Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: interview

An interview with Leslie Tate – poet, author, actor and all round deep thinker about life

One of the best things about the writing life (or life in general for that matter) is the people you meet. People who think deeply and are trying to be authentic in their artistic expression. Leslie Tate is one such person. He turned up on my blog one day – on a post about my sense of dual national identity – and asked whether I would like to answer a few questions. I said , yes, of course. It is a thrill when someone reads my blog, let alone asks to hear more.

Turns out Leslie was super organised (like scheduling months ahead) and his interview questions were some of the more interesting I’ve encountered. I found his website equally intriguing. A place where Leslie describes himself as enjoying “gardens, vegan food, unorthodox Christianity and dance at Sadler’s Wells.”

I decided to read Heaven’s Rage – Leslie’s creative biography, which put me in mind of a summer spider’s web, all dew-dropped and glistening, as he sought to draw together the various threads that have influenced his life. I got a sense while reading that Leslie was a man on an endless quest to understand, to express and to live authentically. When approached, he graciously gave me access to Mark Crane’s powerful short film based on his memoirs, as well providing these thoughtful answers to my interview questions.

It seems to me that you write to make sense of life. What came first, the idea for the novels, the memoir or the film? How has each contributed to your self-knowledge?

During childhood I was afraid to go to bed because of my terror of the dark. My fears showed at school, and I was bullied as ‘girlie’. Later, as a teenager, my secret cross-dressing became a shameful obsession. Looking in the mirror I saw a boy/girl who put on an act but inside wasn’t decent. I’d no way of naming my ‘strangeness’ and my lack of social knowledge kept me believing I was one of a kind. As I entered adulthood I felt sure that my secret would keep me locked up in myself and celibate.

By the time I went to university I’d read Freud, Adler, Jung, Nietzsche, various mystics and lots of semi-autobiographical novels in an attempt to sort out my problems. I was sociable, ‘with it’ and played the role of helpful listener to students who were ‘hung up’ – which is where my first novel, Purple begins. In the words of the blurb: ‘Matthew Lavender, starting college in 1969, has embraced a student underworld of drugs, image and cooler than thou. But behind his wild and witty persona lies a shy, sensitive romantic – a ‘feeling type’ bullied at school and restricted by his parents – who knows absolutely nothing about sex…’

So I write about dilemmas and what we try to hide, and I draw on my own life, adapted into fiction, when writing a trilogy about modern love or, later, a memoir about the power of the imagination – aiming to develop, at each stage, a voice with the range and dynamics best fitted to the experience.


You are an alcoholic. Was accepting your intrinsic need to cross-dress a necessary first step in taking control of your addictions?

Sometimes I think that experiences like that come from the gods and that addictions and illness are the dark nights of the soul. But also, they break through the norm and show us who we are. As a novelist I want to name those experiences and how it feels to go through them. In Heaven’s Rage, because I was writing in first person, I could take people inside my obsessions; in the novels the focus is on how people grow through love, but even in a book like Blue, set in the urban, feminist 80/90s, there is a spiritual dimension. It’s through accepting what you’re given and making it your own that you come to terms with any condition.

As for kicking my habits: it wasn’t until I’d been ‘out’ for a year that I stopped drinking. So I believe my alcoholism was a cri de coeur. It was the voice of my blocked creativity, telling me that I’d sold my soul to my job. To quote Heaven’s Rage: ‘So how did I stop?’

It wasn’t through will power; I’d tried that and failed more than once. I didn’t take advice or go into rehab and although I’d come out as trans, I kept on drinking. But a moment arrived when I realised what I was doing — not just in theory but as it actually touched me, on the inside. I’d become my own prisoner, the man passed over who locks himself away. Looked at socially, I was sailing through; relative to my ambition, my life was on the rocks. And the key was my refusal. As a writer and a poet, I thought I couldn’t do it. And rather than risk failure, I’d decided to opt out and not try at all.

That moment of insight turned things around. I made a declaration, first to my wife but later to friends, using the A word and asking them, if they saw me drinking, to call me out.’

Could you have done it without embracing the need to cross-dress?

You refuse the gods at your peril. On the other hand to be possessed against your will can be dangerous. So I don’t try to supress it but, like horse and rider, work together in partnership, as a single being.

How has writing about cross-dressing further answered the question you faced at school: “Why do you want to do that, sir?”

I see my cross-dressing as a gift. Like the role of the two spirit people or the hijra, it’s a third way, and part of the spectrum. Also, knowing that trans people exist in many different societies helps. It’s a way of being equally human.

You are a man, married to a woman, who likes/needs to dress as a woman. Do you identify as transgender? Or do you reject the label?

I internally rehearse the dialogues I might have in the street, calling myself trans. The reason I expect someone to say something is I don’t wear a wig or make-up, and because I’m tall the people who take notice know I’m a man. Interestingly, lots of people are so bound up in themselves that they walk straight past me. When I get a reaction, women who ‘read me’ tend to smile, men try to look over my head or straight past me.

I feel happy and comfortable with trans because it’s me – although it’s really just a way of being fully myself. I’m a husband, father, ex-teacher, chess player, Quaker, Green Party member and carer. The only label I really want to add to those is author and poet.

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Leslie Tate studied Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia and has been shortlisted for the Bridport, Geoff Stevens and Wivenhoe Prizes. He’s the author of the trilogy of novels ‘Purple’, ‘Blue’ and ‘Violet’, as well as his trans memoir ‘Heaven’s Rage’, which has been turned into a film. He runs a comedy club, a poetry group and a mixed arts show in Berkhamsted, UK. His wife, Sue Hampton, is a children’s and adult author with 30 published books. Leslie and Sue appear as ‘Authors in Love’ at festivals/book events and have visited over 600 schools together.

Mark Crane was previously a special effects technician for nearly 10 years on many films including; Labyrinth, Superman IV, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Nightbreed, Frankenstein and Judge Dredd https://www.stage32.com/theatreonwax .

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Signed UK copies of Heaven’s Rage can be bought here 

You can find ebook and paperback at Amazon 

Blurb for Heaven’s Rage:

Heaven’s Rage is an imaginative autobiography. Reporting on feelings people don’t usually own up to, Leslie Tate explores addiction, cross-dressing and the hidden sides of families. Writing lyrically, he brings together stories of bullying, childhood dreams, thwarted creativity and late-life illness, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life.

On his website, Leslie posts weekly creative interviews and guest blogs showing how people use their imagination in life, in many different ways.

 

Interview with Wendy J. Dunn author of Falling Pomegranate Seeds

It is hard to believe I have only known Wendy J. Dunn for eighteen months. We met through a Women’s History Month event at Yarra Plenty Regional Libraries. I have since come to see it as one of the more fortuitous meetings of my debut novel year. Academic, writer, and events facilitator, Wendy is a tireless supporter of other women writers. Although I cannot share her love of the the Tudors (due to the small matter of annexing, incorporating and trying to make everyone speak English :-)), I definitely wanted to read some of Wendy’s work.

Now, concerning the Tudors, if you are a fan of the more popular works, focussing on bedroom scandals, you may not find Wendy’s novels meet expectations. Told from the third-person perspective of Catalina’s tutor Beatriz Galindo, Falling Pomegranate Seeds is a poetically, philosophical exploration of women’s roles in society. I’d know Katherine of Aragon was Spanish (the name says it all), but in Falling Pomegranate Seeds, this tragic woman’s childhood is thoughtfully recreated, leaving the reader in no doubt as to her Spanish origins. So thoughtfully, I have asked Wendy some questions about her writing process.

You have a long-term interest in the Tudors. What was the catalyst for this particular novel?

Big smile – long-term interest is putting it mildly, Liz. I’m well and truly obsessed with the Tudors. The catalyst for this novel, the first novel of a planned trilogy telling the story of Katherine of Aragon, was actually my first novel, Dear Heart, How Like You This? That work narrates the story of Anne Boleyn through the imagined voice of Sir Thomas Wyatt, the Elder.

Sir Tom also had a close connection to Katherine of Aragon. She recognised his talents as a writer and poet and was his patron in his early years. My research for my first novel left me fascinated with the story of Katherine of Aragon.

LOL – now I am hearing in my mind the voice of my PhD supervisor. Whenever I made statements like that she would say, “Now unpack and unpeel what you mean, Wendy.”  Completing my PhD illuminated how my own experience as the woman ignited, and continues to ignite, my passion to write through a feminist standpoint. Writing through a female standpoint maps out master narratives of oppression through the telling of female stories.

I have always connected to the stories of Tudor women because they provide explicit and inspirational examples of women navigating a patriarchal world. The life story of Katherine of Aragon provides a powerful example of a woman whose life is controlled by her gender, in a time when men determined the power permitted to women. Oppressed groups have not only knowledge concerning their own group, but also knowledge about the dominant group. Women create powerful lives through use of this dual knowledge – and the story of Katherine of Aragon offers compelling evidence of this. Despite possessing little choice about the direction of her life, she was able to claim a rich interior life of deep faith.

Tell me a little about the historical Beatriz? How did your version of her differ?

Beatriz Galindo was not only a poet (all her poetry appears lost to history), but also a lecturer of Medicine, Rhetoric and the philosophy of Aristotle at the University of Salamanca; a woman so respected for her learning she was employed to teach Queen Isabel of Castile her Latin and ended up tutoring the daughters of the Queen.

Years ago, when I began my research for this trilogy about the life of Katherine of Aragon, I discovered a footnote about Beatriz in an academic essay about Isabel of Castile. It provided me with only with these bones of information and that she was believed to have tutored Katherine of Aragon. The essay cited from her biography – a work written in Spanish. Since I can only read a few Spanish words, this essay offered me a huge gap to fill with the use of my imagination.

I believe this is a good thing because I am first and foremost a writer of fiction. With her portrait and the important facts provided by this essay, I was able to imagine Beatriz into being.

All my fiction is informed by history, and immense historical research, but the beating heart of my work is the story it tells. Research fires up my imagination and opens the door to my imagined historical people and their world. Knowing very little about Beatriz gave me a lot of ‘What if’ questions, which acted as midwives to my imagination. I could not help wondering how it must have been for her – a woman who lived a life denied to most women in the Medieval period. Did it come at a personal cost? Smile – readers who have read my novel know how my imagination answered this question.

The historical Beatriz was clearly an intelligent woman and respected for her learning. She was close to Isabel of Castile and acted as her advisor. All these things I used to construct my imagined Beatriz. Whether I am right or wrong about her, I cannot say. But I know she is a woman who deserves not to be forgotten by history. It is always my hope that my works of fiction will make my readers interested in my people so they will seek to learn more about them and arrive at their own interpretations.

How did you balance Beatriz’s journey against your desire to tell Catalina’s story? Who would you consider the true protagonist?

I have to say Beatriz. The story is told through her point of view, so that makes the first book of Falling Pomegranate Seeds (the overarching title for my trilogy) her story.

But I wanted in this work to understand the forces shaping Catalina of Aragon during her childhood and the years leading up to the leaving of her homeland. Beatriz, as Catalina’s tutor, offered me a powerful and adult perspective. She acts as a close and empathetic witness to Catalina’s early years, during a time when her parents were engaged in what they described as their ‘Holy War’. Since Beatriz was also Catalina’s teacher in her formative years, that offered me the opportunity to imagine how Catalina’s education shaped her and made her a woman who loved books and learning.

What steps did you take to ensure Beatrice’s character spoke to universal themes without being anachronistic to her setting?

By engaging in thorough historical research and reading writings important to this period. This is how I deepen my knowledge of the mindset of my historical people. I do my best to write through that mindset, as provided in this example from my novel of a conversation between Beatriz and her friend, Josefa:

“What is it, Beatriz?” asked Josefa.

Beatriz raised her hand and wiped her face. “I’m not sure if knowing him from childhood would help me here. I remember too well the many harsh words he and my father had over my education. He believed my father was very wrong and misguided in his desire to teach me as he did.”

“The good father would not have been alone in this. Very few women are brought up to be prodigies of Latin.”

Bitter, Beatriz gazed at her friend. “Even you expressed strong disapproval of this.”

Josefa heaved a sigh, shaking her head slowly. “’Tis not that I disapprove… I have told you this before too. I believe women walk a hard enough road without walking a road where there are pits at every step. As my mother often said to me, since we cannot get what we like, let us then like what we can get. Tell me truthfully, Beatriz. Do you think you’d have this awful hole dug for you, as you do now, if your father had not set your feet on this journey to become a scholar and professor of the university?”

Beatriz pondered Josefa. “Si, I am in an awful hole, as you say. But, Josefa, I know there are more terrible and darker holes. I will always be grateful to my father for giving me the key to escape ignorance, even if it only came from his great need to console himself after losing my mother.”

Josefa placed her hand over Beatriz’s. She gave her a wry smile.

“Escape ignorance? You know many ignorant women, si?”

“Josefa, you mistake my meaning.” Beatriz stared at the coverlet of Josefa’s bed. “All of us must walk our own roads, but ’tis wrong to prevent women from walking so many roads just because we’re women. Even Plato said, ‘Nothing can be more absurd than the practice of men and women not following the same pursuits with all their strengths and with one mind, for thus, the state instead of being whole is reduced to half.’ I so agree. Our world cuts off its nose to spite its own face by insisting the only purpose for women is to bear children and perpetuate the human race, as also said Plato. Surely ’tis far too hard a view to forever blame women for Eve’s sin.”

 For me, writing is about lighting my way through life – to seek answers to those fundamental questions of the human condition. I agree with Kundera (2003, p. 44) when he tells us, ‘…fidelity to history is a secondary matter as regards the value of the novel. The novelist is neither historian nor prophet: he is an explorer of existence’. LOL – and the more I write, the more I know the truth of Socrates’s words:  ‘The more I know, the more I realize I know nothing.’

Smile – that’s not quite true. I know how important it is to follow your heart in life – and seek the fulfilment of your authentic life. Following this writing road of mine has proven to be my way to grow as a human being.

You have only been to Spain once. How did that on-the ground research influence your writing of this novel?

Besides falling in love with The Alhambra, my time in Spain deepened my ability to imagine Catalina growing up in the royal palaces of her mother.


For fifteen days, I covered vast distances travelling in a comfortable, air conditioned bus, skilfully driven on well made roads – which gave me plenty time to ponder about travelling in earlier and dangerous times of bad roads, bad weather and ox pulled litters. For me, walking the walk of my characters has always enriched me as a writer, fed my imagination, and opened the door to the lives and voices of my historical people.

How did you fill the gaps with off-the-ground research?

A mountain of books, portraits, maps, period music, and lots of daydreaming.

Tell us about your next project.

It is the second novel of my Katherine of Aragon trilogy: Falling Pomegranate Seeds: All Manner of Things. Katherine of Aragon’s lifelong friend, Maria de Salinas, is the point of view character. Like Beatriz, history provides only the bones of her life story, which means my imagination has a lot to flesh out. My imagination has opened the door to a powerful storyline – and I am determined to do it justice. The challenge is to make it work and believable through the use of historical events – and do justice to Katherine of Aragon’s story too.

Kundera, M  2003, The Art of the Novel, Reprint Edition, Harper, Perennial Modern Classics, New York.

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Wendy J. Dunn is an Australian author, playwright and poet who has been obsessed by Anne Boleyn and Tudor History since she was ten-years-old. She is the author of three Tudor novels: Dear Heart, How Like You This?, the winner of the 2003 Glyph Fiction Award and 2004 runner up in the Eric Hoffer Award for Commercial Fiction, The Light in the Labyrinth, her first young adult novel, and Falling Pomegranate Seeds.

While she continues to have a very close and spooky relationship with Sir Thomas Wyatt, the elder, serendipity of life now leaves her no longer wondering if she has been channeling Anne Boleyn and Sir Tom for years in her writing, but considering the possibility of ancestral memory. Her own family tree reveals the intriguing fact that her ancestors – possibly over three generations – had purchased land from both the Boleyn and Wyatt families to build up their own holdings. It seems very likely Wendy’s ancestors knew the Wyatts and Boleyns personally.

Born in Melbourne, Australia, Wendy is married and the mother of three sons and one daughter—named after a certain Tudor queen, surprisingly, not Anne.

For more about her novels follow this link

Language, culture and worldview – an interview with Earl Livings

Born in Australia to an Australian father and Belgian mother, Earl Livings once scorned those who felt a need to explore their ancestral origins. Not anymore. He now calls Wales his spiritual home. Having just spent two months at Stiwdio Maelor, in Corris, North Wales, this is perhaps not surprising. But in truth, he stumbled upon the homeward path years ago.


I first met Earl as one of the tutors at Box Hill TAFE where I was enrolled in a Novel Writing subject. Earl taught poetry and a unit on myths and symbolism. When he turned up at the Melbourne Welsh classes it seemed the two disparate aspects of my life had collided. Another writer! With an interest in Welsh language and culture! Who lives in Melbourne! When Earl announced he was going to the UK for a research trip and would be staying in Dolgellau. I said:

You should meet my friend Veronica.

When Veronica set up Stiwdio Maelor, a residential studio for artists and writers, Earl and I jostled for a chance to be one of her writers in residence, Earl applying for a two month residency, me applying for a six month volunteer role. Our applications were both successful. Earl’s residency came before mine. I have therefore followed his writer in residence blogs with interest, plying him with a host of pressing and intelligent, questions like:

What’s the internet speed like? Does Maelor have a washing machine?

Now Earl is back in Australia, I thought it time to raise the standard of my enquiries. I asked him to flesh out what he means by the term ‘spiritual home.’

Here’s what he had to say on the topic:

“Although my father was born in Australia, of an English father and a Welsh mother, whenever people met him his demeanour and speech would lead them to believe he was English. I too was born in Australia, yet some people when they meet me think I come from Europe. This may be because my mother was Belgian and I inherited her darker skin, eye and hair colouring and her attitudes … However, when I was young I saw myself as Australian and couldn’t understand the need of some people to re-visit their homelands, grow their country’s flowers, and cultivate its culture. I was an Australian and I felt it our duty to embrace the land, its flora and fauna and its growing culture.

“Yet, alongside this national bent was a sense of otherness from this country. When I found out I was part Welsh, I felt a kinship I hadn’t felt before … Still, the national bent remained and it was years before I started to explore my British heritage … My exploration into my British roots (as opposed to my father’s English roots) began with a developing interest in the megalithic culture of Britain, in The Matter of Britain—the stories of Arthur, Merlin and the druids—and in Celtic poetry and poetics: W B Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Robert Graves (specifically, his The White Goddess). The more I read Celtic literature and myths, the more I felt at home in this tradition. When I first travelled to Britain and spent time in Cornwall, Wales and Ireland, I sensed an affinity with the landscape, more so than during trips to the Australian bush and outback. Subsequent visits have only confirmed this connection, as has my learning of the Welsh language, an activity and practice that always feels right for me, that always centres me.”

One of Earl’s more recent literary inspirations has been found in the work of Alan Garner. He uses the term ‘mythic realism’ to describe Garner’s weaving together of the everyday and the mythic. I asked him to explain his use of this term.

“The phrase ‘mythic realism’ in some ways was a throwaway phrase when I was thinking of Garner’s work in relation to my own and in comparison to someone like JRR Tolkien and his secondary world of Middle-Earth. Tolkien and others have been described by the phrase ‘mythopoeic’, but I felt this phrase was more relevant for those stories that are either constructions of a myth, as The Lord of the Rings can be construed, or use myths and mythic beings in a literal sense, as much of modern fantasy does. I wanted something to describe Garner’s approach of using myth as a foundation for a story that somehow enacts the myth and also presupposes the literal existence of the myth and/or its underlying metaphysics. Garner creates liminal fantasies, where the world of myth and the so-called ‘real world’ overlap…

Garner posits these mythical worlds as real and as impinging on our world. In some ways he says these worlds influence and support our world, and that the opposite also happens. His first two books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, use folklore based on Arthurian-type legends of Alderley Edge, but in his next books, Elidor, The Owl Service and Red Shift, he uses Celtic myths directly or indirectly. For example, The Owl Service uses the story of Blodeuwedd in The Mabinogion, with the three main characters being influenced by the reality of the myth, almost inexorably, and acting it out at the same time. The myth is apart from the real world, yet is in a process of being continual re-enacted in the real world …

In the situation of my return visits to Britain, my journeys through Celtic landscapes in Wales and Scotland have given me my own experiences of mythic realism, in that certain sites, such as megalithic tombs and stone structures and places associated with legend and myth, give off (at least to me) a palpable sense of their sacredness … Some of these places I intend to use in my writing, either as settings or as the basis of feelings and insights characters will experience.”

Earl is an academic. Can you tell? His blog posts lifted my considerations above such pressing matters as internet speed (though this does still concern me). He has urged me to see my time in Corris as a time apart. Although, ‘officially’ a volunteer studio manger. I will be writing during my residency. Earl suggested my priorities should be:

  • My manuscript
  • The studio
  • Speaking Welsh

One of Stwidio Maelor’s owners and founders was present at this discussion. She said you may like to make you writing a priority but I think the studio will keep you pretty busy. After we had all gone our seperate ways I considered my list of priorities.

For me, speaking Welsh will come first.

I could have taken leave without pay to finish my novel in Melbourne. But, as wonderful as Skype is, opportunities to speak Welsh would have been limited. Part of my novel is written from the point of view of a nineteenth century Welsh storyteller (yes, I too am drawn by Welsh mythology). My ability to enter his consciousness, indeed, my right to do so, is grounded in my ability to speak his language.

But what of Earl? What were his aims for his time at Maelor? And does he think they were realised?

“Like many writers, both emerging and established, I have had the odd weekend (or longer) writing retreat and have enjoyed the benefits of focussing on one’s work for an extended time. A residency is just a longer writing retreat, with basically the same intention: get away from the commitments and routines of normal life and devote time and mental energy to researching a project, working at one’s craft, and/or writing and editing the text or texts of a project… My goal for the residency was to write the next draft of my dark ages novel…. What I didn’t count on was the effects of the mental space the residency gave me. Given this opportunity to sit back and think about the novel, I discovered problems in structure and story I hadn’t realised before. I thus had to spend time doing a structural edit (which isn’t finished yet) before throwing myself back into the content editing…

Even with the disappointment of not finishing the redraft, I was happy with the residency. By the end of my time in the UK I managed to edit and re-write around half of the manuscript, which itself had grown and will probably end up being about 150,000 words. I also checked out settings for the novel and learnt a little more Welsh, which I’ve been pursuing not only for myself but also for use in the novel.”

It sounds like Earl’s residency was worthwhile on a number of levels. As it is now less a month until I leave for Wales, you can look forward to hearing in nauseating detail about how volunteering, speaking Welsh and my own writing goals play out.

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Earl Livings has published poetry and fiction in Australia and also Britain, Canada, the USA, and Germany. He also has read his work in many venues around Melbourne and in the USA, England, Ireland, and Wales. Earl has a PhD in Creative Writing and taught professional writing and editing for 17 years. His writing focuses on nature, mythology and the sacred and he is currently working on a Dark Ages novel and his next poetry collection. Earl lives in Box Hill with his wife and the seasonal owls, bats and lorikeets that love the trees around his home.

 

 

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