Dorothy Allison. Sarah Waters. Jeanette Winterson. They are among the few lesbians who have pulled off the trifecta of writing novels that appeal to lesbians, mainstream audiences and critics alike. As British readers already know, we can now add Charlotte Mendelson to that list.
Mendelson recently completed a U.S. tour to promote her latest novel, When We Were Bad. It’s a smart, funny and poignant story about secrets and suppressed passions — including lesbian desire — that slowly unravel a seemingly happy Jewish family.
At 35, Mendelson has earned comparisons to Zadie Smith and has received the U.K.’s two leading prizes for young literary talent, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the Somerset Maugham Award for her novel Daughters of Jerusalem (2003). She lives in London with her partner, journalist and novelist Joanna Briscoe, and their two children.
She spoke to AfterEllen.com about being a Jewish atheist, coming out to her family on Christmas, and her fascination with a certain actress from The West Wing.
AfterEllen.com: You spoke at the York Lesbian Arts Festival recently. What was that like?
Charlotte Mendelson: It was incredible. Hundreds and hundreds of lesbians, and they all converge on York, which is a very cold English town. And suddenly lots of very obvious dykes are trotting around the streets holding hands … but somehow it works. There’s a fantastic feeling of sisterhood.
AE: Do you have a strong lesbian following in the U.K.?
CM: Well, I’m not sure I’m the right person to answer that question! Put it this way: This is the first time I’d been at this festival, and my books sold out and I had a queue — or what do you call it? — a line. I had a line. It was very gratifying to have a great big line of cheery lesbians waiting to have me sign the books.
AE: What type of lesbian characters do you like to write about?
CM: I’m particularly interested in the women who aren’t running around in chaps at the age of six, but start realizing a little later that they might be attracted to women, or at least a woman. That’s something that isn’t necessarily talked about very much, but there’s a lot of it about.
AE: What is it about these women who come out later in life that you find compelling?
CM: I suppose it’s that I know it’s only an accident of timing that I’m not in that situation myself; if I’d been 20 years older that would have been me.
At this conference in York, there were a lot of women who I suspect have teenage children somewhere and an angry ex-husband. I find that incredibly moving. Their journey is hard in a very different way to someone who is bullied at school for being gay. It takes courage and horrible sacrifice to think, "Actually, this world I built up laboriously is not the one I wanted after all."
AE: Are there aspects of lesbian life you feel have not been explored enough in fiction?
CM: All aspects of lesbian life — and I’m not even being facetious. It’s incredibly exciting, for example, that Sarah Waters is writing novels that have lesbians in them and are being accepted in the mainstream, but there’s definitely scope for more.
AE: What are your feelings about the terms "lesbian writer" and "lesbian fiction"?
CM: One paper here [in England ] referred to me as a "Jewish lesbian writer," which I hate — it’s so belittling. It’s like saying to Anglo-Saxon, male, straight writers, "OK, she’s won serious prizes and had fantastic reviews, but you don’t need to worry about her." It makes my hair stand on end.
I don’t want non-lesbians to think my book’s not for them. At the same time, I’m always careful that my jacket copy, without giving away a twist, does indicate to lesbians who might be looking for it that we’re not in Straight Land. You want to find a representation of yourself, don’t you? So I want lesbians to know I’m there, but if it’s a good book, then you want anyone to read it.
AE: It’s challenging, because bringing books into the mainstream is important. But at the same time, like you say, you need lesbians to know your books have lesbian content.
CM: I agree, and in interviews I’m more than happy to talk about the fact I’m a lesbian — that I’m very out and that kind of thing. If you’re looking, it’s there. But I hate the idea of being put in a box; it just seems stupid. If anyone called me a "lesbian editor," I’d hit them on the nose.
AE: When We Were Bad details the life of a liberal Jewish family called the Rubins. What intrigued you about exploring that particular cultural group?
CM: It’s very strange being a Jew in England. We’re not seen as quite English, and in England, foreign isn’t a good thing. But I thought, damn it, English Jews are just as different and peculiar as Bengalis or West Indians or any other ethnic group, and what they have in their fridges or what their humiliations were at primary school are just as interesting. And that tension and feeling of not belonging is fascinating to read about.
AE: Can you explain how life is different for English versus American Jews?
CM: It doesn’t apply to all of America — obviously, nothing could — but I think if you’re a Jew in America, in a reasonably Jewish area, you can wave your hands around and you can say "schmuck" and you can expect to buy a good bagel. And you don’t feel shy about being Jewish, whereas in England, unless you are one of a very, very small number of Jews, you find you have to self-edit all the time.
I’m the only Jew at a very mainstream, liberal publishing house. There are 80 of us. The only Jew and the only lesbian, actually. My God. And I don’t say "schmuck," because people will look at me strangely. American Jews have no idea what it’s like to be their English cousins.