Kayla Jenkins chats to Louise Finnigan, author of Muscle and Mouth (published June 12th)
Kayla: Hello Louise! Thank you for agreeing to complete an interview with me, I’m looking forward to this one. So, to jump right in – I know you’ve long been concerned about writing about the working class, and especially teens navigating the tricky landscape of northern identity. How did the distinguished characters of Jade, Stephen, Mikey, and Connor come about?
Louise: I try to be as authentic as I can, and some of the characters do reflect elements of people I grew up with and knew as a teenager. Jade comes partly from my own experiences and partly from those of a close friend. Stephen was the character I worked hardest on but once I started to get him right, he flew off the page. I wanted him to be softer and more expressive than the other men in the story, but also realistically placed within that world. I’ve become incredibly fond of Stephen!
Kayla: There’s a real internal conflict with Jade about losing all she’s known so far – ‘this place and its sounds…the fucking flair of it all’ – and I think that’s a very real worry for many of us that move away from our hometown or people. How was it for you to write about that? Does it come from a personal experience?
Louise: It was amazing to write about, actually. I feel like I got a lot off my chest with this story while still being able to exercise new, creative muscles at the same time. That sense of conflict you describe is drawn from earlier stages in my life. I lived on a council estate from the age of six, then in a young people’s home called The Manchester Foyer for two years before university. When I got there (it was Nottingham for me, not Durham) I realised my position in the world was changing in a way that was hard to explain. At university, other students would ask me to repeat things so they could marvel at my accent. I was openly referred to as ‘surprisingly intelligent’ and ‘rough’. But I also didn’t quite fit in with the old places because I was on a path to something different, and had been for a while. I’ve spoken to many people who’ve experienced the same. It’s a strange and alienating experience, and it shows that we still have a social class system in this country that assumes you cannot be educated - particularly perhaps, in arts subjects -whilst being working class.
Kayla: One of the crucial things I’ve noticed about ‘Muscle and Mouth’ is this quiet, yet hard-hitting defiance against the idea that Northernisms, or being working class, are both parts of our identity that need to be “escaped” from. Why was this personally important for you to challenge?
Louise: It’s definitely important for me to challenge that idea. Obviously social mobility isn’t a bad thing; we want a society with more equal access to opportunity. The problem for me is how this mobility is thought of. It’s presented as if opening one door closes another forever. And more often than not, it’s discussed as if the world you’re leaving behind doesn’t matter. There’s an idea that living in those kinds of communities is nothing but danger and chaos and deprivation. It’s important not to romanticise it; I remember a lot of chaos, certainly. But that way of thinking misses out on so much. All the energy and humour, and the beauty in how people tend to stick around, families knowing each other for such a long time and seeing each other cope with so much. There’s a lot of intuition and empathy and fun. I missed all that when I ‘escaped’ and found myself wanting to come back. Students from what is referred to as ‘disadvantaged’ backgrounds are still significantly more likely to drop out of university in their first year and I don’t think that’s a surprise.
Kayla: ‘Muscle and Mouth’ is this incredible amalgamation of linguistic analysis, transcript, and narration. What was your intention behind the blend of these components, and how did you find getting the balance just right?
Louise: This was the hardest aspect of writing it, for sure. My intention was to express the rupture in Jade’s own identity through the contrast in language. I also wanted to explore how the data and the essay alone would have lost so much detail- the ‘contextual elements’ as Jade puts it- without the wider story. Connor’s character, for example, is almost totally silent in the transcript. But he’s doing so much- always watching for danger and mopping it up when it happens… That only comes out through the narration.
I was also interested in how I could make it all fit together without losing the reader. I wrote the transcript first and read it out loud so many times- it was important for me to get myself into a different room from my kids for that bit! Then I worked out the arc of the story, and finally the essay. I spent months weaving it together and testing it on the writing group I attend (Orton Writers’ Circle, who are great by the way) and finally, I got there. I love that kind of structural challenge. I was so happy doing it.
Kayla: I’m so curious about the linguistic element, especially the research. Do you have a background in language, or was it more a case of researching online and through other sources? Were there any notable points about dialect, mannerisms, or behaviour that have stayed with you beyond writing?
Louise: I have the tiniest level of background in language. It’s not my specialism but I did some sociolinguistics in my degree and conducted my own language investigations, like Jade, when I studied the subject to A-level. Back then, I always found the process of recording and transcribing absolutely fascinating but also kind of dangerous. It’s amazing how much you might find to say about a person’s behaviour based on, for example, their use of interruption or their use of fillers like ‘erm’ or ‘er’ or ‘nah’ as the boys in the story say so often. It always felt to me like there was so much potentially being revealed in these investigations, but also much that could be wrongly interpreted- perhaps to justify existing theories. It’s a responsibility, conducting this kind of research. That’s one of the things that I do remember thinking, even back then with my little tape recorder. Who am I to suck these lives up into this cassette? Who am I to start picking them apart? I wanted Jade to reflect on that too and I think you see her battling with herself in the essay she writes.
Kayla: I know you have work due to appear in various anthologies and have been shortlisted and longlisted for various prizes (congrats on that!). I was wondering what’s next for you? Are you staying with the short story format, or do you have something longer in the works?
Louise: I have a novel I’ve been working on for years. It’s an idea and a character I absolutely love but when I started writing it, six years ago now, I didn’t know what I was doing. I went back to it and edited and edited and sent it out on submission during the 2020 lockdown. In October I was delighted to get an agent and she’s been helping me bring it up to scratch since. I hope one day it exists on people’s shelves and in people’s thoughts. It’s constantly in my thoughts so I need to share it round a bit.
Kayla: If you could give any advice to those wishing to write about their identity with the same guttural honesty and rawness you’ve portrayed, what would it be?
Louise: I’d say to go back to the places that make you feel something. Walk the pavements and breathe in the smells and listen to the sounds. Don’t let yourself off the hook. Keep going until you’ve found what you love and what scares you too. That’s what you need to write.
Thank you to Louise and Kayla for what is a genuinely fascinating read! 'Muscle and Mouth' is £5.99 and available from here with a signed postcard from the author.