Joolz Denby’s new book is a dark tale of love and obsession. The Bradford-based novelist, artist and tattooist speaks her mind to Chris Bond.
I’VE not been to a tattoo studio before, so I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure there can’t be many as swanky as Joolz Denby’s Studio Bijoux in Bradford.
With its bespoke fixtures and fittings, this appointments-only studio looks more like a smart Harley Street surgery than an artist’s den. “A friend of mine works across the road and he calls it Liberace’s kitchen because all he can see are chandeliers,” says Denby, leaning back in her chair. Clients come from as far afield as Italy, Belgium and Germany to be tattooed by Denby. While relaxing in her studio, they can admire her paintings that adorn the walls, including framed artwork for the rock band New Model Army (frontman Justin Sullivan is a longtime friend and artistic collaborator), or flick through one of her poetry books.
Denby is a self-confessed workaholic with an irresistible urge to create, but even she was stopped in her tracks after being struck down with pneumonia a few weeks before Christmas. “I’d been a bit ill and then started to feel better so I thought it would be a good idea to go horse riding and two days later I was in hospital. I thought I just had a cold, or a chest infection and I kept on working because I’m always working, so it was my own fault I should have listened to my body telling me to have a rest,” she says. Two months on, and she’s slowly building her strength back up. “I’ve always been fit and healthy and you never think you could get something like pneumonia but I was working 24/7. I forget sometimes I’m 56 and whether I like it or not age does take its toll.”
Despite her recent illness, she looks remarkably well (she could easily pass for someone 10 years younger) which she puts down not to abstinence but “a life of sin and a lot of face grease”. Denby has, by her own admittance, led an unconventional life. Her father was a military policeman who later became a member of the territorial SAS, while her mother was a secretary in the Secret Service. As a youngster she was sent to Belmont Birklands, a girls school in Harrogate, where she began displaying her artistic flair.
At the age of 19, she married a member of a Bradford biker gang called Satan’s Slaves, she’s also worked as a bouncer and during the 1980s gained a degree of literary fame with her first book of poetry Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know, which sold more than 15,000 copies. It was during this period that she teamed up with New Model Army, accompanying them on tours and performing her own work, and since then she has written several volumes of poetry and published five novels including the acclaimed Billie Morgan – which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. This brings us to her latest book, Wild Thing, a dark tale about rock music fame and the facile nature of modern culture, as well as a love story that slowly spirals into obsession.
“It’s a book about obsession and where it can lead you. I think everyone has known somebody who’s fallen into the grip of obsession or madness, usually about a person, and they talk about nothing else and think about nothing else.”
It’s also a book about death and how we deal with it. “I think modern society deals very badly with grief and loss. We do this thing where people say, ‘you’ll get over it after a few weeks, you just need closure,’ as if you’ll then forget about this person. But when people then lose a close friend or family member they start worrying that they’re going mad because they can’t forget this person.
“Grief is perfectly natural and in the Arabic world they say it lasts a thousand days, but in this country we don’t wear mourning clothes and we should because in the past people knew not to come up to you and pat you on the back and say ‘how’s it going?’
When my dad passed away I felt like wearing a T-shirt saying ‘leave me alone I’ve just lost my dad’ because you’re not in your right mind and you should be left to grieve, that’s what the thousand days is about, you need to be left alone to get through it.”
Annie, Wild Thing’s heroine, gets hit by a double whammy in that she’s both in the grip of an obsession and out of her mind with grief. The novel, as with most of her work, draws on Denby’s own rock music experiences without being directly autobiographical. “It’s not about the Simon Cowell-type music industry, it’s about the real music industry and what it’s like.”
The story follows the female protagonist as she leaves her rock n roll life in London behind to become a social worker in Bradford, where she encounters a feral child.
“This is something that’s always fascinated me since my father gave me a book when I was 11 that had a story about the Wolf Girls of Midnapore, who were raised by wolves and then rescued,” explains Denby. “Then a few years ago I read a story about a child in Moscow who was raised by wild dogs and it gave me the idea of doing something similar in West Yorkshire. It’s not impossible to imagine, there’s a pretty clear run up on the moors between Bradford and Manchester.”
Wild Thing has drawn high praise from the likes of Joanne Harris, David Peace and Phill Jupitus and yet the book very nearly wasn’t published. Denby says the problems started with the success of Billy Morgan. “It got a lot of attention, but unfortunately so did I,” she says. “The quote was always something like ‘tattooed biker chick up for real prize.’ One reporter from the Guardian rang me up and said ‘what does it feel like to be a person, such as yourself, nominated for a real literature prize?’ I had to hold the phone away from my ear because the urge to swear at this man was hard to resist.”
But this image hampered her when she tried to get Wild Thing published. “I got the most glowing rejection letters perhaps any author’s ever had. I don’t want to sound like I’m boasting but they said things like ‘brilliant writing’ and ‘do send it to me when it’s finished, I must know what happens to Annie... but we’re not publishing it.’ They said their marketing teams said it wasn’t in genre and that they didn’t think they could market me. Basically, they felt they couldn’t send me to literature festivals.”
That was three years ago and, stung by the criticism, she decided she’d had enough.
“I was gutted, to be honest. But I knew I could make a living through my artwork so I let people know that if they wanted the book I would send it to them for free. I thought a handful of people would want it but about a thousand people asked for a copy.”
As the online buzz about her book spread, a friend suggested she publish it herself and helped her set up Ignite Books as an independent publishing house.
The first book they put out was a short piece of fantasy Denby wrote called The Curious Mystery Of Miss Lydia Larkin And The Widow Marvell, which quickly sold out and Wild Thing has proved just as popular.
Denby feels it’s as good as anything she’s written.
“As you write books, you get better. It’s like doing sit-ups, when you start you can do 10 a day and a year later you can’t remember when you could only do 10. I’ve had 40-odd years practising writing and it really is 90 per cent perspiration, 10 per cent inspiration.
“You will get nothing in this life unless you are prepared to slog your guts out and that actually becomes a buzz. I get kids saying to me ‘can I be an apprentice tattooist, or how can I be a writer?’ And you tell them they need to go away and do this for the rest of your life.
“Forget about having a social life, you will work all hours, you will get up in the middle of the night and start working because you’ve woken up with an idea. You will not cook dinner for your husband, you will not do the housework, you will neglect your kids, if you want to produce real art that’s what you have to do.
“But this isn’t a very modern concept, because the modern ideal is that you do a course and that’s why publishing houses go round university creative writing courses and harrow all the pretty, blonde girls they can find who’ve written a novel and you end up with Girl With A Pearl Earring, which is one of the most boring books ever written.”
She prefers to draw on her own experiences. “I’ve been on the road for 30 years. I’ve led what I think is an interesting life, it’s been a full-tilt boogie,” she says. “I find a lot of humour in darkness and that’s how I find life to be, both funny and dark. We find humour in everything, it’s how we get by. But then human beings are amazing and when I’m tattooing someone I’m basically putting art on to someone’s skin that lasts their whole life – and when you stop and think about that it’s just mad.
“The fact we can look at words and understand them, if you showed that to a tribal culture that had never seen it before they would say it was magic. But all these little things that we do every day that we take for granted, how the mind heals itself and how the body heals itself, they’re incredible.”
Wild Thing, published by Ignite Books, is out now.