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.
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 .
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.