I’m fascinated by ideals of beauty. Just scroll through Instagram and you’ll find people air-brushed to within an inch of their life.
I like make-up and fashion as much as the next person, and I’ve been known to lament that I’m not a bronzed, lithe, yoga-expert (I’m a red-faced, pyjama-clad, yoga-novice) but most of the time I recognise these images as unrealistically unattainable ideals.
Skin Deep, the fourth novel from author Laura Wilkinson, chronicles the life of Diana, an ex-model turned artist, and Cal, a facially-disfigured boy who becomes Diana’s muse. It’s a superb novel about ‘big’ subjects including the value our society places on attractiveness and how, as a result, we often struggle to find acceptance. The characters are all affected by so-called beauty, from those who covet it to those who are obsessed with it, and even those who are traumatised by it.
“We live in an incredibly visual world,” agrees Wilkinson when we chat about the novel ahead of its release in June. “And it’s become more visual with the advent of widespread internet use. We’re bombarded with images that we are told are beautiful or should aspire to, and we’re shown plenty of images of what we shouldn’t like or find interesting.”
However, Wilkinson believes that the cliché, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, is still mostly true, it’s just incredibly difficult for us to remember that today. Was this something she was interested in when she began penning Skin Deep?
“The whole thing about beauty, and what is beauty, and what it means to us as individuals, and society, emerged later as I was writing,” Wilkinson explains. “I was more interested in ways of seeing than beauty.”
Skin Deep is one of those novels where the more you discuss it, the more ideas begin to emerge, and you end up wanting to re-read chapters. I could talk to Wilkinson for ages (and we do, the interview lasts well over 40 minutes) about the important questions in the book; about the nature of art, beauty, exploitation, regeneration and family. It’s about changes and renewal. In fact, a previous working title was Transformations.
The book spans decades and explores Wilkinson’s love of modern art. So, did she have to do a load of research?
“I didn’t do masses,” she admits. “I was already aware of the work of artists like Cindy Sherman and Orlan, and although I hadn’t come across Marina Abramovic when I wrote the book, I came across her afterwards and I was like, ‘oh my god’ because she’s so like Diana, even down to a rocky relationship with her mother and father. As an author, you can get too sucked into research and that can get in the way of the story. Writing is an act of creation, so my approach is make it up, and then go back and do the research. But I like to get enough right for the reader to feel like it’s authentic.”
“I had no idea that this would emerge until I had completed the first draft and I realised that there’s a theme of the legacy of parental exploitation. Bunny was a lot of fun to write and she was inspired by the mothers of American pageant queens. I’d seen programmes of UK mums with little girls and boys that they were putting into the modelling industry, and it struck me how much about it was for their own personal gratification, it was nothing to do with the child and what the child wanted.
“But as much as Diana loathes Bunny, and can identify all the things that Bunny does wrong, she still has some kind of love for her. I have kids and I think children have an extraordinary capacity for unconditional love. I wanted to reflect that in both Cal and Diana, and for Diana to seek to not make the same mistakes that Bunny made with her, but failing on occasion. The difference between Diana and Bunny is that Diana gains self-knowledge and awareness. Perhaps I am biased, because she is my creation, but I think that’s true in family dynamics. Families are fascinating because they are so complex, they are so different, and there’s so much love involved. Even when family isn’t working as it should, there’s always a pull.”
The first part of Skin Deep is set in Hulme, Manchester. I’ve some recollection of living there during the mid-00s as a sprightly university student. There’s something about the place that never leaves you.
“I wanted to set a chunk of it against the background of Hulme because of its so-called ugliness and it’s extraordinariness. I lived on Harvington Walk, almost immediately behind the university so I was in the really ‘safe’ part of Hulme, but I did have friends who lived in William Kent and Charles Barry. I had to look at quite a few photographs but only of the exteriors and the streets, and there’s a great World in Action video on YouTube, and there’s a few documentaries about Joy Division and New Order, which are all shot against Hulme, so I looked at those. That’s where I wanted it to be authentic and I didn’t trust my visual memory for that. I had more of a sensory memory. But the interiors of the flats of Hulme are complete creations.”
As I drew closer to the end of the novel, I became anxious about where the narrative was heading. When you’re emotionally invested in characters, you don’t want to see them coming to any harm. Reading the novel was a bit like watching your favourite TV series, where you’re constantly shouting at the telly box. I don’t want to spoil the novel for you, as I urge you to all pick up a copy, but I will say that the ending didn’t disappoint.
“I wrestled for quite a long time over the ending and it seems extraordinary to me now but the first draft didn’t contain Cal’s point of view. I got to the end and I hadn’t decided what was going to happen, whether it was going to be a tragedy, or whether there was going to be some hope, but I knew that I absolutely had to have Cal’s point of view. So, I then went into his world and wrote his story as one continuous piece before dropping it into the narrative.”
So, what’s next?
“I have just got two scenes to finish of the next book. It’s two love stories but one of them isn’t a conventional love story.”
Having enjoyed writing from the perspective of someone completely different in Skin Deep, Wilkinson is again creating both male and female characters.
“I really enjoyed jumping into very different shoes to my own,” she enthuses. The novel is currently titled How Not to Disappear Completely. “It’s the sort of a love that we’re not supposed to have but that’s probably as much as I can say.”
Skin Deep is published by Accent Press and will be available to buy from 15 June 2017. Laura Wilkinson will taking part in an author signing at Stockport Waterstones on 8 July.