Rosie Wilby interviews Hackney-based author Abigail Tarttelin

Abigail Tarttelin is a Hackney-based author. Her third novel Dead Girls will be published by Mantle on 3 May. It follows the award-winning Golden Boy, which told the story of an intersex teenager called Max. Comedian, author and broadcaster Rosie Wilby spoke to her.

Dead Girls and your previous book Golden Boy both had a young central character. What it is that makes you want to tell stories through young eyes?

I think I’m trying to talk about how people are formed. Intersex people in a world made for the heteronormative. The “masculine” psyche. Certain psychologies and situations. In Dead Girls, we see Thera, an eleven-year-old, discover what sexuality and womanhood means, through a distorting prism – the aftermath of a sexually-motivated crime on a young girl.

Dead Girls is almost completely told from eleven-year-old Thera's POV. Whereas Golden Boy rotated between different voices. What was important about this story to tell in one voice?

I love playing with perspective. Golden Boy was very much about our perspective as a society on gender, and as such I had several characters – with different backgrounds and ages – voice their opinions on what the intersex protagonist should choose to do with their body. Dead Girls is told from a single, child’s perspective. The question I asked myself was: how would a child rationalize a crime like this?

Do you receive messages from young people who have read your books?

Thanks to Instagram ( @abigailtarttelin_ ) I actually regularly receive messages from young people, particularly LGBTQIA and gender questioning people. I have to say it’s a singularly satisfying experience to speak to a young intersex person who found themselves represented by the character of Max, and I feel very lucky that the internet makes it so easy for them to reach me online. I hope I hear from young people about Dead Girls after it publishes on May 3rd.

Although Dead Girls seems quite different in that it is more of a supernatural thriller, themes around gender are still pivotal aren't they? There's a moment when Thera realises that men all look at her. I think I had that moment when I was a little older, maybe around thirteen or fourteen. When did you experience that?

In a way I don’t intend to write about gender, but I always do. It’s obviously a coin I have turned over a lot in the pursuit of my own identity. I was late to that moment, due to my location. In my small village, life is a little slower, and people are a little more connected. I think it’s harder in a community like that to see women as simple objects. When I moved to London at nineteen however, I started to experience a bombardment of catcalls. It scared me, and made me extremely self-conscious and horrified – in a difficult-to-articulate way – by my own body, which I otherwise enjoyed.

Through the character of Nathan, you also demonstrate the challenges faced by young boys in the #Metoo era. He feels real guilt at having sexual desires precisely because he seems to think it makes him like the men who objectify and abuse women. What sort of conversations do you think we should be having with boys to reassure them about how to grow up male in this aggressively sexualised world we find ourselves in?

I’m so glad you picked up on this. I think the key to the equality project we call feminism is two-fold: 1. Change how women see themselves. 2. Change how men see themselves.

I think we should be kinder to boys. Not by giving them all the jobs, obviously, but by treating them like human beings with delicate, nuanced sexual and romantic feelings, rather than talking about them as if they’re a pack of wild dogs - humping everything in sight, not to be trusted with small children, messy and incapable of higher morality and emotion. When we demonize men without defining a positive way to be male, boys have only negative role models and are left with feelings of guilt, depression, and disenfranchisement.

Strangely, I happened to watch the Kristen Stewart film Personal Shopper the same weekend I started reading your book. In it, she plays a character who is a medium and is trying to communicate with her dead brother. Were there any books or films that influenced how you portrayed the ghostly elements in the book?

I drew on the ‘satanic panic’ that happened in the late eighties, and how elements of that crept into my own childhood. We believed strongly in ghosts, and knew several urban ghost legends off by heart. And the Ouija board scene at the start of Dead Girls is real – that happened on my 13th birthday, on a Friday the 13th. The black dog was real, too.

At the back of the book, you quote a UNICEF stat that 'every ten minutes an adolescent girl dies a violent death'. Was it hearing that that made you want to write a book about young girls being murdered? Or did you research it once you'd had your idea?

I researched it afterwards, but the entire time I was writing Dead Girls I was clear who I was writing it for. This was a book written for the girls who were taken - from streets, parks, their homes. It’s written in their honour and memory. They could have been us, and we could have been them.

The thing that makes me angry is that I think generally we have accepted that this is how some girls die. Isn’t ‘one every ten minutes’ enough dead girls that politicians might see the need for cultural and political change? For instance: a law in England that extends the right other groups have to be protected against hate crimes and street harassment to women.

Do you think some thrillers on paper and on screen are guilty of objectifying female victims and not giving them a voice or identity? Was this why you wanted them to have the capacity to come back as ghosts and still speak through Thera?

Women are commonly used as sexual set-dressing in thrillers, and violence against women is used to indicate drama and increase tension. The example I always give is a recent Bond movie where a woman tells James she is being sex trafficked. He proceeds to f**k her in the shower, and then she dies in a game of Russian Roulette between Bond and the film’s villain. The ghosts who come back to help Thera – and Thera too – have an agency females in thrillers often are never given. But for me, the ghosts are really about giving those real missing girls a story where they get to fight back.

And finally, you have also written and recorded music. Do you have a favourite get-up-and-get-writing song?

That’s such a good question. I play music constantly, but it changes all the time. To get up, I like Macy Gray’s “I Try”, and to write on the latest manuscript I’m working on, I’d probably plump for “Say Something” by A Great Big World featuring Christina Aguilera. For Dead Girls, it had to be the great nineties hits. Cornershop’s “Brimful of Asha”, All Saints, and The Spice Girls featured on the playlist.

At what point did you know what the ending was going to be?

With every book I write, I know the ending as soon as I start. It’s built into the beginning.

(c) Rosie Wilby 2018 @rosiewilby

You can also listen to Abigail in conversation with Rosie on Radio Diva on Tuesday 8 May at 6.30pm. Tune in at www.resonancefm.com

@ajktarttelin

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