Interview with Paul Burston
Now, you might think us lot at the Velvet Box Office have our hands full, covering theatre, burlesque, cabaret, circus, spoken word, physical theatre, magic, comedy and dance. But… there’s always room for more magnificence at our table. This is why we were desperate to speak to the acclaimed writer, LGBTQ+ activist, and brilliant brain behind literary salon, Polari, Paul Burston.
Before any of you non-bookworms click ruthlessly away, take a beat. Polari is a literary event like nothing you can imagine. Born in a bar in Soho, in 2007, Polari is dedicated to showcasing the very finest LGBTQ authors, poets and spoken word performers. Having earned its stripes and won various awards, the salon is now held in the Southbank Centre most months, and has just had a huge event at Heaven. See? Not a tweed elbow patch in sight and not a dry, drawn-out speech to be heard. We spoke to brainchild Paul Burston to learn how this illustrious event came about.
1) You have achieved critical acclaim as a journalist and author, writing - amongst other things - five novels and two collections of short stories. How did you discover that is what you wanted to do?
I've always written stories, ever since I was a child. I wrote short stories and plays, largely for my own entertainment. I abandoned several novels before I went to university, where I studied English and Drama. After graduation, I wrote and directed a few plays on the Fringe. It was good training but it wasn't for me. I was too much of a control freak to allow actors to interpret my words.
2) Are there particular themes or formats you are drawn to in your writing? How do you come up with your plots? And do you ever get particularly attached to your characters?
Most of my novels revolve around questions of identity and the idea that people aren't always who they say they are. As a gay man who grew up in the 80s, these are themes that resonate with me. I've been various people at various times in my life. I know what it's like to hide my true self. I think most LGBT people do.
I tend not to think in terms of plot. For me, character always comes first. Then I think of a situation that will really test that character and the plot develops from there. I tend to become very attached to my characters. Even the bad ones. Especially the bad ones! I'm always interested in what makes a person behave badly. And villains are great fun to write.
My new novel 'The Closer I Get' is a psychological thriller largely told from the point of view of an online troll called Evie, who is stalking a gay novelist. I'm sure most people would expect me to identify most strongly with the gay novelist. But in the course of writing the novel, I became very attached to Evie.
3) Before you made your name as a writer, you were an activist. How much of that do you bring to your books? And what impact do you think your activism has had on the type of writer you are?
I still see myself as an activist. I spent most of my 20s on demos, getting arrested. I don't do that now. But I am partly driven by a sense of injustice. I wrote my first novel Shameless in reaction to Bridget Jones's Diary and all those books about sad singletons with a gay best friend who has no sex life of his own but is there to dispense fashion advice and offer a shoulder to cry on. It's so patronising. It drove me mad. LGBT characters are still woefully under-represented in commercial fiction. We're still seen as not mainstream enough. I'm constantly trying to challenge that assumption.
4) As well as writing, you are the brains behind the renowned, and much loved, Polari literary salon. Can you tell us how you came up with the idea?
Polari grew out of my frustration at the lack of opportunities for LGBT writers to promote their work. It began in 2007. By then, I'd published four non-fiction books and three well-received novels, but I had never once been invited to take part in a book festival. So, I decided to start a literary night dedicated to LGBT writers. It started small but grew very quickly. Since 2009 we've been based at London's Southbank Centre. We also tour regularly, funded by Arts Council England.
5) What could visitors expect from a night at Polari Salon?
I always advise people to come to Polari with an open mind. It's not your typical literary event. It's not remotely dry, stuffy or exclusive. It's more of a cabaret, in which the various performers happen to be novelists, poets, short story writers or spoken word artists. It's also very inclusive. It's LGBT themed, but not all our performers are LGBT and nor is our audience. Everyone is welcome.
6) As some of our readers might know, polari was originally a language of gay subculture: a mix of Italian, Romani and cockney rhyming slang, predominantly used by sailors, actors and circus people. Why did you pick this name for your salon?
I was first introduced to 'polari' by Kenneth Williams and the radio show ‘Round The Horne’. To me, 'polari' literally means 'gay language' - so it seemed the obvious name for a night celebrating LGBT voices. But just as polari wasn't only spoken by gay people, so Polari isn't only open to LGBT people. It's a very diverse event. I think that's one of the keys to its success. There's strength in diversity.
7) What do you think the act of writing can do for young people, particularly those who might be struggling with their LGBTQ+ identity? Do you think that writing was key in your personal development?
Writing is a great way of organising your thoughts and getting to really know yourself. I'm a firm believer in writing as personal therapy. I think it can really help people. It certainly helped me as a young person. Of course, if you want to take your writing further, there has to be more to it than just personal therapy. But it's not a bad place to start.
8) What exciting things are in the calendar – both for you and for Polari?!
I'm currently touring with Polari. It's our biggest tour yet, taking in 20 destinations across the UK and beyond. On May 15 we had Polari In Heaven, the centrepiece of the tour and a celebration of 40 years of the legendary nightclub. Between now and October we're in Birmingham, Bristol, Nottingham, Morecambe, Mallorca and more.
I'm also busy promoting 'The Closer I Get', appearing at various crime writing festivals and other events around the country. Those dates can be found on my website http://www.paulburston.com or by following me on Twitter @PaulBurston
On June 10, Polari is at Southbank with special guest Dustin Lance Black. This is also the night we announce the longlist for this year's Polari Prize, which has been expanded into two prizes - one for debut authors and one for established writers. Long- and shortlisted writers will appear at various Polari touring events between June and October, when the two winners are announced at the London Literature Festival.
1) You've got a week's holiday: what are you reading?
The new novel from Alex Marwood - The Poison Tree. She's one of my favourite crime writers.
2) Which one book do you wish you'd written?
Carrie by Stephen King. It's the book that really set my imagination alight as a teenager and I've re-read it many times since.
3) Favourite Polari guest/s of all time?
There are far too many to mention, but among them I'd say Neil Bartlett, Fenella Fielding, Philip Hensher, Celia Imrie and Sarah Waters.
4) Dream guest, alive or dead?
David Bowie. Through his music, he introduced me to so many great writers. I once had the great privilege of meeting him and he was absolutely charming.
5) What's your Desert Island book?
Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin. Another book I've read many times - and a lot cheerier and more comforting than Carrie!