One Year On: Clayton Littlewood
I first interviewed Clayton Littlewood in December 2008, after the publication of the book Dirty White Boy, and before his dinner with Elton John, who had read and admired it.
This is how I introduced the book:
Dirty White Boy began as a MySpace blog when Clayton and his partner Jorge were running a shop of the same name. Its subject is London’s Soho, in which the shop was situated, under a brothel no less and on the corner of the gay mecca Old Compton Street. Clayton would sit and watch the chaotic world of Soho go by, take notes in a little black book, and then write his blog.
It is because of Clayton’s genuine interest in the people he writes about that Dirty White Boy is such an engaging read. It pulls you in, wraps you up in its world, and as a result you become invested in it. He refers to his subjects as characters throughout our conversation, and in a way they have become so as part of this alchemical process through cyberspace to the printed word. His subject is not himself, not the performers who frequent the Soho bars and clubs, but the “people for whom Soho is their home.”
Strange if not Stranger than Fiction: An Interview with Clayton Littlewood
One year on Polari decided to catch up with Clayton, and we met in the same coffee shop in Soho where the interview took place and the photographs for the article were taken.
The last thing we talked about a year ago was Dirty White Boy being turned into a play.
The play went really well. We did three dates and sold out and the producer is now looking at dates in February to do an extended run. It was the most nerve wracking thing I’ve ever done. I’m not a performer. David (Benson) is the performer and he played all the characters. I just had to get up on stage and be me. And I thought, well, I am me, so I should be able to get up and be me.
I narrated the thing, which was the easy part. But there were scenes in which I had to be me in the shop which were more difficult. Fortunately I wrote it in such a way that David got the majority of the lines and I just fed him openers like, ‘Oh yes, that’s interesting, please go on.’
What was your experience of taking it onstage like?
Everyone asked if I enjoyed it but I didn’t. Not at the time anyway. I lost about 2 stone. I don’t think I slept in a month.
I actually went blank a couple times. The director Phil Wilmott said, ‘Whatever you do don’t adlib!’ So of course I adlibbed and forgot my lines. I went completely blank and was pacing the stage but everyone thought it was part of the performance. At one stage I was sitting down with my head in my hands and people said afterwards, ‘What great method acting’. Although, actually, it was just me trying to remember my lines.
And you want to do it again?
Despite the nerves, I think the audience were relating to it because they’d read the book. If someone was playing me it probably wouldn’t have been as authentic.
Did the book readings that you did to promote the book last year help?
Yes. It was from the book readings, and having David read the characters, which led to the play. We thought that if we could get laughs in a 15-minute book reading, as well as move people, then surely we could stretch it out into a play.
Do you think you’ll enjoy an extended run?
I think that now the worst thing that can happen has happened – which was going blank – it should be easier.
On the first night there was a standing ovation. But then you get nervous and start thinking, ‘What if they don’t do it tonight?’ instead of thinking, ‘Isn’t that great!’ Then when you’re about to deliver a line you think, ‘Everyone will really laugh at this.’ And when they don’t you think, ‘Oh no, it’s shit!’ But of course each audience brings its own vibe and laugh in different places. And that’s what David taught me and he was so right. That and timing, staying quiet when you get a laugh to give the audience time to settle. David is fantastic at that. It’s all in a look, or the raise of an eyebrow. I was working with a great actor but I’ve still got a lot to learn.
But what I’ve noticed is that with a book or a blog you’re only relying on yourself. Whereas with a play you’re reliant on so many other people, and their availability, and the theatre’s availability. It can be quite frustrating. Whereas with a blog or a book it’s just you.
What about Dirty White Boy 2?
This year was up and down because although the play was a highlight my second book hasn’t been. The second book is a continuation of the first, but it hasn’t been picked up for publication. I had some good reviews, and celebrity endorsements, but the first book didn’t cross over, and didn’t sell well. Initially I was just happy to have a book out. But then of course you get drawn into the numbers game and the suggestion that the next thing you write should be more commercial. So my original publishers won’t publish a second book. Not until the first sells more anyway.
So despite people like Stephen Fry getting in contact, Elton John, the Pet Shop Boys, Boy George, Holly Johnson, all these people whose careers I’ve followed, none of that matters. Unfortunately it all comes down to shifting units.
It’s an impressive list of endorsements.
When all those celebrities got in contact I thought, ‘That’s it. I’ve made it.’ But when famous people get in contact it’s just like anyone else taking the time out to say they liked your work. It’s a very nice thing to do irrespective of who they are. Although what was strange was one day I was writing a blog, and the next day my partner (Jorge Betancourt) and I, were having dinner with Elton John and you can’t help thinking that your life is about to change. Which is silly really because the next day you’re back at home worrying about how you’re going to pay the gas bill. Which is how it should be really.
What’s the time frame of the second book?
Half of the second book was written while we were in the shop. The shop was my muse. So moving away from it was a big leap for me. I hope it gets published one day. Who knows. Maybe. Anyway it was a difficult leap which sounds weird because there’s a whole world out there. But that’s just the way it was.
The Soho Society compared Dirty White Boy with Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. He wrote a blend of fiction and autobiography. And that’s what I’m trying to do now. Writing pure fiction doesn’t interest me. Why would it when real life is just as entertaining? So that’s what I’m doing now with my third. The second one was written around the shop, and around Soho, as a diary. The third one goes from the shop, to Old Compton Street, to Soho Square. What a big leap hey? Ha! Ha!
Are you under pressure to write something that is perhaps more commercial?
I think that as soon as you start looking at what the market wants then you’ve lost the plot. Because who knows what the market wants? If film directors knew what the market wanted every film would be a blockbuster. What is commercial anyway? Who knows what crosses over? It should always be about your vision. I don’t think I could devote two years to writing something I didn’t like myself, just to please a market and try and make money. I don’t write to make money. For me it’s a release.
Are the social networking sites where it all started, such as MySpace and Facebook, still part of the process?
If you haven’t got a big backer behind you, especially if you’re a first time author, you are dependent on these networking tools. You have to promote your product but not infuriate people and there’s a thin dividing line between the two. It’s about your conscience. I would hope that with a little push my product would eventually speak for itself. Although others use very different methods.
The problem with all these tools, and technology, I’ve noticed is that it used to be really easy to avoid people, or it was when I was growing up. Now it’s almost impossible.
Is there any other multimedia in the works?
There’s a treatment for three one hour tv shows doing the rounds. The TV producer James Dean followed the blog, and he’s trying to get it made. Targeting gay people in the media doesn’t always work though, as sometimes gay people are more critical of a gay subject. They don’t want to put their names to something gay because they don’t want to be seen to be flying the gay banner. Sometimes you get more success with straight people who think it’s cool to be linked with it rather than gay people who shy away from it.
The next stop is the BBC. Although I don’t have expectations. I was just pleased that a TV producer liked it and thought it had legs to get this far.
I read your blog about Sue, the madam, and her day in court. What would she have to say about it all?
I’ll tell you a funny story. The Colony, the club across from our old shop, closed down recently. And of course it was a place steeped in tradition. Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud used to drink there and I was fortunate enough to have my book launch there just before it closed. Anyway, they’ve just had a benefit night for the owner, who is very ill, and Hilary from the French House asked if I’d donate a book for the auction. And then she asked me if I’d to go with her to the brothel and see if Sue would be prepared to donate a blowjob. I was a bit nervous about asking but she said ‘yes’ straightaway and she said she’d put her best gobbler on it. Let’s just hope a gay guy didn’t win.