Joolz Denby, author of Stone Baby in conversation with Bob Cornwell.
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Sunday, three o'clock at the Love Apple café we had agreed. A bit like the title of some cheesy Hollywood movie, I had remarked. Or a single from the B52's, added Joolz.
The Love Apple turns out to be a funky bar and restaurant behind Bradford's illustrious Alhambra Theatre with soul music and friendly, efficient bar staff. We choose a corner (quietish) by the piano (silent). The Cafe sound-system (loudish) is pumping out Bobby Womack and James Brown tracks. Joolz strides off at one point, to ask for the music to be turned down a tad. It is, a testament perhaps to her status as local celebrity. Joolz is about to publish her first novel, the dark but compassionate Stone Baby.
Stone Baby tells the story of the bindibg friensdhip between Lily and Jamie, the latter a gifted natural comedienne, outwardly tough but inwardly fragile, and how their lives, and the lives of those around them are changed forever whern Jamie falls for Sean, psychopath and killer. It will be Waterstone's, Bradford 'Book of the Month' in April.
Music proves to be a better place to start our conversation. Thunder and Consolation by unerground rock band New Model Army (sleeve design by Joolz, co-produced by the legendary Tom Dowd, once of Atlantic Records), has been my constant companion in recent weeks. Dowd was also the sound engineer on Aretha Franklin's Respect, the favorite record of Lily, the narrator and a key figure in Stone Baby. Reminiscences of Dowd and other legendary figures such as Glyn Johns duly follow.
But poetry was her first love, Wilfred Owen, later the work of Dylan Thomas. Alongside Stone Baby, Flambard will publish Errors of the Spirit, a collection of her most recent poetry and short prose pieces. Amongst them is Grendel, a reflection on Beowulf, the longest surviving poem in Old English.
Early on, in fact, she won "a sort of schools competition for poetry". Later she "got involved in a poetry collective in Harrogate, where my parents were living when I was about sixteen, called CRAX, and they did performance work, and they needed a girl, because at that time it was necessary to have a girl. So long as I was an accredited girl, I was alright. I think they were a little bit shocked at the joy with which I embraced performance."
All that was the result of "a funny school. We did a lot of drama. We were being trained, basically, to be the wives of executives. We were taught how to speak in public, we were taught how to be good hostesses, we were taught to be able to get up and give a speech of thanks in mixed company, like that (snaps fingers) if you had to, and we would do exercises like get up and talk about the colour blue, without repetition, for two minutes. And that's a long time. So that's why performance was always easy to me."
Later still came the involvement with Satan's Slaves ("a sort of northern Hell's Angels") and a marriage, later dissolved. Then, whilst working as a female bouncer ("men respond very well to a woman's voice") she met Justin Sullivan, singer/songwriter and founder of New Model Army.
" I said to Justin, "What do you want?" And he said " I want to have a proper band." So we said "What have we got to lose, let's do it." So we did it. We decided that we were basically unemployable, not just unemployed, but unemployable. So the only way we were going to be able to get anything out of our lives was to just do it. And punk was...that was OK then. We weren't worried about being poor, because we were very poor so that didn't bother us. We didn't care about the money, we didn't care about anything except getting the work right."
Joolz managed the band for a while, before the demands of her own developing career made it impossible, even pulling in a short stint at university (" a hideous disappointment"). Joolz still tours with NMA, lives with them "in a very small house" (and a television) as well as occasionally working live with Justin in the acoustic Red Sky Coven. "We are each other's editors and we are much more brutal, much more brutal than any editor that I have ever ,ever worked with."
Let's talk about the fiction. Judging by what I've read, you alternate poetry with straight prose pieces. Have you always done that?
For what reason?
Although I love poetry for itself, for instance Dylan Thomas, if you read Fern Hill, probably the most beautiful piece of pure poetry there is, I've also loved people that tell stories. And that is what I do, I tell stories. All I am is a story-teller....
And prose is the more immediate form...
...and a very immediate narrative voice is something I've always tried to develop, so that you really do feel that you are sitting next to that person, and that they are personally in contact with you, emotionally, and spiritually if you like, that they are with you and you are with them during the telling. Even in Grendel, that long poem in Errors of the Spirit, it's very immediate, it's not a disposition on Beowulf and the characters in it. It's Grendel speaking to you, you are in the same room with him. That's something I've worked very hard at being able to achieve.
So how did Stone Baby come about? Was there a particular point in writing it, some point you wanted to get over?
No burning point, I think. There were a number of incidents that triggered that story. One of them was that during the period that the Ripper was operating in Bradford, I was living with my first husband, and we had a lodger, who we will call Fred. Fred was unfortunately from the North East (a tape featuring a Geordie voice was once considered a key piece of evidence. BC) and wore a size seven shoe. The footprint the police found in blood, by the side of one of the victims, was a size seven shoe. He was arrested three times, brought in for questioning. The first time you think, well, it's a bit unfair. The second time you think it's harassment. The third time, however fond you are of him you think, I wonder if it is actually him. I remember making a joke to him saying if you're the Ripper, I'm going to sell my story to the News of the World. And I was young and callow and didn't think this might be upsetting to him, you know, it comes out your mouth like a fool.
And it suddenly struck me, what if it is him.? How would I know? I wouldn't have known. And you know, everyone always said that Sonia Sutcliffe knew, but I don't think she did know.
Erving Goffman, the sociologist, is one of my great interests and he always says we are one single entity with a collection of masks that we present to differing people on different occasions. But with a socio-psychopathic personality, those masks are very delineated. There's a big iron gate that drops down between the man you know and the man who is the murderer.
How did you get involved in the CWA New Writers award?
Entirely by accident. I was in a bad mood....the sort of mood that professional writer s of any sort get into sometimes. I'm not progressing. I'm not really getting anywhere. And I saw this...There was a lot of palaver to get the form. I'd not thought that I would win it. It was just a means to let off steam for me.
Had you any qualms about it being a competition for aspiring crime writers?
No, because I'd been obsessed with crime writing and novels about crime for years. And I had wanted to write a particular kind of book about crime.
Any thoughts about the crime novel at this point in time?
It's at a very interesting crux, I think. One of the things I was trying to do in Stone Baby was not to write a crime novel or a thriller, but to write a story with a crime in it. I used to read crime books all the time, stacks of them and people used to come in, friends of mine and go "Lend us a book" and I'd say "There you are" and they'd say "Oh no, not crime". I'd say, "Read James Lee Burke" and they'd read it and go "Actually, this isn't what I thought." What I wanted to do was to write a book for people who wouldn't normally see themselves reading a crime thriller. The amount of people who have read Stone Baby now and who have gone "I would never have picked up a crime novel, but I was really gripped by this"... It's because it's real. Like Bruce Springsteen in the Nebraska album, he deals with the lives of ordinary people, Highway Patrolman, for instance. That also was a great influence, this idea that crime or criminal activity, or just negative things are imminent in everyone's lives. There is that 'Please don't stop me, highway patrolman. I don't want to do this, but I will'. And instead of a crime being something that happens outside your life and someone has to detect it and solve it., it's not actually that; it kind of plonks into your life.
This is related to the issue that was picked up on at Dead on Deansgate. There is that notion that criminals are 'out there', not that criminal notions are within us.
And I think that if you go on thinking that way, then you will not progress as a civilisation. you will not progress as a species. Whilst we deny what is both dark and light in ourselves, if we don't see the truth in ourselves, we won't get any better. Anyone is capable of murder, in the right circumstances. Most of us will never ever be in those circumstances, but should they occur then you will.
OK, you have written that wonderfully gripping opening chapter, one of the most gripping I have read in years. My first thought was, how can she top that? Had you a clear idea as to how to progress it?
It was like a film in my head. It was exactly as if Lily was sitting next to me on the sofa telling me. I knew exactly how it was going to go. It was largely modelled on Wuthering Heights.
Another of your pet subjects, I believe...
The Brontes, yes. In Wuthering Heights, the most terrifying scene is when the narrator comes to Wuthering Heights to stay the night and he hears the knocking (raps on table, twice) and he sees the little white hand, and it's Cathy, "Let me in, let me in." And he breaks the window, and he grabs the hand of this ghost-child, and he has to saw this little wrist against the broken glass...absolutely terrifying. And from then on, you find out how this all came about. When people tell you a story, they don't necessarily tell it to you consecutively. If you met Lily, you might say to her "What really happened?" You knew vaguely what had happened, something awful had happened but how on earth did someone as nice as these two lasses possibly get involved in something like that-and to do a long character development, so that you really identify, you really felt you'd lived their lives. Two nice lasses that you knew, how could this possibly have happened? And that long character development is something that is very often missing in the more commercial crime fiction.
There are some very individual voices in the book. How was that achieved?
The one thing that I can do is to put myself in someone else's head.. I don't say that's a great talent, but it's something I can do. Gabriel's story was actually told to me about a real person. So what I have is an enormous stock of stories. You'll find something quite similar in Errors of the Spirit, called Dusty's Story. I've always been one of those people, I must look like a priest or something, they will tell me everything. I sit on trains and people sit next to me and they tell me the most intimate stories of their lives. It's because I'm interested.
The issue of child abuse in this book is dealt with more graphically than in anything else I've come across.
I wanted it to be that way. Child abuse was never spoken of when I was a child...
Now it is spoken of but...
... in a very glib manner. "She's a bit weird; she must have been abused as a child." Well, that's that out of the window. Again I think it's an important thing to say that we should try to control our cannibalistic instincts towards our own children, in the way, you know, a male lion will kill the cubs of a previous litter, without thinking. I get very tired of the hypocrisy of civilisation, where we say we are civilised as if that's OK then, and we can proceed with all this... I've been involved, in a way with a lot of things like that which, if I'd had my way, I rather not have heard. But I've heard them and there is nothing I can do about it...
It doesn't come over in a salacious way.
I was very careful about that, very careful. There is no pornography of violence in this book. I absolutely loathe that.
That's one of the admirable things about the novel. Sean is shown, as he would be in real life, as a pretty pathetic character. There is none of the glamourisation of the serial killer, of murder.
The dark god etc. No, I don't want any of that. One of the major themes in this book and one of the major themes I wanted to get across is, in fact, love. I think for instance, that the siege at the end of the book is full of love; love between Jamie and Lily, and also .a kind of love between Sean and Jamie. when she lays her hand on his head, saying in effect, "It's alright." And he, at the end, has that great line "It's all bollocks, isn't it." The major theme of this is compassion and love, and trying very hard to be friends. It's difficult to sustain a friendship over a period of years, and they love each other, and I think that love is inextricably bound up with this whole book.
Going back to that opening chapter, the dog eat dog nature of the alternative comedy circuit comes over very strongly.
Been there, done that. Poetry was much more mixed up with alternative comedy in the beginning. Not now but then it was. You were always on the bill with alternative comedians.
And a rather ambivalent view of the audience as well? This presumably comes from your experience. Reading some of your previous work, I can see it being confrontational, at least to some of the audience, in the same way that Jamie's comedy is confrontational.
Jamie does what I do on stage. That's the part of her character that is mine. One is how tall she is; the other is what she does on stage. The rest of it: I'm actually more like Lily as a person. Jamie's height and this thing that people have expectations of women who are tall, that they are big, tough Valkyries you know, and if they catch you crying they don't know what to do. They might comfort someone smaller. So she has my physical attributes and what she does on stage is what I do on stage. I couldn't do somebody who just did gags, because I've never done gags. I don't relate to gags at all. I mention Eddie Izzard, my favourite comedian, that's what makes me laugh.
You also mention Lennie Bruce. Does he make you laugh?
Yes, he does, the films I've seen. I love another American, Flip Wilson, and that guy with a band, Spike Jones. I loved those American comedians that we used to listen to on tape. But with Lenny Bruce there was this idea that you could have reality involved in it.
One of the most interesting experiences I had recently was seeing Eddie Izzard playing Lenny Bruce.
Was he good? To be honest with you I didn't think he could do it.
He did an Izzard version of Bruce, if you can imagine it. It was fascinating. Particularly because Izzard's comedy is not about making political points...
It comes in because I think he's a thinking person. A lot of the points he makes are social politics, like that thing about how the English think they are so great they don't have to learn another language. What I wanted to say about Jamie as a comedian was that she was concerned in an everyday way with politics and the expression of politics, and it wasn't weird to her. But as times changed, she had not changed, she couldn't, because her whole personality was so heavily invested in what she did, she couldn't take the politics out of what she was doing.
You also raise this question about the 'natural' performer, personified for me as a jazz fan in someone like Chet Baker, a fragile personality but with a God-given sublime natural talent.
It's a very jazz thing. Nowadays we like to see our heroes as being very clean-cut, but creativity comes out of pain, a lot of the time. People say, "I don't want to know about that bit." What I wanted to say about this is in that section with Graeham, the old promoter who's leaving, where he does that whole rap about the Naturals and the Workers. I've worked both with naturals and with workers and there is a difference. Very often the punters don't see it. Punters are a strange thing. We need them, we respect them, but we know what they are.
As punters we can turn on the performer. I saw that with Chet Baker once in Ronnie Scott's in London, and it's horrible.
It is horrible. It's happened to me, purely because there was no output sound. The monitor was on and when the monitor is on, you can't tell. They suddenly went (snaps fingers) like that. You get one or two people going "Schh, schh" but actually, this is a very interesting thing about belief, you know religious experience, which is that people want to be caught up in something big, and also don't want to be the one that says "This is not right." So they will go along with it and afterwards say to their friends "I shouldn't have done that really." They were caught up in it. It's an infectious thing, that whole mob thing. It's something I have also experienced, as a youngster at one of those religious evangelical events. This is what the whole of my second book is about. That kind of religious experience, the layering of language, how if we come from a secular society we cease to understand religious language. We take it at face value and this is what gets my protagonist into a deal of trouble.
No, the audience is like a large dog, I always think. If you behave with confidence, the dog won't bite you; if you show fear, it will. You cannot show fear up there. I've always been fortunate, I've never been frightened up there. Going back to Dead on Deansgate, for me to sit on a panel and hold forth is nothing, and I forget that other people find this a trial, and hate doing it. For me it's an everyday experience. Two hundred, five hundred, my biggest audience was a quarter of a million, my smallest was two-the first was on the Saturday, the two was on the Sunday! I am guilty of forgetting that not everybody is like that. That gets me into trouble. As well you know (laughter).
The novel also raises the question , as you mentioned, of 'did she know', that also arose with Sutcliffe and his wife Sonia...
...and Shipman. Did Primrose know? And I think not.
To some extent Stone Baby begs the question, because your characters lead such fractured lives, so there is plenty of opportunity for Sean to do what he wants to do.
I think that what is implicit in life, and in Stone Baby as well, is that there are a lot of things you might half suspect, but really you don't want to know. And the power of not wanting to know, that does imply that there is knowledge there, subconsciously or buried, but you don't want to know. Sean and Jamie have a sadomasochistic relationship (it becomes fairly obvious at the end) and there are a lot of things when people get involved in something like that, there's a lot of things about themselves that they don't want to know.
So, not only is the compartmentalisation in the killer but also in the relatives and in others that know them...
Absolutely. I mean Lily knows things about Jamie that she doesn't want to know. When she meets Dodger after the first gig and there's this horrible scene with him leaning across, putting his hand on her waist. Lily knows that there is something very unpleasant there, but she doesn't want to know how unpleasant. We are all aware of a lot more than we want to know.
Did you think, as Gordon Burn does in Somebody's Husband, Somebody's Son, his book on the Yorkshire Ripper, of interleaving the police investigation with the lives of your characters?
There is no procedural, no. Poor Inspector Wormald, who I consulted, I'm sure he thinks it's going to be a massive procedural., and he's going to be so disappointed. Such a nice man as well.
No. I wanted...that they wouldn't have anything to do with the police. And I wanted it to be purely from the point of view of those people involved in the crime. So that all they know of the crime is what they are told by the guy in the corner shop, who's got a friend who's in the police. Which is what happens. That's how we all found out about the Ripper. So you get a sense of the victims' lives.
I think very often, and it's one of the things that really disgusts me in that kind of nauseating thriller where the pornography of violence is so apparent, and we all know that they are out there, is that the victims have no humanity, that the lives of the families are not destroyed.
That's the thing that is left with you at the end of your novel, that very powerful ending, the ripple effect of the events, spreading through people's lives.
You see in certain novels, they are always very careful to show that the killer has no friends and relatives. They don't want to sully this swooping thing. But this swooping thing usually does have friends and relatives. And only a very tiny minority in any society will be without any connections whatsoever. Even if they were raised in an orphanage, they are still connected to the people they were raised with, in some way.
I love that idea from the early part of the book, 'she would be my voice, I would be her shield.' Lovely phrase. Why did you make Lily half-caste?
Well, all the people in the book are actually people I have seen in real life. I was in Waterstone's book shop and I saw this little person, and I wanted to make her a little person because one of my best friends is a little person, and I also wanted to make her have a sense of being an outsider. Bi-racial people will tell you that one of their experiences is that they don't belong anywhere, and that they have this sense of looking all the time.
And being unable to speak is another friend of mine, who is a very intelligent person but who has great difficulty in expressing himself. But if you put him at a computer, he writes like a dream. People very often dismiss him and don't take him seriously because he has this difficulty. And this is the type of person I wanted Lily to be, that she had this congested heart, but she could write it down.
Of course, all four key characters are outsiders, in one way or another. Even Sean, in some ways more so than anyone else.
Although he tries to give the appearance of normalcy all the time. There's another Goffman thing, phantom normalcy and phantom acceptance. If you behave in what you think is an acceptable manner, people will accept you as normal without probing too deeply. And that's what Sean does. He's Mr. Normal in his jeans and his T-shirt and his Timberlands...
Attractive to some, but not others, that whole macho SAS bit...
Oh, he's a tedious bore, he is. But that again are people listening to what he is saying but not actually taking in what he is saying. And again the clues to what he is are all there, in what he is saying.
Sean is a far from conventional serial killer. I suppose I'm thinking Thomas Harris here.
Harris is one of my favourite writers. Not Hannibal. Red Dragon is a very fine piece of work.
Another thing about the book that was interesting, is that you achieve this rounded portrayal of Sean without slipping into easy anti-male attitudes.
I don't hate men. I spend most of my life with men. I have very few female friends in my business life and my creative life is spent with men. I don't think any worse of men than I do of women.
There is also Lana, the key figure in the development of Sean.
The black widow. I do stick to that old Spanish proverb, that we are human beings first and men and women second. I don't think that there is anything that a man can do, on the dark side, that a woman hasn't done too. The abuse of children by women is still one of the biggest taboos in society. But unfortunately, it happens, more often than we care to admit. Put any human being in a position of power and they will abuse it. Look at Margaret Thatcher (laughter). Lana is based in fact, unhappily.
Another thing that people forget, and that is how the Ripper changed this city. It was a different city before, and having lived through it, it was awful actually. I can't think of anything clever to say, it was just awful. There is a moment when Lily is sitting on a bus and a woman says "they should cut his balls off". That actually happened to me. No, the town has never been the same.
The other thing that really upsets us, for example, there was that dramatisation on television recently. I found that immensely offensive. We were outraged, the callous disregard for the victims and the way they were described. I mean, these are living people, the ones that he didn't manage to kill, and families, living families. You have to be very careful. I wanted to give the feeling that these people are living.
Another group that doesn't come out too well in the book is the media.
Anybody in show business has a very jaded view of the media. We've all been crucified in the press. We've all had interviews where tapes were spliced, where they would take one half of a sentence and splice it with another to make something different. We've had a lot to do with the press over the years. I once did 63 interviews in three days. You don't end up with a great deal of respect. When you find a good journalist you are absolutely ecstatic. And if they are really bad, they also get a bad rep, and they only get so far.
There is another underlying theme and that is that Jamie is 'out of time', that time has moved on, and they live in a much more flippant age. Elsewhere you have written 'I never dream of answers any more'.
I think people feel that. If you have lived through the seventies and eighties, through that period of time, there are an enormous amount of people who feel that way, now. "Did I fight and go on demos and really care, for it all to end up in this hard candy world, where feminism and politics are considered dirty words that you don't mention?" We have worked for twenty years now and we have never tailored what we have done to anybody, for money or for...because we knew that if you did that you were dead. All we can do is keep doing what we do, for ourselves basically.
One of the reasons that I am interested in crime fiction, is that it is such a wonderful vehicle to get socially relevant points over without preaching.
(Sotto voce) I think so too. I think it was Wittgenstein who said that there was more of humanity and life in crime fiction than in all philosophy. He's right. This is the most basic human behaviour that we are examining here and, as such, it can be elevated to any heights really. Not by me probably, but by really clever people. You can make any observations about humanity that you want, you can bring out some really basic truths and interesting themes that you can't in the modern ironic British novel.
So you're happy being classified as a crime writer?
I don't mind. I'd rather they said "She writes a damn good story." There is no murder as such in Corazon, the second book. What there is, is a discourse about what constitutes a murder. People do die, in fact a great many people die, but the basic question is, is that murder? And the narrator would say, yes it is. Somebody else would say, no it isn't. So the whole book is a discussion of what actually constitutes murder.
Are you heading into Umberto Eco territory here?
Isn't he fab? I love Umberto. I went to see him once. And he signed my book, and I said something really naff, like 'Thanks ever so much, that's really great" and stumbled off like an idiot. No, I think he's great. I like these philosophical discussions, I like to know what constitutes something, I don't like things that are completely cut and dried.
Will there be something for the crime reader?
The crime reader should ask "What does constitute murder? " Murder is not simply 'he shot her dead'. It isn't. The interesting thing about murder is how it comes about, what it is and what the very nature of it is. And in Borrowed Light, which is the third book, which I've started, there is a murder, a very unpleasant murder, but it's not the focus of the book. The focus of the book is how it came to be.
And in Corazon, you ask yourself how she got into this situation, what these people are doing. If you lead someone to believe that being killed or killing themselves is actually a good thing, that they should aspire to, are you responsible for their deaths? Because of their belief in this movement if you like, they are led to offer themselves up to death, that's the way they would put it, and to go beyond.
Have your researches involved, for instance, that religious cult down in South America?
Jamestown. Jim Jones. 918 people dead, 276 of which were children.
There was a very good book by one of the Naipaul's...
I've read more books about...I've had to cram. I basically did a lot of cramming for the second book, talking to people who had been in various cults, Hare Krishna and so on, finding out how they felt, finding out really how they felt, not how they said they felt, and reading books on the nature of prophetic language, of charismatic movements, and the nature of new religious movements. I find it absolutely fascinating.
But I have been such a bore for the last year, such a bore. How anyone put up with me I do not know. Of course, Justin's family were in part of a Qaker based spiritual group in which his father was one of the leaders, so I've got all that to draw on.
No link with Red Sky Coven?
No, that was just a name. We were a coven as such, but in the old sense of the word, as a family. Like Lily and Jamie and Mojo, we make a family, part of which is still living in our house.
All watching your television...(Laughter) Thanks Joolz. Good luck with Stone Baby.