INTERVIEW: Ely Percy on lesbian rom-coms, challenging prejudice and dealing with rejection (Part One)

The Scot Lit Blog recently caught up with the ever so lovely Ely Percy, author of the belter lesbian rom-com Vicky Romeo + Joolz and everyone’s favourite slice of Scottish school days nostalgia, Duck Feet. We spoke about the long road to publication for both of their novels, challenging prejudice and writing in Scots, among other things. 

It’s another long one so go grab tea and a biscuit and settle in. This is part one, where we discuss all things Vicky Romeo, and you’ll find part two where we talk Duck Feet, if you click this link.

Vicky Romeo + Joolz is a rom-com about Vicky Romeo, a butch Scots-Italian lesbian that thinks she lives in a gangster film, and Joolz, the femme fatale that captures her attention. There’s a whole cast of characters in the novel that surround the leads and it’s a world that you can’t help but be drawn into and fall deeply in love with. 

‘Where are the books about us?’

Ely started writing Vicky Romeo + Joolz in Spring 2002, initially it was going to be a tragic play, basically Julia and Juliet (the lesbian Romeo and Juliet) but, says Ely, ‘I just wasn’t feeling it, it wasn’t working for me, I didn’t believe in it. I just like writing funny stuff. So, I completely binned it and started on the novel.’ 

The influence for the novel came from a few places but, they said, ‘I just wasn’t finding books about young, queer Scottish people who were working class. You’d maybe get one of those elements [present in a book] but I’m looking around at all my pals who are at least two of those things and thinking, “Where are the books about us?”’

Ely says the only book they found that came close was Delilah’s by John Maley, a short story collection set in a gay bar in the late 90s, but jokes they were ‘glad they didn’t read it before the first couple of drafts of Vicky Romeo were done.’ Explaining more about the start of the writing process they said, ‘I didn’t really even know how to structure a novel, I just started writing about this character that was a butch lesbian that wanted to be an actor.’

In the beginning, Vicky Romeo + Joolz was a short story collection. Begun when Ely started creative writing at Glasgow Uni, they had the stories ‘of about 30 different viewpoints (!)’ put together by the Christmas of first year. But Ely initially didn’t get the reception they hoped for from course tutor Liz Lochhead. 

‘She was like, “What the hell is this?”,’ Ely says, ‘She goes, “This is not the book we talked out, you came in and talked about how you wanted to write about this working class butch lesbian, this butch about town womaniser, who had this dream to be an actor, a third generation lesbian…” She says, ‘This is not it. It just doesn’t work. Maybe you’re not a novelist.”’ With that feedback, Ely says, ‘So, I went home and cried. But then I started again and decided to try for one viewpoint…I ended up with two: Vicky and Joolz.’ 

After writing the first 30 pages, Ely took it back to Liz, ‘And she was like, “This! This is what we’re talking about!’ The book was then redrafted but ultimately Ely decided to drop the Joolz viewpoint and make the book solely from Vicky’s POV. ‘I eventually said to Liz, “Oh you were right!” And she says, “I know I was right!”

The next stage was getting an agent. Again with the help of Liz Lochhead, Ely found representation from Giles Gordon when the novel was still just on its second draft, who was fully on the same page as them about the book. ‘I said I don’t want this to be in Borders or Waterstones in the gay and lesbian section. There’s nothing wrong with that but I wanted it to be a book that anybody could read, I wanted it to also be accessible to people who weren’t working class Scottish lesbians. Giles said, “No, we’re not going gaystream, we’re going all the way.” Sadly, Giles passed away soon after taking on Ely and the book.

‘What part of girl-meets-girl-butch-femme-queer-coming-of-age-rom-com did you not get?’’

Eventually, Ely begun to search for representation once again but, ‘It was a solid year of no. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. I’d redrafted it again and nobody wanted it, nobody was interested. I’m sending it out to people and getting the feedback that it’s too gay, it’s too niche, no-one’s going to want to read it…but it’s really funny though. I was wanting them to just tell me it was shite or something. Someone even said I should make one of the lead characters a man and I was like…which one? What part of girl-meets-girl-butch-femme-queer-coming-of-age-rom-com did you not get in the pitch?’

Years later, around 2018, Ely received interest from Knight Errant Press, which had just published F. M, or Other: Quarrels with the Gender Binary. The publisher asked to see the full manuscript of another book in the works, a crime novel with a trans main character, but it wasn’t anywhere near ready. Instead, Ely sent a couple of chapters of this work-in-progress and all of Vicky Romeo. ‘Nathaniel [the publishing director] got back to me and was like, “Oh my God, it’s so gay. I love it.”’ 

Knight Errant took on the book and crowdfunding for publication began but there was still some drama to come before it hit the press, ‘There was very little editing done to it,’ Ely says, ‘Because it had already been through so many drafts and had so much work done to it. But I did change the ending a couple of weeks before the crowdfunder!’ Then, due to a hold up at the printer, Ely was only handed a copy of the finished book an hour before the launch at AyeWrite, but, ‘Technically, the first print run was only 100 copies because we had to split it to get it done faster. So, technically, I did sell out on the night of the launch.’

‘It was ignorance, but now there’s no excuse’

One of the things I, as a reader, appreciate the most about Ely’s work, is how much they don’t hold back or sugarcoat. Their characters are always very human with all the good and bad that comes with that. In Vicky Romeo, Ely saw prejudices and problematic behaviours in the community and turned a mirror on it within the novel. They said, ‘I came out as gay in 2001 and there was so much biphobia at the time.’ 

In attending the L.I.P.S group – a real thing but which also featured heavily in the novel – they did actually have the bisexual awareness workshop that is depicted in the book. ‘There were lots of people you would meet [back then] and get on really well with them, they’d be lovely, then they’d come out with something like “Oh god, here comes my ex, the tourist, she’s not a real one of us,” and all that. And I’m thinking that was not okay back in 2001, and it’s not okay now. I would meet quite a few young women who would say they were lesbians but then later go, “Actually I’m bi but don’t tell anyone because folk don’t like it.” And I’m thinking, I don’t get this, I don’t get what the fucking problem is here.

‘That’s why I wrote about it, because it was absolutely rampant. I think back then I did tolerate it more, or tolerate people who were biphobic. But now I don’t think I could. There’s so much more awareness now.

‘It was just ignorance [back then] but now there’s no excuse, there’s so much information right there.’ 

Follow Ely on Twitter and Instagram and visit their own website (which they’ve been putting a lot of work into recently and looks smashin’ btw!). Highly recommend watching their videos on Instagram of various readings from their work too, it’s an absolute treat. 

Follow the link to Part Two.

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