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?
AE: Do you have a strong lesbian following in the U.K.?
AE: What type of lesbian characters do you like to write about?
AE: What is it about these women who come out later in life that you find compelling?
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?
AE: What are your feelings about the terms "lesbian writer" and "lesbian fiction"?
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.
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?
AE: Can you explain how life is different for English versus American Jews?
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.