Abigail Tarttelin’s second novel, Golden Boy, was the talk of last year’s London Book Fair, with rights selling around the world in a hotly contested auction. It’s easy to see why – the book, about a young intersexed character growing up outside Oxford, England, is a compelling mix: equal parts society novel, page-turner and investigation into contemporary gender notions. Here, Tarttelin reflects on the books that shaped her as a writer.
When you started to write, which writers did you revere?
My first book, Flick, was very much inspired by a punky North England sensibility and by films – Trainspotting, Billy Elliot. Junk, by Melvin Burgess, was a huge influence. And when I was in school, a teacher gave me The Cement Garden, by Ian McEwan, which opened up the possibility of writing about contemporary society for me. Before, I’d just read classics. That book said: You can write, and you can write about whatever you want.
Did you imitate any of them?
A lot of my writing is imitating. I’ll read a book and then write exactly like that book. But Golden Boy came out of my imagination. Maybe that’s why it became a book on its own – I thought, no one has written this before. There’s a reason to write this.
Which authors do you think are most influential today?
Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, guys like that have the best reputation, certainly, even if people aren’t so sure about their most recent book. The Marriage Plot got a lot of flak. But those are the writers people hold you up to.
Which perhaps unexpected books share a commonality your new one?
Unless, by Carol Shields – I love that book, and I love her in general. That book is about subtleties, and these tiny observations about gender, and the kind of expectations people have of you based on your gender. The Women’s Room by Marilyn French, which I read just before I wrote Golden Boy. It mentioned these big sweeping changes of the Sixties, but it was really about the subtleties of gender – the things that happen every day that don’t seem to be much, but build up to sculpt an identity.
If you could influence your own younger self, what would you try to change?
I was 19 when I wrote the first half of my book, then stopped. So I’d tell myself to finish the book! But I didn’t think of myself as a writer. I thought I’d write when I was 50, and had something to impart. But I did have something, in the end. I don’t think you should write a book blind, without some knowledge to impart. And I think that if you write a vulnerable, victimized character who is weak and passive, you can’t think that it doesn’t matter. It does matter. If you’re going to write Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey, you should think about what you’re doing to the young women who are going to read those books. Because those are not good role models.
This interview has been condensed and edited.