Interview

Boy Parts author Eliza Clark: ‘Everything’s become bland – people just don’t want the slop anymore’

The 29-year-old novelist behind bestsellers ‘Boy Parts’ and ‘Penance’ – and named one of Britain’s future literary stars by Granta – speaks to Adam White about class, criticism and moral puritanism

Sunday 22 October 2023 06:30 BST
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<p>‘My whole career has been this ridiculous series of “Sliding Doors” moments’</p>

‘My whole career has been this ridiculous series of “Sliding Doors” moments’

Eliza Clark’s journey from ambitious Geordie muddling through the country’s literary scene to publishing’s great big hope wouldn’t have happened without the internet. Boy Parts, a darkly comic thriller about a fetish photographer and occasional murderer, was a pandemic smash among young people on TikTok. Clark’s second book – her deliberately askew take on true crime, this summer’s Penance – was rooted in the dark, anarchic chaos of social media. But, perhaps surprisingly, Clark herself has turned her back on it.

“The internet has been such a big part of my life but it’s taken years of work to disengage from it, and realise that it was actually a really negative influence,” the 29-year-old tells me from her flat in south London. When she was named one of the magazine Granta’s Best British Novelists – an every-10-years pick of the country’s future literary stars, that has counted Zadie Smith and Ian McEwan among its alumni – she asked her boyfriend to change the login details to her Twitter account. He now checks it once a week on her behalf, just to get a read on things. She is otherwise – bar her Instagram and a private, deliberately mundane Twitter alt for close friends – offline. “Let’s all just log off,” Clark enthuses, before pausing and apologising. “God, I’m like a guy who’s just taken up running and is now just really into extolling the virtues of running.”

Clark is upbeat, amiable and worlds away from the sharp nihilism of her prose, with its blunt descriptions of bodily harm, mass shootings and online cruelty. But it speaks to her generation: completely lovely, ordinary people who, because of their participation in the early days of the internet, got exposed to the absolute worst shock images you can think of. It’s partly why Boy Parts took off among young people – there is something gnarly, authentic and amusingly unfiltered about it, like Bret Easton Ellis without the right-wing baggage.

Today, a Boy Parts TV adaptation is in the works – scripted by Clark herself – while, this week, the Soho Theatre debuts a stage adaptation of the book. Clark has been a consultant on it, the story reimagined as a lengthy monologue of sorts by actor Aimée Kelly. “I had an inkling that Boy Parts might pick up a cult fan base when I was writing it and being delusional about it,” Clark laughs. “Because you’ve got to be a bit delusional about your work when you’re pitching it. But it doesn’t feel quite as mad to say it now.”

It’s even more of a cultural victory that Generation Z have embraced Clark’s tales of graphic violence, ugly sex and sadistic anti-heroes, considering the widespread belief that they’re moralising, self-censoring dweebs. Clark thinks the kids are all right, though. “I’d say, anecdotally, it’s more common in people my age to have surprisingly puritanical views about media,” she says. “Like people in their thirties who only read YA fiction. If you want to do that, then more power to you – I just don’t think we should extend that sensibility to all [books].”

She senses Gen Z are sick of moral puritanism. “There’s been such a push towards homogeneity. Everything’s become quite bland, repetitive, cuddly, reassuring and boring. S*** like Marvel movies and inoffensive slop. And I think people just don’t want the slop anymore.” Clark adds, though, that she doesn’t view Boy Parts as particularly outrageous despite its occasional bursts of violence. “It’s nowhere near as transgressive as a lot of people seem to think it is, and it clearly has very broad mainstream appeal. But I think people just want something different. For things not to be, like… Iron Man.”

Clark wrote Boy Parts in between shifts at an Apple store in her native Newcastle, having moved back to the city after studying for an art degree in London. She credits her career to a series of “flukes” – money from a young writers’ talent fund called New Writing North, followed by a stint at the literary magazine Mslexia, which led to her hosting a Mslexia pitching event for publishers where she (anonymously) pitched Boy Parts.

If people want to write snippy little pieces about me… go off, queen

“My whole career has been this ridiculous series of Sliding Doors moments,” she says. “It feels like a one-in-a-million thing, particularly for someone of my background. My parents had absolutely zero connections to anything remotely resembling this.” She repeats “zero” again, dragging it out for emphasis. “I was completely divorced from the cultural industry and I’ve still managed to break into it. It feels bizarre.”

By nature of Clark’s age, gender and working-class background, she has been yanked into all kinds of literary discourse since becoming successful – a living, breathing reference point for whatever a book critic wishes to project onto her. This is occasionally fun, she admits, telling me she takes no issue with solid criticism of her work. But sometimes it does bother her. We’re speaking a few weeks after the New Statesman declared Clark just one example of a “parodic” trend in modern writing, in which “cool girl novelists” have taken over publishing with “spare”, “monochromatically dull” stories of “depressed and alienated” young women – a wild misreading of both Boy Parts and Penance, but I digress. These girl-writers, which also included, um, thirty and fortysomething alleged naïfs such as Ottessa Moshfegh, Sally Rooney and Sarah Bernstein, should “graduate to adulthood,” it declared.

“What got to me was that the work was being so aggressively mischaracterised,” Clark says. “Like why I am catching strays in your ‘old man yells at cloud’ article? I was so annoyed, and I wrote a little notes app thing where I was like, ‘this is just so typical of British media where it’s intellectually dishonest and all just directed to get clicks’. But then I just…” She sighs. She read the New Statesman piece while on a train to a club night in Manchester. Later, when the electronic group Moderat came on stage, she cooled down. “I just thought, ‘oh, I don’t need to be annoyed by this’. It felt like a really good turning point. I’m having fun. Life is good. And if people want to write snippy little pieces about me… go off, queen.”

Fetish photographer and occasional murderer: Aimée Kelly as Irina in the ‘Boy Parts’ theatre adaptation

What is funny, she adds, is that she never intended to be part of any particular trend. “I don’t just do one type of novel,” she says. “I do a bunch of different things and I want every project to be bigger and more ambitious than the last one.” That’s certainly true so far. Boy Parts put readers inside the head of a psychopath, a young artist who boots annoying yoga instructors in the belly and terrorises the Tesco employees who become infatuated with her. Penance, meanwhile, crafted the socio-political dynamics of an entire fictional town, picking at true-crime culture, teenage alienation, black magic and class warfare as it went. She’s Always Hungry, published by Granta in April and the first from a collection of short stories due for release next year, is all folklore, sea shanties and mermaids.

“Before Boy Parts was published, I considered myself a sci-fi writer,” she says. “So it’s been weird to have people ask me, ‘Would you ever think about doing something in a genre space?’.” The short story collection, which blends horror and fantasy, “is far more representative of my writing as a whole than Boy Parts or Penance,” she says, and she’ll dive further into more speculative genres for her third novel.

“So it’s interesting that people see me as a ‘sad girl novelist’,” she laughs. “Nobody’s read any of my six spaceship stories.”

‘Boy Parts’ is at the Soho Theatre until 25 November

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