NRTH LASS talks to Newcastle-born writer Eliza Clark about her debut novel, Boy Parts, a surprisingly gory tale spanning art-school pompousness and hedonistic living, which has shocked and delighted readers in equal delight. Here, she tells staff writer Sophie Dickinson about the inspiration behind the book, stereotyping of Northern writers and how to get published.
Eliza Clark talks to me through a fuzzy webcam, both of us sitting at our kitchen counters. The Newcastle-born writer published her debut novel, Boy Parts, to wide acclaim in July. But Eliza is decidedly surprised about the amount of attention the book has been getting.
“I honestly thought it would be a lot more divisive,” she laughs, looking sheepishly at the camera. “I expected more negativity. And there hasn’t really been any! It’s been great seeing it out in the world, and getting to people that I have no connection to at all.”
It really has been – with both the critical and the public reception awash with praise. The book follows Irena, a Newcastle native who quits her bar job to focus on photography, and pursues insecure men to model for her. The protagonist is decidedly unlikable – cruel to her friends, and bitter about the lack of appreciation for her art. This quickly spirals into violence: by two thirds of the way through the book, it’s very clear this is not a gentle tale about artistic endeavour or struggling as a student. As the book becomes more gory, the narration descends into a dreamy half-truth. Suddenly, we don’t know what is really happening at all – only that it is gruesome and dark.
Eliza says her confidence about writing horror comes from film, rather than literature. Citing films by Korean director Chan-wook Park (perhaps best known for his 2016 film The Handmaiden), her ability to move from horror and humour definitely seems to have more in common with cinema than literature. “I feel like it’s more reflective of real life,” she says, nonplussed by my squeamishness at the plot. “We often end up with moments of strange comedy mixed in with horror.”
There’s definitely some truth in that. There’s a moment in the book – and I won’t give away which – that made me physically wince in a way I never have before when reading. But Eliza doesn’t anticipate that reaction at all when writing, saying she consumes that sort of content herself, and therefore doesn’t expect it to shock. It’s been compared to American Psycho –which Eliza hasn’t read, but she thinks it’s “not quite as violent as that.” I’m not so sure.
Something particularly refreshing about Boy Parts is the commitment to character-building – Irena is beautiful, we’re repeatedly told, but we see how much time it takes to acquire that beauty. She squeezes herself into a waist trainer; has an intricate skincare routine. This is rarely seen in fiction: women are unaware of how they look; popular novels of the last couple of years have had these unusually pretty, naturally stunning characters that frankly seem like a fantasy.
“I hate that so much,” says Eliza. “Why do these female characters not have a relationship with their appearance? Literature is packed with these waifs who are like ‘well i’m not as pretty as this girl’ but every man they come across is madly in love with them.”
“I sort of think if you’re going to make your protagonist beautiful, you need to face up to that, and she needs to have a relationship with how she looks. Every woman I know has a really distinct, and torrid, relationship with their appearance, it really frustrates me…” she says trailing off.
That same frustration is reserved for the wealth of assumptions about being ‘from the north’ that both Eliza and Irena deal with. Eliza seems exhausted while explaining the preconceptions there are around being, essentially, not from London. “People don’t realise that there are various cities in the north, and every place in the UK has old money and new money.” Invariably, this leads us onto a discussion about class, with Eliza saying that her situation was “completely normal” for the North East – her parents left school at sixteen, but a generation later, she went to university at Chelsea College of Art.
“You become very aware of your class identity in London, too, going from that feeling of being fairly middle class, to suddenly releasing you have none of the connections,” she says. “There’s a feeling that you’ve got to justify that you haven’t grown up in a complete cultural wasteland, that you’ve got hobbies and interests and you know, your dad’s not necessarily a miner.”
For northern writers, Eliza’s advice is clear. “Lean into it,” she says with a grin. She says that literary agents from mainstream publishing houses are looking “for a new Andrea Dunbar to fall off a council estate and write a bestseller. If you are northern and working class, just lean into it. They’ll love it.” If you don’t fancy being the next Jeanette Winterson though, she recommends looking for indie presses (like Influx, the publisher of Boy Parts), because they will likely have more time to nurture a new writer. The books being published by Influx in 2021 are testament to this: a broad range of writers, their offering is notably diverse in terms of geography, ethnicity and sexualty. “There’s a lot more going on from underrepresented writers in the indie presses,” Eliza says with pride. “The big publishers might have more money, but at indie places you’ll get a lot more attention. So yes – play the game, or go independent.”
She suggests using resources like Mslexia magazine (“a crash course for getting published”), and the New Writing North writing programme for 18-25 year olds, which Eliza was herself a part of. The benefit of these schemes, she says, are that “if you’re above the low income bracket but don’t have the connections, it can be hard to get on a course. This allows you to get in as early as possible.”
Clearly, whilst Eliza had always wanted to write, publishing a bestselling book at 26 was not part of the plan – but it’s because of resources like New Writing North that she was able to. “I was expecting I’d write Boy Parts, put it in a drawer, and then see if my second novel got picked up.” And the best places to write in Newcastle?
“I wrote the vast majority of Boy Parts in Flat Caps Coffee, and a fair whack of it at Camber Coffee, too.” Perhaps, for writers in the North, that’s the place to start.
Boy Parts is available in all good bookshops.
Interview: Sophie Dickinson
Sophie Dickinson is from Clitheroe in Lancashire. She is a freelance writer and journalist, but when she’s not hurriedly writing phone-note poems, she can be found collecting ceramics and wild swimming.
Cover shots and portraits courtesy of Robin Silas Christian