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Alan Hollinghurst: 'Hard-won liberties can quite easily be taken - we can't afford to be complacent'

Exclusive: Britain's most acclaimed living gay novelist on capturing LGBTQ culture and how his next book is coming along in lockdown.

2021-01-31

Words: Will Stroude

There's something incredibly comforting in these anxious, monotonous days about hearing the deep, unmistakable baritone voice of Alan Hollinghurst as he reflects on 'The State of Things'.

For more than three decades, the English novelist has been a reassuringly steadfast presence in literature and LGBTQ culture, providing modern gay men with intricate literary explorations of their place in a world like few else before or since.

From his 1988 debut The Swimming-Pool Library to the Man Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty and his most recent novel, 2017's The Sparsholt Affair, Hollinghurst's work has often used intimate personal narratives to elucidate expansive points about class, politics, and sexual freedom.

Who better to speak to, then, as the LGBTQ community finds itself at an increasing number of transformative junctures than the man whose work has often cast an eye back over pivotal periods of 20th-century cultural history.

Hollinghurst, 66, has remained at the London home he shares with partner and fellow author Paul Mendez since the first lockdown last March, where he has been working (with varying degrees of haste, apparently) on his seventh novel. 

Though renowned for burying himself away from the world while in the midst of writing, Hollinghurst will make an all-too-rare virtual appearance next Sunday 7 February at the Coast is Queer, Brighton & Hove’s festival of LGBTQ+ literature, where he's set to discuss his stories life and work.

Ahead of the event - which you can book your free virtual attendance at now - Alan tells Attitude how the polarisation of cultural opinion is "pretty terrifying", how living with a fellow author has instilled "a bit of discipline" in him, and why he's finding more to say than ever about LGBTQ life in his sixties...

It feels like every conversation starts with this question, but how have the last 10 months been for you?

You know, not ideal. But actually I feel in a much better place to cope with it all than millions of other people. What a writer wants is to be isolated and to get on with their work without interruptions, so in a way it sort of suits me. Of course, as time goes by, the things you miss, you miss more and more. But I feel I’ve been very lucky really, so far.

Has being so isolated made for a productive time creatively?

I’m in the thick of a novel. I feel I slightly ought to have been emerging from the crisis with slightly more to show for it [laughs]. I think the sheer strangeness of the last year has slightly worked against unbridled creativity, but I’ve been trying to make the best of it. On both reading and writing fronts, I haven’t achieved as much as I imagined I would. But I’ve always been a very slow writer and take ages to put a book together, so it sort of feels oddly like normal to me on the writing front.

Alan Hollinghurst In Conversation takes place at 6pm GMT on Sunday 7 February as part of The Coast is Queer, Brighton & Hove’s festival of LGBTQ+ literature. Book your free virtual attendance in advance at coastisqueer.com (optional donations are encouraged).

It’s three and a half years since the release of The Sparsholt Affair. Was your latest novel already a fully-formed idea when you released that, or do you need to close the door fully on one book before starting on another project?

Usually when I finish a book I’ve only got vague ideas about the next one and it takes a year or two for the new book to take shape. I’m making notes and sketching things all the time, but I don’t actually sit down and start writing until I’ve got a pretty clear sense of the whole thing. Really I think only at the beginning of last year the thing started to make sense to me. I had various fragments I felt belonged together, but I hadn’t really understood what the binding principle of the thing was. I also seem to write in a much more unsystematic way now than I used to. I had a sort of clearer idea of projects in the past. Maybe it’s something to do with getting older, actually – I just think there’s so much that I could write about. I used to be worried that one sort of ran out of ideas, or dried up, but actually I find the opposite, that as one experiences more and more there seems to be more and more things to write about and to remember and make sense of. The whole process of refining that into a coherent book seems to become more and more difficult. I generally find each booker harder to write than the one before, which is a very annoying fact [chuckles].

Are you more or less self-critical of your work as you get older? Does past acclaim alleviate any pressure or does it add to it?

Generally, I feel that people appreciating what I’ve done is boosting and liberating. I know people sometimes say success is sort of intimidating and inhibiting in some way –  that you’re anxious you’re not going to be able to repeat it – but I’ve rather felt the opposite: when something has gone very well I’ve felt encouraged to do whatever I wanted to do next. But I think I’ve always been quite good at shutting out the world of other people’s expectations. The nature of self-criticism itself changes a bit as you go on, because there’s not only wanting to make the thing that you’re writing as good as you can, but also the thing of not wanting to repeat yourself, and feeling that you may be describing a situation or relationship that is rather like something you’ve already done. Sometimes I’m writing a scene and it suddenly strikes me that 30 years ago I was writing about something similar, so I have to go back and actually check I’m not using the same language! I think there is that desire to keep everything fresh and new, which is a form of self-criticism in itself, I suppose.

How important is it that events like the Coast is Queer LGBTQ literature festival exist and continue to bring LGBTQ people together in this current environment?

I think it’s tremendous, and I was very pleased to be asked to be part of it. The whole nature of gay or queer celebrations and solidarity is something that’s very much changed over the course of my career as a writer: situations are so different now but there are still urgent, urgent questions. The interesting thing about writing about gay life of course is that it’s something that is constantly evolving – the crises and preoccupations I weas dealing with when I was staring in the early ‘80s are very different to those nowadays. So to me there’s something very calming about the continuity of gay, lesbian and queer celebrations. And at a time when the increasing forces of reaction in the world seem to be becoming more and more threatening, I think there is something very heartening about reasserting ourselves.

Your success has meant your work has tended to transcend labels, but is there a danger that works by LGBTQ authors can be pigeon-holed or dismissed as ‘LGBTQ fiction’ for LGBTQ people, when in fact many are universal stories which should be heard by all audiences?

Well, I think I’ve been lucky that in the old days, when there were gay sections in Waterstone’s and things, I was in both the ‘gay section’ and the ‘general fiction’ section. I’ve obviously written about gay life in all six of my books so far - and I can tell you without giving too much away that I shall be doing so in my seventh - but I’ve always felt their ‘gayness’ was a basis from which everything began, but it wasn’t everything. The point from the start was to write from a gay perspective as naturally as a straight writer would from their perspective. I think when I started out that was something which you didn’t see much of – and that’s another of the things that has changed enormously in the intervening decades. It would be limiting if people thought it was only the ‘gayness’ of the books that was interesting. I hope that that’s one of the preconditions of the books, but actually it will be about all sorts of other things.

Allan Hollinghurst

 What do you think has changed – and perhaps, what hasn’t – when it comes to the themes being addressed in LGBTQ fiction since you began writing in the ‘80s? Do you still find yourself delving into similar issues?

I suppose when I started it was still palpably the aftermath of the Sexual Offences Act and the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, so the whole subject of gay life in fiction was very new: there was that exciting feeling of this huge area of human experience which hadn’t really been written about. There was also the urgency of the political situation, with the Aids crisis and the political reaction against gay people in the ‘80s and into the ‘90s. Since then of course there’s been a huge social and generational change in attitudes: the whole discussion of sexuality is so much more complex and nuanced than it was before, and really definitions of sexuality have become an exploration of them, which I think has become so interesting. There’s been a huge improvement in the legal situation of gay and queer people obviously, but one is also very worried – more so perhaps if we lived in many other countries - that hard-won liberties can quite easily be taken away again. I don’t suppose that’s about to happen here, but if we lived in Eastern Europe of Africa, we might be absolutely terrified about the way social and legal attitudes towards homosexuality are trending. We can’t afford to be complacent about these things.

What’s your view on the kind of reactionary, polarised political and cultural era we find ourselves in, particularly when it comes to social media?

I did always vow I would never have anything to do with social media and I did open an Instagram account at the beginning of the first lockdown, and I found it rather a nice way of keeping in touch with people, and it seemed very genial and friendly. I’ve been horrified by things that have happened to friends who’ve got caught up in disputes on Twitter, where there’s sort of a hideous acceleration of unpleasantness and really destructive things happening. Well, we can see that on the very largest scaled at the moment in the States. I think the erasure of nuance and the rush to polarise opinions is pretty terrifying.

I re-read The Swimming Pool Library recently and was struck by how many of the issues it touched up - of class, race, effeminacy and sexual currency in the gay community – still dominate the conversation today. Is it an indictment of all of us that those conversations are still being had?

[chuckles] I’m interested that you say that. I hope the picture is a rather different one… It’s a very difficult question for me to answer though. My own sense of that book feels very remote – it came out 33 years ago next month and it’s a long time since I read it. In a way of course, I’m pleased if people feel it still resonates with things they’re feeling or experiencing now, and in another way I’m rather alarmed. I think of the book as having painted a rather scary picture of various aspects of British society; sexually, socially, racially. I do think there have been enormous, beneficial changes in those areas [though].

There was a period in time where you were really one of Britain’s only visible gay authors – are there any young gay writers whose work has struck you recently?

One writer I’ve been very excited about recently is the American writer Bryan Washington. I wrote a big piece about his book Lot, which came out two years ago, and his novel Memorial, which has just been published. The stories in Lot are absolutely brilliant and describe life on the underside of Houston and are things I haven’t really seen written about in fiction before. Most of the stories are narrated by a young gay man of mixed Black and Latino heritage. [Bryan’s] a really brilliant writer, I think. He’s in his late twenties I think and he’s an extraordinary new contribution to gay writing and someone I follow very keenly.

Of course, your partner Paul Mendez is also an author and his debut novel Rainbow Milk made Attitude’s own list of the best queer reads of 2020.

I know, I was delighted by that! And I was very properly not mentioning it! [laughs] But of course he was the first [author] who came to mind. But Rainbow Milk is a book I’m sort of too close to talk about objectively. But very evidently, [Paul]’s an extremely exciting new voice writing about fascinating new subject matter and giving it a sense of enormous potential.

What’s it like living with a partner who’s also an author? It must create an interesting dynamic. It is useful when it comes to writing, or can it be tough having two such creatively minded people under one roof?

I have to say it’s been extremely easy and happy and productive, yes. I’ve always tended to write in isolation, but we seem immediately to have established a successful modus operandi. It’s been lovely, in fact, having someone else here. We each have our studies we retreat to after breakfast and then we meet again for lunch. I’m not by nature a very self-disciplined person so it does impose a bit of discipline and I feel I have to be able to account for myself come lunchtime! It’s made an incalculable difference.

So much is unknown for all of us right now, but what does the coming year hold for you?

Well, what can one say, what one can know? If one’s to make any sense of all this one just has to keep on working and doing the best one can.

Alan Hollinghurst In Conversation takes place at 6pm GMT on Sunday 7 February as part of The Coast is Queer, Brighton & Hove’s festival of LGBTQ+ literature.

Book your free virtual attendance in advance at coastisqueer.com (optional donations are encouraged).