It’s a Friday afternoon in Soho, and we’re in a cobbled alleyway with writer Damian Barr. It’s dusk, and on nearby Denmark Street, neon guitars flicker in the windows of the few music shops that have narrowly avoided being crunched up and turned into Pizza Expresses.
The alley, snaking past the backstage doors of theatres and the courtyards of apartment buildings, is imbued with a sweet-smelling fusion of marijuana and urine.
“I like it!” says Damian, sniffing the air. “It’s tangy!’
In 2013, Damian wrote the critically acclaimed memoir, Maggie & Me. Dashing, droll and deferential, he’s since become a welcome and erudite spokesperson for the LGBTQ community.
Dylan Jones spoke to him about the responsibilities involved in that, as well as his upcoming novel, You Will Be Safe Here.
Hey Damian! For people who don’t know about Maggie & Me, give us a brief summary.
It’s a memoir about growing up in Scotland in the 1980s. The Maggie in question is Margaret Thatcher, who I’m appalled to learn is now a historical figure for people who didn’t grow up under her government. Whether you liked her or not, she this core of iron or steel. But the book isn’t a political memoir at all. It’s not about politics. It’s about my family, and growing up, my parents’ divorce, realizing I was queer, and the difficulties of that in a really macho, working class rough place. And also the joys of it. I suppose I wrote the book because I wanted to capture that place in time. It felt really important to me, because I still think queer voices that aren’t from North London and upper-middle class, just don’t get heard enough.
You’re right, it really is that specific.
It actually is postcode specific. I just wanted to tell the story. I wanted to talk about my friends, because to me, friendship is a big part of the book, and it was really nice to reflect on that. My friend who killed himself – it’s given him a kind of life. An immortality that he couldn’t have had otherwise. And that makes me really proud. I think he’d be happy with how he comes across.
I love your book by the way. It’s so nice. Sorry, that’s not a very good use of my vocabulary. “Nice.”
Well, nice I’ll take! People often find it difficult to read. There are scenes that people find upsetting. And I’ll often get people coming up to me and crying, or asking if they can hug me.
That must be awkward. Because I feel like you’re over it now.
I am! But when you write a memoir, you do have to relive the past. So whenever I do an event and I’m talking about it or reading from it, I’m reliving it all. When you tell your own story, you give other people permission to tell their stories. Every day since the book came out, I’ve had emails, Facebook messages, tweets, messages on Grindr, from people saying “Here’s MY story…” And I love that, because I’m nosey. And I’m interested.
I bet the novelty wears off sometimes though.
What’s hard is when people tell you their very sad stories. And they think I’ve got all the answers, when I don’t.
So what do you say to them?
I usually direct them to a therapist. And say ‘you need to get professional support.’ Because you know what? I’ve had loads. I’m in therapy right now. I’m always in therapy, I’ll be in therapy forever. Some part of me will always be dealing with what’s happened in my life. I’m a highly functional, happy person, but it’s not by accident. It’s because I’ve got great friends, and because I was dragged to therapy before I melted down. I remember finishing the book, and looking back on it, and thinking “wow, that’s a lot.” But I also cut a load of stuff. People think what’s in the book is everything, that it’s my whole life. But there’s so much that isn’t in there.
Well, you don’t need to tell people everything.
I don’t, you’re right. But there is a…not exactly an obligation, but an awareness, as a queer person writing your story, that you feel a responsibility to the community. And that’s a privilege. Because not everybody gets to tell their story, and I’m very lucky to get to do that. It enrages me when people think the situation we have now, of equality in the law, just kind of happened and is always going to be there. But we can’t take these things for granted. With Brexit and Trump and everything…the first thing that happens is that our rights are on the chopping board.
What do you think of some of the recent dialogue about cis gay men being “privileged”?
I think it’s degrees. The struggle isn’t over. The equalities that we’ve achieved can be rolled back. As a community, we need to remain in touch with each other and communicate with each other. We need physical spaces where we can rally together, as well as virtual spaces. We need to be prepared and vigilant, and we need to know how to fight. We can’t lose those skills.
We met at your Literary Salon when you spoke to Armistead Maupin. Tell me a little more about your salon events!
Before I wrote my book I was working at The Times, so I’ve always been a journalist and an interviewer. I love doing it. And talking to people like Armistead is a joy. I read his books when I was a kid, and I re-read them every few years. They have brilliant duration. But you need to be really prepared for those things. And the salon isn’t just me, it’s a whole team of people who make it happen. But I love doing it. Over the years we’ve had some amazing people…John Waters, Brett Easton-Ellis, Diana Athill, Jojo Moyes, David Nicholls. Garth Greenwell premiered his brilliant Dirty Queer Book at my salon at The Savoy, and that was amazing…having somebody standing on stage at The Savoy, talking about two men having sex in a McDonalds in Bulgaria. I was just like “I fucking love this.”
Could you see yourself as a bit of a Graham Norton-esque presenter figure?
I wouldn’t be able to just do presenting, I’d feel tired. And I couldn’t just do writing because I’d go mental. Maggie & Me is hopefully about to be optioned for TV. I think it would be nice for it to be a TV special.
Who do you think would be good to play you?
I don’t know! Some precocious child with buckteeth. I used to have such crazy teeth. Alan Cumming’s been really supportive of the book. I went to see him at Cabaret New York, and he had a whole stack of them and he was just giving them out to people! It was amazing. I met a woman who was in his play called Gail Rankin, who plays one of the blonde prostitutes. She’d be perfect to play my stepmother.
Although actually my stepmother’s a brunette now. And a Catholic.
So let’s talk about the gay experience at the moment…do you think gay men are happy?
Happiness is a transitory moment, it’s a state. It’s not something you can live in. It’s like a minibreak. And then the rest of the time it’s all the other feelings that we have. The facts are, that more gay men commit suicide than straight men. More gay men are beaten up than straight men. More gay men have issues with drugs and alcohol and issues with sex. But our problems aren’t caused by homosexuality, they’re caused by homophobia.
What do you think is the best way to fight homophobia, in 2017?
We have to look outwards and confront it, in all its nebulous, nefarious, insidious details. It’s microaggressions. It’s me getting into the back of a cab and the cabbie seeing my wedding ring and being like “oh are you going home to the Mrs?” and me thinking “Here’s a calculation; do I say I’m going home to my husband and sit and have a frosty cab ride? Or do I just say nothing?” So it’s all these moments. That’s why I think things like National Coming Day are really important, because the more people are out the better. When people deal with an actual queer person, they’re much less likely to be prejudiced than otherwise. But coming out is a lifelong process. I’m still coming out. I’ll be coming out when I’m in a fucking old folks’ home. I’ll be like “NO! I don’t wanna dance with Doris!” My whole life, and my whole career, I’ve been pushing that envelope, and I’m never gonna stop doing that. That’s cultural activism. That’s using your voice. But first and foremost, you have to be saying something that people want to hear.
That’s one of the reasons Maggie & Me was so important. Do you have anymore books planned?
My next project is a novel, which I’ve just finished.
It’s called “You Will Be Safe Here”. It’s set in South Africa – in 1901, and in the present day. It took a lot of research, four years of my life. I saw a picture of a boy in a newspaper and he looked like a boy I’d gone to school with. He’d come to my school from South Africa for a year, and then left with no explanation. I had such a crush on him. But this boy in the newspaper had been murdered. It couldn’t be the same boy, because he’d be a man now. But I became obsessed with this boy, and ended up going to South Africa and tracking down his family, and the people who killed him, and the police involved in the case.
That’s quite a Truman Capote premise.
Well that’s what I thought when I started the book. I thought I’d do an In Cold Blood book. Just casually.
As you do.
But the thing about non-fiction, is that you need to know everything. And I didn’t know enough for it to be accurate journalistically. I know Truman Capote wasn’t too worried about that, but I was. And I thought, to tell the bigger story, to tell the truth, I need to make stuff up. So it became a novel. It’s a story of mothers and sons, and survival. And there’s queerness in there as well.
Do people find it weird that you’re writing a book about South Africa?
I tell people that and they’re like “Are you South African?” I’m not. But that’s what fiction is. Active, imaginative empathy. How do people write sci-fi? They’re not aliens, they don’t live in space. They have imagination.
- You Will Be Safe here is set for release in August 2018. To find out more about Damian and for more details on his Literary Salons, head to www.theliterarysalon.co.uk or follow him on Twitter at @Damian_Barr