Updated: Apr 30
Novelist Marian Keyes has written extensively about addiction, mental health and relationships. She's perfectly placed to point her high-powered perception at Justin David’s The Pharmacist and she's determined to ask some candid questions:
London itself is almost like one of the characters in The Pharmacist. Your rendering of the Sunday flower market in Hackney is intensely vivid. How important was place to you in writing this book?
As much as the story is about Billy and Albert, it’s also about a specific time and place. It mourns the period before the millennium. Most of my adult life has been spent living in East London and I’ve seen it change dramatically. Through the process of gentrification and, eventually, corporatisation the area where the book is set was constantly transforming. Squats and old warehouses where artists lived and worked were knocked down or turned into luxury flats. Independent businesses got taken over by the big guys. This loss was felt heavily by the LGBTQ+ community, as our spaces began to vanish. Though I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, it’s clear to me now that I was chronicling that period before that phenomenon took hold and ripped out East London’s soul. Strangely, Columbia Road Flower Market survives.
Maybe I’m naïve, but the first time Albert and Billy have a conversation, why does Billy obfuscate about his relationship with Jamie? It’s not as if he’s immediately ‘interested’ in Albert sexually?
Jamie and Billy are not on the same page regarding their relationship. They are both young and are still trying to work out this ‘love’ thing for themselves. More is revealed in the novel, Kissing the Lizard, the prequel to this book which is due for imminent release. Jamie is very heteronormative. He craves monogamy and romantic love—all the ideas which Billy has been questioning and is critical of. Billy thinks more imaginatively about relationships and is also a bit of a playboy. Though he doesn’t fully realise that his actions are so duplicitous, even at the beginning of the book, he has learnt to keep his options open.
Billy vacillates between enjoying living on his own and wanting to pin Jamie down to a solid cohabiting relationship: do you think this dichotomy is something all human beings struggle with?
I can’t speak for ‘all’ but yes, I’d say it’s an almighty pain in the arse for a lot of people, particularly creative types and those with high libidos. I mean we do some pretty painful things to ourselves, don’t we? I’ve been on both sides. When I was young, the only model of a relationship I had was that exhibited by my parents: always sharing the same space, living in each other’s pockets and endlessly engaging in tempestuous arguments. This is pretty much how all my early relationships manifested. During that time, I never got anything done and there was always some form of minor cheating going on (Sorry TMI?) I’ve been with my current boyfriend for nearly ten years. We decided right from the start to do away with all that. We have separate flats but spend half the week together. We’re both artists and writers and give each other the space to pursue our own work. Monogamy isn’t an option either. I think it’s an unnatural imposition to expect one person to satisfy all one’s needs for the rest of your life. I know that's not the same for everyone.
I think it’s possibly easier for LGBTQ+ to adopt new ways of being. We’ve already had to take so many steps in our lives to defy convention. Permission has been given for us to be single, attached, polyamorous, sluttish (and I mean that in the most healthy and non-shaming sense of the word), sexually disinterested or obsessed with cats. Though it has to be said, Jamie has some catching up to do.
“An emerald green glass vase, containing eight bright pink gerberas.” So many descriptions in this book are strikingly visual that they sound like actual paintings. Was that a deliberate decision?
I wanted the reader to see things as Billy sees them, through the eyes of an artist. Even during our introduction to him, he is staring through the lens of a camera. This is how he interprets the world, visually. Colour, shape and form are all encoded by Billy into symbolism and metaphor, and filtered, I hope, to the reader to give meaning through feeling. This sensibility is particularly strong in the case of Billy. Though, as a photographer myself, I’d say much of my writing ends up being quite vibrantly visual, as one discipline feeds the other. ‘Polari’! I love this! It was such a delight to discover it but initially I couldn’t discern the meaning of the words. I felt excluded. Were you making a point? About gay people feeling generally excluded? But that those who do the ‘excluding’ can’t know the impact of their actions and attitudes until they themselves experience it?
Vada! I don’t think I was deliberately trying to make the reader feel excluded. After all, my use of Polari is light and hopefully the meaning for the reader is implicit in the text. It was my intention to use it decoratively, to show Albert’s age and character (in the same way that you, Marian, might use a few words of Irish without writing a whole novel in vernacular) and Billy’s commitment to queerdom, having learnt a few words and being able to show off to the old fruit. Polari goes back a long way and has been used in lots of contexts outside of gay culture. However, a man of Albert’s age might remember a time when, homosexuality driven underground, gay men used the clandestine language covertly to protect themselves from persecution or policemen upholding the law. So I suppose my inclusion of those words illustrates an important point about privilege to those not in the know. However, you’d be surprised by how many words of Polari are actually used by the general public. My parents were always having a barney. My nan liked to put bleach down the khazi. And everyone loves a few bevvies down the pub. The first time Billy takes drugs with Albert, the description of the music, the hot summer evening, the sensations in his body, I had literal euphoric recall! It felt as if I was the one who was high. How challenging/enjoyable was that section to write?
Bona! I’m so pleased that you had that experience; my extensive research has paid. Naturally, I wanted it to be as authentic as possible, so I spent many weekends inside after hours dens of iniquity with a notebook in hand, simply observing friends who had taken illicit substances. Obviously, I interviewed people and collected data via wide reaching surveys. :) Seriously though, yes, it was a lot of fun to write.
In The Palais, Jamie makes reference to Gloria and I felt as if I’d missed something? Am I to understand that these characters also appear in He’s Done Ever So Well for Himself?
Oh yes, it’s an ensemble cast. There’s a whole family involved in the stories. Gloria, Jamie’s mum, is a source of high-camp and humour. She plays a more central role in Kissing the Lizard and enjoys her own character arc across He’s Done Ever So Well for Himself. Billy’s propensity for addiction is foreshadowed early in the book when he talks about how he has to finish an open box of chocolates. But I was shocked when he took the wrap of coke without asking Albert – and without Albert reacting with anger.
Having had a number of close relationships with addicts and people who over-indulge, I have had the opportunity to observe such behaviour. Believe me, in the subsequent stories, he gets much worse. Playing fast and loose with other people's drugs goes along with buying that cheeky pint in between rounds while waiting for the others to finish their drinks, helping yourself to the unopened bottle of wine sitting on the table at a dinner party, and the eventual hiding of miniatures of whisky inside cushion covers and curtain hems. “I hate spending my time in drag for other people’s convenience.” That single sentence sums up the greatest source of unhappiness for most of us: having to fit ourselves into a one-size-fits-all template. Albert has tried to swim against the current. Can you tell us about the price you think he’s had to pay?
As gay men, we owe such a lot to Albert’s generation. Albert would have made huge sacrifices just to be the person he is. That would include having to let go of family, friends, financial stability and his personal safety. But the alternative would have led to him simply being invisible. That simply wasn’t an option. There would have been an absolute refusal to fit in, to dress a certain way, speak a certain way, live his life according to convention. Albert plays a quiet role in this book. He’s in his third-act of life. However, he would have been a pioneer. He would have watched many of his friends die of AIDS back in the 80s and 90s. He would have played a very active role in the Gay Liberation Front. Indirectly, it’s because of men like Albert that we currently have effective treatment for HIV, the new use of PrEP to prevent new infections, equal marriage, laws against hate crime. Those men fought in a war. And a lot of them didn’t return.
Of course, the aspects that I have mentioned here are all peculiar to the LGBTQ community but it’s so interesting that you should pick out this line of dialogue. It’s so important to me that my books aren’t just read by gay men. There’s a lot of universality in them and I’m thrilled that you spotted that. Albert is a kind of Everyman.
JUSTIN DAVID is a writer and photographer. A child of Wolverhampton, he has lived and worked in East London for most of his adult life. He graduated from the MA Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths and is a founder member of Leather Lane Writers. He is the author of a book of collected fiction, He’s Done Ever So Well for Himself and the photographer of Threads, a poetry and photography collaboration with Nathan Evans, which was long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize.
His debut novella The Pharmacist was published by Salt as part of their digital Modern Dreams series. This is the first time it has been published as a standalone paperback.
MARIAN KEYES is the international bestselling author of fourteen novels including Watermelon, Rachel's Holiday, Sushi for Beginners, This Charming Man, and The Break. With a chatty conversational style and whimsical Irish humour, but themes including alcoholism, depression, addiction, cancer, bereavement, and domestic violence her novels have sold over 40 million copies worldwide and been translated into 36 languages. Her latest novel, Grown Ups, was published in February 2020. Marian currently lives in Dún Laoghaire with her husband, after returning to Ireland from London in 1997.