Arts

Writer Rosemary Jenkinson: Black humour got us through the Troubles – we need it even more now

Solitude is good for the soul and definitely good for a writer but as Belfast playwright and author Rosemary Jenkinson endures a 'virtual' launch of her third short story collection, she tells Gail Bell why she misses talking to people and why we all need some form of Lifestyle escapism

Award-winning Belfast author Rosemary Jenkinson, whose new short story collection is Lifestyle Choice 10mg
Gail Bell

EVEN in lockdown, the ever-upbeat Rosemary Jenkinson is in a darkly humorous frame of mind, contemplating how she will deal with her hair, of all things – “especially the back of it” – should long periods in isolation continue.

While solitude at home is “generally good” for a writer, the award-winning playwright, poet and short story specialist is also wondering if, as with English playwright Willy Russell’s literary heroine, Shirley Valentine, she too will, eventually, start talking to the wall…

“As someone who lives alone, there is this fear that when I emerge into society again, I will come out like Neanderthal Woman, a white-faced recluse with wild, very badly cut hair,” she quips, before adding, in all seriousness, that she misses mingling with her fellow humans.

“I do feed off social contact and that’s where I get my stories,” she says. “In fact, the week before lockdown, I was rushing around, trying to meet people for research. I managed to have a couple of really good conversations before we all had to retire to our homes.”

Having a ‘virtual’ launch, then, of new short story collection Lifestyle Choice 10MG was not something the writer would ever have ever chosen, but she still produced the glad rags and sat at home with a glass of wine (no canapés) while academic Dr Caroline Magennis recorded an interview for the launch that never was.

If things had been different, the new book would have been unveiled in the Irish Secretariat in Belfast. However, on the plus side, Jenkinson says that over the last few days she was inspired to write a “comedy monologue” about someone who “stays inside” to disinfect everything for a couple of weeks and then brazenly dons a nurse’s uniform and walks across town for a secret assignation with an admirer.

“Humour got us through the Troubles, so we need it even more now, that black humour,” she insists. “Any social or political upheaval is great for writers and even though what is going on around us may be absolutely horrific, it tends to spark the imagination and makes you realise that you do need fantasies.”

And these are definitely not is short supply in Lifestyle Choice 10MG which takes a thrilling race through Belfast and life itself in 12 stand-alone short stories, looking at love, loss, sexuality, sex (lots of sex), erotica, drugs, addiction and, generally, modern day rock and roll.

Although separate stories with different characters, all are linked by some form of escapism and a prevailing sense of freedom from the seen – and unseen – chains that bind.

They’re about going somewhere and not staying in the same place for too long – something the author is struggling with at the moment herself, most likely along with the majority of her readers.

The opening story, Millennial Woman, is written with a kind of devil-may-care abandon and it, along with subsequent tale, Men, delves (not too subtly) into erotica – a topic Jenkinson tells me she enjoys to read herself.

“There’s nothing really the matter with soft porn,” she says. “I think it has a place in literature and one of my favourite writers, Anais Nin, writes beautifully erotic stories. It depends on how you write it, of course, just like any other topic.

“I also love the freedom of Men ; I love being that character; it was so much fun. It’s like pushing yourself to be somebody who just doesn’t care. I think we all have those elements inside us and it’s just pushing them further to develop that totally carefree persona.

“While I am too old to be Millennial Woman – I am more Generation X – I am certainly modernist in outlook and I wanted this collection to be totally contemporary and tap into the sexual freedoms of ‘now’.”

I have to ask: is she writing from personal experience?

“Certainly, in the stories that I write in the first person, I am; Ketomine Nights, for instance, was inspired by going to a party. You take a little bit of what you know, what you’ve heard and you make it more extreme or surreal. That’s what it is, really – pushing reality a little bit further.

“Some of the other stories in the book, particularly Man Of The North were inspired by people who have been in the conflict here and who have told me of their own experiences. I get a lot of people telling me stories and I love to look through other people’s eyes and imagine what their lives were like. People give me details and then I can spin them around…”

One of her favourites in the collection – Butterfly’s Canon In D – is a personal account of her mother dying from cancer and Jenkinson found that putting the words down was akin to a literary memorial to her mother who encouraged her writing ambitions from an early age.

In another, she leans on her own painful experience of prescription drugs and believes, given the problem they present currently in wider society, it is a topic that should be openly talked about.

“The title of the book – Lifestyle Choice 10MG – really encapsulates the idea that everybody has a need for escapism, through some form of drug or other,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be drugs, it could be anything that you use for a crutch. For me, painkillers definitely were a crutch when I suffered from a spinal condition called Tarlov Cysts.

“It was an extremely painful condition for a number of years and I was prescribed so many different painkillers because none of them hit the mark and gave much relief. Then, when I finally had a back operation and got better, I realised it was mentally difficult to stay off the medication. It’s a huge problem, how anodyne they are, but they flatten your life down.”

An “ex-civil servant” and winner of numerous literary awards, Jenkinson says she is continuously drawn to short stories (Lifestyle Choice is her third collection and the first to be based in and around Belfast) precisely because of their unknown ending.

“In life, there is no neat ending,” she offers. “Many novels, I think, have to cram in some definitive story with a proper ending, whereas it’s a slice of life in the short story; it’s kind of a delicious snapshot of what could happen and even though the stories have different characters, there is so much that is similar in the vibe, the collective spirit of the book as a whole.

“I love the whole road trip of life concept and I often write about that – people moving and walking, people meeting people in the street, as in Millennial Woman. Everything is happenstance; an opportunity to change your life.”

A passionate traveller, she may not be able to travel to travel to Greece like Millennium Woman at the moment, but is Lifestyle Choice 10MG a literary form of escapism in these stricken times?

“I do hope so,” concludes the author, “because it’s about escaping your circumstances. I think it’s a perfect read because the stories project this feeling of liberation. It fits with the mood of everyone feeling trapped right now.”

:: Lifestyle Choice 10mg can be purchased from doirepress.com or noalibis.com

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