If you follow Sydney-based sex worker Tilly Lawless on Instagram, you’ll be familiar with her style of writing and its magnetic stream of consciousness. She’s been writing on there for years now, so it makes sense that Tilly just released her debut novel, Nothing But My Body. It’s a raw and unflinching look at a tumultuous time for Australia and much of the world, while still finding ways to warm the cockles of your heart.
Nothing But My Body is told through the perspective of a young queer sex worker who speaks to us intimately about everything from mental health and identity, heartbreak, and community.
It’s an eight-day journey through the narrator’s life, but the days are spread across 2019 and 2020, when Australia faced bushfires, the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns.
PEDESTRIAN.TV spoke to Tilly about her new book, and here’s what she had to say.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
PEDESTRIAN.TV: How would you describe this book to a friend?
Tilly Lawless: I wanted to write something that shows the fluctuations in mental health. And the way that, like, your external world impacted the pace of your thoughts, and sort of the cyclical nature of your thoughts when you’re mentally unwell. So that was what I was setting out to do. And in structure, I was inspired by Mrs Dalloway [by Virginia Woolf], which follows like one woman’s thought patterns across a day, as she got ready for a dinner party. So I took that structure – originally, it was across a week. But then I lengthened it to eight days, because I wanted to finish on a positive note, not on a negative note. And I also wanted to break outside of the week-cycle to show that that fluctuation just continues on, you know? It’s unending.
PTV: The book is written in the stream of consciousness style, is that your preferred style?
TL: It’s definitely the style of writing that I’m most familiar with, and I think I’m best at. I consciously wrote the book in that style because that was – I’ve done a lot of different styles of writing on my Instagram over the years. And I found that what people liked the best was that stuff that was really immediate, really emotional, and fast-paced. And so, I’ve tried to – I’ve started and failed to write books in the past many times. And I’d always gone for a traditional structure when I tried. And for this time, I was like, ‘I’m gonna play to my strengths’. And I think my strength is that stream of consciousness writing. So that’s why I went with that.
It’s not necessarily my favourite style of writing. Like, to be honest, like I prefer – in reading – I prefer reading more traditional fiction. But, I mean – you need to play to your strengths.
PTV: Yeah, absolutely. So, I have to talk about your Instagram now. Would you call it your open diary and when did it begin for you?
TL: Yeah, it definitely has been a diary – I use it less as a diary now, but for many years it was a diary. And I started using it like that in 2014, when I started writing really long posts. And, at the time, that format was unusual – I know a lot of people do that on Instagram now, but when I first started doing it, like – it was very much Instagram was used for photos and people were still using filters, and no one was sort of using that blog story.
PTV: God, that feels like a lifetime ago. Now I love that your book is so genuine and honest about the sex industry. Considering that sort of honest representation is still missing from mainstream media, were you hesitant about writing this book? Or did that motivate you?
TL: I don’t think so – I’ve already written so publicly about sex on my Instagram that writing about it in a book didn’t seem any different to me. I should have – maybe I should have thought about that more, because I’m sure there’s people who will read it, who wouldn’t have Instagram or haven’t read my Instagram. But for me, there was not a big leap between the two.
And I mean, one thing I was really conscious of in writing it was that I didn’t want sex work to be the focal point. Because I feel like, again and again, we see the same format. I think, to be honest, I think marginalised people are often forced into the format of a memoir. So much of the stuff we consume around sex work is a memoir and often a memoir that’s tied to an addiction, or a memoir that’s tied to trauma. And for me, it was really important that I wanted sex work to be the backdrop, in the same way the locations in the book are the backdrop, like Berlin or Sydney. I didn’t want sex to be the focus.
PTV: And you have two other books in the pipeline, can you tell me about them?
TL: Yeah! So the book I’ve just finished is a magical realism novel and its structure is, like, more traditional chapters, like chapter format, you know – third person, past tense, that kind of traditional style. It’s been so fun to write a novel set in northern New South Wales. And there’s a bit of like – amongst a group of teen girls – there’s a bit of lesbian romance and I enjoyed writing that so much. I literally wrote the book I would have wanted to read when I was 16.
PTV: Amazing! And magical realism just sounds so dreamy. Can you tell me about the third book?
TL: It’s basically about the disintegration of a friendship – friends who’ve been best friends since they were children. And I’ve always had – I feel like a lot of women’s experiences have a friendship that’s kind of a little bit competitive. And it’s about their friendship falling apart in their mid 20s, but it’s told from both their points of views to show the way in which our, like, insecurities influence the way in which we interpret things that are said to us. How often do you think the other person’s being reactive, but really you’re being just as reactive and you kind of bounce off each other. So yeah, it’s about conflict, really.
PTV: Oh, that sounds great! And is there anything you hope readers will take away from Nothing But My Body?
TL: I would hope anyone reading it was comforted by a few things, which is like – firstly, that mental health and the state of your mind, isn’t linear and also isn’t static.
Like I know it’s such a fucking trite and tropey thing when people say, ‘It gets better!’ But it does get better and then things get worse again, and then they get better again, and then they get worse again. And that’s just sort of like a negative cycle we go through with life. So I hope that this book brings people some comfort in that way.
The other thing for me – it’s ultimately about the joy we can find in our bodies and in connection with other people. And as dark as things are happening around the world – climate change, the pandemic, systematic racism – I still have a very hopeful outlook about the world, like I’m not nihilistic. And I would hope that that came across in the book.
Nothing But My Body by Tilly Lawless is available now, wherever you buy your books.
Litty Committee is Pedestrian.TV’s twice-monthly book column. Every month, we’ll take you through the newest reads and spotlight a novel we think you might like.
You can catch up on our other Litty Committee recommendations here.