In Boy Parts, the incendiary debut novel from Eliza Clark, Irina obsessively takes explicit photographs of the average-looking men she persuades to model for her, scouted from the streets of Newcastle. Its a pitch-black comedy both shocking and hilarious, fearlessly exploring taboos of sexuality and gender roles in the 21st Century. Anna Disley spoke to Eliza about her work.
Am I right in thinking that this began as a short story? What was the short story and how did it evolve into a novel?
You’re correct! But it was a very long short story. About 13,000 words when it was finished. The basic structure of the story has been more or less the same since the start, though the original draft didn’t feature any of the flashbacks, or some key characters like Flo and Irina’s parents. It evolved into a novel quite organically — I realised it was effectively useless as a short story at that length, and that, if it was 13k words, it probably wasn’t supposed to be a short story. I liked writing in Irina’s voice a lot; I really like dramatic monologues, things like Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, and have always found it quite easy to write in them. I started thinking about other set pieces I could write, other characters it would be fun to play her off of, and it went quite naturally from there. After writing the “short” story from around January to March of 2018, I’d finished the first draft of the novel by around November of that year.
The protagonist is an unreliable narrator; she creates artwork that subverts the male gaze, making ordinary men vulnerable at the hands of a strong female. Does she want her work to make a feminist statement — or is it more of a conduit for her sociopathy?
I think Irina is pretty a-political. Her art work (in my interpretation of it, any way) is purely an expression of her preoccupation with male submission. However, I do think it would be very easy to interpret her work as feminist, devoid of the context of her personality. I suppose you could look at this as a meta-commentary on the way we often ascribe an non-existent political motive to the creative work of women, and other creatives from marginalised groups, with zero context other than their identity.
I thought it was an interesting exploration of identity politics. At times Irina quite disdainful of them isn’t she, or is it ‘virtue signalling’ she can’t deal with?
Both, I suppose! Because she is insincere, and devoid of empathy for other people, she sees all political engagement as “virtue signalling”, something which is exclusively calculated, hypocritical and insincere. I also think Irina has a problem with anyone who might think they’re better than her. She’s deeply narcissistic, but she hates herself, and this internal conflict leads her to project all of her worst personality traits onto the people around her.
You are critical of the art world in this novel, its snobbishness, London-centricity and appropriation of working classness. Is this something you set out to write about?
Yes! I really struggled to adjust to art school in London when I went, and honestly just had a lot of “good material” and proverbial axes to grind from that period of my life. Jokes about the art world being pretentious is somewhat low hanging fruit, but it is hard to resist!
Other artists ask Irina why she lives in Newcastle if she wants to make it as a Turner Prize-winning artist. Is this also a novel about not being in London?
In a lot of ways, I think it is a novel about not being in London. Irina sees having to return to Newcastle (not having the means to independently support herself in London) as a huge failure. I think, when you finish an art degree in London, it is seen as being a bit sad if you move home after your degree and don’t try to stay and “make it”. It implies to people who do stay that you don’t have the talent or fortitude to stick it out. I live in London again now, but the city did and still does feel like a black hole, sucking in all of the money and the jobs and the talent. Post-Brexit, it feels like the politics of Being or Not Being in London have become very weighty, particularly in the creative industry. Living between Newcastle and London, I’ve definitely felt the impact of being economically unable to live independently in London, the frustration of being locked out of career opportunities in Newcastle, and the guilt of moving back to London, effectively following the jobs and abandoning Newcastle’s vibrant creative scene which, despite the lack of money, is full of people doing fantastic things. It’s something I was very interested in exploring.
You use social media brilliantly/ I think this is a novel about the blurring of our private/public lives and our need for attention which social media perpetuates – selfies, blogs, vlogs, messaging are all used really effectively in this novel, it this something you wanted to explore or is it unavoidable in a novel about 20 somethings?
I think it’s unavoidable, now. It’s also just very, very ingrained into me. I’m a little younger than the millennial characters I’m primarily writing about; I’m technically a “Zillenial”, so I have very few memories of a time before the internet. Social media came to prominence when I was around 12 or 13, and I had already been very active online since I was about 8 or 9. So writing a novel heavily featuring our digital lives wasn’t really a conscious decision at all, for me. I can’t imagine writing a novel set after 2010 without making it a huge feature. But there is a lot to explore within that.
Boy Parts is out on 23 July with Influx Press.
For the chance to win one of three copies of the book, tell us what you’re reading on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook using the hashtags #NorthernBookshelf and #BoyParts. Winners will be drawn in July 2020.