‘Psychology of the Self and the Author’ Panellist
Interview conducted by Beth Roberts
Lauren Foley (she/her) is an Irish/Australian, bisexual writer with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE). Lauren is chronically ill and disabled and the majority of her writing is dictated. The winner of the inaugural Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize and a Next Generation Artist’s Award from the Arts Council of Ireland, Lauren is a magnetic and visceral writer whose work is thematically linked to the body and female sexuality.
Lauren will be a guest on our “Psychology of the Self and the Author” panel at SNWF 2022, so I sat down with her to talk about her upcoming short-story collection, Polluted Sex, how illness and disability affect her writing and how she comes up with such formally and lyrically experimental poetry and prose.
Your debut short story collection, Polluted Sex, has been described as “fearless” and “radical” — what is it about your writing that you think garners these labels?
I don’t know what would garner this label of fearless or radical. All I know is that I very much want my work to say things that often don’t get said, that often might be skipped over or diluted down. I think Irish people in particular are very good at self-censorship — we have a long history of censorship in publishing here as well. I definitely didn’t want to, in any way, care too much about whether the work would be published because I’ve been writing for so long. I met Lia Mills, who did the quote on the back of Polluted Sex, in 2016 when I came back from Australia and she was Writer in Residence at Farmleigh House. Lia told me that a lot of good writing gets lost because writers don’t write the things they’re afraid to say out loud – she said don’t be that writer. That made me be like, “ok, let’s push the envelope here”! I think publishing is more conservative — people are writing this work but it’s just not getting published. I wrote the first story for this collection in 2004! Is it radical? It’s really old to me!
The body is a key theme in Polluted Sex. In ‘Interlude Belles-Lettres’ especially, the bodily descriptions are vivid and fluid. What is it about the body that informs your writing?
I’m disabled and I’m chronically ill, so it’s funny for me because if I tell you what I don’t have it’ll be quicker than to tell you what’s wrong with me. I’ve got a few autoimmune diseases. Ultimately, I was diagnosed with the lupus but I also have endometriosis which basically feels like your body is trying to murder you from the inside. So pretty much, I’ve been sick every day since I was 14. I’m not just disabled, I’m ill all the time. For example, yesterday I was walking to the shop and I couldn’t walk, so I just had to sit down for half an hour and then continue on. Just these mad pains come over me. This means I’m really conscious of my body, because I can feel it all the time and I’m hyperaware of light — one of the things with lupus is the photosensitivity and I get a lot of pain from UV light. I think if you spend a lot of time at hospitals, at the doctors’ and very very ill — I’ve used a wheelchair in the past and I often walk with a cane — you’re very conscious, almost overly conscious, of each part of the body. I think it just comes from a high level of pain and discomfort, but also I would really want that freedom of movement, which I don’t have. I would often be thinking about dance because I love to dance but I can’t dance. The only time when I don’t have a great deal of pain is when I’m in the water because of that compression feeling. So that may be why.
Polluted Sex could be described as experimental in terms of form. You play with pronouns, slashes, capitalisations and italics. What drew you to this type of formal play?
I really think that each piece meets its own way. I dictated most of the pieces, so they will come out quite raw, without punctuation and then I will go back. I would like to hold attention, so I like to rest people’s eye to hold it — that matters to me a lot. The way the work comes out is quite straightforward to me as it’s just free expression, but I edit an inordinate amount! Influx had to take the book off me — they were like “we need it now”! Overall, I want to guide the reader in reading and I also think it’s kind of fun. It’s a lot of fun to play around with things. I used to teach English language, so I know all of the really formal grammar stuff and I want to destroy it. I think that it’s good to protest.
There are levels of humour in Polluted Sex. You are often darkly comic, especially in ‘Winona the Wicked Wanton Woman,’ but there are also some very funny moments, for example, ‘Formalism.’ How does humour impact your work?
I think that people need to take art a lot less seriously than they do. Definitely with Winona, the sentences in that made me laugh quite a bit, just trying to describe this fairy-tale of ridiculousness. I really enjoyed writing it. I spent a lot of time early on trying to write it in a really serious way and then I went to the River Mill Writers’ Retreat in Northern Ireland. I was trying to work on it when I was there and I kept going for walks. It’s lovely and there are lots of hedgerows and fields and I just kept making iPhone notes on everything I saw to try and make it a bit more magic. I think it’s important to not take it all so seriously. I have a tendency to do that, especially when I edit, so it was important for me to throw in things that I didn’t think about too much. The images in Winona — oh my God! I said to myself “Lauren, you’re so intense” and told myself to draw the first thing that came out. When I got to the final stage with the publisher, I had to redo all of them!
Polluted Sex is a collection of short stories. What are you working on next? Another collection, or are you considering long form prose?
Polluted Sex was pitched as monologues, but publishing didn’t want it. I wanted to call them monologues because I did them with speech, but I was told “that’s too hard, pick one” so that’s why they’re called dramatic short stories, because the voice was very important to me.
I’m writing a novel, a slim novel — it’s set in Australia. I did a fellowship at Varuna, the National Writers’ House of Australia in the Blue Mountains, in 2016 and then I thought I might write a short story set in that house. Then I thought that it could be a novella and then it evolved into a novel! I was supposed to go back to Varuna, but I couldn’t because of the pandemic, so I’m supposed to be going this summer. I’m using this second fellowship to just finish everything and tie everything up. The Australian writer Eleanor Dark lived there and it was gifted by her son Mick Dark to Australian writers. I need to access documents of hers that are in the state library. I have to go back there to look through the archives, because all her diary entries are there. There’s been very little done on her work. She had this second book called Prelude to Christopher and it’s this very interesting novel about a straight couple who chose not to have children because of mental illness in the wife’s side of the family and the husband was in charge of a eugenics experiment on an island off the coast of Australia. It links in with this personal history of mental illness Eleanor Dark’s family. It’s really interesting to me – this concept of who gets to have kids. So, that’s the concept of my novel: my relationship with Dark’s novel. The protagonist of my novel is me, but fictionalised. It’s a gothic novel. I really like it!
I’m writing essays and poems. I found poems much easier to do during lockdown, because I’m high-risk and, therefore, I spent the majority of the first 18 months on my own. I was just here with my dog and only saw my parents. It was hard going to work on longer pieces, whereas a poem felt like an accomplishment.
The festival theme this year is “Deconstructing the Self” – how much of your “self” comes through in your authorship?
I would say a huge amount. It’s very much apparent in my work. I can’t really separate myself from the work. There’s even a self-portrait there! It just feels like it’s all of my days and that it’s a part of me. I think because I’m such an interior person, this is a huge view into my really odd brain. This is how I go on in my head. Particularly with the rhyme — a lot of people don’t think in rhyme and I think their days must be a lot less fun than mine! My days, I spend alone, and I have to stay inside from 11–4 because of the sun. My days aren’t witnessed by anyone else because I do live alone, so I feel like it’s a record of my existence. It’s a documentation of what I did with my time — it’s a time-keeping thing.
The panel you will be reading on is called “Psychology of the Self and the Author.” Do you see a distinction between you as your self and you as the author?
No, not really. I just feel like this is the thing that I do. My health has taken so much from me. I don’t really have a social life and I don’t work outside of the home, full-time, so this is really it. My days are just physio, my work and that’s it. There isn’t really much else that isn’t just pain and illness. So, I don’t really separate it out. I have a practice and I do write every day and it keeps me going, that I have done some work and I have something to come back to tomorrow. It’s literally what I get up for.
To learn more about Lauren’s role in the 2022 Festival, and to buy Polluted Sex, head to her section of SNWF’s Meet Our Guests.
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About the Author:
Hi, I’m Beth (she/her) and I am a PhD student at the University of Surrey and your co-Assistant Festival Director for SNWF 2022! I research and write historical/ historiographic fiction and I am particularly interested in intersectional feminist narratives. My favourite book is Fingersmith by Sarah Waters and my favourite play is The Revolutionists by Lauren Gunderson. I also love a creepy horror tale or two and particularly enjoy Julia Armfield’s short stories in this genre! My favourite book of 2021 is The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed.