Laura Wilkinson, appearing at Chorlton Book Festival, talks to Deborah Grace about the inspiration for her disturbing new novel, Skin Deep.
Hulme in the 1980s – its infamous Crescents menacing the skyline – provides the landscape for Laura Wilkinson’s new novel, a powerful study of love and exploitation.
“I lived in Hulme for two years and always wanted to write about it because it was – and still is – the most extraordinary place I’ve ever lived,” says Laura, who studied English and history at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Now living in Brighton, Laura is returning to South Manchester for an appearance at Chorlton Book Festival. Formerly an actress, freelance journalist and now, published author, Skin Deep is her third novel. It is the story of failing art student and former model, Diana, who finds inspiration in Cal, a neglected four-year-old with a severe facial disfigurement. Cal becomes her muse, but Diana, herself, bears psychological scars, which threaten their fragile relationship.
A big fan of modern art, Laura says the idea for Skin Deep grew out of a spell of copy-writing for a charity supporting children with facial deformities in the developing world. Films, including The Boy David and The Elephant Man, also provided inspiration and the idea took root.
The troubled history of Hulme resonates uncannily with the central theme of the novel. Ever since the industrial revolution, repeated housing projects have been plagued by problems, including flooding and cockroach infestation, because of a failure to manage the area’s marshland.
“Hulme was always an ‘ugly’ part of the city, consistently being razed to the ground and rebuilt, but without the underlying foundations ever being addressed. No matter how much they tried to ‘prettify’ Hulme, nothing worked because they didn’t deal with the inner core,” says Laura.
“It’s what’s inside, the inner core, which is the foundation of our psyche. That dictates who we are and how we are.”
A recurrent and poignant theme in Laura’s work is the absence of fathers. The trauma of her own father’s suicide, when Laura was just six, caused, she says, “an emotional absence”. Following the tragedy, Laura’s mother uprooted the family from their native Liverpool to live with grandparents in North Wales.
“These events make us who we are and they come out in my work. Skin Deep opens with a suicide. Diana’s father is absent (although alive) and she is emotionally illiterate. By the end of the novel she gains self-knowledge, so I hope she is on her way to being redeemed. In any case, I’m more interested in flawed characters because that’s how life is; it’s warty.”
An Evening with Laura Wilkinson: Chorlton Library, Manchester Road Wednesday 22 November, 7-9pm. Entry is free and everyone’s welcome.
Picture: © David Green of Shoot Me Now.