Set in the early 1980s, London Skin & Bones: The Finsbury Park Stories celebrates the residents of the Finsbury Park neighborhood in northern London. Ian Young’s collection of stories reveals a generous community of all sorts—launderettes, working-class gay lads, punks, stoners, stamp collectors, scavengers, revolutionaries in exile, and criminals. Our reviewer said Young creates “an impressive and tactile sense of the era.” Here we talk with him about London, creating characters, and his “autobibliography.”
What was it about Thatcher-era north London that made you want to set your stories there?
I was born in London, in St. Bart’s Hospital (where Holmes met Watson) during a severe V-weapons air raid towards the end of World War II, and I’ve returned to my hometown periodically throughout my life….Finsbury Park was—so it seemed—the most unprepossessing of London districts, without even the colour of more dodgy areas. At first glance, it was depressing. What I found—and what drew me back to write about that place and that time [were] the…denizens of The Park, who became my characters. It was the characters that engaged me—but of course, they are set very specifically in what is now a half-forgotten place and time. I hope I’ve conveyed a little of its flavor—and its variable weather!
Your roster of charismatic oddballs—affectionate skinheads, wise philatelists, a joint-dispensing curmudgeon—could serve as a primer for writing unforgettable characters. What goes into creating a great cast?
Any cast of characters is based on continual observation and memory. Any story writer should have a head—or a notebook—for the telling little details and anecdotes that reveal character. Of course the English are unrivalled for their wonderful eccentrics! I have always admired writers whose tales conjure up a self-contained world: A.A. Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood, Kenneth Grahame’s riverbank, Conan Doyle’s Baker Street. I began to see the time and place I was writing about as one of those special worlds—very much of its time, but (I hope) timeless in its appeal. My literary models included the British illustrated boys’ stories and annuals of my youth. I wanted my stories to be set in a happy time.
Finsbury Park of the 1980s—“the cheapest park of London that was not considered dangerous”—has a down-and-out allure. Where do you think young, queer authors might be writing about 40 years from now?
These days when young queer authors are emerging all across the world, there are bound to be surprises from many cultural communities. The group of friends in my London stories forms a true community of their own—buddies in good and bad times. They help one another and share what they have, older generations helping and protecting the young instead of exploiting them. Sex is enthusiastic without being obsessive. And shared interests like boxing and stamp collecting contribute to the social glue. I am Canadian, and the stories fit a familiar Canadian genre—“little tales of my far-away homeland.”
You have written more than 25 books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction about AIDS, Stonewall, gay pulps. What are you most interested in writing about today?
In 1982, I compiled a second edition of The Male Homosexual in Literature: A Bibliography, now (still!) the standard listing of classic gay fiction, poetry, drama, and memoir in English. At present I’m compiling a supplement to this, as well as an Autobibliography of my own published writings over the years, something every author should do, to make things easier for readers and researchers.
Your stories read like memoir. Are they true or fictional?
I can only say that they are a mix of fact and fiction—like all stories!
Karen Schechner is the vice president of Kirkus Indie.