Ely Percy, 45, is a queer, agender, neurodivergent Scottish writer known for their working-class coming-of-age novel Duck Feet. Their surprising journey to Scottish Book of the Year status has resulted in multiple printings of the novel, and Percy has shared an excerpt here exclusively with Queer Forty readers to celebrate the forthcoming fourth printing.
While the narrator of Duck Feet is a straight cis school girl, one of her best friends is gay and neurodivergent and the book has been very popular with queer readers who went to high school in the 1990s-2000s in Scotland, says Percy.
“It took sixteen years to find a publisher for Duck Feet because I was told by book industry professionals that the story was ‘too niche’ but it went onto sell thousands of copies (both in the UK and internationally) and was named Scotland’s book of the Year at the Saltire Awards in 2021.
“Unfortunately the book has become a victim of its own success: the last three print runs (which got bigger each time) sold out almost as soon as they hit the shops, and my tiny queer publishers struggled to keep up with the demand and the rising print costs so it went out of print for over a year. During this time both myself and my publishers were inundated with queries about when the book would become available again and at one point my publishers received over 700 emails!”
Of course, we were intrigued by Percy’s pitch and so we reached out for more!
Queer Forty: Where did you grow up?
Ely Percy: I grew up in Renfrew, which is a tiny wee town on the west coast of Scotland about six miles outside Glasgow. It’s also where Duck Feet is set.
When or how often have you come out?
Ely Percy: The first time was in May 2001. I was 22 and I was in the middle of breaking up with my ex-boyfriend when he asked: ‘Is it because you’re gay?’ I didn’t know what I was, but I was fairly certain I wasn’t straight.
Three months later, I went from calling myself ‘not straight’ to ‘very gay’.
Then in August 2002, I told people I was ‘not really a man or a woman’. This didn’t go down well in the Glasgow lesbian community at that time, so I reluctantly backtracked.
It wasn’t until April 2017 that I came out again as ‘not-cis’, then ‘non-binary’, then finally ‘agender’.
What started you on the path to being an author? Any particular inspirations in people, places, other authors?
Ely Percy: I was 15 when I started writing and sending out my work. I was an inpatient in an adolescent psychiatry unit, and I was furious at the world because I felt unsupported and misunderstood. I was also bored out of my skull because it was 1993 and I didn’t have a mobile phone or the internet and I was completely isolated from my pals.
One day I saw a call-for-subs in Big! magazine: ‘Victor Bogoff’ from the letters page wanted teenagers to write in and moan about how terrible their life was. I figured I’d plenty to say, so I responded.
I ended up writing to that magazine two or three times a week… every week… for the three and a half months I was in the unit!
I didn’t expect anyone to actually read my letters never mind print one. But in January 1994, when I went back to school after Christmas, a girl I barely knew shouted at me across the dinner hall: ‘You’re famous… you’re in Big! magazine!’
I never wrote to Victor Bogoff again after that — I didn’t have to — I finally felt validated! But I kept on writing.
Now, I mostly write about Scotland, about being Scottish, being queer, being disabled and neurodivergent and working-class, because these are the things that have shaped my life and the lives of my friends and family.
What gave you the idea for Duck Feet and what do you think is unique about Gen X experiences growing up?
Ely Percy: I started writing Duck Feet in 2004, after seeing a call-for-subs in a magazine that was looking for stories about ‘shoes’. I remember being in my parents’ living room writing a list of various types of footwear when my dad came in carrying a basin of hot water to steep his feet in. Now, my dad’s feet are deformed because of wrongly fitted shoes, just like my narrator, Kirsty Campbell’s dad, and — out-of-the-blue — I heard this voice saying: ‘Ma da’s got bad feet…’
It was supposed to just be one short story about a twelve-year-old girl who wanted her dad to take her to the public baths so she could prepare for her school swimming lessons, but I ended up writing sixty-five short stories in a stream of consciousness, which later became seventy chapters when my publisher asked me to novelise them.
To be honest, I’m probably the wrong person to talk about Gen-X experiences because I don’t remember the first fourteen years of my life. I was diagnosed with retrograde, anterograde and post-traumatic amnesia following a brain injury in November 1992, and a lot of my earliest memories revolve around not being at school, not having much contact with kids my own age or being in a psychiatric unit.
For you, is agender the same as non-binary?
Ely Percy: Yes and no. For me, being agender falls under the trans and non-binary umbrella. And I often use ‘agender’ and ‘non-binary’ interchangeably.
But a lot of non-binary people I’ve met have described themselves to me as being ‘in the middle’ or being ‘a mix of genders’, and that definitely doesn’t mirror my experience; I don’t have any connection gender at all.
I suppose it’s a wee bit like the difference between saying ‘I’m from Scotland’ and ‘I’m from Renfrew’. Both are correct, but the latter’s more specific.
Queer Forty has many American readers — can you tell us a little bit about your linguistic choices in the excerpt and the narrator’s voice.
Ely Percy: I didn’t set out to write the book in Scots.
And I know I said Kirsty Campbell’s voice came from ‘out-of-the-blue’, but in truth I probably overheard some wee girl talking on a bus in Renfrew and it stuck in my head. But it did feel as though Kirsty chose me to tell her story and I just transcribed what she was saying.
A lot of people did criticise my decision to retain her Renfrewshire accent on the page, but I felt that it would lose it’s authenticity if I anglicised it.
Duck Feet is out on November 9 courtesy of Monstrous Regiment. Please enjoy this excerpt from Duck Feet.
Tiger Jackson fae Stramash is gay. It’s in aw the papers an apparently he’s got a boyfriend that’s in an all gay rock band. Ah cannae believe it cause he’s got hunners ae lassie fans an (after Murray Hart) he’s got tae be the second sexiest guy on Earth.
Nicola Buchanan’s tryin tae say she knew the whole time. She’s tryin tae say that she seen him pure snoggin this guy wan time ootside the Govan underground. It was before he was famous, she said. Aye right, said Chris Rice, An ma da’s the coal man. That’s right, said Nicola, I keep forgettin you’re a bastard. Aye well you’re a pure lezy, said Chris.
Whit dae you think, ah said tae Laura Kyle, D’yi think it’s jist a rumour. Who cares man, said Laura, As long as he can sing an he disnae try an snog Bunsen ah’ll still buy his CDs.
Ah phoned Charlene the night at the hospital. Have yi heard, ah said. Have yi heard the thing aboot Tiger Jackson. Charlene made a big sighin noise intae the phone. Kirsty, she said, See if yir jist on here tae wind me up yi can jist bugger off hen. Ah didnae know whit tae say tae that, ah only phoned tae see if she wis awright cause she’s a pure massive Tiger fan. Whit wid yi dae though, ah said, If he wis pure gay. Nae answer. Ah said tae her, D’yi think yi wid still fancy him. Charlene went an pit the phone doon on me.
The heidline in The Sun said:
DON’T CAUSE A STOOSHIE, PLEADS GAY SINGER
Ah wis readin it oot tae Laura an Chris durin Regi:
Scared that he was soon to be outed, teenage heartthrob, Tiger Jackson, of the popular Scottish band, Stramash, has confessed he is gay. Jackson, nineteen, is currently in a relationship with Robbie George, twenty four, a member of the controversial Mancunian rock band, Slash.
This is one of the hardest things ah’ve ever had tae do, Jackson claimed. But ma fans huv all been pure supportive to us an ah think it’s only fair they know the whole truth. Ah know this might come as a bit of a shock to some folk but ah jist hope fans realise ah’m still the same guy an they’ll no make a big deal.
Ah widda kept on readin but Tommy Campbell come up an startet annoyin us an sayin Stramash wur aw poofs. Him an Chris got intae an argument cause he said Chris’ hair wis pure gay lookin an then Chris went away in a huff.
Chris Rice has shaved aw his hair aff. He come intae school this mornin wi a total baldy an evrubdy wis up pure clappin his heid an seein whit it felt like. Ah think it looks pure freaky especially since he’s taken a big gouge ootae it fae right behind his ear, but Tommy Campbell an aw his mad pals keep tellin Chris that he looks brilliant.
He’s went an solt his ticket fur Stramash tae Yvonne cause he said he disnae want tae go anymair.
Stramash wur on breakfast TV this mornin talkin aboot Tiger Jackson’s gayness. Murray Hart wis lookin pure sexy as ever an he wis the first wan tae speak:
Wur aw pure proud ae Tiger, he said, Ah think he’s done the right thing an it disnae change anythin between us. Davy McManus said pretty much the same, he said, Noo a days yir sexuality really isnae a big deal.
Ah went tae see Charlene up at the psychiatric hospital the day. She’s been hingin aboot wi that boy, Dylan, that she used tae fancy, the wan that she wis tryin tae figure oot whit mental illness he had. Ah asked her if she’d got off wi him yet an she said she hadnae. How no, ah said. Because he’s gay, said Charlene. Honestly, ah said. Naw ah’m makin it up fur the good ae ma health, she said, Widy you think.
Ah’ve never met anybody that’s gay before. Ah widnae know whit tae say tae them. Thir’s a rumour gaun roon oor school that Colin Kellerman’s gay but ah think folk’ve jist made that up cause he smells an naebdy likes him.
Apparently this boy, Dylan, wis gettin bullied at school fur it an he tried tae kill himsel an that’s why he’s in the hospital. Whit’s he like then, ah said tae Charlene. Widyi mean whit’s he like. Dis he act aw pure poofy an that, ah said. Ah don’t know whit yi mean, said Charlene, pure aw dead sarky, He eats drinks an shites lik the rest ae us.
Stramash wur in Starmix magazine this week. Ah wis readin it in the canteen durin lunch time. It says here, ah said tae Yvonne an Laura Kyle, That thiv been named as the biggest boy band ever in the top ten boy bands poll. YAS, shoutet Laura Kyle, GO THE GOVAN BOYS GET YIR SCOTTISH MUSIC INVOLVED (she’s got a thing aboot folk fae Govan daein well, it’s cause she originally came fae Drumoyne).
Tommy Campbell an Allan Bryan wur staunin laughin an makin faces at us whilst they wur in the dinner queue, an so wis Chris Rice. AHA, shoutet Tommy, GET YIR CRAP MUSIC INVOLVED. NAW, shoutet Chris, GET YIR POOFS INVOLVED. Missus Murray wis walkin by when he said it an she pure pult him oot the queue an tolt him tae go wait in her room; on his way oot he turnt roon an grinned at Tommy an Allan, an then he wiggult his bum at us an let oot a massive fart.
Ah don’t know whit’s gaun on wi Chris Rice. He still comes up tae ma hoose after school, an me an him an Laura still aw go tae the swimmin baths thegether, an he still copies aw ma home work; but see when wur actually in school, he hings aboot wi aw the nut jobs noo an he jist totally dingies us.
He’s gettin dead sarky tae. Everythin yi dae noo a days is either, Pure gay, or, So gay, or, Pure poofy, accordin tae him. Ah’m glad he isnae comin tae see Stramash anymair. Ah’m no even sure ah still want tae be pals wi him.
Tiger J’ll cause a Stooshie
Murray Hart’ll cause a Stooshie
Davy M’ll cause a Stooshie
Stramash’ll cause a giant Stooshie
Tonight’s the night ae the Stramash concert. Ah’ve been pure hyper aw day, pure singin aw thir songs an ah couldnae concentrate on ma work at school. Yvonne’s da’s drivin us up tae the SECC an Charlene’s been let ootae hospital fur the night so she can go wi Nicola an her ma.
Ah huvnae seen Chris aw week cause he’s been in lunchtime detention wi Missus Murray. She’s makin him spend an oor every day writin oot the life story ae some famous magician whose catch phrase used tae be, Piff paff poof. Apparently she said tae him if she ever hears him usin the word POOF again, she’ll personally make sure HE disappears fae oor school.
The Stramash concert wis brilliant. Evrubdy startet screamin when they came onstage, an loadsa folk wur shoutin, WE STILL LOVE YOU TIGER. They sang aw thir best songs: Stooshie, Shout Ootz, Ma Wee Honey, an a new song that Tiger wrote himsel called
Gie the Boy A Break. When me an Yvonne went back stage tae meet them they wur dead nice tae us; they aw signed wur programs an Murray gied me the rest ae his Pepsi Max that he wis drinkin cause ah wis dead thirsty.
Chris come roon fur us this mornin tae go tae the swimmin baths. His hair’s startet tae grow back in an it reminds me ae a baby hedgehog’s. He never even mentioned the concert or ast how it went.
About the author
Ely Percy is an award-winning Scottish writer, best known for their novel Duck Feet. Their first publication was a letter in Big! magazine (1994). Since then, they’ve released a memoir Cracked, contributed many stories to literary journals, and published two novels Vicky Romeo Plus Joolz (2019) and Duck Feet (2021).