Great LezBritain: Interview with Joanna Briscoe


This new column, “Great LezBritian,” will be a fortnightly stroll through the very best of British lesbo-centric entertainment and culture. Plus there will be some jolly good interviews with the top ladies who are waving the flag for gay UK. 

“Great LezBritain” authors Sarah, a Londoner, and Lee, a Glaswegian, met in a gay discotheque one bleak mid winter, eight years ago and have been shacked up together ever since. When not watching Tipping The Velvet, they find time to write, run a PR company, DJ at their own club nights and love a bit of jam on toast. 

Journalist and author Joanna Briscoe and her partner Charlotte Mendelson are two of the UK’s modern day literary darlings. Currently living with their two children in North London, both women have received a barrage of critical acclaim and recently found themselves named a “Power Lesbian Couple” by the London Standard

Joanna’s novels are the kind that you will gladly miss your train stop for and walk an extra ten minutes back in order to read another few pages. Her plots deal with the uncomfortable, passionate tense moments in life that make delicious and irresistible reading.

Joanna Briscoe

Her first book, Mothers and Other Lovers, is the powerful depiction of a daughter’s relationship with her mother’s friend, while her second novel Skin is a provocative portrayal of a women’s destructive pursuit of beauty and love.

Sleep With Me, Joanna’s third book, is our own personal favorite. We read it together in a few days and delighted in the dark, erotic story about the arrival of Sylvie a peculiar French woman who entwines herself into the lives of the soon to be married couple Richard and Leila. 

Also seduced by the novel was Andrew Davies, the Godfather of Literary Screenplays and candidate for number one British lesbro (he also gave us Pride & Prejudice, Tipping the Velvet, and Affinity) who adapted it into an ITV1 drama which aired on New Year’s Eve. 

We spoke to Joanna a week before Sleep with Me hit our screens to talk about her novel being brought to life by Davies, how she and Mendelson deal with their “powerful lesbionic coupledom ” and what New Year’s resolutions she has set herself for 2010. Your first novel Mothers and Other Lovers, is about a teenager who has an illicit affair with her mother’s female friend; did you find that a subject matter like that for your debut novel then branded you as a “gay writer.”  Is this something that particularly bothers you?

Joanna Briscoe: I have never been particularly branded as a “gay writer” as my novels are so mainstream and have characters of different sexualities. Plot and writing style interest me more than any issue of sexuality. 

But by chance, Mothers and Other Lovers was published in 1994 when the whole “lipstick lesbianism” idea had traveled from the US to the UK, so it was publicized in some ways on the back of that, which did categorize it to some extent, but also gave it more wide-spread attention, such as two cover stories in The Sunday Times and a big feature in Elle magazine.

It would bother me to be categorized as any kind of writer, as it’s so reductive, but in this culture, especially in the media, of course it happens. But at the end of the day, I just want to be read, so however that happens. Also, I’m entirely out about my sexuality, so if that make people think I’m a “gay writer,” then so be it. 

AE: Were you surprised to win the Betty Trask Award in for Mothers and Other Lovers considering that the award usually goes to more traditional novels?

JB: The award used to go to more traditional novels, but that gradually changed. When I won it, the British Booker-winning novelist Anita Brookner said that Betty Trask would be turning in her grave!

AE: Sleep with Me centers on the power of Sylvie — someone that is attracted to women as well as men. Who or what inspired this character?

JB: Sylvie was the starting point for the whole novel. The idea of that character intrigued me, and I built the novel — the other characters, the whole plot — around her. She was based on a combination of several women I’d met over the years who were apparently mousy, quiet, and unnoticeable even, but had some strange, almost subliminal power. I met one of them at a dinner party and barely noticed her, but thought she had something interesting or intriguing about her.

The next day, I rang the hostess of the dinner party to thank her, mentioned the woman, and she said, “Everyone’s been asking about her.”  Apparently people thought they had a unique, special connection with her, yet she’d barely said a word. I found this fascinating. I never saw her again, but I thought about her and a few other similarly unobtrusive, quiet people I’d met over the years who exercised some inexplicable power over people.

Zergnet Code