Novelist Kirsty Logan talks about the right to be who you are, women's sexuality, fairy tales, pop culture, beauty and writing.
Tell us about the forms of writing you work in.
I'm working on a novel, which will be my sixth book. I've also written for radio and collaborated with musicians, songwriters and an illustrator. I've performed fiction while in a bath on stage, and I once created a story, ransom note-style, cut out of vintage fashion magazines for the Glasgow Women's Library.
Does all of that diverse work have a unifying theme?
I keep circling back to themes of women's lives and bodies, including pregnancy and menstruation.
Fairy tales appear in a lot of my writing. I'm interested in the gaps that exist in those myths. I see a fairy tale as a big piece of knitting that you can put your hand into, and maybe get inside of.
And, I write a lot about gender and sexuality. I think that women's sexuality is often difficult to define. I'm bisexual, which people often read as lesbian. On a personal level, I don't mind that assumption, but it feeds into my interest in myth. The werewolf, for example, exists in two states at once.
I love to experiment with that idea of the 'other'.
Why are you interested in the 'other', and the idea of existing in multiple states?
I was born in England to Scottish parents. I didn't fit in in England. I live in Glasgow now, but I don't sound Scottish.
The thing is, nobody feels other to themselves. We are who we are, with all of our complexity. But societies don't like the in-between. In my writing, I want to convey the idea that people who are, for example, gender-queer aren't 'other' to themselves.
It used to be assumed or presented that, if you were a white man, you were neutral, with the privilege of invisibility. Now, I think we're slowly moving away from the idea that if you're a woman, you need permission to tell your story.
Do people who are the 'other' expend a lot of energy to be heard?
Having to explain yourself and assert your right to be neutral takes time and energy.
Movements for equality often start that way, with people demanding to be seen as wanting the same things as everyone else. Equal marriage is an example of people saying that they want the same things as everyone else.
I'm asked a lot about the concept of being a woman, or being queer, or being a Scottish writer. I am all of those things. But as I mentioned, it has seemed that until recently, only straight, white men got to be neutral. People still try to give the rest of us a category, but we're not conscious of ourselves in that way
Really, there is no neutral. We've come to believe there is, and every step away from that concept is less neutral. I'm queer, and that's one step. I'm a woman, and that's another step. I write unusual prose. But those are my normal.
Why is women's sexuality hard to define?
Socially, we struggle with women's sexuality. Women's desire is presented as passive, and so we find it difficult to deal with a woman who is sexually empowered.
We still have this idea of the madonna and the whore. In a lot of fiction, there is a young, sexy woman, who exists for men to look at. Then, as soon as she's a mother, she becomes pure. The same is true when a woman is, to give another example, not able-bodied.
When I created my ransom note story with vintage fashion magazines, I was trying to tell the story of a woman who is a boxer. I realised that there are no active words in the magazines. I could talk about objects and appearance, but not what people do.
So, I used cookbooks. Boxing is a pretty active occupation, and I found useful verbs like 'beat', 'whip', 'tenderise', 'pound'...
In the idealised world of fashion magazines of that time, you weren't allowed to 'do', you had to 'be'. I don't think it's very different now. Women must not do our make-up on the train. We must be thin and hairless.
We must look a particular way, but we must not show the process.
Why is there such anger when women show that process?
I don't know. I don't think anyone knows, including the people who show their anger or disgust.
I like to raise things as questions. If someone is angry about you putting your makeup on on the train, ask them why. They won't know.
It's enough to question things, even if you don't have the answers. We communicate so quickly these days, but having a hot take on everything isn't very useful. Things are complicated.
It's also worthwhile to examine our own feelings. If something makes you angry, think about why.
Has the modern beauty industry progressed, compared with the magazine you cut up to make your story about the boxer?
Not really, but I do like YouTube makeup tutorials. A lot of beauty bloggers tend to start the video wearing no makeup, and then you see how they achieve the end result.
Sometimes it seems to be changing. I had acne for about 20 years, and the skin positivity movement made a big difference for me. It was once a big deal for me to leave the house with visible imperfections.
That idea of imperfection has leaked into my writing. The main character in my last novel had a scar on her face, and a lot of the novel was about her coming to terms with it.
Is our understanding of beauty then really about being allowed to have a public presence?
Maybe. Really, what does it matter if we're not beautiful? We all have a voice, and thoughts. Why should we be beautiful before we can express them?
Do you think that popular culture more generally has progressed to include a broader spectrum of people?
When it comes to popular culture, I feel like we're taking baby steps. Main characters can be 'other' to a certain point, but they are still usually white, or queer in a way that can be sexy to a straight man.
No one person is in control of pop culture. We're millions, and as consumers we can make choices. If you've seen a TV show you like, talk about it, buy it, and support the creator.
You've mentioned the links between 'otherness' and mythology. Were you conscious of joining those ideas in your writing?
No. The human brain is like an iceberg. There's a lot hidden, and creativity is about bringing the hidden part to the surface.
When I write, all I'm really conscious of is telling a good story and having interesting language. The themes come from some hidden part of my brain.
In retrospect, it's so easy to see the path, but I've never really had a plan with writing. I always cut the first paragraph, because often you have to write your way into a story.
Is there an aspect of hard work to being a writer?
A lot of writing is finding out what you're good at.
I doubt that anyone in my creative writing class at university would have picked me out as the one who would publish five books. But I stuck at it, and I think it's because I tried a lot of different things. I tried writing screenplays, novels and other fiction, and always followed what was interesting to me.
I once planned a novel. I did research and questionnaires for characters, and I planned the imagery. But when I finally sat down to write it, I couldn't. I'd wasted it for myself. There was no sense of discovery or adventure.
I like to keep some mystery for myself. It can be stressful, but it works.
Kirsty is a participating author at the British Council Literature Seminar, Hamburg, on 13-15 February 2020.
Follow @kirstylogan on Twitter.
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