Tracey Emin: on meercats, Margate and Marilyn

Tracey Emin is transforming herself - from boozy party animal to clean-living author. Sholto Byrnes talks to her about her new memoir, 'Strangeland', and finds that Emin's honesty still has the power to shock
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It is a different Tracey Emin who arrives this bright morning. Not Tracey the binge-drinking party animal with a cigarette permanently attached to her lip. Nor is it Tracey the artist, famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for her unmade bed and her tent embroidered with the names of everyone she's ever slept with. This is Tracey Emin the author.

Strangeland, "the intimate memoirs of one of the most acclaimed and controversial artists of her generation" (according to her publisher), may be her first proper book. But since she was 18 Tracey has always written; four huge boxes of thoughts, stories and jottings have gone into producing this volume.

"I do most of my writing in the swimming pool," she confides. "Loads of people ask me how I can go swimming every day. They think it's boring." Not Tracey, though. "I swim really slowly, like a turtle. And every stroke I take is a complete sentence, whether it's a letter I'm writing to someone or a story, like about Frida Kahlo being a captain in Star Trek. She's there with her first lieutenant, Jose, who's a monkey, and Trotsky, her henchman. I'm the only programme they have to show what an artist is, and I'm from the 21st century."

She puts all this together while she's swimming? "Yeah, and I giggle and laugh because I don't know what they're going to say next." Tracey describes her working method as being "pure stream of consciousness", which may explain why, after the July bombings in London, she decided to write about meercats. "I said after tragedy, like after the death of Princess Diana, what comes on TV? Meercats. I said they'll be coming on our screens very soon. And lo and behold, there they were."

Such an approach may work well in a weekly column (she writes one for The Independent), but would probably prove less successful at much greater length. Fortunately, her friend the novelist Nicholas Blincoe was on hand to undertake the task of sifting through the boxes of paper to turn them into a book. "It's wonderful to have an editor," says Tracey. "It's rather like having a fantastic house-cleaner who comes in and sorts out all your cupboards and your drawers. Suddenly someone's there polishing, sweeping and dusting all these boxes of writing I'd had for years."

Tracey seems pleased with the result. "People keep saying it's really fantastic," she says. "And I go - 'it's not that good.' Because it took 25 years, and when something takes that long you expect it to be a fucking masterpiece. It's not on that level."

Whatever it is - and no, it's probably not a masterpiece - it is a very readable book, and a surprising one too. The chapters on her Turkish Cypriot father, Enver Emin, are thoroughly charming. Emin senior, who confesses that he "was noted as a drunkard, a womaniser and a black", comes across as a loveable rogue. Although he only spent part of the week with Tracey's family (he was already married when he met Tracey's mother, and remained so), his daughter doesn't seem to bear him any grudges. The chapters on father and daughter's time together in Turkey are funny and affectionate, and far sweeter than a public accustomed to the anger and scatology of Emin's art would probably expect.

Much of the rest of the book deals with episodes we've heard about already: Tracey's upbringing in Margate and the abuse she endured there; her later experiences of unwanted pregnancy and gonorrhoea; her self-destructive indulgence in alcohol. But her honesty still has a power to shock.

Early in the book Tracey describes being teased over her androgynous appearance aged 11; she was in tears by the beach when a "big, brown hairy man" asked her what was wrong. "I started to blubber even more, telling him my whole story. He made me laugh and smile. He told me I was beautiful. He gently covered the whole of my body with tiny golden grains of sand. And in the water, he ran his hands all over me. He said I was like a tiny mermaid and, for me, he was like a giant bear. And I pulled at his willy until a giant spray of white covered my limbs. I wasn't yet twelve, but I knew it could feel lovely to be a girl."

I tell her I didn't quite know what to make of this. "I wanked him off, yeah, like you do when you're 11 or whatever, using all your womanly charms," she says. "I was really precocious." But he was a child molester. "But on the other hand maybe he wasn't," she replies. "Maybe he'd never done it before, maybe it had never occurred to him. It was terribly wrong, but it was at my instigation. There were lots of things that happened to me when I was young that really repulse me. My thing about jumping into bed with everyone I could was definitely about mixing up love and affection, and also about my being in control instead of people doing stuff to me. It's enough," she says, "to put you off sex."

For the last couple of years Tracey has been celibate. It's just one of the ways in which she has changed. "I used to chain smoke non-stop," she says. "I just stopped, not last year but the year before." She'd spent Christmas Day with Vivenne Westwood and her family, and "smoked 60 fags, because I really hate Christmas". "I got up the next evening and that was it," she says. Friends soon asked if she'd had Botox or why her teeth looked so good. "I got really fat," she recalls, "I went from a size 8 to a size 12. But it was worth it.

"And I really want to stop drinking." She pauses for a second. "Or I want to be sober, which is very different. I've probably drunk less in the last month than I would do normally in a week. I want to have more control now, because I'm smart."

Speaking, as we are, about Tracey's new literary career, we move to her reading habits, which have also benefited from her new life. "I've only just started having a book by my bed and reading before I go to sleep," she says. "You can't read a book when you're pissed. You keep the reading the same bits again, all the lines keep jumping. It makes you feel a bit queasy."

Does she like reading in bed? "Lots of people do that when they've got a partner and they don't have sex," she muses. "They just lay in bed together and read. It's polite." Isn't it a bit sad, too? "We could do a random survey about whether people think that's sad or not," she says; then adds thoughtfully: "It also depends on whether you like sex in the morning or just before you go to sleep, I suppose."

Tracey doesn't have sex any more, so she needn't contribute to the survey. But there was a time when she didn't read, either. "When I was little," she says, "everyone was into Enid fucking Blyton, and I just didn't get it. I read Charlotte's Web, about a pig. The only two books I had read to me at home, when I was six, were Little Women and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. But then I didn't read a book until I was 17, when I was really ill."

Her mother brought her a biography of Greta Garbo to look at in bed, and Tracey was off. "I went through Hollywood," she says, "David Niven's The Moon's a Balloon, a book about Frank Sinatra, all the ones in the Rat Pack, Cecil B DeMille, Marilyn Monroe..." Later she "intellectually shifted up" when she started going to a pub in Margate frequented by students. "They used to go" - she puts on an affected voice - "'Do you think Jasper Johns would have been a different kind of artist if his name had been John Jasper?' And I'd go, 'yeah, maybe.' I didn't know what the fuck they were talking about. They'd mention books by, oh, Kafka. Who the hell's Kafka?"

So Tracey went to a local bookshop and read the back of books by, say, Kafka - "because I wasn't going to read the whole book" - but soon found that her interest extended to what lay inside the dust jackets. "Then I couldn't put the fucking things down. So I went from Hollywood icons to Dostoevsky, Herman Hesse, Nietzsche."

Along the way, in another part of Tracey's intellectual voyage that has been overshadowed by some of her public antics and pronouncements, she studied for a part-time course in the history of philosophy at Birkbeck College. "I was thinking yesterday," she says, "that I've got enough money now that I could go off and do a philosophy degree, if I got in. Maybe not next year, but when I'm 50 or something. I should do a PhD because I've already got an MA." (This was from the Royal College of Art.) "I had a friend who did a PhD," she adds, "in shoplifting. She had to do all her own research and start shoplifting to study the psychology behind it."

In the meantime, Tracey has to go to New York for a new show, and then on to Los Angeles ("to see my mate Ronnie Wood") and finally to New Mexico to learn how to ride a horse. When she returns she'll be spending weekends at her new flat by the coast. "It's great to be by the sea, it's good for my soul. I'll drive down to the sea, maybe with Docket, my cat, and go for walks along the beach. Maybe," she adds, "I'll do the odd watercolour."

It's a long way from the young woman who stormed drunkenly out of a C4 Turner Prize debate in 1997 saying she wanted to be with her mum and her friends. Are we witnessing the mellowing of Tracey Emin?

'Strangeland' by Tracey Emin is published by Sceptre at £14.99. To buy a copy for £13.99 (p&p free), contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897