The other day, I was asked a question that stumped me.
I was doing a talk at a high school, and a year 9 boy asked me if, given how much I suffered, would I change anything about my younger years?
I did the standard public speaker response when you are asked a question you have no idea how to answer: “Wow, that’s a really great question. Thank you so much for asking it.”
Depending on how slowly you utter this, and how strategically you structure your pauses, you can draw this out for five to ten seconds – enough time to throw together a response.
But even after those few seconds of scrambling, I still didn’t have an answer.
I ended up thinking out loud with the audience to meander my way to a quick response – that I probably wouldn’t change things – but I didn’t have space to explain why.
Growing up homosexual in the broad circumstances I did – a country town, blue collar, Sicilian-Australian, Roman Catholic environment – gave me certain messages about being gay. It was effete; unmasculine; it made me a faggot or a finocchio; it made me evil and sick. Bad bad bad.
But these external messages, in isolation, are not what fucked me up.
What fucked me up was my response to those circumstances. Being gay in that world seemed like it would annihilate me and everything I was supposed to be. So, for years, I fought it, denied it, deleted it. I perceived it as a mortal sin; prayed to God to fix me; dug out my baptismal crucifix and wore it like a talisman; studied the Bible hoping to drive the devil out of me. This led to that spiral down into depression, self-loathing, and eventually the suicidal ideation I wrote about in Invisible Boys.
So yes, the world was hostile to my existence. But I was more hostile to myself than the world was.
I know sixteen-year-old me only did what he did to try to survive. I probably wouldn’t have done it if my external environment told me it was okay to be gay; that I was good enough just as I was.
But I don’t sit down with my therapist to unpack the world and its fuckery. Sure, I could blame the world, but what a waste of time. I can’t change society any more than I can solve suffering on a global scale. Both would be Sisyphean to attempt, and nobody will ever succeed at either.
I do sit down to work with my therapist around how I treat myself, and that is where my recovery process begins and ends: with me, on the micro level. Those microcosmic changes are what ripple out to influence the macrocosm, but I can’t start with the world. I must start with me.
I have spent a long time recovering from how cruel I was to myself. My self-loathing runs deep, and even now, on a bad day, I can be right back there in that dark well in a split second. I have a track record of treating myself worse than I would ever consider treating another human being: with revulsion and disgust and utter contempt. I can turn on myself very quickly.
It might seem logical, then, that if given the chance, I would change this.
But being cruel to myself in my younger years made me more resilient in the long run.
For instance, sometimes I meet someone new who seeks to insult me, denigrate me, humiliate me, embarrass me, or reduce me. This is less common than when I was younger, when I had no discernment and would hang around people who made a sport of ridiculing me, but it still happens.
When I was younger, I listened to anyone who insulted me. I tried to make them like me. I tried to embody the characteristics they admired and squash out the traits they derided. I laughed at their ridicule of me to make them tolerate my presence. I performed like this constantly and if they didn’t stop insulting me – which they didn’t – I would blame myself for not doing enough to make them like me.
I did this most of my life. I don’t do it anymore.
These days, when I encounter someone like this, I feel a bit immune to their bullshit. Like, what can they say to me that is worse than what I have said to myself? Nothing. I was the most destructive person in my life for years. So, every time someone in my life tries to have a go at me, even in subtle, passive-aggressive ways, I just think, You can’t hurt me. They can’t. They will never come close to making me feel as bad about myself as I already did.
That isn’t to say I’m impervious to being emotionally wounded. Far from it. I have a sensitive temperament. I have a propensity for listening to critical voices, either my own, those of others, or those of society, that tell me I am not okay.
But I know now that there is nothing wrong with me. The message that I am not okay at my core is what is inaccurate, always, whether it’s me or someone else saying it.
So, the moment I get a whiff that someone is going to be destructive towards me, I don’t try to please them, or get them to change. I just get the fuck out. I cut them off, stop talking to them, stop investing time in them, block and delete if it’s online. I keep their toxicity as far away from me as possible. Their voices do not bear listening to, and whatever I do hear, I don’t take on board.
But this is a response I’m not sure an otherwise serene adolescence could have manufactured. It is a resilience borne of self-acceptance overcoming self-abnegation; a powerful alkali neutralising a corrosive acid.
That is to say: I am not sure I could have ended up where I am without having gone through what I did. I don’t know if I could know self-acceptance and wholeness if I hadn’t, at one point, hated myself so much I was willing to abandon myself entirely. Living through my own personal brand of shit made me who I am.
What if I had grown up in a wealthy, inner-city, left-wing suburb, in a white-collar family, with no cultural or religious prejudices towards homosexuality? Or what if I had grown up heterosexual?
I don’t know who I’d be or what I’d be like, but I do know that guy wouldn’t be me.
And even if those facets of my life changed, I don’t think I’d be happier or unmolested by life. I would have suffered anyway. All humans suffer and our suffering shapes our lives. My suffering would have just had a different colour.
So, to answer that kid from the high school library: no, I wouldn’t change anything about my past.
The only thing I would have changed about my younger years is that I would have been kinder to myself. But I feel okay with how things played out for me. It is my past cruelty towards myself that led me to a sense of what psychologists call unconditional self-acceptance.
The arrows I slung at myself along the way were misguided, but they both toughened my hide and taught me to put down the bow.
So pumped to share the latest installment in my blog interview series, Holden’s Heroes.
Firstly, I should mention that sometimes I get overwhelmed by simple things in life. This has led to me developing habits like responding to text messages five days later as if nothing has happened and it’s only been five minutes. For today’s post, I’ve decided to take the same approach. It’s been a few months since I posted my last Holden’s Heroes interview, and I’m just gonna strut back in here with my Oakley sunnies on and my shirt collar popped and a cigarette dangling from my gob and act like that’s what I planned to do all along. Okay? Sweet as.
So, this interview series focuses on fellow writers, and I’ve spent 2019 chatting with members of my #5amwritersclub. This month’s terrified abductee legally willing participant is my mate Alicia Tuckerman – a talented YA author, talented mother and talented lesbian (I’ll take her word for it) who is also a raging coffee addict and dad joke enthusiast. Let’s dive in and find out more!
Holden’s Heroes ~ July 2019
Holden: Alicia Tuckerman, welcome to my house! Um, look, first up, sorry about the mess … there is seriously just crap everywhere. In fact, I probably haven’t cleaned properly since Raihanaty A. Jalil came to visit … looks like the dregs of our peppermint tea is still in the bottom of those tea cups, ecch. I’d like to say I usually clean for guests, but I’d be lying.
Alicia: That’s alright mate! I had all my booster shots when the kids were small!
H: Booster shots? You underestimate the biohazard that is my house, I’m afraid … but please, make yourself comfortable. Okay, let’s jump in. You’ve had so much going on lately, I almost don’t know where to begin! I’ve really been enjoying your guest blogs for Margaret River Press during July. What have you enjoyed about that process, and is blogging something you have done on a regular basis previously?
A: I’ve had my Facebook page going for a couple of years now and while the posts aren’t typically “blogs” they do have that feel about them. Where I really just monologue about random stuff! I’ve really loved the opportunity to write for a different audience with the MRP blogs. The idea that other authors and writers would be able to relate to anything I have to say still blows my mind. I have to admit that the weekly deadlines have not been my favourite thing and I’ve seen a couple go rushing by, but I’ve really enjoyed it.
H: In your latest blog post, you referenced that famous Douglas Adams quote about loving the sound deadlines make as they go rushing by … I think we can both relate, ha! I believe the MRP guest blogging gig came about because your short story “Glass” is appearing in an upcoming anthology they are putting out later this year. “Glass” is a really moving short story and I feel privileged to have had the chance to read an early version of it. Can you talk about this story – what’s it about, and what was the inspiration?
A: Writing a short story was so ridiculously hard! And I tried really hard to not write “Glass”. I had a few different ideas and I tried to write those stories and they were good stories but Glass… well, it just wouldn’t bloody leave me alone. Pass the chips would ya?
H: As long as you don’t eat the last ones, or I’ll have a food tantrum. There ya go, enjoy the Doritos. And please, go on.
A: “Glass” demanded to be written and so the day before the deadline I gave in and it just fell out of me. “Glass” is kind of a break-up story and I didn’t want to write it because I went through one myself recently and I was worried people would assume the story was mine. It’s a story about what happens after a break up, when everything is so raw and fresh and jagged. When you’re terrified about what comes next but you can’t stay where you are and you’re learning what it is to heal. It explores that moment you start believing that maybe one day you won’t feel so broken and you might even be whole again.
H: That’s intense, and dealing with an adult break up is quite different to say, dealing with YA relationships like those in your first published novel, If I Tell You. Glass is probably more pitched at an adult audience. Was there any shift in your writing process, or thinking process, when you crafted “Glass”?
A: As I said, I had a few other stories that I was going with for the MRP collection and they were YA or New Adult stories. And I had wanted to write those (and who knows maybe I will turn them into something). But “Glass” had other ideas and once I stopped fighting the words, they just came and I didn’t really have to do much at all! I wish it was always that easy. Maybe I should give an adult novel a crack?
H: If by adult novel you mean full-blown erotica, I’m down for that. I’d also be okay with a grown-up contemporary fiction, which is more likely what you actually meant. Speaking of being a grown-up, I recently saw you on stage at the Centre for Stories interviewing YA author Mark Smith. Your delivery was so funny and perfectly timed and it definitely got the audience on side.
A: You’re being kind mate! I reckon I tanked so bad at that event! But thanks for boosting my ego.
H: You totally didn’t … this is one of those “writers are their own worst critic” scenarios. Are panels and public speaking gigs like this something you’d like to do more of in the future?
A: Yeah for sure! You know I love to talk and I love the chance to talk about things I’m really passionate about. You and I have an event later in the year at Crow Books and I’m doing a gig with your better half, Raphael, in October talking about the books that changed our lives. And really I’d love to do heaps more speaking gigs for sure! So anyone reading this—hit me up!
H: Go ahead people and book her, she’s stellar. Alicia, speaking of things that are stellar (my segue skills are off the charts today), let’s talk about your debut novel If I Tell You (Pantera Press, 2018). You’ve received some amazing reviews for this book, and it was even shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards. Congratulations! What does it mean to get such recognition?
A: It’s so wild! And unbelievable to be shortlisted. To go into the State Library and see a sticker on my book was a dream come true. And whilst I didn’t take it out, it was an honour to be named alongside the other amazing shortlistees. Renee Pettitt-Schipp’s book was so poignant and a very deserving winner.
H: Absolutely, huge congrats to Renee – great recognition of her book and as I said, the shortlisting itself is a real achievement for If I Tell You. Your novel was one of my favourite novels of 2018 and I talk about it a lot, just so you know. This is a bit of a Sophie’s Choice thing to ask, but who were your favourite characters in the book? For the record, I had a crush on Justin (but only in the early parts of the book), and found Lin to be the funniest part of the book.
A: Well Justin’s a hot guy (so I’m told)!
H: He is. I like my bogan boys.
A: And despite his … opinions … he’s not a bad guy. That was important to me, that he wasn’t completely irredeemable.
H: Yeah, I really liked this – there was nuance to Justin, even if he was a bit of a douche at times.
A: But I loved them all, they lived inside my head for ten years and that makes me sound like a crazy person but sometimes I miss them a little bit now they’re out in the big wide world on their own. And of course I have big soft spots for Alex and Phoenix and their love story but one my favourite characters to write was definitely Lin.
H: Yesss. I am a big Lin fan club member. Lin for PM.
A: I think everyone needs a mate like Lin, who will defend you to the end but also tell you when you’re being a dick. I also really loved Alex’s Dad, Andrew and Gilly and Van… And I think I’ve mentioned them all now which was probably not the point of the question!
H: Um, yeah, you’re kind of cheating now, but I’ll roll with it because hell, we make the rules here. Tell me, what’s your favourite thing that someone has said to you about If I Tell You?
A: I love a good ego boost as much as anyone. I love hearing anything good about my book, that someone has enjoyed something that came from my head and heart. But what really gets me in the feels is when someone goes out of their way to message me and tell me that my book has helped them or that they have seen themselves in my book. I’ve had so many messages from young people who are struggling with their identity who have said that my words have given them strength and that’s more than I ever dreamed of.
H: I totally get that. It’s what we hope for when we send these hyper-personal stories out into the world.
A: There’s this one message that sticks with me from a girl who contacted me on Instagram after Sydney Writers Festival last year. She’d come to hear my panel and she had my book with her and wanted me to sign it but she was with her mum and she was too afraid to come over to me in case her mum made some sort of connection between me and her. Because I wear my identity on the outside. Then she messaged me again a few months later to say she’d come out and everything was okay. Not great but okay—and sometimes okay is enough. It’s a start. And that, that right there really is enough to make up for my one star reviews or people not getting it. If I can help one person feel better, to be brave when they don’t know what is waiting for them after the fall, then I’m happy.
H: That’s unreal – this shit changes lives. You’re right to feel special about that. Okay, let’s shift gears, because I know you’re working on a second novel, because we’ve both bitched and moaned over coffee this past year at how hard second novels are. Can you give us a hint of what kind of book it will be, and how it’s progressing? Apologies in advance if this question sends you into a full-blown shame spiral and/or nuclear meltdown.
A: You got anything stronger than these cans of export mate? Might need a whisky to get through this one, haha!
H: Answer the question, Tuckerman, and you can have all the whisky you desire.
A: Well, it’s safe to say it’s taken far longer than I thought it would, but it’s getting there. It’s about a sixteen year old girl learning to accept the changes and challenges in her life following a pretty brutal car accident. Before the accident she was a soccer player with dreams of playing for her country and well, now that won’t happen. It explored grief and jealousy and the idea of participation. The idea of not needing to be the best at something to be able to love it. There’s a good handful of LGBT+ characters and themes but this isn’t a “coming out” story. And there’s some love/lust thrown in for good measure, because I love writing kissing scenes! Now… where’s that whisky!?
H: Terribly sorry to pull a GLaDOS on you, but the whisky was a lie. I need you relatively sober to answer my remaining questions. One thing I’ve noticed is that you write about lesbian characters in an authentic way that is often grouped in with the #ownvoices movement. What would you love to see more of when it comes to lesbian characters being represented in literature/culture?
A: There’s no argument that If I Tell You was a coming out story. It’s a book about being young and gay in rural Australia and what that can be like. But what I hope to write more of now and see more of, are YA books about sport or crimes or drugs and sex where the characters are gay, but it’s not about being gay. Or not only about being gay.
H: Totally agree. I kind of feel like us gay authors in particular sometimes need to write the coming out story – or some version thereof – first, maybe, because we can move on to those more nuanced depictions.
A: Being gay is no different to being straight and I think people—including myself—can sometimes be attracted to the drama of a coming out story or a story about overcoming adversity because those stories allow for us as authors to really take the character on a journey. There’s a lot of scope for drama and it’s tempting to write in that space. But teenagers—gay or straight—have a whole lot of other crap going on I’d love to write about.
H: Agree. Let’s touch on process now. We are both part of the same #5amwritersclub though we’re both, uh, a little lax about attending regularly. What made you join the club, and what made you stay? Was it my constant gym selfies?
A: Hahahaha! Well, we both know that every time I see you I get a front row seat to the gun show!
H: *kisses his own biceps*
A: It’s definitely your hot bod and constant innuendo that keeps me coming back for more!
H: Innuendo? You mean in your endo. Okay, go on, we have people reading this who are probably less vapid than us. Maybe. What keeps you coming back to the #5amwritersclub?
A: I think it’s the collegiate feeling I get, even when we’re just pissing about on Twitter instead of being productive. I stay because we’re family. Up until I released If I Tell You I didn’t really have many writer mates, people who I could talk to about stuff that non-writers just wouldn’t understand in the same way. I craved that community, that connection with people—my people—to provide friendship and support and cameraderie while we all go along this crazy ride of self-loathing, rejection and a tiny bit of success.
H: More than a tiny bit, in your case! What’s something you’ve learned in the past year or two about writing that you wish you’d known before getting published?
A: I think it’s the pressure I wasn’t prepared for. Not external pressure but internal and self-imposed. See, I had my whole life to write my first book but now I’ve done it I feel I need to back it up with more books quickly so that people don’t forget who I am! There’s a lot of pressure in my head and that doesn’t lead to very good writing. So I think I need to relax a little and let it happen more organically. I’ve also learned that you can’t actually survive on coffee and zero sleep!
H: Yeah, that shit will catch up to you. I remember you talking once about how your idea for a novel was shelved for many years until you were injured and had so much time on your hands you decided to write it. Do you think that Alicia would recognise the Alicia of 2019? And I guess my biggest question: where does Alicia Tuckerman want to be five years from now, in 2024?
A: I don’t think the Alicia then is too fundamentally different to the Alicia now. I’m definitely older now and not just in years. Since then I’ve had relationships and kids, I lost both my parents. I’ve experienced heartbreak and loss but also great happiness and joy and I think the Alicia then is still the Alicia I am now, just different. But I change and grow every day, that’s what makes life interesting. As for the future, there’s a plan. In five years I’ll have finished at least another two books and Netflix will have brought them all and I’ll be living on a farm in the Swan Valley with heaps of cool outbuildings that I’ve converted into little writing retreats. My kids will be running wild and I have a pet miniature donkey called Switch [don’t ask me why Switch because I literally don’t know—that’s just his name].
H: That is … oddly specific. The donkey’s name, I mean. And the existence of the donkey at all, actually. The rest sounds relatively in line with what I might have expected in your answer.
A: Well, that’s the dream plan. Reality probably doesn’t look quite like that, but really the only plan I have is to do more of what makes me happy. Write more, spend time with my kids and people I care about.
H: Sounds solid. Okay, like a true investigative journo, I’ve saved the hardest-hitting question for last. 1990s pop group Alisha’s Attic had a hit song called “Alisha Rules the World“. Tell me honestly, have you ever listened to this song to boost yourself up before a public speaking gig?
A: Oh you know I have!
H: I KNEW it!
A: But I wish they’d spelt my name right. And it totally pumps me up, but let’s be real here, the song’s about a badass heartbreaker and I don’t think I’m fooling anyone in that regard, hahaha!
H: Alicia Tuckerman, it’s always a blast shooting the shit with ya, mate. Thanks for coming round. The whisky’s up for grabs now – wanna stay on for another drink, maybe some light spooning?
A: Sounds great, but you know I’m the big spoon!
H: Well, this conversation has taken an unfortunate turn. Maybe with some whisky in me I won’t mind being the little spoon …
~ Social Media Links ~
I hope you enjoyed this interview with the amazing Alicia Tuckerman. She’s a true talent in the YA literature space and not just fun to chat to – she’s even more fun to interact with on the socials, so here’s where you can give her a like and a follow: