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In Conversation With Liv Little On Her Debut Book ‘Rosewater’

Words by Hannah Makonnen

After photographing Liv Little at The Margate Bookshop, we took the chance to discuss the release of her debut book, Rosewater, which follows the journey of Elsie Macintosh and her world and relationships. Almost as soon as we sit, the life and backstory of the characters come to life as Liv delves into them; she knows them well, and she knows them on a deeply personal level.

She speaks of Elise, a take-no-shit character who isn’t insecure about her queerness or blackness. Who loves hard, is fearless, messy, and isn’t afraid to make mistakes. She speaks of Elsie’s Nan, who, like Liv’s own, makes Pepperpot and Roti, even when her arms tire, and wrapped between it all, she speaks of the love surrounding these characters and their ways and how she poured this into the book.

Liv knows so well how to tell the story of others, how to create spaces for people to belong, where women can speak their minds and be authentically themselves, it’s something she’s been doing her whole career. Just this time she did it on paper, in the 330 pages of Rosewater, with words and thoughts that come as easily to her as the ones below.

You are a known storyteller, telling of your own and many others experiences throughout your career. What was the transition like from telling your own story, to telling the character's stories?

I enjoy talking to people. I like getting into their world and understanding what makes them tick – what inspires their work and art, the way they see the world, and how they show up in it. So, even though it isn’t the same, it’s not far off.

Writing character-driven pieces is something I enjoy. So I think that was quite a nice crossover. That being said, the practice and disciplines of writing a novel are very different from writing articles.

How long did it take you?

It took a year. And it wasn’t a year that was easy. It was one of the most challenging and heart-breaking times in my life because I was caring for my dad who was bed bound from a Motor Neuron Disease. That moment in my life was incredibly painful and heart-breaking, I have never experienced heartbreak like that. So, writing became transformative for me. By that point, I was desperate to write and let out all of these things because I’d also spent so many years focusing on other people’s creative projects instead of my own creative practice. It was really special and necessary that I sat down to write it.

I enjoy talking to people. I like getting into their world and understanding what makes them tick – what inspires their work and art, the way they see the world, and how they show up in it.

You set the scene in South London, with Peckham interwoven into the story. How did it feel to be able to represent where you came from?

I just couldn’t not write about South London. I had to. I think it’s a really special place. It’s where I was born – next to Burgess Park. My mom grew up in a block of flats in Stockwell with my auntie and my Nan. It’s our foundation. It has a strong and rich Caribbean history and it means something. There’s culture, family, and food markets- I can get my green banana and things that feel like home in Peckham. Elsie is not from South London but she finds a home there, which I think is kind of beautiful.

Where did you find your inspiration for the characters?

The characters presented themselves to me in very clear and deliberate ways. There are bits of the women and people that I love in its pages. For example, Juliet drives this beaten-up Mini that her grandma gave her, similar to the one my best friend Molly from secondary school, who used to drive her auntie’s Mini after she died. These details tell you so much about a person and how much love exists there. Those were the things I wanted to pull out from my real life.

There are bits of the women and people that I love in its pages. These details tell you so much about a person and how much love exists there. Those were the things I wanted to pull out from my real life.

Elsie and Juliet have a fraught but emotional and deep love for each other. What inspired you to write a story about love?

Well, I’m a romantic, I’ve been in love for six years. I love love. My love story has transformed my life and I think that’s kind of what’s happening here with the two of them, they’re holding up a mirror to each other where they can see all the wonderful elements, but all of the challenging parts as well. And I think that’s what partnership kind of is. You want to be challenged, you want to evolve, shift and grow together but also grow separately. They’re figuring out, how can they meet each other in the middle and build something that works for them.

There were also some steamy moments, which was a fun read, were they fun to write?

Of course! I don’t think I’ve read a book where there’s been much queer sex between women, and I was like, “I want to read more of that.” And I also want to see that on telly, I want to see the full spectrum of relationships.

Sex is important to Elsie and how she moves in the world, and he has different kinds of sex with different people. With Bea, she’s very uncontrolled, they meet each other on a level playing field and can have banter, But with Juliet, it’s like she becomes more vulnerable. It’s a different form of intimacy, it’s gentle, and it’s soft in a way because they’re discovering each other for the first time. And like what does that feel like? And I think that was what I wanted to convey with the difference. So it was fun but it was also deliberate.

The exploration of relationships in Rosewater goes way beyond romantic. There is friendship at the core of Elsie and Juliet’s relationship. And, in the Afterward you thank your friends for helping you in your journey through your life and with the book. Can you talk us through those themes and the importance of having people with you on the journey?

I think that my friendships are some of the deepest loves of my entire life. I think a lot of people are told that romantic love is the most important thing, and I do value that. I’ve got some deep and enduring friendships. Friendships come and go, and the heartache you can feel when a friendship has broken down, it’s something that is just as awful and painful and challenging as ending a relationship.

It’s so a part of my life that it couldn’t have been a part of this story. I’m still friends with people that I met since primary school when I was four years old. You mention the Afterward and in it I thank Charlie (Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff), I’ve known her for eight years now, it’s someone who I’ve worked with through all of the various states. She’s gorgeous, she’s like family, a sister and that’s something I value so deeply.

The book features the poetry of Kai-Isaiah Jamal, what was it like collaborating with them to build the life and character of Elsie?

They were the only person that I wanted for it. I knew that the voice, the tone, the energy, the sexiness, all of it was like cut like it was like that’s Kai’s voice. We went back and forth and voice notes, looking at different things, explaining the significance of things in my life, and in Elsie’s life. It felt like a natural fit.

My Grandma would make Pepperpot and it’s something we would fight over at Christmas. She’s 88 and her arms hurt but she still makes it because that’s her way of showing love. So when I read that poem about Pepperpot, I cried, they captured the culture, the heart, the grandma-ness of it.

And of course, there's familial relationships. What were you exploring through showing her family interwoven between the story?

Intergenerational trauma and experience are very real things. There have been challenges in Elsie’s childhood and her parents haven’t been perfect. They’ve been complicated. They had their stuff, but I wanted to show that while their behaviour isn’t necessarily excusable, it came from their own individual experiences in the world and their own struggles.

What was the significance behind Elise finding out about her Nan having a queer relationship with Alison?

Again, it falls into this intergenerational theme, her Nan was part of such a different time where she had this friend that was always there and always around but you didn’t necessarily name it. The people that knew would have known but the people that didn’t wouldn’t have known. It’s about showing that there’s some thread of similarity between them but also looking at the ways they had to navigate spaces so differently. I’m allowed to show up fully as myself with my partner, at least in this country, but that’s not everyone’s experience, depending on where you were born, where you grow up, or what generation you’re born into. And I think it’s important.

You spoke about your Dad earlier on. What do you think he would have thought of Rosewater?

He would cringe… it’s a gay love story! But, it’s still emotional to think about, because even at the end when it was so hard and painful for him, he would sit and watch YouTube videos of me speaking. All his nurses knew so much about me. And they’d be like, “Your dad showed me this and this and this”. I would give him issues of gal-dem magazines with little notes written in saying things like “I love you”, I bet he didn’t read them, but he had them there and could say, “My daughter did that”.

I think I’ve been moving so fast that sometimes, I don’t even get the time to sit and breathe, especially on moments when something big could be coming to a close. There’s been a lot of processing, a lot of letting go and a lot of saying goodbye. But, I think the next book will be about him.

TEAM CREDITS:

Photographer: Tami Aftab
Production Coordinator: Helena Stocks
Stylist: Camila Brull
Feature Writer: Hannah Makonnen

Special thanks to the team at The Margate Bookshop.

Rosewater by Liv Little is published by Dialogue, available from 20th April.

WHISTLES BOOK CLUB RETURNS...

Join Black Ballad and Liv Little on 19th April at 6.30pm BST for our first live book club in-store at St Christopher’s Place, where the Head of Editorial at Black Ballad, Jendella Benson, will host Liv to discuss her novel Rosewater.

The ticket cost is a £5 donation to Mentoring Matters; a global mentoring scheme that aims to redress the balance of equality and opportunity within the creative industries and we are thrilled to be working with them to achieve our mutual ongoing goals.

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