Interview: Karen McLeod

Karen McLeod is a writer and performer. Her book ‘In Search of the Missing Eyelash’ won a Betty Trisk Award,  she has also written for The Guardian, The Letters Page and The Independent. Alongside her writing, Karen performs as her hilarious comedy creation, Barbara Brownskirt: “the worst living lesbian poet alive and performing today”.  Having seen her at perform at The Polari Literary Salon, I can vouch that Barbara Brownskirt is indeed dreadful – the performance however is quite hilarious. Karen has some dates coming up at Brighton Fringe with the show Who Do You Think You Are? Barbara Brownskirt, on 1st & 2nd June, so I caught up with her to find out more about Barbara’s adventures.

(Interview by Amie Taylor @AmieAmieTay)

AT: Hi Karen, thank you for speaking with LGBTQ Arts today, first of all, please can you tell us a little about you and how you came to work in the arts…

KM: Hello! First of all, like most people in the arts, the path is rather one of happenstance rather than one that is thoroughly thought out! 

I grew up loving drawing and painting then went to art college where I studied at degree level in Fine Art in Cardiff. Here I specialised in film-making and performance art but it was fairly free and we were all encouraged to write. I have always written to understand myself and my feelings ( in the 90’s there were no lesbian role models so everyone was very in the dark about their sexuality, so writing has always helped clarify things.) I loved studying art, but I floundered a bit after leaving art college as I couldn’t make a living from performance. I had an insatiable desire to experience the world and travel, so I went to live in Australia, then came back and decided to become an air hostess for an airline so I could get cheap flights around the world and continue having adventures to write about. After a while I felt like the job was too much about partying and not really about the travelling. I got a bit lost, and became suffocated by not using my creativity, so I decided to try to write myself out of the job. I began to use the long hours in the hotel rooms to start a novel and it was in places like Singapore and Africa where we got extensive time down route where I wrote my first novel, ‘In Search of the Missing Eyelash’. This got published by Jonathan Cape and was translated into four foreign languages. It won a Betty Trask award and so soon after it was out I took redundancy from the airline to write full-time, and this is when things took another twist.

AT: And tell us about Barbara Brownskirt, how did you come up with the idea for her and is she based on anyone?

KM: Barbara first appeared when I was struggling to write a second novel and I think of her as a character that was rather born out of my frustration rather than anything purer. 

A bit of detail about the character is that Barbara is the self-appointed poet at the 197 bus stop on Croydon Road, Penge. She has written 22 volumes of poetry and is so far, unpublished. Barbara first appeared from experimenting on stage at a lesbian night me and my friend used to put on called MOONA. She was a really bad poet from the start, based on the idea that the more confidence a writer has, the worse they tend to be at writing. She was based on all those poets I’d seen at open mic nights that have reams and reams of poetry, and never wish to leave the stage and therefore they trap the audience in a kind of weird and painful relationship.

She is also based on all the odd people I see in the streets of London, the ones in the anoraks or women in pop socks, who somehow seem to be there but you can’t work out who they’re with or who they go home to. She is an ode to alone-ness!

AT: What’s your favourite thing about her?

KM: I love her profound belief that the world needs her poetry, that poetry can heal, words can change the world for the better, and that being a poet is a 9-5pm job at her ‘office’ at the 197 bus stop.

AT: What’s been your most memorable gig yet to date?

KM: At Queen Elizabeth Hall alongside Ali Smith at Polari and Duckie at Latitude Festival. Oh yes, also in Edinburgh touring with Polari when I got to scatter paper orgasms in the crime writer Val McDermid’s hair.

AT: You obviously perform a lot as a solo artist, how do you find working alone?  What’s your rehearsal / creation process before you perform?

KM: Whenever I’m preparing to go on stage, I have to get into being Barbara. This means taking myself away from other artists or crowd backstage and gather together alot of energy. Usually I think about something that has genuinely made me angry and then I store it all up, down a glass of wine and rush onto the stage bristling with loud anger. 

AT: Describe Barbara in six words…

KM: Funny, angry, awkward, sweet, surprising, absurd.

AT: What are your future plans for Barbara?

KM: Hopefully to tour the new show nationally later in the year and then Edinburgh fringe 2018 and then the world!

Thank you so much Karen for speaking with LGBTQ Arts today!

If you’d like to know more about Karen and upcoming Barbara Brownskirt performances, follow her on Twitter @KazzyMcLeod / @BBrownskirt.  If you’d like to book for her Brighton Fringe shows on the 1st / 2nd June book here.

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