Amy Bell talks to the writer and Ladyfest London organiser Amy Prior about her work and her feminism.
Forget chick lit – Amy Prior is much shrewder, and, yes, more feminist than that. Her newest short story anthology Strictly Casual, published this month, takes the familiar terrains of love and relationships and puts them through a blender. The single girls are sassy rather than soppy, like all four of the Sex And The City girls rolled into one, and are less likely to think that Naomi Wolf is the editor of Vogue. Its editor aimed to reflect the romantic experiences of more than a few Sloaney, man-obsessed blondes from the Home Counties, and admits she dislikes chick-lit, “mainly because it generally fails to recognise that culture and society are not homogenous. And as a reader the writing isn’t doing anything very clever or beautiful language-wise, structure-wise, content-wise.”
Despite being told by teachers that she was “a natural writer, like there are people who are naturally musical or mathematical” , she didn’t make the decision to go semi-professional until a few years ago. Before that, Amy worked as a copy editor – “on the worst kind of magazine, full of facelifts and implants”. She freely admits that she took up the job “as an experiment. But I ended up only learning about office politics.”
Luckily, the location of the magazine helped her in the transition from downmarket journalism to thinking about writing fiction:
“I also ended up hanging out next door in the best secondhand bookshop (Books and Comics Exchange in Notting Hill Gate) as much as I could get away with. It was full of new review copies and great comics – and this is partly why I started to read so much. Really I wanted to work in that bookshop, not the office.”
To pay the bills, Amy also took in a stint as a charity shop model, which she states she “kind of got into by accident. We had to dress up and pose in strange outdoor places. I guess you could view it as politically motivated, but it seemed kind of normal to me at the time because my mum sometimes used to work in a charity shop. You should see the photos.”
Her first forays into writing were equally fortuitous: a friend of hers was making a free zine, and, knowing she read extensively, asked her to contribute a story. One weekend later, and Amy had taken her first step on the way to becoming an author. After being published by small presses, Amy finally sent in some of her work to Serpent’s Tail, who were thrilled and promptly asked her to come up with an idea for an anthology. That eventually became Retro Retro, which came out in 2000.
A loving homage to the past, Retro Retro boasted some very famous, very established authors including Joyce Carol Oates (who contributed an wistful vignette about a pair of teenage girls encountering Marilyn Monroe in a bookstore) and Pagan Kennedy. To acquire writers took, in Amy’s words, “a lot of emailing. I wasn’t online at that point so I did it for free, sometimes from my local library. I remember emailing these agents in New York, while trying to deal with a scary drunk man sitting next to me. I found more established people by myself through chance connections or meetings or complex email/phone strategies, especially for the U.S. writers.”
As Amy began to compile Retro Retro, she found that she had tipped the gender balance, with just a quarter of the contributors being male. This was far from intentional, but ended up becoming a talking point all the same: “People would notice and point it out. And I started to think – I bet if it was the other way round like 90% of anthologies, no one would even notice.”
Strictly Casual, despite its subject matter, also started life as something similar in tone to Retro Retro. Later, however, Amy decided it made more sense to mirror conventional chick-lit, as that was how the anthology was going to be marketed; hence the conventional theme of the single female and relationships. Strictly Casual nevertheless takes a different approach from post-Bridget Jones fluffy femininity; its protagonists are more capable and less neurotic, its writing more literary and less hackneyed. But that almost goes without saying when there are stories from the likes of Bonnie Greer and Laura Hird.
While writing may be the focus in Amy’s life – she’s currently also taking an MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College and running fiction workshops two days a week – it’s by far the be all and end all. Last year, Amy ended up programming the daytime events for Ladyfest London, which took place in August. Helping organise the feminist arts festival made her life “crazy. For ten months I was living in and out of London, and when I was out of the city I was spending a lot of time doing MA stuff, finishing the anthology, and trying to deal with all kind of horrific emotional things, including the death of a very old friend.”
The planning was arduous, and not always exciting when things like committee structure and budget planning had to be taken into consideration. Amy herself was initially looking after readings programming, “but then I also ended up doing workshops, talks, panels, film, some performance, talking to venues. A big budget was time-consuming and quite a big risk when I liked to spend more time thinking about content and ordering and timing and little things like the kind of muffins to put out for breakfast foods.”
Yet the work paid off; Ladyfest London was a complete success, and ended up as an inspiration for three other festivals in Exeter, Bristol and Manchester later this year. “It also helped to bring together female-centric communities in London,” Amy points out, “and the connections made there are helping to produce other events there.”
“I met some great people I am continuing to collaborate on projects with, and learnt a lot through working with and looking after a large number of people. It also made me clarify my priorities. In a general sense I realised that one of my interests is thinking about ways of creating female-centric communities to make great new work here in London – and that this doesn’t have to involve a big budget and a large festival.”
Amy’s experiences with Ladyfest have left her dissatisfied with male and female inequality, both in art and in society. Her feminist views have influenced her to start and sustain female networks to empower and promote the work of women, which she feels has been unduly neglected in the past:
“On a cultural level we still have a fairly male-centric domination in most art-forms and the way they are produced, distributed and consumed. Look at the programming, for example, of most of our big arts venues and institutions and even more contemporary and underground places. My ideal is to have more female-centric, rather than female-exclusive things, to retain the balance. Female-exclusive things are created by male-dominated power structures.”
“My feminism arises from all sorts of issues. The first is a general one – these days, I try to have zero tolerance for manipulation, violence, abuse of power on every kind of level and scale. This sounds kind of strong, but this is partly because – on a personal level – I know the damaging consequences of these things. In reality, on a larger scale, this is difficult to avoid but we can try.”
“Linked up to this are other issues like race and class, for example. Look at the kind of non-white people who are being widely published in the UK today. Ask yourself, why them and not this person? Like why is Zadie Smith better known than Courttia Newland? Why does someone like Zora Neale Hurston die penniless with no recognition in her lifetime and other black writers at that time did not?”
Amy’s own work is constantly changing, and,according to her, improving. “I think the pieces I am doing now are the best things I’ve ever written. I did a life writing piece – a kind of complete autobiography up until that moment – around my book collection, which opened up experimenting with form/structure and also autobiography/fact in ways I’d never done before. I think writing it was also a therapeutic way of working out some fragmented and crazy things that had been happening to me up until then and moving on to more unity, continuity and stability.”
And although Strictly Casual has only just been published, Amy is already looking to the future. As well as promoting the anthology with a series of readings in London (one as part of the Spit Lit festival which celebrates the work of women writers), she is now working on her own linked fiction collection. She’s also up for more collaboration:
“Recently, for example, a friend designed some typography for some of my concrete prose; another talked about her life history for a particular piece I have made. I am interested in exploring different types of text presentation, and there are other things I’ve been asked to do with other artforms and media – like making some text for a sound-based piece by a band, making a digital video of my life, and working on a big archive/gallery project.” This is also not to mention the fact that she’s currently playing landlady to “three rock climbers/ maths geniuses”, in a house she renovated and redecorated herself. Anyone who reads Strictly Casual, however, will be hoping that this remains merely a sideline.
Strictly Casual is out now, published by Serpent’s Tail. Amy Prior will be introducing readings from Strictly Casual at Vox And Roll at the Garage on February 19, and at the Spitz as part of the Spit Lit festival on March 2 – see www.serpentstail.com/events for more details.