CELEBRATION | We mark the end of the Year of Stories by talking to the reigning Book of the Year winner at Scotland’s National Book Awards (for Duck Feet), Ely Percy, by revisiting their debut Vicky Romeo Plus Joolz and what has come since.
Most readers will know your name from Duck Feet, but could you tell us a little bit more about your debut novel Vicky Romeo Plus Joolz? What drew you to the story and what were the inspirations behind it?
I started writing Vicky Romeo Pluz Joolz in the spring of 2002 after I found I wasn’t getting anywhere with a lesbian take on Romeo and Juliet I’d been writing. There weren’t many stories about young queer folk, even less about young queer working-class folk in Scotland who were funny, so I wondered why I was writing just another one of those stories that has dead lesbians, or lesbians that were deranged. I thought, Nah, I want to write something that’s funny, something that me or my friends would pick up in a bookshop. I go to different LGBT events and gay bars, and I thought, what are the real stories, what are the things that I’m seeing…
Vicky Romeo Plus Joolz is a queer coming-of-age rom-com set in Glasgow in 2001, and told from the POV of Vicky Romeo, who is a working-class butch lesbian. I had never read anything written from that POV apart from a short story called ‘La Bruja’ by Jennifer Levin in Emma Donoghue’s Mammoth Book of Lesbian Short Stories. I loved this story, but it was also an American story set in the ’60s, so I wondered if I could take some inspiration from that and write a contemporary Scottish butch/fem rom-com. When I first wrote Vicky Romeo, it had a lot of different voices and points of view. Then I started going to Glasgow Uni to do an MPhil in September 2002, and my tutor was Liz Lochhead. Well it was Tom Leonard at first, but Tom was off so Liz took over.
I was really lucky because the book is about this character who wants to be an actor, and I had this amazing playwright telling me what would and wouldn’t work. So I’d written the first draft of the novel before Christmas, and Liz said she’d take the novel home with her and read it over the break. Then after Christmas she came back to me and said, like, ‘What is this rubbish? This isn’t the novel we talked about – there’s like thirty different voices!’ So she asked me which story I wanted to tell, and told me to go away and write the first 30 pages again from one POV, and to write the story I first wanted to, the coming-of-age rom-com. So of course I was like, ‘Oh my god, Liz Lochhead’s just told me that my stuff is awful…’
But was it good advice?
It was great advice! I went away and thought, right, who do I want to tell this story, and figured out I wanted to write a mirror story. I’d read Neil Griffith’s Kelly + Victor and I thought, right, I’m going to write Vicky one side and Joolz the other, so you’d have the butch and the fem. So I went away and wrote the first 30 pages and Liz was like, ‘Wow! This is what I’m talking about.’ I told her I was going to write it from two POVs and she said, ‘Hmmm…’ but by about the third draft and made it just the one POV and I told Liz she was right. She said, ‘Aye, I know I was right.’
“All of a sudden I win this huge prize, get an agent, get all this funding for a next novel, and it was like my whole entire life changed in one weekend.”
It sounds like you’ve always had that desire to write the community, the multiple voices, the different points of view, instead of just telling the single story. This is noticeable too in Duck Feet, which captures the wholeness of the teenage experience through that episodic structure. Did writing Duck Feet differ from writing Vicky Romeo?
When I first wrote VRPJ it was very different, there were all these different voices telling different stories that were all set in this one bar, so when I did narrow it down to one POV I had to go, right, I need some kind of outline. When it came to writing Duck Feet, I never set out to write a novel. I’d just finished uni, it was 2004, and I’d decided I didn’t want to write a novel anymore, I just wanted to write short stories. And there was a new writing competition looking for stuff on shoes. I was sitting in my parent’s living room and my dad comes in and I’m writing shoes, high heels, trainers, brogues, thinking if I’m going to get in there I need to write something that’s a little bit different, and he takes his shoes off and puts his feet in a basin of water. Now my dad’s got bad feet, and I just had this wee girl’s voice in my head, so I started with that, ‘my dad’s got bad feet’, and I just kept writing, completely stream-of-consciousness, and when I got to the end thought, Woah, that was good!
Next day I typed it up – it’s the quickest edit I’ve ever done – and then I thought, could I do another short story? After I was about 10 or 15 stories in I was like, okay, this is the same wee lassie, maybe these aren’t just short stories. I began to have questions about what was going to happen to certain people in the stories, what they’d do when they got to fourth year, I knew who was gay, who was gonna get pregnant, leave school, I didn’t necessarily know everything that was going to happen in between, but I could just see it. And at that point I went to people I’d gone to school with and friends and asked them, right, does somebody want to talk to me? Just to see if I was getting it right. And that was how that all came about.
It was a whole 16 years later when Monstrous Regiment came and asked me to novelise the stories. I’d had like 35 published across the 16 years, and I didn’t realise I’d have to start from the beginning again, because there were stories that didn’t work, things that had to go in and things that had to go out for it all to make sense. I had to write out timetables, try and get all the dates right.
You mentioned how VRPJ was set in Glasgow and Duck Feet of course is set mostly in Renfrew and rooted in your own memories of school. How important is it for you to show these localities and to be authentic to them in your writing, to tell the Scottish stories that are often unseen in books published?
Well a couple of things, I think for me firstly sense of place is really, really important, but that’s been partly born out of the fact that I had a brain injury when I was 14. I can’t get around on my own, and I have a visual learning impairment. So when I wrote VRPJ, I had to be sitting in a bar writing it – about 90% of that first draft was written sat in Sadie Frost’s. With Duck Feet, I didn’t set out to write a book set in Renfrew, but it quickly became obvious that that’s where it was and it couldn’t be anywhere else. My mum said it was like our life, but not. I’ve had lots of people ask who certain characters were, but there’s nobody real, it’s just our kind of people, our community. Again I seem to really enjoy writing about communities. For me authenticity is so important, sense of place important, voice massively important. I can sit on a bus listening to a conversation behind me, and when I get off that bus I can hear it continuing. I don’t know, where I can’t imagine pictures in my head I can imagine entire worlds coming out of conversations between Wee Jeannie and Maggie at the back of the bus.
It’s more like the oral storytelling tradition in a way, which lends itself to this idea of writing communities. What was the reaction of your local community to reading Duck Feet? I assume they’d never read anything like those stories in a published book before.
So many people were writing to me every day saying, ‘Oh my god, I went to Renfrew High/Linwood High/J High, that was exactly like my school.’ But I left school in 1996 and my sister left in 2000, and when I interviewed people it was mostly from my demographic, so I didn’t really know if it was going to reach anybody. I wasn’t sure. But I went to do a thing for the book in Stirling and it was mostly people who were like 30/40 years older than me who were there, and who said, ‘That’s just like how it was when I was in school.’ So really, nothing’s changed, and I stand by this, nothing’s changed apart from the politics and technology, everything else is the same. You’ve got your best pal, the boy everyone fancies, the class clown, the one everybody says smells, the one who’s always in trouble, the boy who’s misunderstood, who all the teachers hate but he’s actually really nice. All these stereotypes you think of, they’re actually real. When I was interviewing people, they all were all telling me the exact same stories.
At the point when I’d first started interviewing people, I’d given my sister some of these stories. One night we’d gone out to The Viscount, and it turned out that all her pals and their pals had read them, and I was horrified! But when I saw how excited they were, I thought okay, if I find these stories funny and my sister and her pals find them funny, maybe there’s other people who would too. But I never expected it to be as big as it was!
“There weren’t many stories about young queer folk, even less about young queer working-class folk in Scotland who were funny.”
That sudden rise from your debut to winning Book of the Year at Scotland’s National Book Awards with your follow up was a whirlwind. How do you reflect on all that?
There were a couple of other prizes that it’d been put forward for, but I was just really hoping I’d be longlisted for the Saltire, because for me the book is just about coming-of-age in Scotland and is a celebration of being Scottish and growing up in the West of Scotland. I remember when the shortlist was announced I got a message from Val McDermid saying, ‘Well done, love the book by the way, but keep in mind it’s unlikely you’re gonna win, but is it not just great being on the shortlist?’ And I was like, ‘Absolutely! I’m already a fucking winner!’ Because you don’t know who the judges are – how do they choose one winner? I don’t think I’d make a very good judge. How do you compare books that are so different?
[I was] absolutely delighted, obviously. But even from the point of Duck Feet coming out I had all these people asking if I wanted to come and do this or that, and I was quite shocked. Cos before I’d be desperately writing to people asking if I could come and speak at this or that, and I’d just get silence a lot of the time.
Do you find that’s the way it’s been for you, that in the last year since the Saltire you’ve found it easier to get your work and name out there?
Definitely the Saltire was a game changer for me. It’s funny because I’d actually received full funding from Creative Scotland and I’d found out the night before the Saltire, but I couldn’t tell people! And on Thursday before the Saltire I’d been contacted by an agent who’d said he really loved my work. I think for a few days it didn’t really sink in. I was like, here I am, nae money, and then all of a sudden I win this huge prize, get an agent, get all this funding for a next novel, and it was like my whole entire life changed in one weekend.
So what does the next year hold for you as a writer – any goals that you’d like to achieve?
I’m working on something new – it’ll not be 16 years this time, I hope! I thought it was going to be a crime novel set in the same world as Vicky Romeo, but the narrator keeps pulling me in different ways. The narrator is a transgender man who used to be the UK’s best known Elvis impersonator, and 6 years on he gets a job mentoring a drag king band. He doesn’t really like them, they’re rubbish, but he takes them on anyway. I would just like to write a satisfying story with Allen (the narrator) and the drag kings – I don’t know if it’s got a murder in it or not now – but just get to the end of it having written something that I really like. This is a story idea I had in 2003, and it’s been haunting me ever since! I would just like by this time next year to have written something that I like and to be able to put a lid on it.
As the reigning winner of the Scotland’s National Book Awards’ Book of the Year, are there any books or authors you’d like to recommend to our readers?
I automatically thought of Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy which is a high fantasy coming-of-age story. FitzChivalry Farseer is probably my favourite character in all of literature… although I do like The Fool. And I love that she created a nonbinary character in the 90s!