Interview with Rosy Barnes

standing picSadomasochism and accountants: an unusual combination - Where did you get the idea from?

I started off with an image: a man – completely naked except for a black eye mask. And I was thinking about how strange and interesting that was– to be able to expose your whole body to the world, but not your face. And this got me thinking about what sort of person he might be in real life.

At the same time I was thinking about a certain sort of person living in London and working in the financial industries and how frightened so many seem to be - people of privilege who have this sense of – entitlement – about them. And yet this strange fear. The fear of not making enough money, of not driving the right car, of not keeping up with their peers.

I don't normally believe in that whole “eureka” moment thing but it was a bit like that. The whole thing hit me at once – the clash of the two worlds – the characters, the story, everything.

Unfortunately writing it wasn't quite so simple.

Which character did you enjoy writing most?

I love all the characters – I think that is what inspired the book, the chance to make up all these crazy characters and make them interact with each other and see what happens.

Obviously I have a huge fondness for Paula – I am fascinated by shy people and always have been and I liked the idea of someone who is completely overlooked from the outside, but who has huge inner resources.

I love Luda. "She" is probably my favourite character because of the gap between who she wants to be and who she is - which makes her very human, of course. She sees herself as ultra-feminine: quiet, meek, demure but in actuality she is very tempestuous and bad-tempered and this keeps exploding through her outside veneer.

But probably my favourite character to write was Alan, which surprised me. He started off as someone I would totally loathe if I met in real life. But after a while I began to get quite fond of him. You end up sort-of rooting for him precisely because he is so weak and flawed. I enjoyed writing Alan in the big denouement scene. That was fun.

Luda's a very distinctive character: where did you get the idea for her from?

I wrote a play some years ago called Bimbo, about a woman and her transexual friend.

I got the idea for that after going into the women's toilets at a cinema and there was this very tall woman in the queue who was, quite obviously, either a transvestite or a transsexual, closely studying her nails. She looked round at me and looked me up and down with disdain as if to say “you haven't made much effort – what are you doing in here?”

I began thinking about the implications for women of men saying they were women trapped in men's bodies. Basically the question was: if there is such a thing as being a woman trapped in a man's body, or even a female brain trapped inside a male body - what is the effect of this on women, and feminist women at that? What happens to those arguing that gender is a cultural construct?

With Luda, it is different. She is not a transsexual; she is a transvestite. Basically transsexuals believe they are trapped in the wrong body and may go as far as having surgery to “correct” this, whereas transvestites are cross-dressers and know they are men and are often very proud of being men. Grayson Perry did a very interesting documentary about this.

In fact, when I looked into it, a lot of transvestites seemed to me to be very traditionally masculine in their “normal” lives – maybe even taking on traditionally "masculine" roles or jobs. It is often assumed that transvestites are gay but the majority are heterosexual and many have wives and families. And I was struck by - on the online communities in particular - the supportive and friendly way they talk to each other, which is quite different to most male interaction online and I was very impressed by this.

I wanted to explore someone who was aggressive and angry as a man and who is maybe trying to get away from that – giving him/herself permission to be sensitive and caring in “female” mode – but can't totally get away from that angry (“real” or otherwise) self.

And I also wanted to show that these definitions even within communities are not without tension – as we discover when Luda and Dave have a run-in with some transsexuals.

What was the hardest thing about writing the book?

I think the hardest thing was getting the club characters right. I struggled for a long time with that. I wanted them to be the “goodies” and as a result took them far too seriously! I didn't want to make a mockery of them. But the trouble was the result was both spectacularly unfunny and rather dull to read. A bit like Eastenders in the eighties when they tried to write black or gay characters. They were so concerned with their being positive portrayals of minority groups that they really struggled to make them interesting characters. After all, you always like the bad characters best, don't you?

The realisation came when I saw that they had to be human and that their humanity (and comedy) was in the gap between their club selves and their real selves. So I concentrated on this and they suddenly started coming alive.

What about the world of fetish - was that difficult to research?

Not at all. (That's going to art college for you!)

Actually, I think it is a very timely subject. There has been a huge resurgence of interest in cabaret and burlesque in recent years and places like The Torture Garden in London are seen to be trendy places for hip and happening to be and be seen. There was even a recent article about it in The Times.

But I do get tired of the way people tend to concentrate only on tired old notions such as striptease when there are so much more characterful and idiosyncratic things people are into. Like balloon fetishists for example - did you know they divide in "poppers" and "non-poppers"? 

Sites like Pretty Pervy by Obviously Odd, a company specialising in making inflatable suits of sexy martians insects, show just how imaginative and humorous the scene can be and how a lot of people approach it with a huge sense of fun.

What’s the worst thing about writing?

Probably loneliness. I am quite good at being on my own but I have to guard against getting a bit weird in the head. I know a number of writers who I correspond with a lot – mainly through the internet and I think we all have a tendency towards loopiness and it's not good to let that get a grasp. I don't want to be one of those weird old ladies who lives in a rubbish tip but puts cellophane round the cooker. (*Looks round.* Shit.) Which is why it is important to emerge into the real world again at some point. Stops you getting too strange.

Other than that – redrafting. That's the pits. There is no way you can tell what is funny any more after the 40th reading.

Oh and people continually asking “Is it out yet” (when you are on Chapter three) and whether you're going to be the next JK Rowling. Another thing that accountants never have to suffer: they're never asked when their next financial report is out and whether they are going to be the next Ernest Saunders.

Do you really hate accountants?

Hey, some of my best friends...No, seriously. I know some very nice accountants – some of whom even helped me with research for the book.

I do feel a bit guilty about that in a way. Ever since John Cleese, accountants have got such a bad comedy press. They are a bit of a comedy cliché in many ways. But, in a sense, that's why I wanted to use them. It doesn't have to be accountants really – they are just a shorthand to me for a safe, monetarily-rewarding respectable profession in London that does not require much in the way of personal risk or exposure.

I suppose working in and knowing so many people in the arts industries makes you aware of the discrepancy. That there are so many people working for nothing or very little, taking risks, and exposing themselves in a personal way. And so many people I know  who do nursing or caring and are paid very little. And yet certain people in the financial industries (for which I use accountants as a symbol) have this sense of entitlement. Entitlement? Why are they more entitled? They can say society values them more. But it's not exactly like they are doing anything particularly moral or beneficial.

I suppose there was a number of things that brought this home to me. Someone – a very well-paid individual – talking about me and my “deadend job”. Another well-paid individual complaining to me that it was “impossible to bring up a child for less than £100,000 a year”. I kid you not. (Never mind all the people who seem to manage it.)

We live in a society now where it is all about how you look and what that says about you, from your clothes to the personal objects that you carry around: phones, bags, shoes, mp3 players. It is such a trap too to look at yourself and your achievements merely in these terms. That’s why I wanted to contrast it with another world with another way of thinking altogether – where people of all ages and shapes and sizes  - and objects have a very different significance. In the fetish environment, people put aside their day-to-day roles and take on other personas entirely – sometimes the opposite of what they might be in “real life”.

I suppose current events have kind of caught up with me here. Being in the financial services has been so respectable and so safe and a measure of "success" (whatever that means) for so long. It is no longer the case. Perhaps we are finally, as a society, questioning our value for all things money over reality. Interesting times.

Why do you write comedy?

I love bleak novels, but couldn't write a whole one.

I think there is something in Oscar Wilde's phrase that some things are too serious to take seriously. Life is simultaneously tragedy and comedy and we need both.  I believe comedy is always about something – the way human beings think and behave. Even the silliest comedy tends to reveal something about the way we think. Comedy is about seeing the rules and simultaneously seeing how stupid they are. There is a freedom and a doubleness to it. But it is not necessarily anarchic. I used to think comedy, in and of itself, was rebellious. But now I believe it simultaneously confirms what it undermines and vice versa. That I can't quite get a grasp on that is one of the reasons it endlessly fascinates me.

After all, lots of animals get miserable, but only human beings laugh.

What is the Message of the Book?

If there is a message of the book it is about values, about tolerance. My comedy is in the gap between who we think we are and who we really are – our blindness to ourselves, or even to what makes us really happy. I'm sure there's an "issue" in there somewhere, but I wouldn't like to put a name to it.