Bestselling thriller author SJ Watson asks author Justin David about his new work of fiction, Kissing the Lizard:
How did Kissing the Lizard begin for you? What triggered the story?
I made the huge mistake in my early twenties of travelling from London all the way to the desert outside Taos, New Mexico in the States to visit a ‘friend’ who turned out not to have my best interests at heart. I was isolated, five thousand miles and nearly twenty hours away from home and the people I loved.
Being trapped so far away from anything familiar with people you don’t trust does strange things to your head. I just turned the colour up on that.
As a queer coming-of-age story that is also a modern gothic with hints of sci-fi and horror, in many ways Kissing the Lizard defies genre. Was it a conscious decision to mix things up like that, or do you just go where the story takes you?
I’d be lying if I said it was planned that way. I knew I wanted to revisit this traumatic and formative experience by mythologizing it and the traits of certain genre became part of it quite naturally. It’s hard to write the story of a naïve twenty-year-old trying to extricate himself from a dangerous and toxic situation in the desert without it feeling nightmarish and psychologically alarming. It was pure David Lynch territory. Add to this dynamic the setting—wolves, bears, earthships, spiders, a crazy UFO cult, and so on and you have a horror story with elements of sci-fi. I didn’t have to try that hard.
The book is darkly funny. Is that streak of black humour important to you? Do you intend the book to have a message, or to entertain, or both?
Humour has always been one of my survival techniques. In terms of messaging it’s definitely a cautionary tale but one in which I poke fun at myself and my family. I’m from the West Midlands where many people employ a certain type of gallows humour in extreme situations—you know, like, ‘We almost died but we’ll still laugh…’
The humour comes from the dialogue. I’m an observer and a listener. When I start on a writing project it’s usually the voices that I hear first and it’s the dialogue that leads me into a story.
I was drawn to the character of Gloria, Jamie’s mother, in the Kissing the Lizard. She reminded me of so many Black Country women I’ve known. How easy was it to write her?
Gloria is, to a certain extent, an extension of my own mother. Parts of her are invented but she has now become so real and alive that she writes herself. It’s difficult to shut her up. Of course, coming from the West Midlands, it was easy and masses of fun to write a bold Black Country matriarch with all her foibles and imperfections.
I find the dynamic between Jamie and Matthew interesting, particularly in the early days of their friendship when it seemed (on the surface at least) to be a nurturing, platonic relationship between a young queer person and an older gay man. How important are these kinds of friendships, do you think?
When I was young, I had a number of friendships with older men. Not all of them were like Matthew. They were, as you say nurturing, and essential. In the 1990s there was no way of finding your way if you didn’t come from family of queer people. They didn’t teach you how to live a queer life in school. Far from it. On the contrary, they tried to beat it out of me. So, finding older men who had trodden the beaten path was important. However, being naïve, thirsty, innocent and impressionable, young men like Jamie were left wide open to be taken advantage of, to be manipulated or abused. That’s exactly what happened to him.
We’re both from the West Midlands, and specifically the Black Country. Has that informed your work at all? Do you think you’ll ever write a novel set in Wolverhampton?
There is another book in this series, Tales of the Suburbs, which tells stories of Jamie as a child and as a young adult, living in Welston in the Black Country. There is a lot more of his family in it and yes, it draws upon my own time living there. This will probably be released in November. After that, my next major piece of work will be set in London, where I have lived for most of my adult life.
You’re a photographer as well as a writer. How do the two interact for you? Are they completely different or does one inform the other?
Some of my photography, the work I do for money, is very separate. That’s often commissioned and designed by request for other people. However, the more personal work is linked very closely to the writing and comes from the same headspace. The writing and the photography feed each other. The resulting work can either be ‘mood boards’ which help me during the production of a piece of writing or work inspired by the writing that come after the books are written. For example, this isn’t part of the book but here is a portrait I made of Matthew.
You set up Inkandescent to publish diverse and distinctive voices. Do you think mainstream publishing still has a diversity problem, and if so how can we combat that?
Without a doubt it has a diversity problem and I really don’t see it going away. There are a number of really good initiatives in mainstream publishing headed up by very good, well-meaning people who are doing their best to create new opportunities for writers who have previously been considered outsider. We’re hearing all the right sounds and certain targets are being met. Representation is improving, especially in ethnic groups which have been significantly underrepresented historically. Though unfortunately, when you scratch the surface, very little changes. Socio-economic factors still represent the most major barriers to inclusion within publishing. Until the ‘outsiders’ reach positions of power everything will stay the same. Publishing companies like Inkandescent occupy a tiny corner of publishing along with a lot of other fantastic independents who focus on new ideas or LGBTQ+ writers or working-class writers or simply fascinating books that find themselves outside of the remit of the gargantuan mainstream publishing world. Just to name a handful there are Influx, Cipher, Salt, Blue Moose, Dead Ink, Muswell… but every week I hear about another new press emerging and this is incredibly encouraging. The more the merrier and the independent publishing world is where the responsible publishing revolution is happening.
Your characters are often from working class backgrounds, and their stories are ones that are rarely told, even within LGBTQ+ literature. Why is this important to you?
Literature fulfils many different roles but two vital purposes are that of escapism and of being able to see ourselves in books. It is so important that we can learn about experiences that are unlike our own, and it’s equally important that we see our own lives reflected back at us so that our existences are legitimised and we don’t feel so alone in the world. There has been a dearth of working-class voices in publishing and that is because the people with power, those curating the published canon are only publishing the work of people they like, people they know, people who are like themselves, people they went to school with. Therein lies a terrible danger for society and one which if not addressed now will have detrimental effects for years to come.
JUSTIN DAVID is a child of Wolverhampton who has lived and worked in East London for most of his adult life. He graduated from the MA Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London and is a founder member of Leather Lane Writers. His writing has appeared in many print and online anthologies and his debut novella, The Pharmacist, was published by Salt as part of their Modern Dreams series. It was described in the Times Literary Supplement as ‘the perfect introduction to a singular voice in gay literature.’ Kissing the Lizard is a prequel to The Pharmacist.
He is also a well-known photographer. His images of artists, writers, performers and musicians have appeared on the pages of numerous newspapers and magazines including: The Times, The Guardian, Attitude, Beige, Classical Music Magazine, Gay Times, Out There, Pink Paper, QX and Time Out.
Justin is one half of Inkandescent with Nathan Evans. Their first offering, Threads, featuring Nathan’s poetry and Justin’s photography, was long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. It was supported using public funding by Arts Council England. In 2021, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, they published their first collection, MAINSTREAM: An Anthology of Stories from the Edges, championing underrepresented voices.
S J WATSON’s first novel, Before I Go To Sleep, became a phenomenal international success and has now sold over 6,000,000 copies worldwide. It won the Crime Writers’ Association Award for Best Debut Novel and the Galaxy National Book Award for Crime Thriller of the Year and has been translated into more than 40 languages. The film of the book, starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth and Mark Strong, and directed by Rowan Joffe, was released in September 2014. S J Watson’s second novel, Second Life was published to acclaim in 2015 and his latest book, Final Cut, in August 2020.