A guide to POTSDAM
Novel set in Scotland – plus interview with author, Kirstin Innes
31st March 2016
Fishnet by Kirstin Innes, novel set in Scotland.
Kirstin Innes’ debut novel Fishnet explores the world of the sex worker in Scotland through the story of two sisters, Fiona and Rona. It won the Guardian Not the Booker Prize in 2015, so you might feel a little trepidation as you embark on it. And so you should. This is a challenging read.
If, like me, you begin by holding the opinion that all prostitution is exploitative, even abusive and that all sex workers are victims, rest assured that Innes isn’t going to leave you with your preconceptions. She knows her stuff, having spent years studying the Scottish sex industry, speaking to sex workers and following their online blogs. The feisty sex workers in Fishnet protest about the moves in the Scottish Parliament to completely criminalise the purchasers of sex, and Innes makes the point very powerfully that this, instead of protecting sex workers, will actually endanger them by driving the whole sex industry underground.
As you follow Fiona in her quest to discover what has happened to her sister, Rona, when she walked out on the whole family six years previously, Innes challenges you on a lot of other fronts too. Fiona discovers that Rona has been working as a prostitute and this sets her off on a quest to investigate the Scottish sex industry. In the process of this, she learns a few things and so do we. She learns that a lot of the women involved in this world are anything but victims; they are tough and strong and ultimately in control. She busts some myths along the way too – like the idea that most men who use the services of a sex worker hate women. Rather, she shows us that a lot of them are just looking for a little warmth and intimacy. Innes forces the reader to consider the nature of many sexual encounters which fall outside the area of prostitution and to compare these with prostitute/client encounters and you are left with the distinct impression that the latter are often more honest and tender than the former.
This book is a real page turner and it’s not because the plot is strong, for it isn’t, but rather because, like Fiona, you just want to keep on finding out more about this life, more about how people get involved and why. The characterisation is masterful; Fiona isn’t always likeable but she is a very believable character and Innes makes you care about her, whilst simultaneously being irritated by her. It would be impossible, too, to read this novel without admiring the characters of many of the sex workers. Innes’ is really good, too, with the Scottish vernacular and there are scenes that are so vivid, heart-warming and entertaining that they stay fixed in the mind, like the Scottish Union of Sex Workers meeting where the smug Claire Buchanan is so pleasingly dealt with by the plain speaking Helen.
Ultimately, this is the kind of book that will change the way you think. It’s not always a comfortable read, in that it constantly forces you to reassess your views and even perhaps even look back over your own sexual experiences with a more critical eye.
I can’t wait to see what Innes does next.
Ellen for the TripFiction Team
TF: I guess the first question has to be: What motivated you to explore this aspect of human life – the life of the sex worker – initially?
KI: In 2009 I was a magazine journalist, and had been asked by my editor to interview some women who did “edgy, sexy” jobs. A bit of googling turned up a blog by a local escort, and I was struck by the clarity and intelligence of her voice, mostly because it hadn’t occurred to me that sex workers would – or could – talk or think in that way. I think we all have a predetermined idea of what the category “prostitute” means, and it comes from fiction, from sensationalised accounts in film, TV and media. Because of the stigma around sex work, it’s been very difficult for sex workers to get their voices out there and tell their own stories. I emailed this woman, but she didn’t respond to me – thinking back now I realise my enquiry must have seemed hopelessly naive and ignorant. But my worldview had been shaken up just enough that I realised I wanted to write something about it, and as I began researching the topic, it began to merge with a little story of two sisters I’d been playing around with for a while.
TF: You won the Guardian Not the Booker Prize 2015 (which is incidentally how we found you). What impact did winning that prize have on you, I wonder?
KI: Huge. HUGE impact! My book came out with a small Scottish publisher (they were the only people who didn’t want to radically alter either the politics or the tone of the book: almost everyone else wanted to market it as a crime novel) and without the publicity that Not The Booker Prize brought it would probably have disappeared after a single print run and some decent reviews in the Scottish press. It can be difficult for Scottish writers writing books set here to be reviewed outside of Scotland, or to get that sort of notice: I’ve had major broadsheet reviews, and so many invitations to perform all across the country, which has been more than a bit wonderful. I know that a lot of writers have issues with prizes, and I understand that to an extent, but for me and for a lot of the writers on that shortlist (the majority of the seven of us were debut novelists on small presses, which is unusual for Not The Booker as I understand it) that prize meant recognition we couldn’t have hoped for elsewhere, and will probably really help my career in the future (if I don’t mess things up…).
TF: In our review we say: “Ultimately, this is the kind of book that will change the way you think” Did you set out with this purpose in mind when you started to write the book?
KI: Oh, wow. Thank you. I certainly wanted people to reconsider what they thought they knew about sex work – the process of researching the book changed my opinions so thoroughly that I was almost embarrassed by the things I’d thought I’d known before actually talking to people who did that job. I wanted people to at least be open to the challenge, to begin to reconsider things. At the same time, I was trying very hard to maintain balance and not drift off into straight polemic. It’s been a long, strange tightrope to walk.
TF: Have the sex workers you got to know read your book and what has their reaction been?
KI: Yes; I sent it out to four people in particular before the final draft went to the publisher. I didn’t want to go ahead and publish without that. The responses were all positive (with a couple of technical notes relating to the realities of the job, which I took on board); the responses from sex workers who have picked the book up since publication have also been really heartening. I worried for a long time about whether I had the right to write this at all (right down to hiding from the first draft and ignoring it for the whole of 2012), as so much of the problem surrounding the way we think about sex work is other people presuming to speak for sex workers. That’s why I needed to make my narrator a non-sex worker who is discovering that world, I think.
TF: The cover is really quite striking. How much input did you have in its creation?
KI: I did a bit of research on what covers aimed at women in their 20s-40s were looking like these days – text-heavy, neon colours – and sent a couple of covers of books I thought had similar appeal to the publisher. This was the second version of the cover they sent me: the text was in blood red and I asked them to change it to hot pink, which they did. I really wanted to do a version where it’s plain white, all wrapped in fishnet material (like Madonna’s SEX book) but they vetoed that one very quickly!
TF: Where do you go from here?
KI: I’m working on book two just now – have been for a year now thanks to an artist bursary from Creative Scotland. It’s called Scabby Queen, and in it I’m trying to tell the life story of a female political activist and pop singer over four decades. She’s the sort of person who forms very intense relationships for very short periods of time, and consistently refuses the traditional pathways expected of women, and I wanted to show that from the different points of view of people who might have loved or been bruised by her in the past. So far I’ve got chapters set at the poll tax riots, in a Brixton squat, in contemporary recession-struck Greece and on Top of the Pops – it’s been fun to travel around after living in Fiona’s necessarily limited world for years.
My partner and I are also writing a play about infertility together, which we hope will be on at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017.
Thank you to Kirstin for her wonderful answers!
For more novels set in Scotland, just click here