Charlotte Derrick won the Life Writing Prize 2019 for The Lady in Black, a piece of life writing that explores grief with an astonishingly powerful narrative voice. Life Writing Prize 2019 Judge Inua Ellams said: “I loved, loved this… I haven’t heard a voice as clear and as sharp as this in a long time.”
In this interview, Charlotte shares her thoughts on her writing, how to write about grief, and how she hopes that her writing will support queer people experiencing bereavement.
Laura Kenwright: How does it feel to win the Life Writing Prize?
Charlotte Derrick: Honestly, I’m still in shock that I’ve won. I’m not someone who has a lot of confidence in their writing. It’s friends and family who’re always pushing me to enter my writing into competitions, magazines etc. I never expect to hear back. There are so many talented writers out there. How am I supposed to compete with that? But winning the Prize has helped me realise that I’m just as capable as those writers, and I can’t express how grateful I am for that.
Laura: Can you tell us a little about your winning piece, The Lady in Black, how you came to write it, what the challenges were in writing it and why you chose to enter it into the Prize?
Charlotte: Initially, I wrote The Lady in Black as a way for me to process my partner’s suicide. Every year, I write at least one poem, short story or memoir piece about Eileen. I’ve kept up this tradition for almost six years. At first, I never wrote about her death. I wrote about her as if she was still alive. But she’s not. It took me four years to accept that, but once I did, I finally allowed myself to write about her suicide and how I felt about it, and that’s how I came to write The Lady in Black.
I didn’t intend to show it to anyone, let alone enter it into a competition, but then a friend found it when she had to borrow my laptop and insisted I submit it somewhere because there wasn’t much out there about losing a same-sex partner. If you look up, say, “lesbian partner died,” the first article Google shows you is about “lesbian bed death” (I’ll let you find out for yourself what that is if you don’t know already). There was only one article about spousal loss. This wasn’t a Google search I made years ago; this was a search I did yesterday.
That’s why I entered The Lady in Black into the Life Writing Prize. I want people to acknowledge the need for more resources for queer people experiencing bereavement and I want those who are going through this bereavement to know that they’re not alone. That’s not to say that their grief is like mine. Grief is individual to the person, so I’ll never know exactly how they feel, how they process it, etc. But I have some sense of what it’s like, and if someone can take comfort in that, then I’ve done something right.
Laura: Tell us about your writing; how long have you been writing for, why do you write?
Charlotte: At risk of sounding clichéd, I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. Ever since I was a child, I’ve had severe social anxiety and I used writing as a way to communicate what I was thinking/feeling/etc. I suppose I never really grew out of it.
Laura: Are you working on anything at the minute?
Charlotte: I’m working on too many things right now. There’s a short story about the events that happened after Eileen’s funeral, there’s a poem about when I discovered Bran Flakes for the first time (which is a lot more interesting than it sounds), there’s a piece about my mum’s time working at a juvenile delinquent centre (although I haven’t decided whether I want to write it as a poem or a short story). There’s always something in my head I have to get down on paper.
Laura: Who are your writing inspirations?
Charlotte: Brendan Behan, Patrick McCabe, Irvine Welsh, Janice Galloway, James Kelman, Alison Bechdel, to name a few.
Laura: Do you have any tips for budding life writers out there?
Charlotte: Have fun with it. I always thought life writing had to be written a certain way (i.e, memoir can only be written in the first person – turns out second person works equally as well). Once you get rid of those notions, you might write something you never thought you’d write.
Charlotte Derrick is an emerging prose writer from Belfast, Northern Ireland. She is currently on the MA in Creative Writing at Queen’s University Belfast. Her work has been featured in The Honest Ulsterman and Coming Out. You can read The Lady in Black in the Life Writing Prize showcase.
Published 15 May 2019