In Their Own Words: Part 1

Charlotte Mendelson: Contemporary British Fiction

Charlotte Mendelson has emerged as one of the most popular and critically celebrated authors in the U.K. Her third book, When We Were Bad will be out in paperback in late September and has been shortlisted for the prestigious 2008 Orange Broadband Prize (the winner will be announced June 4). Name one or more books or authors that inspired you to write in this genre; what made them particularly influential?
Charlotte Mendelson: Rose Tremain and Iris Murdoch are both brilliant at describing the secret, complicated, dark little inner worlds of their often subtly un-straight characters; Sarah Waters could write about bars of soap and still be fantastic, but she writes about lesbians — how lucky we are. Oh and Jane Eyre … not remotely queer but surely the best novel ever written. Apart from Bleak House. And …

AE: How has contemporary British fiction developed or changed in recent years, especially in regard to portrayals of lesbians and bisexuals?
CM: We were always in there but lurking around the edges — or, thanks to Virago’s re-publication of classic novels by women, visible only to women in the know. Sybille Bedford, for example, in Jigsaw, went for broke: youthful yearnings, tricky older women, wide-legged trousers: the works. And as for that Daphne du Maurier … filth, pure and simple. But now, thanks to Sarah Waters and Ali Smith particularly, there’s a sense that lesbians count in fiction, just as much as gay men do.

Contemporary British fiction has become much, much more inclusive, so that now the archetypal contemporary British character isn’t a mild-mannered parson in a rural village but someone who is Bengali, or extremely short, or Welsh, or all three. Most of the characters in When We Were Bad are Jewish and there are at least three lesbians — 20 years ago I would be considered niche; now I’m proudly mainstream.

AE: What appeals to you about writing in this genre?
CM: As a reader I look for novels which involve me in the characters’ dilemmas and crises — does she love her? Will she leave him? — so that I forget that I’m on the train. As a writer I try and do the same for my readers; so my books aren’t thrillers, where plot is all (sometimes at the expense of character), and they’re not wistful soppy descriptions of dust-motes falling in beams of light — they’re character with plot. Which is like life, isn’t it?

AE: What do you look for on the first page of a book that tells you whether you’ll finish the book?
CM: Wit, or darkness, or excitement — something that grips or move me, so that nothing matters but the world between the covers. I’ve been addicted to that since I was tiny … now I’m much, much bigger and the thrill hasn’t gone.

AE: Do you have any suggestions for women aspiring to write?
CM: Write. That’s all there is to it — stop worrying about what you think you should write and just stick your pen in the vein.

AE: Do you plan to write in other genres?
CM: Westerns. Just kidding.

AE: Name a favorite author outside your genre and explain why you appreciate their work.
CM: Alison Bechdel. I can’t draw a stick person, let alone complex, subtle, funny, brilliantly observed portraits of ordinary life, while simultaneously writing characterization and plot as good as the best novelists. Dykes to Watch Out For is a work of genius; most other writers are not worthy to turn its pages.

AE: Which contemporary British novel do you most wish you had written?
CM: Affinity. It’s a masterpiece.

AE: Tell us one of your favorite literary quotes.
CM: “And then a very long shadow falls across the golden floor and across me and across my laughter … And then I look up. And I see the King.”

This is from Rose Tremain’s Restoration and I love it for two reasons. First, because it’s a heart-stoppingly romantic moment, and second, because it reminds me what fiction can do. The narrator is an apparently heterosexual male courtier in 17th-century England, but his love for the king transcends everything; you’d have to read the novel to understand why this moment moves me so much, but it’s now that we realize how much he longs for something, anything, from this man.

Next page: Karin Kallmaker on romance