“I wanted to write about women who make the city their own”: author Gemma Seltzer explains how the streets of East London influenced her new book
The past few months have been unreal in some ways, but far too palpable in others. Walking through London during the pandemic, Gemma Seltzer seized the mood and forged it Lifestyles, a magnetic collection of short stories with a magical realistic feel.
The Citizen met the author to discuss the locations and characters of his tales.
HC: The East London you describe is both very familiar and very specific. Can you tell us a bit about the influences that shaped the world you portray in these stories?
GS: The city is the setting for my fiction. Every story in Lifestyles weaves in overheard conversations, memories and pieces of landscape. I’m inspired by writer Grace Paley who said, “You write what you know, but you write what you don’t know. ”
My family is from East London a few generations ago. My great-grandfather had a store on Whitechapel Road. I feel a connection to the area and have recently worked for a few years in Whitechapel. I loved spending my lunch hours walking the streets, exploring Shoreditch, Hoxton and Haggerston. I looked for traces of history in the faded signs of shops and old school buildings, the old bell foundry and gardens reclaimed by the community.
Stories in Lifestyles contain daring women doing extraordinary and weird things on the streets of London: they climb trees, abandon all their friends and befriend ventriloquist models. The plays take place in a reality you know, with people you might meet and specific place names, like Beigel Bake and the Betsy Trotwood pub, as well as unnamed cafes and bookstores. The surreal elements take you to an unexpected place, disoriented and uncertain of the path history will take. I try to offer a new perspective on familiar places and address the complexity of how women navigate the city. For many women, there are so many layers of thoughts and fears, joys and concerns, that unfold beneath the surface as they walk in London.
The collection’s first story, for example, “Too Close and Not Close Enough” begins with two school friends unexpectedly meeting at Beigel Bake as older women and retracing their childhood relationship. We slowly understand that one has taken something important from the other. The play uses details from my wanderings around Brick Lane: from the overheard conversation, the taste of cream cheese bagels, the way people talk and talk and never say what they mean to each other. .
Walking is a big part of my writing process. When I walk I see a flood of images – people laughing, a bird passing by, someone disappearing around the corner – and I’m interested in how I can translate that experience into words. In a short story, I can hold back those moments and keep them from flying away, so that I can watch them closely and show others what I see.
CH: Lifestyles has exclusively female protagonists; What made you decide to give the stories tits inclination?
GS: Lifestyles concerns the lives of women; how they move around the city and how their friendships play out on the streets.
The setting for the stories is outside the house. We meet the characters in public or communal spaces such as hotels, cafes, restaurants, shops, synagogues, parks and offices. I wanted to write about women who travel the world, claim space and appropriate the city. It is important to put the lives of women first because we still do not see enough representation of a wide range of women on television, in movies and in books.
I think there is a gap in literature and culture where the main relationship represented is female friendship. Often the relationships of women are shown in relation to men: being wives or mothers or lovers or daughters. The reality of female friendship is that it is intense, passionate, brilliant and heartbreaking, as Jamaica Kincaid says: “Friendship is a simple thing, yet complicated; friendship is on the surface, something natural, something that goes without saying, and yet underneath you could find worlds. I wanted to write both on the surface and on the “underside”.
The main relationship in my stories is between the protagonists, her friends and the place where she lives, works and wanders. They are all in constant conversation.
HC: A theme that runs through many of these stories is having the courage to be different. Do you think local communities shape character traits like this?
GS: Yes! Many of us have found our voice while exploring the city and meeting people from all over the world. Being part of a community, be it in a specific building or location, a religious community or a cafe where the staff know your favorite drink, anchors you in one place. It encourages you to identify with that place and to feel responsible for taking care of it and those around you.
The history of East London is so fascinating and constantly evolving and changing. I think of the Whitechapel of old, French Huguenots, Irish families, my great-grandparents and other Jews like them who came and created businesses and shops, synagogues and homes, to the Bangladeshi communities that makes a living there too. These waves of immigration bring new ideas, expand existing culture, and can create interconnection. For a writer, it’s energizing and humbling to feel that the city is constantly changing, that you can stand on streets that have sparked so much hope and experience.
Lifestyles by Gemma Seltzer is published by Influx Press. ISBN: 978-1-910312-75-9; List price: £ 7.99.