I interviewed V G Lee about her five novels and two short story collections, her coming out as a lesbian, and her standup comedy performances. V G Lee won the Ultimate Planet Award for Best Established Author; she has been nominated for a Stonewall Award for writing, and her novel, Mr Oliver’s Object of Desire ,was runner up for the YLVA Publishing Literary Prize for Fiction.
Leslie: Tell us about how you started to write.
Val: I was forty. A relationship of more than ten years fell apart and I didn’t see it coming. For a year I was heartbroken. I started to write the odd line on paper bags from the local grocers and then just for something to do, I joined a women’s writing class in Hackney. I was never much good at anything at school but I seemed to be ok at writing. After eighteen months I moved on to a class at City Lit, the tutor was an inspirational Scottish author called Alison Fell. Also inspirational was the Andrea Levy, who was there just for one term as she’d got a publisher for her first novel.
Leslie: How much of your personal history comes into your novels? How and why do you change it?
Val: There’s not as much of me in my novels as readers imagine. I often use childhood settings, family pairings as a foundation and a starting point and then the stories take off. Every now and then I do pop in a detail that I feel fits; the giant albino rabbit in The Woman in Beige, my brief stint as a cleaner for Argos in Diary of a Provincial Lesbian. There’s the odd character that friends recognise but these are rare as I’m aware that not everyone wants to turn up in a novel.
Leslie: What have been the key events / people who have changed your life and your writing? Is there a pattern in them?
Val: That first tutor Alison taught me rigour; to read my work aloud, to be vigilant for repetition of words and sounds, to not overly use the emotional card. We are still friends now. I don’t always appreciate her writing but I absolutely trust her judgement.
Particularly over the last years as I’ve grown older my mood affects the work I produce and I’ve come closer to autobiography but still with a dose of fiction. For five years now my oldest, closest friend has been severely mentally ill, growing worse till now I can’t reach her nor she me. This has definitely made me more retrospective, darker and gloomy. I can’t imagine I’ll ever write another funny line.
Leslie: How have your stage performances changed and developed? What have you learned about yourself in the process?
Val: I went on a stand-up comedy course when I was sixty and then took to the road for a year doing over ninety gigs which is no small effort travelling first up from Hastings on the train. I don’t drive. This gave me a good grounding for when I was asked to play a part in the Polari Tours. My chief role was to either warm the audience up or send them home laughing and over seven years and hundreds of gigs all over the UK and in Spain I never let the tour down. I know that I can make people really laugh and also make them warm to me. Gave me a big boost of confidence.
Leslie: Tell us your ‘coming out’ story.
Val: While I was married (married at 19) I had a five year affair. When I finally left my husband, the woman I was having an affair with left me but we remained friends. She had always known she was a lesbian but I fought against my own knowledge of my sexuality for a few more years. Finally we started to go to bars and events. I told my brother and his wife. I’ve never looked back. My relationships have never been particularly successful because due to childhood problems I have difficulty in letting people get really close.
Leslie: How do you portray LGBTQ+ themes in your stories?
Val: My first two novels were pretty much set in the north London lesbian community. Then I moved down to Hastings to write Diary of a Provincial Lesbian which says it all although I think some readers hoped it would be a little more raunchy but my first books were comedy not raunch…and anyway what do I know about raunch?
Leslie: What’s the relationship between your ‘out there’ VG Lee persona as author and performer and the more private / subjective layers of self?
Val: Due to circumstances we have grown far apart. I can still perform, teach read my work and make the event funny, interesting, still send people home laughing.
However, at home alone, I am sad and bewildered at the stressful life I now lead. BUT from leaving my marriage when I was 35 till I was almost 70, I had a wonderful life. Fortunately many of those people are still about today and they look out for me. If there is a positive about the last five years it is that I’m still writing and writing well, still getting booked. To be honest for me, the writing is everything.
Next week I interview poet and environmentalist Ian McLachlin
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations. Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair. Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here.