‘Underneath the surface explosions of killer aliens and kick-ass scream queens battling to save the Earth’ – Cathi Unsworth interviews Alan Kelly, author of Let Me Die a Woman

Bright young Irish writer and journalist Alan Kelly has been at the forefront of championing new writers in horror and noir fiction in recent years, with his own short fiction regularly featured on hip webzines like Dogmatika, Fantastic Horror, Macabre Cadaver and Beat The Dust. So it’s no surprise that his first book should end up being published by Pulp Press, Brighton’s indie imprint dedicated to the revival of genre fiction.

Let Me Die A Woman – the title itself a homage to Doris Wishman’s 1978 documentary on transgender identity and ‘the third sex’ — is a mash-up of horror, sci fi, queercore, folk and fairytale, that is possessed of such audacious wit and originality that it seems the author has created a whole new trans-genre of his own.

Knowing that he lives in a fairly remote part of the Wicklow countryside, a location that plays a major and chilling part in this book, I wanted to get the lowdown on how this environment influenced the wildness of Alan’s imagination. Also, having read a lot of his short fiction that focuses on feelings of isolation, self-harm, abuse and alienation, I wondered whether it was his intention to use the hyperbolised and often exceedingly comical slanguage of Let Me Die A Woman to push a serious point underneath the surface explosions of killer aliens and kick-ass scream queens battling to save the Earth. Where had his rival queen bitches Jessica Sparks, Alice Fiend and Bunny Flask really materialised from? And what had the effects of all that Grindcore and Southern Gothic he so regularly imbues made on his fertile brain? One thing I was sure of – his answers would not be boring…

Cathi Unsworth (CU): One of my favourite lines in Let Me Die A Woman is at the beginning, when we are getting the measure of Jessica Sparks’ world: ‘a nice little patch for inbreeding, with no real incomers since the Vikings’. This rural, backwoods Ireland is a threatening, haunted landscape out of which, we get the sense, no good is ever going to come. You have chosen to put a figure in the middle of it, Jessica, who kind of represents all the repressed fears of her community – with her red hair, she is literally the ‘scarlet woman’. How much of this is a reflection of your own experience, growing up knowing you were different in a place that simply doesn’t do different?

Alan Kelly (AK): I liked Jessica; she has a Machiavellian air about her. I can identify with her frustration and need to escape her small-town and there is a dichotomy living in a rural area – you’re both isolated and suffocated and when the story begins she is something of a mess – she drinks to much, has no time for other people, can’t hold down a relationship – even with a miserablist who quotes Tom Waits! She is something of a loner and just a little cruel. I know repression and hiding a part of yourself and wanting to run off and change. I think that is true of most people. I’ve always being an outsider, a little odd, a little bit weird. At least my, er eccentricities are on the surface. It’s the friendly old men and the straight adorable couples like John Wayne Gacy and Myra Hindley and Ian Brady you need to worry about. It is so hard to just be yourself, have you ever noticed that you can almost be a different person when speaking to different people, like your playing different parts depending on the individual you’re having a chat with? You show or conceal a part of yourself because you believe you know how they perceive you?

CU: That is definitely true and it’s a survival tactic – adapt to survive! The scarecrow festival that Jessica and her mother attend also taps into creepy rural customs. In this part of the book I get the sense that you are evoking an aspect of horror film and fiction that is deeply resonant, folk memories almost. And then the scarecrow fest morphs into something more akin to science fiction, although again, these aliens are also farmers, ‘harvesting’ human males. I sense you are pulling the things from these genres that have had the most impact on you, and using a mash-up of genre and outsider fiction to create your own mutant style – was that the intention or was it more a spontaneous process?

AK: At first it was spontaneous – I wrote it for fun! Many films and books tap into that dangerous folk-in-the-country thing (The Wicker Man, The Hills Have Eyes, I Spit On Your Grave, Hostel) and I guess some of those influences found the way in. The village of Roundwood interested me because it reminds me of Twin Peaks – beautiful and remote and really quite haunting. I love places that remain unchanged, so it feels like your stepping back in time. A few years back, after seeing PJ Harvey and The Red Hot Chilli Peppers at Slane, a few girls and I drove all over the West Coast of Ireland. There were some really beautiful places, almost like taking a step through a portal into another world. It’s interesting that you say folk memories, like visiting a place and recognising it even though you’ve never been there. Sort of transgenerational morphic resonance.

I guess wandering around as a child and being allowed to watch as many horror films as possible instilled in me a love of faery tales and folk music, or maybe I’m really a country boy at heart. I’ve always been drawn to outsider fiction – Darcey Steinke, Laura Albert, Harry Crews, Amra Brooks, Scott Heim, Poppy Z Brite, Matthew Stokoe, Helen Walsh, Laura Hird and of course horror, noir and hardboiled – once I got sent home from primary school because I was asked to stand up and tell my classmates what I did over the weekend, when I started going into detail about Driller Killer, the teacher was livid.

I guess if I was looking for an underlying theme, it would be the malleability of identity, of gender and I suppose, in this case, if you like, applying that to genre. What you see isn’t what you get.

CU: Well indeed and this is another thing that puts Let Me Die A Woman on another level for me – the secret life of the book’s real heroine Bunny Flask, who when we first join her is just being booted out of the job she loves, editing the horrorzine Blood Rag by a misogynist new publisher – all the more outrageous as Bunny’s vision for the magazine was one of total female empowerment. We get some idea of how much the job had meant to Bunny when she returns home to her father, who clearly reviles her, and the only real outlet for her is to beat herself up in the shower to kind of purge the voices of dissent that are raging in her head until she passes out…. Parental abuse and the resultant reactions of self-harm and self-hatred are epic, widespread problems – in writing about these subjects did you intend to reach out maybe to others who have suffered this way, give voice to those who are suffering in silence?

AK: So many people are in pain and they find outlets or coping mechanisms which can sometimes be dangerous, not realising that they can actually ask for help – self-harm and addiction are things I’ve seen far too much of. Bunny is blamed for a lot of things, including the death of her mother. She is sailing along just fine until Blood Rag is bought out and she is kicked out on her ass, dumped by her boyfriend and replaced by Alice Fiend. She decides enough is enough, I can relate to that – of letting people walk all over me and people will do it! Last week I watched this documentary called “Growing up Gay” and it was focusing on the first generation of teenagers after decriminalisation (which was in 1993) in Ireland and I really felt for some of them. One girl, I think it was in Waterford, couldn’t finish school because she was being bullied so badly. I’m sickened that this still happens. But I really applaud all those kids – to actually be able to go on national television and talk so candidly about their experiences. If Let Me Die A Woman does help LGBT teens or adults even. That would make me very happy, that would be something to be proud of…

CU: This is why I think Let Me Die A Woman is an outstanding piece of subversion, not just of genre fiction, but because you do have a very strong message in there that obviously does not come over in a patronising way, but in the voice of someone who knows.

To go back to the answer you gave to question two, I also found a lot of Southern Gothic imagery lurking in your writing, and this is something I have found in other Irish writers that I really love, like Pat McCabe, Ken Bruen, Maurice Leitch, that they seem to share a lot of ground with Crews, Faulkner, O’Connor…. Obviously a lot of Deep South writers are of Irish origins and the landscape really seems to affect the way they write, giving them a poetic physicality. I always think that my favourite books are the ones you can smell, the whole landscape and the people in it rise up off the page – and its always the outsiders, the marginalised and the freaks that these writers hone in on… Do you think your own writing is headed in this direction?

AK: I read The Gospel Singer [by Harry Crews] and loved the cast of misfits, freaks and dangerous outlaws; Pat McCabe’s writing is chilling, he writes about life in small-town Ireland in a way that is almost like a fairy-tale, but it isn’t a fish-eye warped perception he gives you – he offers you an insight into the existences of the marginalised and the outsiders in much the same way Todd Brown did with the film Freaks or Clive Barker with his novella Cabal (filmed as Nightbreed) or even the characters who dwell in television shows like Deadwood and Carnivale. Yes, my writing is moving in a certain direction which isn’t as mutant-y genre-ish as Let Me Die A Woman – what I’m working on is in a rural setting and I’m very much drawing on folklore, film and Gothic literature. So far I’m finding this a lot more difficult to write, but I definitely do see it heading there. This story has far less humour and is partially inspired by an investigative piece I wrote whilst studying – about the disappearances of over 300 migrant children in under five years. I’m also developing subplots and characters from memories and dreams – an odd man who lived in my village, my brother’s accident, friendships and relationships I had as a teenager. I suppose this is less of an experiment than Let Me Die A Woman.

CU: Over 300 migrant children in under five years! That’s a shocking figure – can you tell me more about this?

AK: While I was studying at BCFE we had to do an investigative piece – I decided to write my own on human trafficking in Ireland – I was shocked when I discovered that 300 migrant children had been placed in hostels by the HSE and subsequently vanished. These where all relatively young children and I was left wondering why the fuck there hadn’t been more of an outcry from the press – there was an article in The Business Post by a journalist called Jan Battles and televised coverage by Keelin Shanley on Primetime – both of which I contacted. Other than these only a handful of papers have wrote about this. It is nauseating and makes me want to scream. The children are placed in emergency accommodation, and are supposed to see a project worker and a supervisor once a week until they are placed in more permanent accommodation. Of course this leaves them vulnerable and although a man from the Irish Office of Migration told me that some of the children leave of their own volition (to search for family members) many of them more than likely fall into the hands of traffickers. When I asked why he thought it was so low profile, he said that perhaps “It was a matter of resources…” Why wasn’t someone with them at all times?

It’s completely insane and disgraceful that in a country as small as Ireland that amount of children can vanish! I guess because they where non-nationals, they weren’t necessarily a priority and so people just didn’t give a fuck. If a white national child disappeared, there would be media frenzy. The truth is people only care about their own. Since I done that piece well over 100 more kids have disappeared – here is a website which will make your blood run cold: http://ie.missingkids.com

CU: How important in shaping your worldview and your writing was training as a journalist first? I ask because that is the way around that I did it too, and I have found that in recent years it is only possible to address all the issues I want to in any depth is by writing a book! With the work you are currently writing, weaving in all these strands of the personal, the political, location, family, folklore do you think it is possible to tell more truth this way, through fiction, than it is through journalism and non-fiction?

AK: I think studying journalism helps people develop their skills and in a very practical (and non-theoretical) way, you can’t sit around day dreaming and being a ‘tortured genius’ while you slug liquor. You need to just get done whatever has to be done and hopefully come up with something coherent.

One thing I learned while there is that we are all conduits, there are ideas running through us, we just need to find a way to transfigure or transmute our experiences and memories and dreams into a narrative that suits us – with journalism and non-fiction you need to be objective and your writing can be coloured but there needs to be clarity to. In fiction you can mould the truth into whatever you want or need it to be, I guess.

Studying journalism gave me a more pragmatic approach to writing. I definitely think studying shapes your world-view and yes, fiction reaches me far more quickly than reading a newspaper ever could.

CU: I agree, pragmatism and the ability to work and think fast are good qualities to be learned from journalism. Also, you aren’t so isolated, you get to meet a lot of people who can help shape your thinking and expand your horizons by interviewing, researching, and questioning orthodoxies. You also have worked as an actor and in performance art, I believe – can you tell me any more about that and what you got out of those experiences? Does it help writing to literally ‘become’ someone else as an actor and see the world through someone else’s eyes?

AK: I really enjoy interviewing people I admire and hearing what they have to say. Writing for Pretty Scary was my first gig and I’ve been doing it ever since. Yes, I played Brian Jones in Paul Ward’s Furcoat and No Knickers which premiered at GAZE film festival in Ireland last year. I loved the experience and didn’t feel the character was that far removed from who I am – what I enjoyed most was that it gave me some much needed confidence and it is interesting to ‘become’ someone else, even if it is for a brief period of time. Paul had a very talented bunch of people onboard and the film was very good – sort of Beautiful Thing meets Queer as Folk – saying that, I wouldn’t want to return to acting. I wouldn’t rule it out entirely. It’s just not something I see myself doing again anytime soon.

CU: I don’t think acting and writing are so far removed, when it comes with imbuing characters with qualities you hope are realistic, although standing on a stage projecting that and sitting in the safety of your own room tapping away are of course quite different things. You say it gave you confidence, which can never be undervalued, as you never get told that once you become a published writer you will also have to develop a performance aspect to your personality. I know that is something many people battle with, as a lot of writers are by nature pretty shy and insular people. Do you think it is necessary for writers to work hard on releasing their own ‘inner luvvie’ or is this a pressure you would rather avoid?

AK: The performance aspect of my personality has always been there – it usually comes bubbling to the surface after one to many. I wouldn’t describe myself as shy but definitely inward-looking, I’ve become far more introspective in the last year; I think this has something to do with spending so much time alone. To be honest, I would rather avoid live readings completely, I don’t like being on stage and having to read in front of strangers. But of course it is necessary, if you want your work to reach as many people as possible, you really need to let, as you say, your ‘inner luvie’ off it’s leash…

CU: Does it help to be part of something like Pulp Press, a small, indie publisher with very definite ideas and values? How did you find writing for them and do you feel that you are among kindred spirits there?

AK: Pulp Press is fast becoming a stable of like-minded individuals! I am delighted to be a part of that family. Writing for PP was great, I was pretty much given as much freedom as possible to write Let Me Die A Woman – I am definitely among kindred spirits there. Without a shadow of a doubt.

CU: Do you think PP will be able to achieve its mission to drag folks away from the TV set and get their heads back in books again? And why do you think it is so important that they do – why are books the ultimate kick?

AK: I think so! If it can get younger people to read more, all the better and I can see these books appealing to people of all ages, though especially teenage girls – they are smart, cheap, nasty, sexy, funny and ultra-violent and full of strong femmes! I can see the books appealing to all sorts of people! Grindhouse and exploitation are making a comeback with Bitch Slap and the forthcoming Robert Rodriquez film MACHETE. So anybody who likes them, will adore these. What’s important is that you have fun reading them! It’s like a night out or good sex or bad drugs! Ballsy, bold and more brazen than a corner doll. And let’s face, they are as sexy as Hell herself!

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