Happy Friday, all! And today we have got a treat. Author Suzanne Egerton is joining us from across the pond to discuss her first novel, Out Late with Friends and Regrets. Below, you’ll find out more about how she came to write this story, about a woman who finds herself in difficult circumstances and then ends up simply finding herself.
Suzanne Egerton is English by birth, but settled in Scotland in the 1980s. She resides with her partner and jolly (I love that word in British English; we should all use it more) dog in Motherwell, southeast of Glasgow, and has enjoyed a veritable cornucopia of careers, including casino pit boss, jeweler, choreographer. Currently, she’s a fitness instructor, and teaches aerobics and body conditioning to general and older groups. And when she’s not doing that, she’s writing. Out Late is her first novel.
by Suzanne Egerton
I resisted. No, it wasn’t possible. . .
Lesbians know from the get-go, right?
The Killing of Sister George. Dr. Charlotte Wolff in a documentary, talking about homo-emotionality. An awkward few solo visits to the legendary Gateways club in Chelsea (what was I supposed to wear?) All of Maureen Duffy’s books ordered from the library, and devoured in wonder. A couple of unsuccessful experiments. And then the date with the colleague from work, and the kiss which exploded in my head – rockets, bells and poetry – which filled me with the power and the glory of being where I now knew, finally and totally, I had to be.
But not yet. It all had to be packed into a box, tied with blue ribbon, and labelled “Pending”. I was a working wife, married to a policeman, and had two children to consider; a radical change of direction simply wasn’t on, either practically or culturally.
Cue the passage of many years, and the writer inside was at last free to emerge hand-in-hand with her lesbian twin, into the light.
“Write a book,” said my partner, she who spurred me on and encouraged me in a hundred ways, she who made it possible for me to think I was capable of anything. And I felt I owed it to my long-ago self to express the doubts, fears and the explosive joy of realising who I really was. Even minimal research revealed that although most lesbians do indeed “know” in childhood, the mere oddness and outsider status of others (attributed in my case to the nomadic lifestyle of the army child) become smothered by the expectations of family and the social group. Some readers will be surprised to hear that there was once a time when, in certain sections of society, the word “lesbian” was never spoken, let alone discussed.
So that was the premise of Out Late with Friends and Regrets. I certainly didn’t want it to be an autobiography, but if like me my main character got married young as an act of rebellion to escape the confines of a stuffy upbringing, she wouldn’t have had time to go through the normal teenage experiences of socialising in groups, dating, and measuring herself against a peer group. Then there’s the husband. Fiona (as she originally is, before changing her name to Fin) has been a gawky, quirky, feisty and clever girl at school, exactly the type typically targeted as partners by control-motivated men. So my character has been married to a control freak, separated and isolated by him from her family and friends, and by the time he dies (good riddance, I say) she is alone and hopelessly inept at social interaction.
That’s where the story starts, with the hapless heroine now aged thirty-seven, drinking more than she should, and having no focus to her life. Even her children, who blame her for not protecting them better from their father, have left home at the first opportunity, and are emotionally distant.
When I started to look into the subject of women who find out quite late on that they’re gay (I couldn’t be the only one, surely?) I was astonished to find out just how common a situation it is. Research differs, with some opinions offering a “fluid sexuality” theory, whilst others cite conditioning. I’ve given Fin the latter status, and a Roman Catholic background to reinforce her dilemmas with dollops of guilt. Awfully mean, I know, but we authors can be cruel to those we love!
I must admit, I thoroughly enjoyed accompanying Fin through her development, sharing her traumas and embarrassments, her triumphs and fears. The people she meets, good, bad and downright peculiar, are moulded from observations of characters I’ve collected over the years. Even the best of them can be vain or thoughtless, and the worst can at least offer mitigation for their actions. As they say in Yorkshire: “There’s nowt so queer as folk” – for “queer” read “strange”, or “interesting”, in this context! Anyone who has had a people job will know how richly diverse a species we humans are, whatever our sexuality. And yes, it does happen, that a truthful character formed in your head will begin to talk and act independently, once out and free to move around on the page. To my astonishment, whole scenes and sequences took place before my inner eye, and practically wrote themselves. It’s one of the most mysterious and exciting processes a writer can experience, akin to finding that one can fly.
The city of Harford, where most of the action takes place, is so familiar to me now that I could navigate my way around it; it’s a mythical university city in middle England which (oddly enough!) bears a passing resemblance to Aberdeen in Scotland, a city with many happy associations for me and my partner. But Cantlesham, the town Fin leaves behind and where she runs a small shop, has many counterparts worldwide. Good people live there, but even in this day and age the inhabitants would regard homosexuality as even more of an inconvenient truth than climate change; Fin, like many displaced persons before and since, needs the cosmopolitan latitude of a life in the city in order to thrive.
The story, then, is about Fin’s progress along a sometimes difficult learning curve. She is mentored by a charismatic lecturer who becomes her best friend, but who still sets her up with a highly unsuitable blind date before her charge is confident or ready, an evening which has unexpected consequences. However, Fin embraces the new world of which she has become part, gaining social and sexual experience, and having the best fun ever as she makes friends both gay and straight. City life, however, is not without its dark side; she is plagued by a stalker who always seems to know where she lives, and this anxiety defies resolution for all too long. In another plot thread she makes attempts to heal the rift with her daughter, and coming out to an opinionated nineteen-year-old is one of the toughest tests Fin has to face. Later she sets her sights on a new career, but as she is about to start training she becomes deeply infatuated with a pub singer, a love affair which threatens to wreck her plans and stall her progress. But her innate strength and humour, and the friendships she has developed, help her through painful events and into a good place where she can feel at home in her own skin.
One of my principal motivations in writing the book was to demystify, integrate and normalise lesbians. Reading newspaper headlines, and observing the selectivity displayed by the media in covering stories involving gay women, I have often (like you, I’m sure), wanted to shout, But we’re not a strange, threatening species! We’re normal! We can be friends, can’t we? This is why I spent many months and a lot of postage on submitting the ms to mainstream agents, none of whom felt they could take a chance on a non-genre novel with a lesbian main character.
I have to ’fess up here, and say that eventually I had to seek and accept the overview of an expert mentor. She counselled some demanding changes which brought down the count by 12,000 words, effectively showcasing the humour better by cutting most of the abuse backstory as well as a couple of later, disturbing chapters. It amounted to a partial rewrite, but my reward was in the book’s acceptance by a new, small publisher whose determination to avoid formulaic writing led him (yes, him!) to send me an email so enthusiastic I really ought to frame it.
Almost three months on, it’s doing moderately but consistently well, and attracting good (and I believe honest) reviews. Hard-sell isn’t my thing, and I think lots of people share my distaste for wall-to-wall self-promoters on Twitter (just one chest-beating tweet in ten, OK guys?) But opportunities such as public readings, and being invited to do a guest blog like this one, are a gift. My book is called Out Late with Friends and Regrets, available during the exclusivity period (till mid August) on Kindle (click HERE for UK Kindle) and in paperback. The publisher is Paddy’s Daddy Publishing, where you can read more about me and my checquered career if you so wish!