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.

Part Two: Scottish LGBTQIA+ Reads – non-fiction & memoir

It’s time for the second part of our Scottish LGBTQIA+ celebration for Pride Month! Did you catch part one for fiction? Well, here’s a whole other list of Scottish (or Scot-related) reads to add to your TBR but non-fiction this time.

Maggie & Me by Damian Barr

It’s 12 October 1984. An IRA bomb blows apart the Grand Hotel in Brighton. Miraculously, Margaret Thatcher survives. In small-town Scotland, eight-year-old Damian Barr watches in horror as his mum rips her wedding ring off and packs their bags. He knows he, too, must survive.

Damian, his sister and his Catholic mum move in with her sinister new boyfriend while his Protestant dad shacks up with the glamorous Mary the Canary. Divided by sectarian suspicion, the community is held together by the sprawling Ravenscraig Steelworks. But darkness threatens as Maggie takes hold: she snatches school milk, smashes the unions and makes greed good. Following Maggie’s advice, Damian works hard and plans his escape. He discovers that stories can save your life and – in spite of violence, strikes, AIDS and Clause 28 – manages to fall in love dancing to Madonna in Glasgow’s only gay club. Maggie & Me is a touching and darkly witty memoir about surviving Thatcher’s Britain; a story of growing up gay in a straight world and coming out the other side in spite of, and maybe because of, the iron lady.

Amateur by Thomas Page McBee

In this groundbreaking book, Thomas Page McBee, a trans man, trains to fight in a charity match at Madison Square Garden while struggling to untangle the vexed relationship between masculinity and violence.

Through his experience of boxing – learning to get hit, and to hit back; wrestling with the camaraderie of the gym; confronting the betrayals and strength of his own body – McBee examines the weight of male violence, the pervasiveness of gender stereotypes and the limitations of conventional masculinity. A wide-ranging exploration of gender in our society, Amateur is ultimately a story of hope, as McBee traces a way forward: a new masculinity, inside the ring and out of it.

China in Drag: Travels with a Cross Dresser by Michael Bristow

Approaching the end of his nine year stint as a BBC journalist in Beijing, Michael Bristow decided he wanted to write about the country’s modern history. To assist him he asked for the help of his language teacher, who was born just two years after the communist party came to power in 1949.

The changing fortunes of his life have mirrored the ups and downs of his country, which has moved from communist poverty to capitalist wealth in just a single generation. It came as a surprise though, to learn that the teacher was also a cross-dresser. Michael gradually realised that the teacher’s story is the story of modern China.

Sensible Footwear: A Girl’s Guide by Kate Charlesworth

Cartoonist Kate Charlesworth presents a glorious pageant of LGBT history, as she takes us on a PRIDE march from the 1950s to the present day. Peopled by a cast of gay icons such as Dusty Springfield, Billie Jean King, Dirk Bogarde and Alan Turing, and featuring key moments such as Stonewall and Section 28, Sensible Footwear is the first graphic history charting lesbian life from 1950 to the present a stunning, personal, graphic memoir and a milestone itself in LGBT history.

In 1950, when Kate was born, male homosexuality carried a custodial sentence. But female homosexuality had never been an offence in the UK, effectively rendering lesbians even more invisible than they already were often to themselves. Growing up in Yorkshire, the young Kate had to find role models wherever she could, in real life, books, film and TV. Sensible Footwear is a fascinating history of how post-war Britain transformed from a country hostile towards ‘queer’ lives to the LGBQTI+ universe of today, recording the political gains and challenges against a backdrop of Kate s personal experience: realising her own sexuality, coming out to her parents, embracing lesbian and gay culture, losing friends to AIDS.

Trans Britain: Our Journey from the Shadows by Christine Burns

Over the last five years, transgender people have seemed to burst into the public eye: Time declared 2014 a trans tipping point , while American Vogue named 2015 the year of trans visibility . From our television screens to the ballot box, transgender people have suddenly become part of the zeitgeist.

This apparently overnight emergence, though, is just the latest stage in a long and varied history. The renown of Paris Lees and Hari Nef has its roots in the efforts of those who struggled for equality before them, but were met with indifference and often outright hostility from mainstream society. Trans Britain chronicles this journey in the words of those who were there to witness a marginalised community grow into the visible phenomenon we recognise today: activists, film-makers, broadcasters, parents, an actress, a rock musician and a priest, among many others. Here is everything you always wanted to know about the background of the trans community, but never knew how to ask.

Endell Street: The Suffragette Surgeons of World War One by Wendy Moore

When the First World War broke out, the suffragettes suspended their campaigning and joined the war effort. For pioneering suffragette doctors (and life partners) Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson that meant moving to France, where they set up two small military hospitals amidst fierce opposition. 

Yet their medical and organisational skills were so impressive that in 1915 Flora and Louisa were asked by the War Ministry to return to London and establish a new military hospital in a vast and derelict old workhouse in Covent Garden’s Endell Street. That they did, creating a 573-bed hospital staffed from top to bottom by female surgeons, doctors and nurses, and developing entirely new techniques to deal with the horrific mortar and gas injuries suffered by British soldiers. Receiving 28,000 wounded men over the next four years, Flora and Louisa created such a caring atmosphere that soldiers begged to be sent to Endell Street. And then, following the end of the war and the Spanish Flu outbreak, the hospital was closed and Flora, Louisa and their staff were once again sidelined in the medical profession. The story of Endell Street provides both a keyhole view into the horrors and thrills of wartime London and a long-overdue tribute to the brilliance and bravery of an extraordinary group of women.

Queer Voices in Post-War Scotland: Male Homosexuality, Religion and Society

This book examines the experiences of gay and bisexual men who lived in Scotland during an era when all homosexual acts were illegal, tracing the historical relationship between Scottish society, the state and its male homosexual population using a combination of oral history and extensive archival research.

The Bi-ble: Vol 1 & 2: Personal Essays and Narratives about Bisexuality (Monstrous Regiment)

Bisexuals inhabit a liminal space between cultures, often misunderstood or dismissed by the straight and gay communities alike. This selection of intersectional bi voices has come together to share their stories, helping bi voices be heard and identities seen. It’s time to stand up and spread the good word.

F, M or Other: Quarrels with the Gender Binary Volume 1 (Knight Errant Press)

Gender – it affects us all, but what exactly is it? There isn’t a single, straightforward answer to put your mind at ease. In the form of compelling poetry, prose, essays and graphic storytelling, this anthology will address the issue head on. From fierce feminism to modern masculinity, perspectives on passing to nuanced experiences of identities beyond the binary, the authors will dispel the idea of a single narrative and invite the reader to take in the multitude of lived and imagined experiences. Prepare to have your feathers ruffled and your preconceptions stripped away – F, M or Other? Does it matter?

Have you read any of these books? Or have any of them on your TBR? Talk to us in the comments or follow us on Instagram for a blether.