Author Paul Burston has just released his sixth novel, The Closer I Get. The critically acclaimed book was inspired in part by Paul’s own experiences with internet trolls. Dave Cross had a catch up with Paul to talk about this, how his writing is changing and some exciting news about his LGBT literary salon Polari.
How would you describe The Closer I Get?
I would say it’s a queer psychological thriller. I’ve not told anyone else this, but the decision to write this book came about because I went to a literary festival in 2016 and attended a panel on a genre they called ‘domestic noir’, basically crime in the home, which my last novel, The Black Path broadly fell into. It was an all women panel and one of them said that only women can understand what it’s like to walk down the street in fear of attack and I thought, that’s not totally correct, many gay men have felt that genuine fear. It was that which prompted me to have a male protagonist, a male victim of abuse who is in fear of walking down a dark street.
There are elements of the book that are clearly inspired by your own experiences of being stalked and abused online, how difficult was it to decide to use those?
It was difficult, yes. My husband initially thought it could re-open old wounds. I had been in a very bad place, on antidepressants and getting help from victim support when it was happening. In the end I decided that the way to tackle this was to forgive my own abuser and make my fictional one, Evie, a more sympathetic character; give her a back story which reveals why she became delusional. I didn’t want the book to be an angry vengeful story, I wanted it to be more playful, with humour and more complex characters.
There seems to be a lot of you in this book, the gay author being stalked, Hastings, where you live…
I do always put a lot of me into books, it’s the natural thing for me. I wanted Hastings to be like an actual character in the book. It’s such a distinctive place, a mix of a town with gentrification, but with a seedy, dark underbelly. There is an element of worlds within worlds in the book, art reflecting life, reflecting art, and it made me question what would I have done in the same situations if my own case had developed like Tom’s.
Many LGBT characters in fiction tend to be drawn larger than life, and are ‘the victim’ or sexual predators or comic relief, but Tom is more subtle than that, he’s basically a good person, but has flaws and they are flaws that I think most of us can recognise even if we don’t like them…
Yes, Tom is handsome and has all this success, but is very much undone by his own insecurities and his own vanities. I think many of us, gay men, can see themselves in the scene where he dumps his best friend Emma in favour of a hot guy and as unpleasant as that is, it’s relatable.
Your first four novels were classed by retailers and publishers as ‘gay fiction’, but with the last book, The Black Path and with this book you seem to have taken a deliberate step away from the perceived image of what an LGBT author is?
It was a move that was forced upon me really. I got dropped by my publisher, which honestly was a shock and I decided I needed to do something different. I started on The Black Path, and it was the first book I’d written without that pressure of a publisher or a deadline. I felt I’d written all I could about the kind of gay life I had led, being single on the scene and then getting married. The Black Path became about some repressed sexuality in the army, and about a straight marriage. The fact that it became and was sold and packaged as a crime novel was a complete eye opener to me. I discovered that if you write crime novels that have LGBT characters they don’t get labeled in the same way and although I’d never had a problem being called a gay author that was liberating.
Are you working on the next novel now?
Yes, I’m aiming to finish the first draft by the time this issue comes out. It’s quite different from The Closer I Get. It opens with someone watching a man in a window and quite quickly you realise it’s not about what you think it is. There’s dysfunctional families, how things in your childhood affect you and the father/son relationship.
Finally you’ve had an amazing year with Polari, you did a huge event at Heaven and had Dustin Lance Black reading at another event, what is coming up for the rest of the year?
I think the Heaven event really raised the game for us, which is important, it went so smoothly and everyone there was brilliant. We are doing an event in Majorca in September as part of our Arts Council funded tour, and one at St Albans Library. Then we are back at The Southbank for our big Polari Prize event on 22 October with Tracy Thorn headlining. On 25 November it’s our 12th birthday at the Southbank Centre and our headliner is Russell T Davis and for our Christmas event on 9 December we have Lisa Jewel, so three really amazing headliner nights to end the year.
The Closer I Get is out now on Amazon and all good bookshops.
Get information and tickets for Polari from polarisalon.com
Photo of Paul by krysphotos.co.uk