Helen Walsh struggled to shake off the drug-fuelled hooker image of her gritty debut. She tells Aidan Smith why motherhood helped put the hype behind her
SHE'S been dubbed "the female Irvine Welsh", a writer whose torrid sex scenes – sex with bottles, sex on gravestones – brought Jane Austen back into fashion. But Helen Walsh says men are frequently disappointed when they meet her.
"They turn up with bags of cocaine and think I'm going to take them on three-day benders," she says. Today the author of Brass and creator of the teenage nymphomaniac Millie is offering no more than toast – what's more, in a cathedral cafe. "These guys are in love with Millie and I have to tell them to go back to the book."
Then there was that strange night in Belgium. Tell me more, I say, not disappointed in the slightest to be in her company. "This bloke took me to a brothel. He wanted a prostitute." At this point I get slightly confused. The man wanted Walsh, a one-time "fixer" in Barcelona's red-light district, to find him a hooker. Surely the fact that they were already in a knocking-shop would cut out the need for a middle-woman? "No, he wanted to buy a prostitute for me. He wanted me to have sex with her."
Then Walsh really floors me when she says that all of these men were journalists. How did they get their expenses claims for coke past the office accountants? In a more quaint age, I worked for a paper that offered a 3.95 allowance for hospitality. But there's no way the provision of a lady of the night for an interview subject could fit the category "late duty tea".
It wasn't only hacks who demanded that Walsh live up to her fiction. A fellow author, sharing the bill at a reading, was surprised when she refused his offer of a drink, then drugs in the loos. "Later he found me having a fag. He asked why I was smoking outside and I told him that my mother was in the audience and, while Mum had had to rescue me from crack dens, the thing that most disappointed her was seeing me with a cigarette. Then this writer, who shall remain nameless, goes: 'Aha, I've sprung you – you're a phoney. You've never done any of the things in that book.'"
Helen Walsh never claimed Brass was wholly autobiographical. But she knew Liverpool's seamy underbelly, what it was like to drop her first E before her first period or first kiss – and she knew about girl-on-girl sex. All of this helped Brass become a cult hit. She rode the wave of her own succs de scandale, giving good quote at every turn, but the hype could have buried her. Instead, here she is in Liverpool with a new book and, to some extent, a different woman.
Half-Malaysian, half-Scouse, Walsh has the sort of looks that simply weren't made for dust-jackets, tucked away passport-size on the inner flaps. As she puts it in Once Upon A Time In England, a mixed-race family saga of love, racism and clubland dreaming, the skin colour is officially "Caramac". Her hair is long; her skirt is short. No, hang on, she's not wearing one. That's the hem of her black leather jacket and those are black leggings, of the kind that few new mums would get away with, not even in Liverpool.
Whoops. I promised her I wouldn't do that. "Say what you like about me but don't be mean about the city," cautions Walsh. Liverpool is in its Year of Culture and the other night she went to a classical music recital. This rave veteran doesn't really "get" Sir John Taverner, but she's trying to grow up. Last summer she turned 30. Leo, her son, is eight months old.
Walsh had actually put her wild days behind her by the time Brass hit the shelves in 2004. "The book exorcised a lot of my demons," she says. "I haven't taken drugs since then and probably won't, ever again. I stopped drinking as well. But when the book came out I felt pressure to authenticate Millie and be rock'n'roll.
"Everybody loves the idea of a chain-smoking waif, bottle of mead by her side, typing furiously into the night. I played along with that, and in a lot of those early interviews I was incredibly naive."
At the Edinburgh Book Festival that summer, she was incredibly nervous. Certainly much more nervous than you might have expected, given Millie's predatory attitude to sex and everything else. She says there's a lot of pressure on writers to "perform" nowadays. "Also, I get asked to write a lot of 'think pieces'. I'm supposed to have opinions on many things. I just don't…"
But Walsh is relaxed about this and everything else as well. She doesn't have to pretend she's still partying like it's 1999. And she doesn't have to make excuses for not partying.
"It would have been very easy to write Brass II and then III. I saw Millie as the corporeal embodiment of Liverpool – cynical, self-contained, excessive and flawed, with just a glimmer of hope. But I've decided not to write about Liverpool any more. I've said all I want to say about the city, and I've certainly said all I want to say about my sexuality."
Once Upon A Time… is the braver book. Though set in 1970s Warrington, Walsh still flits in and out of the action. The matriarch is a beautiful Malaysia-born nurse, just like her own mum. The father is a dashing, illiterate crooner – nothing like her dad, although he has never read Brass. As in the book, her parents have separated, while the author seems to be a combination of its kids, bookish Vinnie and his tomboy sister Ellie, who goes off the rails at an early age.
"That was me, and like Ellie, I idolised my dad. I remember the summer I was 13. It began with me holding hands with him; we went everywhere together. By the end of it I was sleeping with men. He said he lost me from the ages of 13 to 19. I see that now, but only because I've become a parent myself."
Leo's father is the writer Kevin Sampson, whose own books have their X-rated moments, but none compared with those in Brass and you wonder how old her son will have to be before Walsh allows him to read it.
"I put 'mother' rather than 'writer' on the forms when I was enrolling him for nursery," she admits, "and I tell my neighbours that I'm unpublished. But I think one of them has got hold of Brass because she's started ignoring me in the lane."
The future of feminism. That's something else they said about Walsh. But for now at least she's shunning the title and – to the dismay of wannabe Hunter S Thompsons everywhere, including Belgium – trying to score only toast.
• Once Upon A Time In England (Canongate) is published on Thursday, price 14.99