Lives and locations -
the inspirations behind
Address Book by Neil Bartlett
Seven different situations. Seven different characters,
each seeking to feel at home―somewhere or with someone.
Neil Bartlett has been one of the UK's leading gay writers for over thirty years, and Address Book is his first new work of fiction in seven years, a captivating collection of short stories. Within the pages of Address Book you will find not only names and places, but lives, queer lives―with their everyday griefs and joys, and their everyday braveries. Especially for Foyles Bartlett has written a fascinating and personal blog giving real insight into his process of writing Address Book.
Inside Neil Bartlett's Address Book;
The Places Behind the Stories
“Where do you get your ideas?” —it's the question that everyone wants to ask.
And for good reason; the arrival of a new book (for me, at least) is a deeply mysterious business. The first thing is always an image; that image attracts an idea, and that idea gathers more images to itself, and so on. At a certain point, notebooks start to be scribbled in, and then – finally - voices and places begin to emerge. It is usually only after a book is finished and actually in print that I even begin to be able to say what it is “about”.
With this one—Address Book, my first major new work of fiction since The Disappearance Boy, published back in 2014 - the image that got me started was a door. Specifically, a front door. It was black, and it had a number which I couldn't make out, and it was very definitely closed – and that was all I knew. I couldn't place it – I couldn't even make out the number, and I had no idea why this particular image kept on cropping up in my imagination. So, I sat down at my desk one afternoon and tried to solve the mystery. Was this door real? Was it remembered, or something from a dream?
The way that I went about trying to answer those was to set myself the task of writing out a list of every place I'd ever lived in, in consecutive order. You should try it! To my amazement, the memories came thick and fast – childhood homes; places I had sofa-surfed in during my dole-office years after college; the first flat I ever got my own front door key to – even places where I'd only lived for weeks - right up to and including home that I now share with my partner. It took me a whole evening, and when it was done and I looked at the list, I realised two things; first, that what I'd just written out was in effect the story of my life, and second – and this was the crucial bit - that no-one looking over my shoulder could possibly have any idea of the story that lay behind each of the addresses I'd written down. And that was it. Behind every front door, I realised, there is an untold story. And now I understood why the door I'd been seeing was black, and mysterious, and locked. It was because all of the stories behind all of my doors are hidden ones – they are the ones that nobody knows about. They are the lost and hidden and disbelieved and overlooked ones. In other words, they are the queer ones.
To get to the next stage—filling the first notebooks—I once again did a simple and rather brutal thing. I chose some addresses (every third one on the list, as it happened) and went and found them again. My only rule on my day trips out to find them was that I couldn't use my A-Z or phone app to do it; I had to rely on my memory. Some of the addresses were easy to locate; some of them weren't. The tower-block I'd lived in Hackney turned out to have been demolished as a health hazard, which made me wonder if the weeks that I'd spent there gazing out at some fierce spring sunsets over London had ever really happened; the awful little flat that I'd so proudly rented on the Camden Road in 1982 with two other guys also seemed to have disappeared – until I worked out that the shabby, semi-derelict Victorian house that I was remembering had been transformed in a shiny example of North London gentrification
"... I happened to look down out of the window, and there he was, coming right up the steps." 203, Camden Road.
Memorably, the place that ought to have been the hardest to find turned out to be the easiest to get back to. This was the small suburban house that features in my new book's opening story, a house where I'd only ever slept a handful of nights, back when I was teenager and just starting to discover my body and myself. All I remembered about this house was the look of its front door, and that it was that it was somewhere near Twickenham station. As soon as I got off the train, my feet seemed to know exactly which way to go. And with each corner that I turned, all the emotions and sensations associated with that address came flooding back. By the time I found it, and discovered that the front door was exactly as I remembered it, my face was wet with tears.
"....first, John and I duck under some kind of arch or pergola."
Yeomans Mews, Twickenham
That particular visit was a real turning point in the writing of the book. The strength and power of the memories that came back as I stared at that particular front door - for the first time in over forty years—surprised and even shocked me ; I hadn't quite realised how powerful this idea of a simple address encapsulating a moment in somebody's life could be. When I got home that night, I took a huge decision. Instead of writing about my own life, I was going to write about other people's. I was going to take those addresses, and turn them into the settings of stories that I now knew that I needed to invent; stories that would chart a journey through time, and allow the reader to be present at some very special life-markers, moments that we usually never hear about, but which we need to hear about - to help us all remember not just how wonderful queer life can be, but also how it changes through the years , as we ourselves change and get older, and as the world changes and gets changed around us.
" None of us know our final destination, or whether we'll be really safe."
And so the work on the book started in earnest. The address in Twickenham is the one where the story stays closest to the truth, but for the others, I mixed real-life moments with times and characters that required every bit of my imagination to make them real. So in the flat where I live now, a young queen started to battle to keep his terrors at bay at the height of the 1980's AIDS epidemic; in the very same flat, but a hundred years earlier, a Victorian school-teacher became dangerously obsessed with a straight boy. In that now-vanished Hackney tower-block, true love turned the world upside down at a butch-femme Civil Partnership after-party, complete with slow-dancing to Dusty Springfield and tears before bedtime; in that dreadful top floor dump in Camden, a 1960's pregnant mother discovered something odd but wonderful about her neighbours. In a Hammersmith backstreet, a mysterious moment of contemplation created safety and peace; and finally, in a flat where I have spent some of the most radiantly happy days of my life, a man who is exactly my age turned to face a grief beyond endurance.
“…He turned to me, and said quietly, Darling, this is going to be it.”
The front door of Neil’s current home at 40, Marine Parade.
I'm proud of the fact that everything about the places in my book is true—everything; the stairs, the the rooms, the light, the sounds, the locks, the names. I'll be even prouder if you think the lives I've peopled them feel true as well. I think queer people have always lived lives that go way beyond what people notice, or expect, or even believe – and this book is my love letter to that glorious fact.
Neil Bartlett's first novel, the queer love story Ready To Catch Him Should He Fall, was written in a council flat on the Isle of Dogs. It was published in this country in1990, and then translated into five European languages – and it's just been re-issued in a special 30th anniversary edition His second novel, Mr. Clive and Mr Page, was nominated for the Whitbread Prize in 1996; his third, Skin Lane, was short-listed for the Costa Award in 2007 ; his fourth, The Disappearance Boy, earnt him a nomination as Stonewall Author of the Year in 2014 alongside Sarah Waters and Armistead Maupin. Neil lives in London with his partner of the thirty-two years, the author and queer historian James Gardiner.