I’m delighted, today, to be interviewing Alexis Hall about his debut novel, Glitterland, a male-male romance that released on Monday. Glitterland hit me with the emotional force of a shovel to the forehead — and I know I’m not the only one. It’s beautiful, clever, funny, incisive, sad, and oh-so-wonky. Let’s talk about it! But first, a cover-blurb combo, for orientation purposes:
Once the golden boy of the English literary scene, now a clinically depressed writer of pulp crime fiction, Ash Winters has given up on love, hope, happiness, and—most of all—himself. He lives his life between the cycles of his illness, haunted by the ghosts of other people’s expectations.
Then a chance encounter at a stag party throws him into the arms of Essex boy Darian Taylor, an aspiring model who lives in a world of hair gel, fake tans, and fashion shows. By his own admission, Darian isn’t the crispest lettuce in the fridge, but he cooks a mean cottage pie and makes Ash laugh, reminding him of what it’s like to step beyond the boundaries of anxiety.
But Ash has been living in his own shadow for so long that he can’t see past the glitter to the light. Can a man who doesn’t trust himself ever trust in happiness? And how can a man who doesn’t believe in happiness ever fight for his own?
I’m not going to greet Alexis or anything. I’m just going to start throwing statements at his head and see what he says. As follows.
RUTHIE: Ash, the narrator of Glitterland, in addition to being mentally ill, is kind of a crabby, self-involved, arrogant bastard—but in a totally lovable way. This isn’t the easiest balance to achieve, so kudos to you! It got me thinking about the ways in which romance usually allows only one character to be aloof, damaged, and useless at love, which kind of forces the other character into the role of accepting, loving, or at the very least enduring the asshattery of the other. In a way, Ash is like one of those brooding, wounded Regency aristocrats, which I suppose makes Darian the plucky match girl who will teach him to love again. Except, in this case, the only point of view the reader has access to is Ash’s, which isn’t the way this story is usually told. And no, I didn’t actually have a question. Can you make me some words on this subject anyway?
ALEXIS: I’d really like to be able to say that I was totally thinking about these things in a deep and meaningful way, and that I wrote Ash as a sophisticated subversion of … like some tropes or something. But that would be a lie. Truthfully, it’s quite difficult for me to work back from Glitterland as it currently exists, trying to entangle the whys and wherefores that led to it taking the form it did, because, basically, I think it’s all down to a slightly random web of factors, certain choices creating certain outcomes, all intersecting with my own preoccupations and experiences.
Glitterland actually began with Darian, not with Ash. I have a deep, abiding love for glitter pirates, but they seem to exist only on the sidelines of fiction, as camp stereotypes, or harmless, sexless best friends, or idiots to be scorned and spun into a joke. I realised I wanted to write a book about that sort of character, and I wanted to make him the hero of somebody’s life. That led me to Ash, an unlikely partner for Darian to say the least but, at the same time, someone who is desperately in need of a little glitter in his world. At the risk of overplaying my hand here, I think what I was trying to do was use the extremity of the differences between them to deconstruct what we perceive as being valuable, and disentangle merit from prestige. And now I’ve said that, it all sounds like a big pile of wank. But because people like Darian are devalued, socially and culturally and howeverally else you want to put it, I needed to put him a context that would demand you take him seriously.
I’m not sure how I got from there to bipolar depressive. Well, actually, I am, because it’s something that’s relevant to me for reasons that aren’t really relevant here, and it’s something I’ve always wanted to write about. I’d just better flag up here that I don’t see myself as any kind of authority on mental illness, insofar as that’s even a valid concept, so I’m not trying to make generalised pronouncements about , well, anything really, but especially not Depression, and what it’s like, or what it means. It’s not a very deep answer, but it seemed pretty obvious to me that I’d tell the story from Ash’s point of view. I’d just wrapped up the first Kate Kane book [RK: This is Iron and Velvet, coming from Riptide in December], and she has very direct, pragmatic voice so, honestly, I just fancied writing someone who would use the word ‘chiaroscuro’ in cold blood. More seriously, I was trying to create an opportunity for the reader to inhabit Ash’s world, and to see Darian through his eyes.
I know Ash is kind of an arse but I really wanted to make sure his problems were as much to do with his personality as with his illness. There’s a comedian I like very much called David Morgan who compered a show in Edinburgh. I can’t remember his precise words but he said something like: “I don’t want being gay to define me but, since coming out was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and the hardest thing I’ll ever do, it kind of does.” I kind of carry that idea with me, because I think it’s beautifully insightful about the way we orientate our identities around things we can’t control and can seldom change. I think you can understand Ash through a similar lens. Being mentally ill doesn’t define who he is, but he can’t escape it and so there’s an extent to which it has to. As far as I was concerned, part of the reason he’s so desperately invested in being awful is that it’s the last refuge of his sense of self.
It’s not something I’d previously thought about but, now you come to mention it, it’s certainly true that brooding aristocrat / plucky match girl stories are usually told from the point of the view of the match girl. I’m not in any place to pontificate generally about the way things are in the genre but I do know, on an entirely personal level, that I’ve always identified more with the Beast than with Belle. I think there’s an extent to which we all find ourselves a little bit monstrous – at least, I hope we do, otherwise I’ve just made myself sound really weird on the internet. And, although I don’t believe love is redemptive or necessarily makes us better people, I do find something quite miraculous in the idea of being loved for who you are, assuming, of course, you find the courage to share that ugly truth. So, I wasn’t actively trying to tell a story from an unusual perspective, I think I just naturally drifted into the space in which I felt most comfortable.
RUTHIE: See what I did there? By randomly spewing words at you instead of asking you a question, I got you to say all those interesting things. Also, as I noted to you privately, we are now a club of two romance novelists who used the word ‘chiaroscuro’ in our debuts. Let’s start a trend!
But seriously. Question the second: Glitterland is a thoroughly classed romance. Ash is the sort of bespoke-suit-wearing, Oxbridge-educated guy who will compare himself to St. Peter denying Christ after he betrays someone, and who thinks of Ajax when he’s on his beloved’s doorstep preparing to grovel. (God how I loved it when he thought of Ajax.) Whereas Darian wears sparkly epaulets and pronounces “Ibiza” with an “f” in it. There are times when the depth of the cultural difference between Ash and Darian is so vast as to seem almost unbridgeable—except then you create the most lovely bridges. Consider, for example, this favorite moment of mine, where Ash is about to do Darian a favor by modeling to help out Darian’s best friend during Essex Fashion Week:
He grinned, tilting his head because, in my heels, I was just a little bit taller than he was. “You’re giving me chills, babes.”
“Is that so? Are they multiplying?”
“You’d better shape up, then.”
“You’re like totally the one that I want. Fank you for doing this, babes. You didn’t ‘ave to, y’know.”
Can we just take a moment to say aww at the sweet intimacy of that passage, and also to appreciate that you used jokes about Grease to remind the reader that Ash and Darian aren’t as different as they appear at first glance?
And speaking of first glance, the question I’m working my way around to is this: At the moment when Ash first sees his “glitter pirate” on the dance floor and can’t look away, what do you think it is that he’s seeing? Is this purely physical desire? Can physical desire really be primary when it coexists with such classed contempt? (That is perhaps a naïve question, but okay. Let’s roll with it.) And do you think what Darian has to offer Ash, ultimately, is the same thing Ash is reaching for in that moment at the club, or something different?
ALEXIS: I’m not sure there’s any one answer to that. I’m happy to tell you my interpretation but, obviously, it’s no more valid than anybody else’s. I think what Ash sees the first time he looks at Darian on the dance floor is joy, and I think that’s what he finds for himself at the end of the book. Ash is so very alienated from himself, and his own feelings (and, to be honest, scared of having any) that initially he’s only capable of interpreting them as physical desire. And obviously that intersects with the class thing in a number of ways. Ash is just about willing to accept that he might fancy Darian, but he has a much harder time recognising that Darian can offer him something of real value.
It’s probably pretty obvious, and a bit of a British cliché, but I’m kind of fascinated by class. My family are about as working class as they come and, when I got to university, suddenly I was thrown in with people from a bewildering range of backgrounds, some of whom were quite extraordinarily privileged. And this honestly blew my tiny mind. Like, where I come from a lasagne is an exotic middle class delicacy. I can remember being invited to tea (tea is what we call dinner) by a school friend, and having one of these strange beasts served up to me, and having no idea what on earth I was supposed to do with it, and whether it was even safe to eat. And now, obviously, I can recognise and consume a lasagne with the best of them, but it’s hard to remember that it’s not something I’ve always taken for granted. So, I’m just completely enthralled by these differences and what they mean, how they shape our understanding of the world and the people we meet, and the way they define and distort our expectations.
So, um, back to, y’know, the book. I think I was also trying to use the class differences to provide a source of conflict and growing connection that wasn’t solely based on Ash being mentally ill. Because I felt very strongly that Ash’s depression couldn’t be cured or solved, I needed something else that the characters could overcome together, something that, on the surface, might seem just as insurmountable.
I’m not sure how to express this without sounding like a total arse, but I’m kind of a slightly naïve believer in the commonality of humanity, and that we have things to say to each other, and share with each other, even when the world keeps telling us we don’t. I’m often struck quite deeply by this. Like I can remember watching an episode of The Only Way is Essex, which I understand is kind of a UK version of Jersey Shore. Lots of people look down on it but I find it totally charming, at least I did in its early seasons before all my favourites left. At one point, two of the (for lack of a better word) characters are talking in a bar: blonde, cat-eyed Sam, who I always thought was this wonderfully malevolent Machiavel, and Amy Childs, who looks like Jessica Rabbit and is generally considered to be, well, a complete airhead. Sam tells Amy that ‘Essex Girl’ is now in the dictionary and Amy looks briefly pleased by this, enquiring what the definition might be, and whether it is, perchance, a classy, sophisticated, intelligent young woman. Sam laughs and explains that, no, that really isn’t what Essex Girl means to the general public. Amy is totally shocked and outraged, and responds by asking “but who does the dictionary?” The thing is, this scene has gone down in TV history as one of Amy Childs’ many instances of crass stupidity but, actually, if you think about it, it’s a perfectly legitimate question about linguistic, moral and aesthetic authority. It’s the sort of question more people should ask. And it was also kind of the moment when I fell a little bit in love with Amy Childs.
So I was thinking about this a lot when I was writing Glitterland. I mean, when you get right down to it, Darian’s obsession with clothes, spray tan and clubbing is no more superficial than Ash’s interest in bespoke suits or his university friends’ determination to show off how clever they are. And, while Ash and Darian have had very different experiences, they actually have quite a lot in common, and quite a lot to give each other.
RUTHIE: Yes. And you do such a beautiful job of unraveling all this in the story.
I also loved the way in which, at the end of Glitterland, Ash is forced to negotiate the difference between his illness, his feelings, and his behavior as a step toward taking full responsibility for his life. There’s a very real sense in which his disorder has so alienated him from his own feelings—even fragmenting his memories—that he has to teach himself how to love Darian from scratch. Actually, more than that, he has to teach himself how to be not a bastard from scratch. Mary Ann Rivers likes to say that the best romance reverse-ages its characters, leaving them younger at the end—more open and vulnerable—than they were when we met them, and I can definitely see this process at work in age. I even have hope that Ash might one day wear a T-shirt. Too much to ask?
ALEXIS: Sorry, is the question will Ash ever wear a T-shirt? I fear the answer to that is no. Just to take your joke way too seriously because, y’know, why not, maybe this is just because I’m English, but I don’t think there’s any inherent moral virtue in doing things that make you uncomfortable for no reason or no benefit. Obviously Ash does quite a lot of things that make him uncomfortable, but he does them for Darian, because love often requires this of us but also, and most crucially, he’s also doing them for himself, because he wants to be able to do those things with Darian. I’ve probably got a bee in my bonnet about this but I have a real problem with the idea that a way to help people when they’re messed up, or mentally ill, or generally unhappy is to, in essence, take away their coping mechanisms. I think it comes down to the ultimately understandable, but often unhelpful desire, to fix people. Like when you meet someone who can’t do [x] for reason [y], it’s very natural to invest in making them do [x] and to draw a sense of validation from the idea that you could be the one to make them do [x]. When actually all you’re doing is upsetting them to no good end, because forcing the person to do [x] won’t actually solve [y].
And, really, clothes are just as important to Ash as they are to Darian. They both dress to express themselves, it’s just Ash’s self-expression is necessarily at odds with the world’s desire to define him by his illness, whereas Darian is – relatively – content to look like the Ibiza bunny Essex boy he is. It’s probably cheating to talk about something that isn’t directly in the book (it just never came up) but I always thought that Ash dresses the way he does to help remind himself he’s not in hospital. This probably sounds grotesquely shallow of me but hospitals, and mental hospitals in particular, make everyone look awful, and there’s something deeply dehumanizing about that. I kind of feel one of the cornerstones of humanity is the recognition of individuality, and this is the first thing that institutions – prisons, hospitals, schools – take from you. So, for Ash, asserting control over his appearance is an important part of who is he.
Sorry, I’ve talked about clothes for ages and that wasn’t actually the question. In terms of Ash’s growth over the course of the book, it’s certainly true he has a lot of learning to do and a lot of that is about unlearning the kind of defense mechanisms he’s built up over the years. Perhaps that ties in with what Mary Ann says about love reverse-aging characters. I think just naturally over the course of being alive you accumulate baggage, and scars, and small piles of mess, and so when you find someone with whom you can be safe, you remember a little bit what it was like to live without all that stuff. And that’s obviously very liberating, and quite joyous, because you don’t have to put so much energy into protecting yourself by being a dick, but at the same time it leaves you vulnerable to the same wounds all over again. And I guess that’s what love comes down to really.
RUTHIE: I read Glitterland as a novel that has an enormous amount to say about dignity—how important it is to a man who’s been deeply fucked over by mental illness, but also what a roadblock dignity presents to love (and here I’m thinking of both romantic love and friendship). Did you have an explicit argument about dignity in mind when you wrote the book?
ALEXIS: I kind of did. I think the thing about dignity in general is that it’s particularly important for people in positions where they’re disempowered, because often it’s the only way you get the rest of the world to treat you with respect. When Ash is dealing with his friends, or his family, or, y’know, life, his hard-won dignity is basically all he’s got. The man is essentially powerless, even over his own mind. But, in his relationship with Darian, everything’s different because Darian cares very deeply for Ash and, therefore, Ash has quite a lot of power to hurt him. Plus, Ash is older, richer, more experienced, and better educated so, suddenly, he’s holding all the cards. This makes Ash’s investment in his personal dignity a real problem, because it’s yet another thing that relegates Darian to a secondary role in their relationship. Things can only really move forward after the end of the novel, when Ash has surrendered his dignity in front of Darian, and Darian has shown Ash that it’s safe for him to do so.
If it’s not unseemly to pick through the entrails of your own text, the original ending was very different. It was very important to me that this not be a “winning over” scene as such because I kind of feel there’s nothing you can really do to deserve love. You can just hope and do your best, and be very very grateful when it happens. So, it was always meant to be Darian’s decision to accept Ash as he is, and try to make a go of their relationship. This meant it was initially quite detached and it basically went the way Ash would have wanted. My very wonderful editor, Sarah Frantz, made several valiant attempts, using increasingly small words, to explain to me that this wasn’t working because it was all about Ash and not about Darian. We went through a couple of drafts, and I put some words in and took some words out, and it wasn’t until we were deep into the line edits that it finally clicked. I realised that I’d been so committed to the idea that Ash shouldn’t convince Darian with some big dramatic gesture, I’d gone way too far the other way and he hadn’t made a single concession. I mean, you genuinely can’t be with someone if you can’t put their happiness above your fear of looking foolish. So the scene now plays out in a much more romantic, Dariany way. And, obviously I’m kinda biased, but I much prefer it this way.
One of the weird things about writing in the first person is that you get completely caught up in the character and their worldview. I knew what had to happen, but I found it genuinely difficult to write. By that stage I’d been writing in Ash’s voice so long that it felt bizarrely personal, like it was somehow, um, me, standing there and crying in front of a boy I just wanted to love me. But I guess we’ve all been there, one way or another.
RUTHIE: We have, yes. Thank you so much for answering my questions, and of course also for writing Glitterland. I’m sure everyone will be rushing off to buy it now, if they haven’t already, so I will end with links and wishes of good luck to you and also a wide-open invitation to come back and talk to us sometime, anytime, about whatever you like. I know I speak for all of Wonk when I say we’d love to have you.