Laura Gascoigne talks about slightly surreal boy heroes.
This is a terrible confession from the daughter of a bookseller: I’ve never been much of a reader. After devouring Enid Blyton at the age of nine I more or less gave up reading until my twenties. The problem was that my older sister was a bookworm. All my childhood she had her nose in a book and completely ignored me; the world of books was much more real to her than her annoying little sister. When she began to take an interest in me I was 15, by which time she had already consumed the whole of English literature, as well as most of French and Italian. At that point I realised I would never catch up and gave up trying.
So apart from Blyton, it’s hard to say what my formative influences were. Blyton gave me a love of detective stories, especially with boyish heroines. I remember telling my mother one evening in the bathroom that I wanted to be called Laurence and her looking mildly alarmed. (Twenty years later I called my oldest son Laurence, the closest I got.)
The few books I did get round to reading in my teens were detective stories. I loved Damon Runyon, still do. Later I discovered Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, whose The Thin Man made a particular impression. I was especially struck by the realistic marital relationship between the detective Nick and his clever wife Nora, which is probably the model for the relationship of the young journalist Daniel and the detective Yasmin in The Horse’s Arse.
The thing I liked most about American detective fiction was the short sentences. Because I’m a reader who likes to savour each word – for years I moved my lips when reading – I find a mix of too many flavours overwhelming. With poetry it’s not a problem – poems are short – but purple passages in novels drive me crazy. Occasionally books get thrown across the room. This never happens with American detective fiction. While writing The Horse’s Arse I discovered Elmore Leonard, and the rhythm of his sentences may have rubbed off.
But hold on a minute, you say. Why are you writing for Chick Lit Club and you haven’t mentioned any women authors apart from Blyton? The answer is 1) because I was asked to, and 2) because I’m not sure it matters. All the recent fuss about ‘real women’ in the press has only made me more convinced that there are no ‘real women’ or ‘real men’. Both seem to me to be advertising constructs. Gaby Hinsliff recently reported in Guardian doing a gender quiz on Facebook that identified her as a 15-year-old boy. I expect the same would happen to me, except I’d be 12.
My tomboy days didn’t stop with the ‘Laurence’ phase. Although I eventually got round to reading the Brontes and Jane Austen and George Eliot (Ha! another female George), I’ve almost always preferred books written by men. At this point you’ve probably thrown your computer across the room, and I can’t blame you. But let me try to explain. There’s another reason I’m attracted to male writing, apart from the punchy sentences, and it’s the element of surrealism. As a tomboy I hung around with boys until my teens, climbing trees and setting fire to things, and as any mother of sons will confirm, boys have a surreal sense of humour. In some grown-up male authors, this survives. I’m thinking Flann O’Brien, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut and Joyce Cary, whose classic art world novel The Horse’s Mouth was an inspiration. That sort of humour is rare among women authors, with the notable exception of Sue Townsend – whose hero just happens to be a slightly surreal boy.
Patrick Phelan is an ageing artist who has never made it big but who somehow manages to live on air in a North London suburb. When not running art classes for amateurs, Patrick wrestles in the shed at the bottom of his garden with his life’s work: a series of visionary canvases of The Seven Seals.
When his wheeler-dealer son Marty turns up with a commission from a rich client for some copies of paintings by modern masters, Phelan reluctantly agrees; it means money for his ex-wife Moira. However the deal with Marty is, typically, not what it seems.
What follows is a complex chain of events involving fakery, fraud, kidnapping, murder, the Russian Mafia and a cast of dubious art world characters. A contemporary spin on Joyce Cary’s classic satire The Horse’s Mouth, The Horse’s Arse by Laura Gascoigne is a crime thriller-cum-comic-fable that poses the serious question: where does art go from here?
Laura Gascoigne has worked as an art journalist for over twenty years before going freelance. Laura was born in Cairo in 1950, the daughter of a bookseller and an Italian teacher, and grew up in Brussels and Cambridge before studying Classics at Oxford University. She was surrounded as a child by the paintings her father collected and has always had a passion for art and when not writing about it, she paints. Laura currently lives in Hampstead, North London.