Debut author Eliza Clark subverts the male gaze in her debut novel, which follows fetish photographer Irina as she dismantles her archive in preparation for a London exhibition. Exploring gender roles, sexuality, consent and attraction, and cut through with all the hallmarks of the millennial experience, Boy Parts is funny and unsettling in equal measure.
You dedicate this book to your parents but add: “Please don’t read this.” Did they read it and how worried are they about you?
They are yet to read the book! However they are heavily monitoring its stock levels across the North East. Booksellers beware!
Irina is a merciless predator but even her wildest acts get dismissed as playful, or a joke, and she is a slave to diet and beauty and herself a victim of sexual assault. Is female dominance a myth?
I suppose it depends on what you mean by female dominance. On a societal level, obviously yes. On an interpersonal level it depends. I think the idea that a woman can be interpersonally dominant or abusive isn’t undermined by the fact she’s subject to the risks and pressures of living under a patriarchal society.
Was it liberating or disturbing to write such a depraved character and her acts?
I don’t really think I thought much about this being liberating or disturbing. I’ll preface this by saying that I’m pretty desensitised to media which heavily features sex, drugs and violence. I generally consider taboo topics to be completely valid narrative devices, like any other. Sex, violence and substances are all part of the human experience, and I don’t think I applied any special weight to them. I appreciate that my approach to taboo topics is more confrontational that a lot of other authors. But I think my approach is more honest than, say, a crime fiction author who may have an entire story built around investigating brutal attacks on a string of women, but never asks how this affected the victims in the long term or the people around them.
You explore the boundary between fetish art and porn in the novel. Were you exploring a similar boundary in writing and how did you ensure you stayed on the right side of it?
I think there’s a huge difference between the direct visual stimuli photography provides (pornographic or artistic) and fiction. With images, the artist’s intention doesn’t hugely matter and it’s quite easy to unintentionally produce a pornographic image; one man’s “tasteful nude” could still easily be read as erotic regardless of its intention, particularly when viewed through a male gaze. The “problem” of the female nude in visual art (essentially being that it cannot be protected from the male gaze) has been talked about to death, and I thought it would be interesting to subvert that male gaze and have Irina look at men the way male photographers look at their subjects.
Literature is a very different beast, and the writer’s intention is a lot more important. While it’s very easy to try and write something sexy and spectacularly fail, I think it’s rather difficult to accidentally write erotica. Essentially, I didn’t intend to write something pornographic and took great pains to make the sex scenes in the novel as uncomfortable and ugly and raw as possible, and I think that’s quite important. But, ultimately, everything is pornographic to someone and your intention will only ever go so far, regardless if you’re working in prose or visually.
The novel follows Irina as she unboxes her archive of work and as memories are triggered she becomes dislocated from reality. What were you exploring about memory, trauma and art as documentation?
The narrative uncovered by Irina’s archive runs parallel to her present day breakdown. As Irina’s photography and personal history become increasingly dark, so does her present. The archive was both a way for the reader to learn more about what made Irina the way she is, and for her past to run parallel with her present. Cyclical violence and abuse, patterns of behaviour repeating: these are important themes, and play in to the way trauma is presented in the novel. I’m interested in the idea of “traumatic re-enactment”, when people repeat traumatic relationships and events from their past and compulsively place themselves in harm’s way (physically or emotionally).
One could look at Irina’s present narrative as a traumatic re-enactment of her past, and see other characters in the novel trapped in this cycle with her, with Irina serving as the new source of their trauma. This fits in with the ideas around the photograph as a reliable document or merely an impression of something. The presumption of veracity in photography is discussed, and Irina seems to chase, not so much a truthful photograph, but the idea of the photograph as definitive documentation, as proof she has existed, and created something which matters, and which people will remember. At the same time, images of herself cause her anxiety – the image is fixed at that moment in time, where her real life body is ageing, and decaying. In a similar state of decay is her memory. I think memory is something which is entirely unreliable and plastic, and is presented in the novel as such. Irina, through her substance abuse issues, often lacks a definitive grasp on her memory, and on reality in general. Photography is a way for Irina to take back control; on one level it allows her to control men (who have harmed her in the past) and on another it allows her to control the narrative, to control how she is remembered and, in a way, to harness a kind of immortality.
You credit a group of anonymous intellectuals known as the K Hole Flirters for facilitating the research that went into the novel. While obviously respecting their anonymity, can you tell us a bit about their insights? And was the research purely academic, or did you go gonzo at all?
Oh, this is just the name of the group chat I’m in with friends. A good chunk of them work in academia or teach, so that was just sort of a jokey reference to my pals and their jobs, and the many slightly ropey house parties we’ve attended over the years. Which I suppose you could class as gonzo research!
What are the challenges of being a northern artist/writer at home and in London, and are there any advantages?
At home, the challenge primarily comes from the lack of overall opportunities available to writers, and a general separation from the publishing industry. Of course there are creative writing MAs, various theatres and organisations like New Writing North and Mslexia – but it’s difficult to access things you simply aren’t aware of. Even when you do become aware of the fantastic opportunities Newcastle’s arts scene does offer, they’re thin on the ground compared to London and incredibly competitive as a result. I was really, really lucky to get onto New Writing North’s New Writers’ Talent Fund, and I consider it to be a genuinely life changing experience.