I recently had the pleasure of being invited to preview, Out There, a new anthology of Scottish LGBT writing. Admittedly (and somewhat ashamedly), this was to be my first foray into the world of LGBT writing and so I was really interested to find out more about what Scotland’s leading and emerging writers in this genre had to say, and also what I would make of the collection from the perspective of a straight female.
What I discovered was a fascinating collection of stories, poems and perspectives from up and down the country. Some of the stories are shocking, some funny, some sexy, others terribly tragic and sad; but all pose poignant and thought provoking observations about the social and sexual landscape in Scotland today.
Suitably impressed, I wanted to find out more about what prompted author and editor of Out There, Zoë Strachan, to pull together this collection.
Hi Zoë, thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions about Out There. First of all, I was wondering what triggered your inspiration to pull together this anthology?
A few years ago I was speaking at the Ullapool Book Festival about what was then my work in progress, a novel called Ever Fallen in Love. In the course of the conversation that ensued, I realised how long it had been since there was an anthology of Scottish LGBT writing. Other questions were raised too, about the visibility of gay male writers in Scotland, and about whether there is such a thing as a queer aesthetic. Most of all, I encountered a diverse, but mostly straight, audience who really wanted to read the work of new and established LGBT writers. It was all so encouraging that I got carried away and said I’d love to edit a new anthology . . .
How did you canvas writers to submit pieces? What was the brief you asked potential contributors to write/submit to?
I made a wish list of established writers that I really wanted to include, writers without whom I thought the anthology would be incomplete. Many of these were authors that I’d found inspiring or encouraging personally too. So for example I wrote to Ali Smith, Christopher Whyte, Jackie Kay, Ronald Frame and others to ask if they’d be interested in sending me a piece. I was aware too that there must be dozens of LGBT writers that I didn’t know, so I launched an open call for submissions as well. It’s quite exciting to hear new voices alongside the prizewinners and bestsellers! I didn’t give any brief, as one of the main aims of the anthology was to show the diversity of LGBT writing. Although most writers foreground LGBT characters, some don’t, or else it isn’t specific. And in many cases, although the characters are LGBT, the story or poem isn’t really focussed on that.
Out There was released in the week that Scotland voted No to Independence. Did you intentionally choose this release date? Is remaining part of the UK a good outcome for Scottish LGBT rights?
I did want to release the anthology in referendum year, because it seemed an appropriate time to find out what was happening: what people were writing about, what LGBT authors were saying about themselves and their work. It’s one of these pivotal moments at which it isn’t a bad idea to take the temperature, as it were. But we didn’t plan for the dates to be so close! It’s impossible to say whether remaining in the UK will be better for LGBT rights. As Jeff Meek’s essay in Out There shows, the legal and historical context in Scotland was slightly different to that in the rest of the UK. My hope now is of course that LGBT rights move forward everywhere, in Scotland, the rest of the UK, and the rest of the world.
In his foreword, Berthold Schoene describes his arrival in Glasgow as a postgraduate student in 1990 as being “a step back in time” compared to being a gay man in Germany at that time. Did you share his experience of 90s Glasgow/Scotland? How would a LGBT student be received under similar circumstances today?
I was so interested to read Berthold’s foreword, especially as I think we must have overlapped at university. I arrived as an undergrad in 1992, expecting it to be like Bowie-era Berlin, but I didn’t find many LGBT people at all. Nobody seemed particularly prejudiced, but very few people – about two men that I knew from my classes – were out. Apart from tagging along to Club X with them and wondering why the music was so bad, I didn’t really meet other women who were gay until after I left university. And I don’t know why that was. My subject choices, the general ethos, my unwillingness to join any kind of society? Or because, as Berthold suggests, the 90s in Scotland were fairly repressed and repressive? Times change though: this year the University of Glasgow was named by Stonewall’s ‘Gay by Degree’ survey as one of the best in Britain for lesbian, gay and bisexual students. And yet there’s still a long way to go: it’s one of just six universities in Britain to meet all ten of the criteria and was the only Scottish university to score full marks.
Do you have a favourite LGBT author and why does their work appeal most to you?
Most of them are in the anthology, and I’ve found a few new favourites as well! Sometimes it is important to see yourself represented in fiction, I think, and I remember how thrilling and somehow validating it was to read A Boy’s Own Story and Tales of the City for the first time – but of course they were set in America and were largely about men. A Scottish, female, context only really arrived for me with the work of Ali Smith and Jackie Kay. My partner Louise is in the anthology too, and I’m in the lucky position of being able to put my hand on my heart and say that I love her writing. She’s a brilliant storyteller, but a really lovely stylist as well, and her characters are so distinct and have such particular ways of seeing the world – I always find surprises when I read her work. There’s always something that makes me wonder, where did that come from?
Mainstream publishers don’t tend to feature heterosexual characters/relationships in their novels. Does this alienate LGBT readers? Have you seen/do you foresee this landscape changing over time? Why?
I think the landscape is changing enormously. Out There includes work by Ali Smith, Louise Welsh, Jackie Kay – all well-known, award-winning writers now. We can look to Sarah Waters, Alan Hollinghurst, Colm Toibin and many others too. And then there are newer writers, like Jenni Fagan, whose debut The Panopticon features characters who are almost all queer. Most writers are interested in exploring what it means to be human, in one way or another, and most people who like books want to read all kinds of different stories. That’s the wonder of reading, really, that it can let you walk in anyone’s shoes.
Thanks for your time Zoë!
Out There is available to purchase from all good book stores (are there any other kind?) and on Amazon.
Zoë Strachan is a novelist, short story writer and librettist. Her most recent novel, Ever Fallen in Love, was shortlisted for the Scottish Book Awards and the Green Carnation Prize. Her opera The Lady from the Sea, composed by Craig Armstrong, won a Herald Angel Award at the Edinburgh International Festival. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow. www.zoestrachan.com
Thanks also go to all at Freight Books for getting me involved in previewing Out There.