“Magic realism is just freakin’ fun” – my conversation with novelist Leone Ross

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Leone Ross, the acclaimed novelist, short story writer, editor and lecturer in fiction, has a very busy few months ahead of her. She has just had two short stories published – The Woman Who Lived in A Restaurant, by Nightjar Press, and The Mullerian Eminence, in Closure: Black British Contemporary Writing. She has also contributed an essay, How To Write Weird Shit/Magic Realism, to The Art of the Novel (Salt Publishing), and has just completed her third novel, One Sky Day, following the success of All The Blood Is Red (1997, nominated for the Orange Prize) and Orange Laughter (1999).

I spoke with Leone about her new story for Nightjar Press, where she beautifully brings together magic realism and erotic fiction. It’s the tale of an unusual love triangle, where a woman falls for a man so deeply that she vows never to leave the restaurant where he works; and, where over time, the restaurant falls for both of them too. It’s a superb story of passion, magic and food, the execution of which is beyond most writers. Below is an edited version of our conversation, where we discussed prose style, politics, Leone’s career to date and her plans for the future.

When I first got this story, I read it as a piece of erotic fiction; but what’s very interesting with this work is that it’s very restrained.

In this case, yes.

Looking at the technique of writing erotic fiction, what are the challenges in this artform?

Well, I suppose I can start off with a little anecdote. What occurs to me is that there is a small story around this story. I was asked to write just a small piece of erotica for a collection – this is years ago now. So I wrote this. And I was told by the editor at the time that it wasn’t explicit enough. So he wanted more sex in it, and he wanted more explicit sex. And the problem is that stories do tell you what kind of stories they need to be. And it occurred to me that putting one more ounce of sexuality into this story would have been exactly the wrong thing for it. So I then had to hurry and write another story. Essentially, the editor was saying, “just have two people fuck and put it on a piece of paper, please”. In his defence, we understood each other, and I had written for him before. He certainly wasn’t suggesting that that’s the way you write erotica. So for a while I thought “this is not a piece of erotica at all”, and I just thought of it as essentially a very painful love story.

What’s interesting to me is that of the women who have read this, every single one thinks that it is absolutely sexy and totally horny. Then I was like, “oh, so this is erotica”. And I was reminded again that erotica does not need to be explicit. And, of course, what is erotic and what we find sexy and will respond to viscerally in that way is entirely subjective.

What I loved about it was that there was so much build.  There was so much narrative and so much context, so when you had a sex scene it was the culmination – it didn’t feel bolted on. It didn’t come a moment too early in this story, and the characters were so fully realised by the time the sex happened that the sex wasn’t a way to explain the characters. Sometimes you get these stories where the sex is the part of the exposition. But I don’t feel that in this story.

I suppose I tend to do that. I realised this recently as well. Erotica, as you know, is not primarily what I do; but I suppose, when I do do it, I feel like it’s a slow build. Often the sexuality – be it a kiss, or full-blown sex – happens structurally towards the end of the story. That may just be because I’m a limited kind of writer, I’ve no idea; but therefore you do have that sense of building up to it, because sex is just part of the rest of it rather than the point of the story. Do you know what I mean?

Yes, absolutely. It’s almost limiting to call it an erotic story, because it’s a story about how human character is expressed through eroticism. That just happens to be the prism through which they express it.

Yes. Or, in this particular story, I am trying to express humanity through sex and other things.

Yes, there’s so much else going on.

We pay attention to sex because it’s sex. But actually I’m trying to say something about humanity through emotion, through food, through architecture. So we pay attention to the sex because it’s sex, do you see what I mean? I don’t start out saying “I’m going to write a story about this”. At some point in the creation and the drafting, I will decide what it’s about. But ultimately – and much more with short stories, I’m particularly self-conscious with novels – but with short stories, I often let them become what they are.

I won’t be coy – this is, in some ways, based on a real experience. And if I was aware of anything at all, I was aware of wanting to explore sacrifice – the erotic nature of sacrifice, and the ways [in which] people, particularly women, can do this. We can make these oddly intricate decisions about our emotional lives and not have very much fun in the process, and yet there’s a multitude of experiences even in painful things. So this woman loves this man. And also, I think she’s become used to this life, of living in this restaurant, of absence – because they don’t ever actually have sex, that’s the point, they only kiss each other, they’re not allowed to have sex. They’re not having sex in that moment in the kitchen, they’re just kissing. And they’re checking very carefully in the restaurant around them if they’ve done the right thing – because the restaurant is jealous, and won’t let them, but allows a certain amount of intimacy, because [the woman] lives there.

Right.

So they are being controlled by the restaurant. And the suggestion is also that they are being controlled by his ambitions, because he is very much in charge; but at the same time she is also in charge. Other people come and beg him to let her free, but ultimately he says “she won’t go! So what do you want me to do?”

That’s what amazes me about this story – she really gives herself over to this dynamic, and embraces it by the end. And, actually, maybe there’s something comforting in that.

There may be elements of BDSM in here as well, in that she has given over the control. Essentially a version of this happened to me – I won’t go into it, but a lot of people around me wanted to characterise me as the victim in this dynamic. But there were periods of time in which my patience for the dynamic felt empowering.

I want to talk more about you, actually. Because the story’s great, but you’ve written a lot of other work too. One thing you do is that you blend magic realism and erotic fiction –

Increasingly, yes.

And those to me are two distinct disciplines, with their own sets of rules. They require two sets of expertise. How easy, or how difficult, have you found it to blend the two?

I don’t know that I have found it easy. I think that this feels like evolution.

Right.

So it feels like an intellectual and creative evolution. My first novel was extremely realistic: it was was about three women living in London, and one of them gets raped, and the fallout of that. It was an answer to Mike Tyson, who had raped Desiree Washington. And my second novel, Orange Laughter, had elements of oddness because apart from anything else, although it talked about the Civil Rights movement, it talks about memory and it involves a ghost. So I was getting there.

Not having published a novel for many, many years now – for complicated reasons – in the meantime I was publishing relatively consistent amounts of short fiction. So that’s where I began the journey. I began to ask myself serious questions about what pleased me on the page the most. I began to feel less like I was doing my political duty.

That’s interesting. I think it was Junot Diaz who said, in an interview that I read quite recently, about writers of colour feeling deep down that they would have to be the voice of a community.

Totally.

As a football writer, I think I’ve been lucky. Because I write about football, I never had that challenge of being “the black football writer”. It was just down to writing about the analytics of football. It was almost like football was a bit of a meritocracy in that sense. So I escaped having to fly the flag for black people, if you will.

I know what you mean, and I know what Diaz means. Because at twenty-odd years old – what age was I when I published my first novel, twenty-four or twenty-five – I felt like I should, like I had to, and I also wanted to [write about political issues]. I thought, “this is a tremendous responsibility, and also a kind of power. My family is politicised, my community is politicised, and it needs me”. And I was also working at The Voice newspaper; so there were all these ideas around what I should do. But I also wanted to, and I still want to. I’m not saying that I’m not a political animal. But I’ll tell you something. You write about politics a thousand times better than I ever did, even as a journalist. And I make this point importantly, not just to praise you. It is in watching a younger generation speak of politics, and find impassioned, beautiful language for politics, that has made me in the last ten years realise: “that’s not my inclination. I don’t do that very well”. I become so enraged that I can’t express myself effectively in that way. So actually, increasingly, I want to look at the human condition – and social justice, of course, because the patriarchy is always going to pop up.

Yes, of course.

But I realise that what I’m good at, what I’m getting better at, is combining this sense of oddness, which is magic realism, with – and I think this is still political, even [now] – for a woman writer to write of sex.

When you talk about politics, I find that interesting, because – to me – the human condition is inherently political.

Quite, I agree.

And in my non-fiction I love writing about politics, but in my fiction I think I reject politics explicitly, because I think that those novels are too didactic. So, for example, I was working on a novel a year and a half ago, and I got thirteen thousand words into it, and I stopped writing it; and it’s one of the best decisions I ever made.

Why?

Because it was a novel about immigration.

But I would love a novel by you about immigration.

But here’s the problem I had with it. It was not a novel that I consciously felt I had to write, but subconsciously I felt I had to write it – I didn’t realise that at the time. I realised that because I went away for a month, and when I came back here’s the thing – the characters had not been talking to each other in my absence.

Yes.

That realisation to me was so powerful. And when I read your work – The Mullerian Eminence, or anything else – the characters are so alive. What I think is so powerful about your writing is that the author is completely absent.

Really?

Yes. You combine these two ethereal forms – magic realism and erotic fiction – and, as a result, whenever I read your work I find it completely immersive. There are many strengths to your work, but to me this is the abiding one – that it transports the reader.

Well, I’ll take that! And yet it is still political. I suppose I can’t get away from a sense of what is to be addressed and spoken of in the world; what is to be uncovered and explored in the world. And it still remains ironic that [even now], many young women are called upon to be more sexual than they ever have been, and yet are not free.

I still have never done a reading of erotic fiction that has not involved some fool man – and they are young, admittedly – coming to me at the end of the reading and saying “Hi! How are you doing?” And I’m thinking, yeah, you know I didn’t write erotica for you to come and chat me up afterwards?

I’m writing magic realism for a simple reason. It’s this: it’s fun. I was the kid who loved Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, who always loved weird crap, and so it took time for me to give myself permission to write weird crap. It took [reading] Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez at university for me to think, ‘oh my God, the adult version of weird crap, that’s so cool!’.

Magic realism is just freakin’ fun.  I feel like me when I am writing magic realism. The idea that I should walk into a room, and make a cup of coffee, and the cat should just conversationally turn itself inside out – it amuses me. It appeals to my sense of mischief, and I love that, and I feel like a kid when I do it. The reason I write erotica is because I live in a world where people still have a problem when a woman uses the word “fuck”.

You’ve just finished writing a new novel, One Sky Day – I’m intrigued by that. Can you give us a taste of what it’s about, and what inspired it?

There is a very particular story that goes with this novel. The first thing to say is that I have no publisher for it. I have a couple of people sniffing around, but I have no publisher. So it’s probably important to say that, because I want a publisher, please! So, it’s been a long time coming – and yes, you’re right, it’s a culmination of trying to work out what my style is. But also, it’s the culmination of many years of being blocked. So I’ve probably been writing it for the best part of ten years. I couldn’t write for a long time. I couldn’t write because I thought, in the way that young writers do who know nothing, I thought that Orange Laughter – which was published at the very end of 1999 – was going to make me rich and famous. And of course I did, because I was still in my late twenties, and had that kind of ignorance.

But you also had a track record. You were in the ascendancy.

Well, yes, and I hoped this would be the one that hit. And don’t get me wrong, Orange Laughter did very well. Things all looked good. At one stage, it was even in Oprah Winfrey’s hands. And I think I felt like I had worked very hard – and I worry that this sounds very entitled –

No, it doesn’t. Being a writer, being an artist, is often all about momentum.

Right. I felt I had momentum. But it certainly didn’t give me any kind of great financial remuneration, and things began to die off a little bit; and, in one way, I became frightened, that maybe I was not very good. And Orange Laughter took up a lot of emotional space – it remains a very intense novel – and I became immersed in it myself. And one of its characters kept talking to me. He wouldn’t stop talking to me. In the end, Xavier, the protagonist of my latest novel, came from me asking myself how he differed from this [particular] character in Orange Laughter.

Before you go, please tell me some more about One Sky Day, and about Xavier.

Xavier is a thirty-nine year old masterchef, living on an island called Popisho. “Poppy Show” is a Jamaican expression – it means “to be foolish”. So if I’m making a poppy show out of you, I’m making a fool of you. So that’s a kind of in-joke for the Jamaicans. Xavier’s wife wife died a year ago, and he is still depressed about her death; and he has basically been forced by the governor of the island to do a very particular thing. The governor’s daughter is about to be married, and he’s running for election again, and he’s decided to have this day of feasting and rejoicing during his daughter’s nuptials. And he wants Xavier to help him and join in with this poppy show, with this foolishness. It’s almost like when the royals got married recently, and there was a holiday; what made me laugh about that is that it is the spirit of my novel, that idea of distracting the masses while Rome burns. So that’s what’s happening; this governor has called my main character to help him and to distract people from the fact that they don’t have running water, and that there’s a huge amount of money being siphoned off from the country. Basically, he’s corrupt.

And Xavier hates that he’s corrupt, and he’s pretty pissed to have been pressed into this thing, but he’s busy being depressed in his house, and being addicted to moths. In this society, moths are like heroin.

What’s he doing with the moths?

He’s eating them. So the book covers one day in his life, in which he has been forced to leave the safety of his home – he’s become practically agoraphobic in his grief – and cross the country, looking for items for the wedding feast. He’s been asked by the governor to cook the most romantic meal in the world for these nuptials, so he’s forced to be part of this farce. But really it’s also a day’s journey in which he wakes up, he realises what’s important, he fights the moth addiction. He has a moth in his pocket for the entire day – someone’s given him a quality moth and he’s trying not to eat it for the whole day.

Sounds terrific. This sounds like something Guillermo Del Toro would direct.

Hahaha!

It sounds so visual.

I suppose our generation of writers writes in a very visual way. And he’s living in an island where strange things happen; where everybody has magical powers. They’re almost bored with this crap. You’re born with very long legs, or the speed of a cheetah, or whatever. And people get irritated with it – it can cause all kinds of problems in your life. And what you do for your profession is associated with your magic as well. So, when you’re born, the midwives look for the magic; if you’ve got speed, then you’ll end up as a messenger boy. And his magical power is that he can season things with his hands. So he doesn’t need pepper and he doesn’t need salt or spices, he can just touch the meat and it’s done.

The only other element to it is that it is a love story. You know that principle of “the one that got away”?

Haha, we all know that.

There is a woman who he loved a long time ago, who was engaged to be married when they met, so she was unavailable. And she is also crossing this same island at the same time as him. So it really is the story of two people crossing the island, who both love each other still.

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If you would like to buy Leone’s short story, “The Woman Who Lived In a Restaurant”, you can do so here. If you would like to know more about her work and her upcoming readings, you can visit her website, her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter. Another excellent short story of hers, “The Mullerian Eminence”, has recently been published in this anthology.

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