In a sporty rhinestone t-shirt, bandana and black jacket, author Julia Bell betrayed her punk rock roots. Her first two novels were marketed as YA (Young Adult), and dealt with, respectively, eating disorders and sex trafficking, but the one she’s working on now will break that mold: it’s about creative writing and literary snobbery. Julia teaches at Birkbeck College of the University of London which was originally founded as a working man’s college. She’s visiting America on a sabbatical, earned after 10 years of teaching and 3 years of tenure. But even after such unexampled drudgery she appears to be enjoying herself in America, spending most of her
vacation sabbatical in the mellower climes of San Francisco, but coming east to meet the American publishers of her second novel, Dirty Work, the one about sex trafficking. They are “correcting” the English spelling to accord with American usage, so that we TV-watching Yanks can read it without fear of befuddlement. Over dinner at the El Quijote, we didn’t get a chance to ask Julia that many questions, but she told us a lot of stories. I guess that’s why she became a writer: lots of stories to tell. (Photo: Ed immediately becomes attached to Julia's book.)
What was your biggest surprise about New York? The size of it. I knew it was big, but the physical reality of it is another story. It’s much bigger than I expected. But the vibe of New York is much the same as London. The last time I came to America, they didn’t even tell me my novel had been published here. I saw it in City Lights in San Francisco. They had done the deal a year earlier, and my agent had lost it under the couch or something. Now I’ve got a new agent and it’s a better experience. This time I’m doing it up right, meeting people, shaking hands. It was a real treat to meet my publishers on Fifth Avenue I took a boat tour around the city today. The gap in the skyline where the twin towers stood was very noticeable. It made me very emotional, though I didn’t think it would. I think it was the experience of actually seeing the site that did it. Seeing it on TV is just not quite the same.
I also visited Harlem, with all its amazing old brownstones, some blocks neglected, and others gentrified. The same thing is happening in London, with the gentrification. Starbucks will open two stores, one on each end of the block, and run an Italian café out of business. That’s what we have instead of diner in London. All the cafés are run by Italians.
My visit coincided with Queen Elizabeth’s. So another surprising thing was watching on TV as George Bush winked at her. It was absurd! You don’t wink at the Queen!
How did you learn about the Chelsea? I knew about Dylan Thomas since I’m Welsh. I had also heard about it through punk rock: Sid and the Ramones. I thought at least it would be unlike a Holiday Inn. I had also heard about Stanley, but when I got here I was pleasantly surprised to see him working the desk. I told him I was an author and showed him my book. He was very friendly. I also told him I was going to interview with you guys for the blog. When I showed him my reservation he said, “Oh, you booked a room through the web, so you got a bad one. I’ll give you a better deal, but the next time call and talk to somebody in person.” [Ed. Note: she booked through Travelocity. Stanley did indeed give her a pretty good room, so be sure to mention the blog when checking in!] He showed me the London Times article, and seemed very proud of it, but he wouldn’t let me hold the magazine. Some body stole his other copy, he said, and this was his last one. I also met the other guy, Jerry, and he said, “I talked to your publishers and they said your book was going to sell well.” That’s what I like about New Yorkers, they have a good sense of humor. Not like the people in San Francisco, who are sometimes rather slow on the uptake when you make a joke. Which reminds me, I’ve been in San Franciscoso long that when Stanley gave me my key, I said, “Thanks, dude.” He gave me quite a priceless look. I don’t imagine he’s used to being called dude very much. Kind of like winking at the Queen, now that I think of it!
You’ve been in America too long. But don’t worry, Stanley has been called worse than that.
But what about your views on literature? Do you think creative writing can be taught? Yes, I think it can be, but only if you concern yourself with the mechanics, and don’t focus so much on the subject matter. You have to provide a non-competitive, non-judgmental, cooperative environment. If you do that, you can give people a vehicle to express whatever they want. When I did my MA at East Anglia, I learned nothing, since it was too competitive. The instructors were unhelpful. I remember a course I took with the famous poet Andrew Motian: he would read your paper and hardly even comment on it, and when he did it would be something trivial, like, “don’t use a comma here.” It was a nasty, bitter environment. Everyone thought they were going to get the booker prize, and then the reality set in that not everyone was going to publish. It was a prime example of how not to run a writing program. I keep it in mind, so I can be sure to provide a more open, accepting environment where I teach at Birkbeck.
Oh, I might mention that my offices are at Bloomsbury, in the same place that Leonard and Virginia Wolfe and Lyton Strachey lived. It’s no longer housing; it’s now university rooms, but we have the same view as they did. I’m attracted to places such as this, with a literary history. The Chelsea is the same sort of place.
Do you think the Chelsea has a special creative energy? Certainly there’s an atmosphere unlike anywhere else. There are an extraordinary number of people walking through the lobby that I feel I’d like to know, or at least talk to. Another strange thing about the Chelsea is that I lose my sense of direction every time I step out of the hotel. I always get the idea it faces downtown, so I’ll walk the wrong way. I think it must be some kind of vortex in the space/time continuum.
That’s what we always say! Hey, have you been reading the blog? Yes, I must confess, I have. Well, that doesn’t change the paranormal reality of the situation.
What do you think of the Star Lounge in the basement of the Chelsea? I read your review, and I’m sure their “stars” are just the little dweebs from the latest crap Indie band that no one will remember in two months.
We forgot to ask Julia if she witnessed any sex trafficking during her stay at the Chelsea. And actually, now that I think about it, it would have been interesting to discuss her new novel! That shows you how swift we are. After our dinner at El Quijote, Julia sat in the lobby for awhile and ran into one of our resident celebrities, Stormé DeLarverié, and together they stood outside and made fun of the costumes of the dweebs entering the Star Lounge.