Neil Bartlett on queer authors being ‘feared’ and why Virginia Woolf remains a queer trailblazer

Neil Bartlett poses during a portrait session held on June 3, 2012 in Montpellier, France.

When Neil Bartlett started writing professionally more than 30 years ago, queer authors weren’t celebrated. They were feared.

Bartlett’s work started to gain recognition in the 1980s. Homophobia was rife – the AIDS epidemic gave rise to anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment in the media and in politics.

By the end of the decade, Margaret Thatcher’s government had introduced Section 28, which banned the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities.

Today, it’s a radically altered landscape. LGBTQ+ writers still face challenges, from being pigeonholed to homophobic publishers, but it’s also true that they’re starting to be recognised for the unique qualities they offer.

“I’m 40 years into my career and I remember when being a gay author wasn’t a good thing,” Bartlett tells PinkNews.

One thing that shows how much times have changed is the existence of the Polari Prize, an award that celebrates LGBTQ+ writers. Bartlett’s work of fiction Address Book is one of five titles shortlisted for the 2022 prize.

Bartlett is glad the industry is changing – but he knows that shift didn’t just happen by itself.

“Things have been changed by so many fantastic people and now we can have a prize of our own which celebrates what is distinct about our world, our take on the world as queer people,” Bartlett tells PinkNews.

“We’ve all worked so hard to shift and level up the playing field to include ourselves as queer writers. It’s wonderful to have a prize of our very own that recognises that we have our own cultures, our own ways of looking at the world. And it’s great that we can get together and celebrate that.”

Address Book came about when Bartlett set himself a challenge – could he write down the address of every place he had ever lived, including significant places he had spent the night?

Once Bartlett pinned down the locations, he let the walls speak for themselves. He imagined characters within those homes, and he let their lives unspool on the page.

“I let the walls of those buildings speak to me,” he says. “Rather than tell my own story – because I’m not ready to write my memoirs, I’m only 64 – I had set a fictional story, a fictional resident, if you like, behind each of those seven front doors, and let them tell their story.”

The front cover of Address Book by Neil Bartlett.

The Polari Prize award nominated Address Book by Neil Bartlett. (Supplied)

Neil Bartlett on working with Emma Corrin

Bartlett has been drawn to queer stories for as long as he can remember – he recalls being fascinated in his youth by the way Virginia Woolf shattered gender and sexuality norms in Orlando, a novel which tells the story of a man who transforms into a woman and lives for hundreds of years.

“Someone who lives for 500 years, travels through all those different amazing points in history, and they get to change sex in the middle of the story, they get to have male lovers and female lovers, aristocratic lovers and sex workers, they get to Soho and Constantinople – what’s not to like quite frankly? I think it’s a wonderful story,” Bartlett says.

He has always wanted to adapt Orlando for the stage – but it wasn’t until the opportunity to work with The Crown‘s Emma Corrin came up that the project finally came to fruition (Orlando will open at the Garrick Theatre on 26 November).

Corrin, who won critical plaudits for playing a young Princess Diana on the Netflix series, is non-binary.

He remembers the moment he received a phone call from theatre director and producer Michael Grandage asking if he thought Corrin would be a good fit for the role.

Emma’s great gift is they are always themselves, but constantly they shift, they surprise you.

“I sat down and said, ‘Are you kidding? Who else is going to play Orlando in our time but Emma Corrin? What a fantastic idea.’

“I’ve been reading that book since I was a teenager but then it was the suggestion that it would be Emma in the central role giving their incredible body and their talent to this iconic figure from queer culture – I just went, ‘Oh my God, that’s a match made in heaven.’ I am beyond excited.”

When Bartlett speaks to PinkNews, they’re already deep in rehearsals for the play, and he’s witnessed first-hand Corrin’s take on the character.

Emma Corrin as PRincess Diana in a red strappy dress, bouffant hair and tiara

Emma Corrin received acclaim for her portrayal of Princess Diana in The Crown. (Netfix)

“Emma’s great gift is they are always themselves, but constantly they shift, they surprise you, and so they are the perfect person for a story where at the beginning of a story they play a 15-year-old public schoolboy and by the end of the story they play an angry, hopeful, courageous woman.

“They bring a very specific gift to the part.”

He doesn’t want to give too much away about what people can expect from the play – he doesn’t want to spoil the surprise – but he teases “some pretty amazing props, a lot of laughter, and a lot of inspiration from Virginia Woolf”.

“This story is nearly a hundred years old, but I tell you, it feels as if it could have been written yesterday. It has a lot of wisdom to share about the ever-changing nature of the human heart and especially the incredible diversity of ways that we choose to express our sexuality.

“I think Virgina Woolf was way ahead of the curve.”

Address Book by Neil Bartlett (Inkandescent) is shortlisted for the 2022 Polari Prize. The winner is announced at a special event at the British Library on 15 November. Tickets are available here.