.
Rosie Garland’s Fringe dates are:
Poetry Bordello @ Woodland Creatures, Leith, on Thu 9 Aug 2018 @ 8pm
Sanctuary of Sin @ Bar Bados, Edinburgh, on Sat 11 Aug 2018 @ 9.15pm
She Grrrowls @ Banshee Labyrinth, Edinburgh, on Sat 11 Aug 2018 @ 11.20pm
Listen Softly @ Scottish Poetry Library, Edinburgh, on Wed 15 Aug 2018 @ 6.45pm
That’s What She Said @ Scottish Poetry Library, Edinburgh, on Thu 16 Aug 2018 @ 7.30pm