sick notes cover cold water cover joshua spassky cover
a chat with author gwendoline riley


gwendoline likes to write

Gwendoline Riley works in a bar in Manchester sometimes. Covering for people who are ill, or over Christmas. Gwendoline Riley likes to write, you see, and working in a bar gives her time to do this.

Today, Gwendoline Riley is having her picture taken for a magazine, and she’s a little bit flustered, because she’s never worked with a stylist before and it’s strange to have clothes chosen for her. She’s having her photo taken because she’s just published a novel called Joshua Spassky. Even though this is her third novel, and even though she won a prize for her first one, Cold Water, it’s the first time she’s really done anything like this, and she’s not quite sure she likes it...

dead hipsters

‘There are only three hipsters in Manchester’,
she announces, as we walk down Brick Lane from the photographer’s flat towards a coffee shop. The streets teem with boys in tight jeans and girls with tight faces. She lists the hipsters’ names and occupations, counting them off on her fingers. Then she looks at the assorted fashion types swarming along the street. ‘Who are these people?’, she says. ‘They’re like… what’s that T.S. Eliot line, from the Waste Land, about walking across London Bridge? "

"I had not thought death had undone so many."



Riley’s first book was published when she was 22, and won the Betty Trask award for first-time novelists. The novel - closely observed, booze-drenched, acerbic - got a lot of attention, with the Guardian calling her ‘Manchester’s answer to Bukowski’, and the judges of the 2001 Betty Trask Prize Committee describing her as ‘like Johnny Rotten - so unexpected, dry but precise. It’s difficult prose that takes no prisoners, but a wonderfully mature voice. And she was only born in bloody 1979!’

Safely esconced in the coffee shop, Riley starts to relax a little, and we chat about her new book. Joshua Spassky is the tale of an English writer, Natalie, and the Joshua of the title, who is an American playwright. They met five years ago and have had a highly charged yet quietly understated on-and-off quasi-relationship ever since, a liasion of sporadic transatlantic meetings, erratic sex and mega-drunkeness, with maybe just a hint of Actual True Love.

true love

But these kind of things can’t go on forever, and they meet up in Asheville, South Carolina - pretty much the middle of nowhere - for a claustrophic week of night sweats, intense conversation, boredom and love-making, with the never-stated aim of discovering actually what, if anything, is happening between them.


“It’s a book about a couple who have a very volatile relationship for many years, on and off”, she tells me. “Neither of them is direct about yet, yet the attachment is clearly there. And they’ve both taken the descision to address the situation, in different ways. His way is to invite her to visit him. And her was… well, after he rejected her the last time, she cleaned up, got sober, and just stayed in. She relinquished everything, all the old impulses she might have had for grabbing hold of him as he’s about to leave.


"That’s what you want, really, isn’t it? To reach that state of equanimity. To be detached from life, but able to join in as well. The last few lines of the book are about an absolute release from everything, from situations you’re trapped in. I think love can do that or death can do that or writing can do that, every now and then.”

jigsaw puzzle

Riley is already at work on her next novel. “The day after I finished Joshua Spassky, I started writing the next book. Writing’s just part of my day-to-day life. I don’t write from point A to point B; I won’t do chapter one then chapter two and so on. I’ll write the whole novel from the ground up. I’ll be writing the beginning and the middle and the end all at once. Small scenes, snatches of dialogue - I’ll put them all together like a jigsaw puzzle.”





"The day after I finished Joshua Spassky, I started writing the next book. Writing’s just part of my day-to-day life. "



After the publication of Cold Water at 22, Riley found herself being categorised as a representative of new, young, British writing - ‘hip-lit’, as some termed it. Is she looking foward to turning 30 and relinquishing her ‘hip young novelist’ tag?

phillip roth

“I’ve never really felt too much of a focus on being a young women, to be honest”, she says. “An interviewer once asked what my parents think of my work, which was a bit patronising, I guess. And perhaps just now, wearing a designer top in the photo session! I remember thinking, I’m sure Phillip Roth wouldn’t do this! I’m being asked to wear this because I’m a young writer who happens to be a woman, and I’ve got” - she grabs her tits and laughs. “And they’re not even that big!”

no big deal

“Generally, though”, she continues, “it doesn’t seem that remarkable to me. Every year there are quite a few books published by authors under the age of 25. And Alexander the Great had conquered most of the world known to the ancient Greeks by the age of 17 or something! So for me to have written a couple of novels by the age of 28… it’s not such a big deal, really.”


further info:
Gwendoline Riley books on Amazon
Excellent interview on a Smiths fansite

Guardian interview

L A D I E S:

Lady Lucy is seeking MCs / DJs / producers / artists /hip hop enthusiasts /girls from the garage scene/ reggae revoluntionaries and grime sisters for a new film project. See the LADIES myspace for more info.


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