Three Writing Lives

Conversations with Writers

Advert: Conversations with Writers - 2 Sept 2021

Our second online event Conversations with Writers took place on Thursday 2 September. Playwright Jo Clifford and novelist and short story writer Ely Percy were in conversation with Eris Young about writing perspectives from different generations – over a lifetime.

These three writers have done so much in their careers that the short introductions in online notices, and the mentions on social media or websites don’t give the reader an idea of the scope of their work or the experience behind it.

So (even though we haven’t covered everything) this blog post will give us a chance to tell a longer story – and thank all of them for sharing what they’ve done and lived as queer writers.

Jo Clifford

Photo: Portrait Jo Clifford
Jo Clifford

Jo Clifford describes her early play, Losing Venice,  as ‘a mad historical fantasy’. It was performed at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 1985. She was also a supporter of Lavender Menace Bookshop and seeing the play was exciting for all of us who knew her. She went on to write over 100 plays, including Every One (a reworking of Everyman), The Tree of Knowledge, Playing with Fire (a powerful play also produced at the Traverse), Faust Parts One and Two, Ines de Castro (she also wrote the libretto of James MacMillan’s opera), Light in the Village and Great Expectations.

She also translated Yerma, Blood Wedding, and The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico Garcia Lorca – among others.

Losing Venice was revived at the Orange Tree Theatre in London in 2019. Jo’s recent works include Eve, the story of her transition, and The Gospel According to Jesus Queen of Heaven, which she first performed at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow in 2009. It was later performed all around Brazil and at the Traverse Theatre, stirring up controversy and attracting opposition from some church groups and the law.

More recently she’s written The Covid Requiem, commissioned by Pitlochry Festival Theatre, A Space to Bless (put on by Queen Jesus Productions at St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh) and Slug Love (Tron Theatre and Trans Vegas).

Ely Percy

Photo: Ely Percy with proof copy of Duck Feet
Ely Percy

Ely Percy grew up in Renfrew. They are a fiction writer who has published 50 short stories in magazines such as New Writing Scotland, The Scotsman, Orange, Causeway and The Edinburgh Review.

‘I started sending my stuff out when I was just 15, because I felt angry and misunderstood and rejected by the world – during a time, they told The Ampersand Project, that they were in psychiatric care.

Their memoir, Cracked: Recovering After Traumatic Brain Injury was published by JKP in 2002. They describe it as a memoir ‘about not being able to remember who I was’ – and about relearning to read and write. They then graduated with distinction from Glasgow University’s MPhil programme in Creative Writing in 2004.

In the early 2000s they began writing Vicky Romeo Plus Joolz, which they describe as ‘a butch-meets-femme lesbian rom-com’ and also as a historical novel, since it was published in 2019 (by Knight Errant Press).

Monstrous Regiment in Edinburgh published Ely’s second novel, Duck Feet, based on short stories about teenage life they had written in the Renfrewshire dialect. They recently read from it at Edinburgh International Book Festival and have appeared at many other readings and gatherings. Monstrous Regiment published one of the stories, ‘Nae Shame’, and decided to publish the book – they were taken with its ‘skilful balance of sharp humour and huge heart’.

Eris Young

Photo: Eris Young
Eris Young (credit Rob McDougal)

Eris Young  published They/Them/Their: A Guide to Nonbinary and Genderqueer Identities with JKP  in 2019. It’s based on their own experience as well as research and interviews and covers common experience, language, law, healthcare, history of nonbinary identities and what friends and family and others can do to support nonbinary people.

They have also appeared in anthologies such as F, M or Other and We Were Always Here.

In 2020, they won the New Writer Award from the Scottish Book Trust.

They’re a short story critic for Carve literary magazine, which specialises in fiction in the tradition of Raymond Carver. They are Associate Editor of Shoreline of Infinity science fiction magazine, based in Scotland, and have appeared in Shoreline of Infinity 14 and in Astral Waters, Expanded Horizons and The Selkie.

And they’re Writer-in-Residence for Lighthouse Bookshop in Edinburgh and chaired Lavender Menace Archive’s first queer writing event in 22 years, Pride in Print in June 2019.

What advice would they give anyone who’s working on being a writer? ‘Tend your own garden’, they told The Ampersand Project. 

‘When you’re feeling lost, turn your attention back to your work and just, work…your work can be an anchor for you when the whole hustle feels like way too much to deal with.’

Tending your own garden could sound like a narrow focus, but clearly – given enough time – it can lead you right over the horizon.

We always delighted to here from you

A Lavender Attic

‘LGBT+ archives,’ says Gerard Koskovich of the GLBT Historical Society of San Francisco, ‘are your queer grandma’s attic’. They are the place where younger generations will find our legacy.

News from our lavender attic

This spring our own archive – our own lavender attic – is  getting started. We’re clearing out the cobwebs in the attic and making space for almost 800 books. They’ve been generously donated by groups and individuals. We’re reaching out to find support to help us preserve the books which meant most to LGBT+ people in the thirty years after Stonewall. The years they were coming out of hiding, visualising, and demanding equality.

Because of lockdown, we haven’t been able to access our book collection (housed by Lighthouse Bookshop in Edinburgh). Instead, we’ve spent the winter finding out about queer archives around the world. They specialise in conserving documents created by LGBT+ people – pamphlets, posters, flyers. Lesbian and gay groups used them to publicise themselves before the internet turned it all into digits and pixels.

The GLBT Historical Society decided in 1985 that this material should be preserved for future generations. 36 years later, that means you and me. They called a community meeting to see who was interested. And the 65 who attended set them on the road to today’s extensive collection, exhibitions and museum in San Francisco.

Meanwhile, in London in 1984, the Lesbian Archive and Information Centre was set up and initially funded by the Greater London Council. They collected journals, pamphlets, oral history and books. Today the collection is at Glasgow Women’s Library.

Working with other archives

Book cover: Gentleman Jack: the Real Anne Lister

We’ve spoken to archivists in Scotland and beyond. We attended a Zoom Conference on 5 December, given by London Metropolitan Archive LGBTQ+.

Their theme was Unorthodox: What are the missing voices? Their network includes queer archives all over the UK. Some not only preserve books and papers but research the pubs and other spaces where LGBT+ people met in secret, help refurbish buildings where queer people lived. Or collect clothing such as Ann Walker’s wedding dress, which she wore to say her vows to Anne Lister (Gentleman Jack) in 1834.

LGBT History Month

But research wasn’t all we did – in February, Edinburgh City Libraries invited us to make a film for LGBT History Month Scotland. The 2021 theme was ‘Unsung’ and we chose three queer writers whose archive books are either out of print or were dismissed as ‘too queer’ for many years. ‘Unsung’ was released on 15 February and on 24 February Chris Creegan chaired a Q&A session on the film. It attracted participants from Scotland, England and the USA. They expressed strong interest in more material about Scottish queer writers. And more ways of making the books better known and available. You can view the film and Q&A here.

Book cover: Gay Bar: Why We Go Out

We’re grateful to Grainne Crawford, Lifelong Learning Libraries Development Officer, and Howard Elwyn-Jones of Pretty Bright who produced the film and the Q&A broadcast. We were delighted to participate in LGBT History Month with LGBT Youth Scotland, who sponsored our first appearance as a queer books group in 22 years.

On 11 March, Lighthouse Bookshop invited Bob to appear at an online event with Jeremy Atherton Lin. His new book, Gay Bar, is a memoir of his life in bars of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and London. Bob talked about his days running Taste, an Edinburgh house music dance club. Straights and queer people danced together in a friendly and inclusive atmosphere in the 1990s and the early aughties.

Pride Month 2021

We aim is to take part in events about LGBT+ writing, publishing and history to promote the archive and encourage donations. The thrilling thing about this collection of books is that it shines a light on authors and titles from the past. Some of whom have been forgotten and remain unrecognised. Pride Month is coming soon. And we’ll be announcing our next events and further news from our efforts to establish our archive and celebrate queer writing history.

Let us know your thoughts

Thank you for following us on our social media. We love your feedback. And please feel free to leave your thoughts here on the work we’re doing.

Unsung: the queer books that tell our story – the video

As part of this year’s LGBT History Month, Bob and Sigrid took part in a live webinar conversation on 24 February with Chris Creegan about how queer books tell our story. The conversation ran long over time with thought-provoking questions and comments from those who attended virtually – and their enthusiasm for the books, writers and publishers of the 1980s and 90s who made so much possible today. Thanks especially to writer and mental health campaigner Chris Creegan, Cleo Jones of Edinburgh City Libraries who introduced us, and Pretty Bright who produced our video on unsung queer writers and the webinar. If you missed the conversation or the video, now’s you chance to catch up.

Feel free to leave your comments below. We’d love to hear from you.

Unsung: The queer books that tell our story from Howard Elwyn-Jones on Vimeo.

Mortimer’s Deep

Mortimer’s Deep by Simon Taylor
Balnain Books, 1992.

Book cover: Mortimer's Deep

A house of men on an island at the end of the world…

Mortimer’s Deep is a dangerous stretch of water in Fife. It lies between the village of Aberdour and the medieval monastery of Inchcolm on a stark, rocky island. Storms blow up quickly and, even on what starts as a calm day, lives can be lost.

The characters in Simon Taylor’s medieval novel survive the crossing, but they lose their old lives.

How did gay men live in the Middle Ages? Kings and nobles had male lovers or victimised their servants. In monasteries, same-sex relations were probably as common as they are in all-male settings today. There was severe punishment, but also close friendship and loyalty. For some, like Simon Taylor’s characters, the monastery was a home they could not find anywhere else.

Brother Michael flees to Inchcolm to escape his abusive master, Sir William de Mortimer. Michael’s good looks, he tells us, are his curse. His honesty and conscience bring him almost as much trouble.

Brother Simon has a brilliant career in the church in Rome. He is clever, strikingly handsome and ruthless, but his rise to power ends in disaster. In exile on Inchcolm, he is still scheming and involves Michael, his lover, in his web. Royal intrigues, false visions and mysterious deaths unfold – and Michael realises that someone must stop Simon. But it may mean the sacrifice of Michael’s hard-won peace on Inchcolm – or even his life.

The nineties were the age of ‘crossover’ novels and Mortimer’s Deep, a mystery one reviewer called ‘taut as a coiled spring’, is also a gothic novel – centred on the dark island and the monastery, still visible from the Fife coast today. It also has elements of horror and, most of all, a vision of queer history, woven from many sources by Simon Taylor – a medieval scholar and a native of Aberdour.

This is a summary of a longer blog which is in preparation and will appear here soon.