Diriye Osman Interviews Gay Literary Icon, Paul Burston

Photo by Krystyna FitzGerald-Morris

Paul Burston is many things. A gay icon, an activist on and off the page, the creator of the ground-breaking Polari Salon and the literary awards it hands out once a year to LGBT authors, myself included. He is also one of the most daring and imaginative crime writers at work today. Burston sat down with me to discuss the future of the Polari Prize and all the incredible treats he has in store for admirers of his literary oeuvre.

Paul, for our readers out there who don’t know the value and significance of the Polari Salon and prize, could you break down why this particular literary extravaganza, which focuses on the LGBTQ experience is so necessary?

Polari is a live literary showcase for established and emerging LBGTQ authors, poets and spoken word performers. It’s much like a cabaret or variety show, but one in which the various acts are all writers of one kind or other. It’s very diverse. I think that’s one of its great strengths. And it’s very lively. Dry, bookish events have their place, but they’re not for me. First and foremost, I think you have a responsibility to entertain people. Challenge them, by all means. But entertain them! Polari is needed because LGBTQ writers are still underrepresented in publishing. The vast majority of novels published are about heterosexual characters. LGBT characters rarely get a look in — and if they do, it’s as secondary, supportive best friends dispensing fashion advice or offering a shoulder to cry on. Our stories are seldom told or given the prominence they deserve. The Polari First Book Prize grew out of the salon. It’s a prize which rewards those writers and publishers who dare to put LGBTQ characters and themes at the heart of their books. We launched the prize in 2011. Nine years on, it’s grown enormously, which suggests that things are changing!

What was the impetus that inspired you to create the Polari Salon?

The salon was founded in 2007, and was borne out of my frustration as a gay writer. I’d been reviewing books for national newspapers since 1988. I’d published seven books of my own, including three well received novels. Not once had I been invited to take part in a book festival. Some would say that my books weren’t ‘literary enough’, but we all know of book festivals who host regularly authors whose works isn’t particularly literary — only they tend to be heterosexual. I was sick of the heterosexism and the snobbery — so I decided to create a literary platform of my own. I’m an activist at heart and have been since my 20s. I want to make a difference. I want to affect change. Polari was my way of doing that in the world closest to my heart. We began in a bar in Soho and are now based at the Southbank Centre, where we host events most months. We also tour regularly.

I was extremely honoured to receive the prize in 2014 and it’s done wonders for my career. As you know, the Polari First Book Prize is now one of the only LGBT-focused literary awards in the UK, if not the only one. Have you ever felt pressure to open up the focus of the prize to not only include debuts but a wider repertoire of LGBT fiction like the Lambda Literary Awards in America?

“This year we’re expanding the prize into two distinct categories. The Polari Prize will be awarded to an overall book of the year by a writer at any stage in their publishing career, while The Polari First Book Prize will continue to champion work by new writers. Both awards are now open for submissions until April 10.

In its inaugural year, The Polari Prize will be sponsored by D H H Literary Agency, with the winner receiving a cheque for £2,000. Entry for the prize includes a submission fee of £25 per title.
 The winner will be chosen by a distinguished panel of authors and industry professionals including critically acclaimed author Bernardine Evaristo; CEO of the National Centre for Writing Chris Gribble; award-winning writer and performer VG Lee; and playwright and former winner of The Polari First Book Prize Paul McVeigh.

Leading literary PR consultancy FMcM Associates will continue its sponsorship of the Polari First Book Prize, with winners receiving a cheque for £1,000. Entry for the prize remains free. This year’s judges include bestselling novelist Kiki Archer; writer and performer Cerys Evans; author and former Head of Literature & Spoken Word at the Southbank Centre Rachel Holmes; and poet and former Polari First Book Prize winner John McCullough.

What have you got planned for Polari this year?

We’re currently on tour, funded by Arts Council England. The Polari Prize Tour is visiting 20 destinations across the UK and beyond. On March 27 we’ll be at Huddersfield Literature Festival, which was the first festival to embrace Polari, back in 2014. On April 11 we’ll be at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh. On May 15 we have a major event at Heaven nightclub called Polari In Heaven. We’ll be taking over the main floor with a site specific show celebrating clubland and starring singer Adele Anderson, author and performer Neil Bartlett, poets Barbara Brownskirt and Paula Varjack and playwright and actor Alexis Gregory. There’ll be spoken word, comedy, song and dance. And there’ll be an after party. All for £10! I promise you this will be a night to remember! Tickets are available now from Eventbrite and are selling fast!

Tell me about your awesome upcoming novel, The Closer I get. I very much enjoyed The Black Path. Is this new novel a continuation of that particular style?

I’m so pleased you enjoyed The Black Path! Yes, I’m staying on the dark side. The Closer I Get is a psychological thriller about a social media friendship between a bestselling author and a fan. It was partly inspired by something that happened to me some years ago. Online relationships can sometimes turn ugly — and in the novel things turn very ugly indeed. It’s also about the relationship between gay men and straight women. These are the friendships which have sustained me all my life, but I’ve also witnessed similar relationships where it’s struck me that people aren’t being entirely honest or respectful of one another. As a writer, I’m interested in the dynamics between people — and the more complicated, the better. My protagonist, Tom, is the kind of man who tends to take his female friendships for granted. The antagonist, Evie, is someone who desperately craves attention and will stop at nothing to get it. The book is largely set in Hastings, where I live part of the time. It’s a great setting for a thriller. It’s a poor area, quite down at heel, but with signs of gentrification and lots of people ‘down from London’ whose presence isn’t always entirely welcome. So there’s that sense of two worlds colliding — which is what happens in the novel, with chilling results.

What else have you got in development at the moment on all fronts?

The Polari tour is taking up a lot of my time. Between now and October I’m producing nearly 20 events. I’m also appearing at various crime writing festivals from May onwards to promote The Closer I Get. And I’m busy working on the next book. It’s another thriller, also set in Hastings but very different to The Closer I Get. If anything, it’s darker and grittier! I may write another romantic comedy one day, but it won’t be any time soon!

Paul Burston’s The Closer I Get (Orenda Books) is published on 11th of July 2019. You can pre-order your copy here: https://amzn.to/2u6AGhn