Kirsty Allison was born in London in 1975. PSYCHOMACHIA is her first novel and will be published by Wrecking Ball Press on July 5, 2021.
Kirsty is incoming editor of the literary and arts quarterly Ambit, founder of Cold Lips, and her band is called Vagrant Lovers. She currently lives in Peckham.
Irvine Welsh has described Kirsty as “the greatest cultural beacon this planet has produced.” We asked Kirsty some questions to set the scene for the book’s launch and she provided a book’s worth of answers, which we love. You will too.
Give us the elevator pitch for PSYCHOMACHIA?
It’s about a girl in the 90s who’s so wasted, she doesn’t know if she’s murdered someone. And maybe she should have. It’s set in the fashion and music industries.
The title is from the 5th century Latin poem by Prudentius, about the war of vice and virtue, or ‘battle of the soul’.
Who is the book for?
It’s the kind of book I’m always looking to read. Initially I was writing it for a young me. But I’ve got older writing it, so it takes in a wide scope. It’s super cult in many ways because that’s the world it explores with universal occurrences. People say it’s brutal, but that’s what I needed to lay out. If people have been to Ibiza, listened to music, worn clothes, wanted to fit in, found problems with the patriarchy, hopefully they’ll dig it. I’d like it to be read everywhere from refugee camps to prisons to couture houses and palaces. I write quite well about drugs, but it’s not about drugs per se, although it does do the arc of Acid House to BritPop to Heroin Chic.
What experience do you want your readers to have?
I want them to feel like they’ve been out all night, at the best parties in the world, and been kidnapped by a bunch of people they love and hate, which leads to epiphanies only benders like that can offer. It’s a cleanser. I’d love people to read it on the beach. The cover’ll look good resting on sand, but in the meantime, home is fine. I’d like people to read it waiting for the band to come on, I’d like them to forget they were scrolling, miss their stops on the underground, and just go around in a loop, absorbed by it.
PSYCHOMACHIA’s been a long time coming. Tell us about the evolution of the book?
I have always lived for experience and changed from girl to woman whilst writing this. It began biographically, almost like fiction as dissociation, trying to understand my tormented soul as a way of freeing it, but it developed away from those things, learning about the craft of novel-writing, and the balance of knowing that you have to write what you know. It has always been fiction but I returned to my own diaries towards the end of writing, to make sure it was right and real, by which time the characters had become their own supra-beings, collided, and I watched them dance over the pages creating their own truths, that’s magical, and I want to do more of it. I think it rides real rather than it being an imitation. There’s been no deadline on this, which is a privilege in many ways, it’s allowed me to work until it really is finished, and as such it’s layer upon layer of work, from innocence to the wisdom of how long it’s taken, despite having been a writer my whole life.
How would you describe yourself? And how would you describe yourself as a novelist?
Novelist is a helluva title to live up to. I’m proud to finally be one. I don’t often call myself a poet, and I laugh when people call me a singer. I veer towards the Scottish term of endearment, most days, but life’s a bit more textured than that. All the characters are part of me in some ways, as you’re your only point of reference when learning how to write fiction, so the joy is seeing that open up beyond yourself. A Nigerian friend said I write like a magical realist, and I think he’s right. Journalism and copywriting don’t allow so much creativity, so this is complete freedom, to carve sentences with more imagination. It’s a rock of of a book. My bedrock. I liked it being described as modern contemporary fiction on Waterstones. There was a lot to work out. I have very high expectations of myself. When people ask me what I do, I say writer, and then, if appropriate, I explain that I started out as teenage journalist, on TV, DJing around the world, and I’ve done poetry-films, performed internationally, you know, it gets a bit much, so writer is easier. Writer – Performer – Editor works as an Insta bio. I was looking at old paintings the other day, the pieces I didn’t burn, and I wasn’t very good, never worked at it. Writing however, I love sculpting sense in black and white. It’s taken a long time to stop me feeling like I’m faking it, and that’s partly because this book’s taken so long.
How do you balance all of the different work and artistic projects that you’re involved in?
I try to keep my spiritual centre attuned as I go to extreme lengths to do my best on everything – I don’t really like to work on things that I don’t care about. Labour is laborious, whatever you do takes time. It’s wearing that with grace. Sometimes I don’t balance it, take too much on, the piss factory floods, and I become sick.
My ex-husband used to say that a man has to know his limitations, but I remember meeting someone towards the end of our relationship who told me there are no limits, and that’s where I like to hang my hat. That boundarylessness has got me in a lot of trouble though.
I think accepting that I can’t get it all done at once is part of it, but new work does excite me. I’m getting to a point where I feel I have more choice not to take as much on. But there’s the nagging hangover of media and the bullshit of profile.
It depends what index you’re working to, but growing up in media, I do seem to seek validation from the dumbarseness of recognition, and likes. That’s super industrial, but pop culture dictates that to a certain extent. I think I freed myself of that when I realised I was pretty much blacklisted because I’d been ill, and never thought I’d get back through any doors, so with that, I kind of gave up, stopped caring, and it felt essential to experiment and work across disciplines, as that’s the most progressive place, but I feel like this period of research is closing. Not having children helps.
It wasn’t a planned sacrifice, I always thought I’d do it when I grew up, and there’d be a line of wellie boots belonging to baby Kirsty & whoever, but child rearing is a job for life and I’d find it boring and depressing to make sandwiches everyday and get them to places on time. A precarious life of being a writer didn’t really provide it as an option without some heavy compromise, and that is that I want to write more books.
How do all of the different disciplines you work across feed into your novel writing?
I wouldn’t have written in the way I have without having experimented in poetry, performance, and having communicated in black and white for so many places. I don’t want to do video so much now, I’d rather write, but I have found that cutting words together in video expanded my palette of communication.
I started writing young, and I did it for money. I’ve gone from mass media into smaller presses, and got more DIY, which is at odds to most of the people who helped train me, who started on fanzines and worked up. But it’s how I’ve found my voice and become more individual, after trying to fit in, I’ve got more bespoke. I’ve slipped down and down the greasy pole.
There’s a lot of music industry stuff in the book. It’s obviously a fucked up industry, but in terms of music, how much does music influence you when it comes to writing?
All industry is fucked up. Music is about as close to sex as it gets. I’ve always loved musicians, they’re poets when they’re doing it right and symbolise a freedom of soul.
I have synesthesia, or took a lot of acid growing up, it’s hard to know, but my first boyfriend was a musician, and I’ve been writing about music and the culture around it forever. It’s a relatively recent thing finally being brave enough to perform, but music has been my life.
I think rhythmically when I’m writing, and there’s a calligraphic musicality if writing by hand. Typewriters or wordprocessors are almost like a calculator, plucking representations for the beauty and contrasts of life, as all art is. Drafting Psychomachia I wrote some by hand, as I edit so much as I go along when working on screen, but much as it’s quite musical shaping words on a computer, and quite jazz, it’s good to try different things.
Thinking about writing as musical subgenres is fun. But sound is part of what we’re trying to communicate in writing too, so it’s multiple, and interrelated. Ultimately good music transcends metadata and tags and representational values when it’s beyond industrial porn settings, good art raises the game.
I love music. I grew up writing about where the new sounds are, but I do like to write in silence. Although sometimes music and repetition can help. It’s good to vibe off your environment – whether that’s notetaking at a fashion show, or reviewing a gig. If I’m really writing, and in it, I don’t hear, it’s a rare pleasure – and a similar meditation to performing.
The book has song lyrics in it. That’s pretty brave, writing lyrics and including them. Tell us more about your decision to incorporate those?
It’s funny that, because I asked Gil to sing them recently, as we performed an adaptation of part of the book, and he was like: “These are not lyrics, they’re poetry, I can’t sing these!”
It’s weird – I’d been singing them to myself, in my head to write them and I do think of those as songs, like the one on Diana: driving down the underpass, driving down the underpass, I can go so fast, I can go so fast, pap, pap, pap, pap – that’s like Gary Numan, no?! I have a total score for it. But yes, probably madness.
You appear to like a good collaboration. Tell us about your collaborators, and why you collaborate?
INSPIRATION. ACCELERATION. A lack of faith in oneself, I don’t know. I think culture’s rhizomatic, and we just layer upon layer. My life’s always been pretty solo, as a writer, freelancer, DJ, poet, whatever, and I can’t do everything, but within media, it’s always about consensus, that’s where it differs from art and the vision of an auteur.
I love letting other people do it. Lias Saoudi on Ambit, what a legend. He’s so good. Connecting with Danielle De Picciotto in Berlin, we support each other. Kelli Ali, she records my lyrics, I snort fake coke in her film. The music Gil De Ray does is what he excels at, I can’t do that, don’t have time to learn and although I’ve always had guitars around, I don’t naturally pick them up. I write instead. Synthesisers were always in the house as a kid, but it’s not my natural medium, I really do work with words. Yet what Malik Ameer Crumpler does as a lyricist and poet on the Vagrant Lovers tracks – NO WAY could I do what he does but he likes what I do too, and it stops me feeling like I’m alone, because we vibe off each other.
Designers too, Personality Crisis, Luke McLean, Stephen Barrett. Photographers. It is collaboration, that’s the point. I don’t go around claiming I’m doing it all. And the novel would be really really boring if I had been a hermit. We are the sum total of our experience, as much as I’ve enjoyed the ascetic nature of lockdown, I guess I’ve never had much of a high opinion of myself, I’ve been impressed by those I’ve been hanging with, for whatever reason, and humbled by others desire to invite me to do stuff with them. DJing, performing, being on the same bill as people I admire. I generally had DJ partners when I wasn’t doing 9 hour sets in Soho, and if that was with Irvine Welsh or Howard Marks, I got to hear good stories, so there’s a trade, and you get more out of it than you can generally do alone.
Books stand on their own spine though, but again, the cover art’s by Siena Barnes, because she’s good and there’s a connection with her boyfriend being my ex from the Shoreditch days, and it’s designed by Stephen, because he’s good, and it’s published by Wrecking Ball – because they’re amazing. It’s sexy collaborating with people but I did find in early Covid that the cult of the individual rose to an unprecedented level, and actually I quite enjoyed being less diluted.
What was your route into writing?
Pen and paper. Typewriter. Computer. Phone. I am that cliche of having made poetry books, travel journals, mad diaryism as a kid. But I had a really shit English teacher at A-level, took a load of PCP by accident and ended up at art school – it wasn’t really where I should have been, but it detoured me into a job in an airport because I’d had a load of paintings not sell and knew any longer at art school would be a detriment to my life, so I went out a lot, had my picture in a magazine – that a friend showed me, and off I went in search of that photo, and ended up in an office, asking if they had any jobs, and there was a job going as PA to the editor, but I’d need to learn how to type, so off I went to Mavis Beacon on Charing Cross Road, and in the final interview they said I’d make a shit secretary but a good journalist, and offered to train me.
That was in the old days of Fleet Street. Jefferson Hack on Dazed gave me a notebook, and I began to learn how to write. Dan Kahuna gave me pages to channel my Hunter S. Thompson, and I was soon freelancing across the style and music press, doing the odd bit of fashion and music copywriting, but also working on a tabloid newspaper, which was just for the cocaine money and I was very naive, but it taught me how to write fast and in any style possible.
I was hosting a TV show, getting sent the best records, so started playing them out, and one relationship led to another, and I was DJing with Irvine Welsh in the height of his Trainspottting fame, and Howard Marks, and it was all pretty crazy.
I went straight working at the BBC, got an award for a radio documentary, but relapsed into another relationship, making independent film, which again got a load of awards, but I was doing copywriting to support that, writing about beige jumpers for months, and doing video for Marie Claire. It was around then that I started hosting workshops for a charity in writing, and getting up very early in the morning to begin working on what has become Psychomachia. Those workshops led me to get called a professor, and I wrote a book for Red Gallery, spent 5 years editing the books and arts on DJMag, and started my own magazine, Cold Lips, which has done a few limited edition books too. But that evolved from a spoken word night exploring poetry and lyric, the Sylvia Plath Fan Club, after I’d got the taste for performing poetry, Dave Barbarossa, the drummer invited me to collaborate, and I improved at performing, and working out what I was doing.
Vagrant Lovers is my spoken word collaboration with Gil De Ray, and we’ve performed at festivals, galleries and venues internationally, as I have independently as a poet.
Last year I started as Managing Editor on Ambit Magazine. They first published early elements of Psychomachia, when Geoff Nicholson was fiction editor, and I’d sent work in anonymously and it gave me a sense of proper literary fam.
All of it feels unorthodox, and I did a degree in the middle of that, but although I’ve always been a writer, I think I’ve been waiting so long to feel realised by this novel. So maybe only now can I say I am one, it feels like a long period of research.
Was there a significant person in your life that encouraged you to write?
My Mother, she reads more books a year than anyone else I know. She writes diaries and tells me I can only read them when she’s dead – so that will become my life’s work, perhaps interpolate them with some family postcards. If I make it beyond her virtuous lifestyle.
Has Covid-19 affected the way that you write?
The week before Covid hit the UK I was in Hamburg, writing – and what I had been finding increasingly was that cafes and bars were full of public, and although I can write anywhere, I was attracting people who wanted to talk to me, and I love listening to people, so I’d lose hours to that. So it’s been great to spend so much time at my desk, although people are getting paid to distract you with the flashing lights of phones and my inbox getting heavily violated.
I started a Substack blog, which I was amazed people supported, and haven’t had much time to do that of late, Ambit’s been taking a lot of my time, and documenting the archive in my house, where my ceiling fell in in the first lockdown but I’ve been working from home for most of my life – it’s just I can be a sado-masochist towards my own writing, and not allow myself that ultimate pleasure.
It was all so new initially, I started out writing a lot, continuing what I was doing in Hamburg, and received a literary grant from the Society of Authors which stopped me fretting about less income from journalism.
I loved the silence initially. The blossoms blossoming, having time to think about my own experience rather than everyone else’s, and the fear got broken by a residency out in Berlin last Autumn. Although I currently feel I need to retreat from the retreat, which probably means the writing’s about to start to flow again.
What is the importance of place to you as a writer?
It’s the world you’re creating. The detail is important. As a Londoner, it’s a fight, so there’s probably an essence of that in how I write. Some of it’s really pushy, some of it struggles in tension, some of it’s flash, a lot going on.
I was more transitory before Covid. I’d spent a while in Lebanon, and was halfway to moving to Berlin. I like to suck these places up, and share them through the pages. I travel in my mind through writing.
There’s a denial of the pastoral in the punk struggle of art. It’s some twisted trait staying in this city, f’sure. The good Doctor John Cooper Clarke told me this is my city. He calls me kid, which I like. But there is a lot of my writing and identity riddled up in London, it’s a rich and diverse bitch of a place.
Could you tell us something about your creative process?
Sometimes you can push it, and I will push it to all extremes. Smashing out wordcounts can be great, I’d like to get back to that, just to get some pages behind me, but I do like to labour in the pain of an elongated development period.
I’m cruel to myself. I push it to the last moment – I have rarely actually delivered work to the actual deadline, and my editors know that. So they have Kirsty deadlines. I craft sentences, although recently I’ve been taking pleasure in letting it fall from the sky like when I was less self-conscious and critical, the problem with having written for so many places is I do analyse everything.
Desks, beds, chairs, inside, outside. It’s great to not think about any of it, and just get on with it, legs under the desk, that’s the basic. I’ve tried it all. Longhand, shorthand. Early, late. I’m naturally a night person, I like that peace. Straight, drunk.
I don’t think caffeine’s great for my writing at the moment, I wonder about whether speed would help, or those mad clever drugs, but I’m more of a valium and chamomile tea at night kinda writer. I find mornings a bit industrious, but there can be a sense of pleasure with getting it done early, there’s nothing like an afternoon nap when reading your own work.
I actually like stories working together like jigsaw puzzles, so they become something unexpected, that can be a naturally slow process, but sometimes it’s almost written before you’ve started it, I like letting work breathe, after the lack of that as a journalist, and I’ve been lucky in my fiction to not have had any deadlines or pressure with writing to deadline, so I’ve taken pleasure in learning how to do it naturally rather than having to force it, but there is nothing as good as battering away on a book. That’s total sex.
Who are your favourite writers? And which writers are you influenced by?
I relish in whatever I’m discovering. I am an enthusiast. I hate that about myself, but I do get impressed by others. I love DBC Pierre, he was one of the key ones when working on early drafts of this, and all the usual ones of Nabakov, Jean Genet, Martin Amis. Paul Auster. Ralph Ellison, EM Forster, the male canon of alt hip: all the Hunter S. Thompson, Ken Kesey, X Press. Irvine Welsh, Bukowski, Angela Carter. John Niven. Anthony Kiedis’s biography is great. Patti Smith’s Just Kids, Please Kill Me is brilliant. Wayne Kramer’s biography is brilliant. I like Rob Doyle, and his style appears easy but I know it’s not. Bulgakov. Hesse. Huncke. JG Ballard. Geoff Nicholson. Brett Easton Ellis. Donna Tart is a complete icon to me. Many of the authors at Wrecking Ball: Ben Myers, Adelle Stripe, Tony O’Neill, Dan Fante. Recently I’ve been into Ottessa Moshfegh, Virginie Despentes, Eliza Class, Roisin Kiberd, Morowa Yejide, Jenny Fagan, Shola von Rheinhold, I read a huge amount, as a reviewer and editor. Today I’m reading Deborah Levy, Will Burns, David Keenan and Richard Hell.
Similarly, what is your favourite novel?
I always say Nabokov, Lolita, because it just blew me away to an unprecedented level.
Why this novel now?
90s are back. And now they read like history.
Do you have any thoughts about your experience of independent publishers?
Do you have any thoughts about your experience of independent publishers?
Hahah. I mean, I want the house in the hills that I can write in, and shoot an airgun out of like I’m Daphne Du Maurier. Can you provide that?
What else are you working on and what does the future hold for you as a writer?
I finished another book called Rambling Rose, and I’m about to plunge back into writing a big novel, it was confusing because it went out of sync with lockdown world, and it’s 30 years in the future, and there was no future for a while, but I just threw one of the characters from Psychomachia into it, because I missed them, and that’s churned the whole thing upside down, but it is more exciting so I’d like to concentrate on that for a while. There’s always poetry and short stories coming out of me too.
Beyond that, I’m going to record an audiobook, and versions of Psychomachia. I might do some of that on my Substack. I really owe the subscribers some stuff. I want to make a film of the promo of the book this summer, something poetic and documentary, and develop the novel as a film installation with performance.
But beyond editing Ambit, there’s talk of curating the literary stage at a festival in late August, and I’d like to perform again, I feel like I’m good now, when the sound’s okay. I’ve been asked to review a load of books again for Mu magazine, and I’m probably going to do a re-issue of the Cold Lips book we did for Martyn Goodacre.
Michael Chestnutt from Snapped Ankles is working on a couple of Vagrant Lovers tracks, and the first physical release of Vagrant Lovers is coming on a gatefold vinyl compilation from Das Wasteland Records in Berlin. It’s also got Rob Doyle, Nathan from the Fat Whites, Tim Burgess.
What would you say to someone who was keen to write, and would like to see their words published?
Give up. There’s not enough room on the shelves for both of us. Or, if I liked them, I’d suggest they write their way through it. Get a drug habit, and drink heavily. Try being homeless. Work with some refugees. Meet a few arms dealers. Send it to me at Ambit when they’re done.
I have good editors who are looking for good writing. But if that doesn’t work, just write, and don’t worry if you’re not. It’s so easy to DIY it, but you will learn from doing it professionally, and from others too. I showed people drafts of this too early, it crushed me as I wasn’t used to criticism like that. I think people saw that I was going to be a good writer, but knew I needed to go through the mill a bit, and I’m lucky to have survived, so work out how you’re going to do that. I put it down for years. So be careful who you share work with. Some people respond well to being educated.
I’m more of a school of life for writers, that’s the sort of writing I like. Voices from the diaspora of experience rather than privilege or prissiness. I like outsiders. There’s a lot of glamour in the job title, less in the hours it takes. That takes a rare determination. I’d say don’t be in too much of a rush, you’ll get there, you’re doing it for yourself, not others. But some people seem to be able to write commercial fiction, that’s not really what I’m in the business of – much as I’d like this to be read widely. It’s different for everyone. It may be a phase. It may be what you were put on this earth to do. It doesn’t matter, just write something interesting. And read others.
There’s the idea of communities of writers – I liked doing the Sylvia Plath Fan Club nights, and Cold Lips nights, and breaking people’s cherries on sharing their work. It’s good to get published and it’s hard finding good editors. And please, understand that writing is editing, and if you don’t get that, you ain’t there yet.
What are your hopes and dreams for the book?
I want people to read it.
I want people to love it.
I want people to talk about it.
I want people to love it.
I want people to talk about it.
Have the characters in their minds, and see it as a great work. Obviously when people you admire like it, that’s great, but really I just want people to have enough time to read it. I’d love it to be a bestseller. A classic.
In the meantime, I want to record it as an audio book. I really want to develop it into a film installation that’s like an ouroboros loop of experience with performance.
I always saw it as a movie, and used some film structure in drafts, and it would never be the same as I see it. I’d like the money of it being made into a Netflix series, but it really is a book, so it would be amazing to get it out in other countries, anything that allows me to write more. But really – I’m just so excited to think that people are going to read it. It’s lovely going into bookshops. Talking to people who like books.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’m very happy it’s being published by Wrecking Ball. It’s the dream, I cannot wait to feel the paper and see the design in the flesh. Sign a few copies.
PSYCHOMACHIA can be pre-ordered online at https://wreckingballpress.com/product/psychomachia/