Written on the body is a secret code only visible in certain lights: the accumulations of a lifetime gather there. In places the palimpsest is so heavily worked that the letters feel like Braille. I like to keep my body rolled up away from prying eyes, never unfold too much, or tell the whole story. I didn’t know that Louise would have reading hands. She has translated me into her own book.
It’s a simple story; love found, love lost, love found again – maybe. The unnamed narrator falls for a married woman called Louise. Louise leaves her husband but when she finds she has cancer, she leaves her new lover too. Written on the Body is a journey of self-discovery made through the metaphors of desire and disease.
All of my books are about boundaries and desire – the boundaries we should try to cross, like fear and class and skin-colour and expectation, and the boundaries that seem to define us, such as our sense of self, our gender. Disease, especially a disease like cancer or aids, breaks down the boundaries of the immune system and forces a new self on us that we often don’t recognise. Our territory is eaten away. We are parcelled out into healthy areas and metastasised areas. Parts of us are still whole, too much has been invaded.
Against this, I wanted to look again, (I am always looking again) at love’s ability to shatter and heal simultaneously. Loving someone else destroys our ideas of who we are and what we want. Priorities change, friends change, houses change, we change. Part of the strangeness of being human is our need of boundaries, parameters, definitions, explanations, and our need for them to be overturned. For most people, only the positives of love and faith (and a child is both), or the negatives of disaster and disease, achieve this. Death comes too late. The final shattering affects others, but not ourselves.
You’ve said this is an experimental novel. Explain?
All my work is experimental in that it plays with form, refuses a traditional narrative line, and includes the reader as a player. By that I mean that the reader has to work with the book. In the case of Written on the Body, the narrator has no name, is assigned no gender, is age unspecified, and highly unreliable. I wanted to see how much information I could leave out – especially the kind of character information that is routine – and still hold a story together.
Is it autobiographical?
No more and no less than my other books. It’s true that I based Louise’s looks and beauty on my girlfriend (still the same one, in case you’re wondering), but that’s no different to a painter using a mistress as a model.
You had a hard time with this book in the UK. Why?
Who knows? Maybe I was doing too well. I’d just had a very successful TV series and I had started to make some money. I was young, outright queer, a woman, working class, etc etc. In the States, none of this obtained, and the book was the one that really cracked the American market for me in a big way. It was also the book that fired-up my European profile. I had done well abroad with The Passion, not so well with Sexing the Cherry, and then Written on the Body just took off. Anyway, journalists are one thing, readers are another. The reader’s response has always been fine, and that’s my touchstone.
Why is the measure of love…loss?