Hadley Stewart catches up with Kate Davies, author of ‘In At The Deep End’
When you think about an LGBTQ+ coming-of-age novel, you’d be forgiven for thinking the narrative would focus solely upon a teenager or somebody in their early twenties coming out. Kate Davies disagrees. The author of In At The Deep End, a hilarious and honest novel about self-discovery and experimentation, clearly didn’t get that memo. Davies shows us, through the book’s main character, that coming of age and finding out who we truly are perhaps comes later on in life. As well as being branded the ‘lesbian Bridget Jones’, fans have argued that the book is set to fill the void left by Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag.
“It’s not an autobiographical novel, but there are autobiographical elements to it,” Davies tells me when we meet in the bar of Soho Theatre, London. It’s her first interview about In At The Deep End, but her warm personality quickly melts away any nerves. “I came out when I was in my twenties, and that was sort of when I figured out what was going on with me. I don’t think that you really grow up until you’re in your mid to late-twenties, but I just look back to my early twenties and I just think, I wasn’t really an adult then.”
Her book’s protagonist, Julia, comes out as a lesbian a little later than fellow characters on the LGBTQ+ bookshelf. She goes from breaking her one night stand’s penis, to morphing into a sexually confident lesbian. “That actually happened,” says Davies of the broken penis. I don’t tell Davies, but I wonder if he’s read the book when she volunteers this detail. But aside from the sex, the book feels like a breath of fresh air for LGBTQ+ fiction and a welcome escape from the daily grind.
The book’s popularity is synonymous to Davies’s perseverance. It took many years for her to pen the final draft of In At The Deep End. The book went through several formats before landing in its readers’ laps. “I started it in 2010,” she recalls. “I used to work in children’s publishing, but whenever I started to write a novel, I just felt so pretentious. I hated writing description, it just made me cringe. Then I took a screenwriting course and I realised that I really liked writing dialogue.” In fact, I’d argue that Davies’s screenwriting abilities shone through the dialogue in this book.
“The course completely freed me,” she continues. “It doesn’t feel pretentious when you’re literally writing what people say to each other. You’re not using similes or metaphors. So I started writing it as a film, but I didn’t finish it. And then I decided to write it as a diary-style novel, in like 2011.” Following this, Davies went to listen to Lena Dunham talk in 2014, which influenced her to write a more “serious novel about relationships.” Then, a literary agent encouraged her to add in more humour. “She said, you have to add some fun in.”
Davies tells me that a lot of her writing comes from her own personal experiences, so perhaps it’s no coincidence that she’s also a fan of the American journalist and writer, Nora Ephron. “She once said ‘everything is copy’, and her mother on her death bed told her to take notes on everything. I kind of believe in that,” shares Davies. “If you have that in your head, even when something shit is happening, you can keep telling yourself that. It might sound odd, but actually it’s quite useful. It’s a good way to go through life.”
But how comfortable is she using her own experiences for fiction? “I think when it’s your story, you can do what the hell you want with it,” argues Davies, who also believes that as long as something comes from a place of truth, it’ll resonate with readers. “The best stuff comes from truth. If you can turn experiences that happened to you into art, that’s really powerful. When I see something that is obviously true, or that reflects something that I haven’t necessarily worked out or put it into words yet, I love that.”
When it came to writing the comedic elements of this book, Davies also believes that it was important to portray emotional truth. “Going back to the truth, I think a lot of good comedy comes from observation and saying things that other people might not say.” But it’s not always easy to write funny, she admits. “It’s hard to write comedy, but it’s something that I always wanted to do and always loved. If you’re having a good day, it’s like there, but if you’re having a bad day, it’s the most painful thing to do. It’s really hard to write funny when you’re struggling.”
There’s a lot of sex in the book, I begin. Well, a lot of graphic sex. Why? “When I started writing it, I just wrote what came out of my fingers. And it turned out that I was quite a lot of sex,” Davies says, laughing. “I’m not a particularly sexually confident person, but when I see things that are really honest about sex, I get excited about them and I wanted my book to be like that. It’s like when you write something that feels scary, that’s your best writing.”
She acknowledges, however, that she was initially clueless about what lesbians did in bed. Similarly to Julia, Davies was left to educate herself. “When I came out as a lesbian, I didn’t really know what lesbians did in bed.” says Davies. “So I genuinely remember going to buy DIVA magazine and turning to the sex page. Now, you can Google it, but you’re not really taught about it in sex education classes, right?” It’s true, I reply, none of us really got any formal education about sex. “For me it was so exciting. I just thought lesbian sex is amazing and I wanted to record it and write it down. And also represent it, because I don’t think it’s easy to find a good representation of it.”
Is lesbian sex perhaps portrayed in too much of a salacious way? “I think it is a bit, yeah,” replies Davies. “I think if you search lesbian sex, you’re just going to get porn. And if you do watch lesbian porn, women-on-women porn isn’t really how lesbians have sex. I think it’s hard to find a good representation of lesbian sex, and that was important to me.”
But I wonder how somebody who is self-admittedly not a particularly sexually confident person, was able to write so freely about sex. It was thanks to reading the erotic novel, Wetlands, by Charlotte Roche, Davies tells me. “It’s like if people start saying the word c*** all the time, it loses its power. I was writing stuff, that maybe would have shocked me, but now just didn’t.” And when it came to writing her own sex scenes, Davies has this piece of advice: “When you write sex, you just have to be very direct. Just say what is going on, don’t flower it up, just be straightforward.”
The book has been collecting praise since its release in February. The book has really resonated with people, I say. “Some people have said to me, I’ve loved this. It expresses something that they’ve felt themselves, and I get really excited when people say that to me. I know what that’s like to find something where you’re like ‘oh my God’, like Fleabag for me.” In fact, Guardian journalist Hadley Freeman included In At The Deep End in her article ‘How to survive after Fleabag’, when it was announced that the BAFTA award-winning series would no longer be airing on TV after the end of its second season. The article coming out after my interview with Davies, but I’m sure she was elated with Freeman’s comparison.
As for what’s coming next for Davies, she’s got her fingers in many pies. In At The Deep End is currently being sold in the UK and the USA, but it’ll soon be translated for audiences in The Netherlands, Germany, Finland and Sweden. “All the countries that like lesbians,” jokes Davies. The book has also been optioned for television. Davies’s screenwriting certainly isn’t resting, as she embarks on penning a sitcom based on the experiences of squatters in Freston Road, who famously declared themselves an independent state after an eviction attempt in 1977. And readers won’t be disappointed to know that a second novel is also in the works.
In At The Deep End is out now.
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Photos: Idil Sukan.