30th Oct 2012
For Books’ Sake Talks To: Deborah Levy
Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home has been the talking point of many conversations in literary circles this year, since it was shortlisted for the Man Booker.
It was published by independent press, And Other Stories, after being turned down by mainstream publishers for being “too literary to prosper in a tough economy.”
Levy speaks optimistically about the future of independent publishing in the UK, calling it ‘the future of books’. “I knew And Other Stories were going to work hard for my novel because they are very discriminating about what they publish,” she explains.
“At the same time, they are not trying to second-guess the market – they respect their readers and are finding ways to champion the blazing, international ‘world class literature’ the editorial team admires.”
Swimming Home received glowing reviews from the mainstream press, and was instantly labeled “a prizewinner”, “a compact treasure” and, in one reviewer’s opinion, “a pulsating literary beast.” I ask Levy if she was surprised that the novel acquired this status in such a short time?
“Well, you know I have been writing for a very long time,” she replies. After training at Darlington College of the Arts, Levy wrote a number of successful plays, including Heresies for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Her first novel, Beautiful Mutants was published when she was 27, and the three novels published after have recently been re-printed by Bloomsbury, thanks to the Man Booker nomination.
Levy talks passionately about the process of writing Swimming Home, stating; “I knew I was writing the novel I was always meant to write.”
“I wrote Swimming Home through the night and in to the early hours, usually clocking off when one predictable car alarm in my street went off at about 4am. It was exhilarating and compelling to try to grasp something so tantalizing out of my reach – it gave me incredible energy,” she says.
We discuss the prominent theme of control in the novel, and, given Levy’s focus on the collective human experience, whether she believes control is above all the thing that drives us.
“The need to control is attached to other things; to fear, sadism, feeling insecure, needing attention,” replies Levy. “We tend to think that it is powerful people who are controlling and sometimes that’s the way, but actually it is often people who feel powerless who are more so.”
Levy articulates her belief that is not just control that drives us, but mostly desire, and she is quick to clarify that this applies to more than sexual desire.
“[Sometimes] we protect ourselves from the things we truly desire – we take no risks in life and die of safety,” she says.
She refers to control as the action taken by people who “fear chaos”, and sums it up with a The Rolling Stones quote; “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try, sometimes you might just get what you need.”
Levy becomes even more animated when I steer the conversation towards the role of female characters. In Swimming Home, many of the women struggle with their sense of identity, and face conflicts about what is expected of them versus who they really are.
She talks at length about the various generations of female characters in the novel, from fourteen-year-old Nina to eighty-year-old Madeleine.
She speaks with particular fondness for Madeleine, explaining, “I‘ve always wanted to write a part for an older woman that doesn’t involve knitting and support stockings. She is witty, articulate, sometimes plain nasty, but she is switched on to the world and how it perceives elderly women.”
It becomes clear that no female character has ever appeared in Levy’s work ‘just because’.
“It sounds like a bizarre thing to say, and I wish I didn’t have to say it, but you will never find a female character in my novels that does not have a ‘mind’,” she explains. “I am interested in how women think; it is the intelligence of women and what it is we imagine for ourselves and others, that interest me.”
She condones the all-too-familiar attempt in fiction to make female characters ‘likeable’. She seems exasperated by a lack of awareness shown by many female characters, an idea that they can’t understand their own shortcomings.
“She anxiously dresses her body, but never addresses her body – yet we know we all understand the complexity of what has been projected on to the female body – we play with these projections all the time and often subvert them. So it’s not just the pressure of images of who we should be, it’s the subtle pressure to not own up to having a mind,” says Levy.
Strong women and feminism are prominent when Levy lists her literary influences. “Marguerite Duras is probably the best writer in the world,” she begins, directing me to a gushing review Levy wrote on Duras’ novel The Lover for The Independent.
She credit’s Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber with “[putting] the erotic back into feminism and politics back into fairy tales,” calls J.G Ballard and Jeanette Winterson “the most mind blowing British writers of their generation”, and quips that no surname has ever captured a writer’s tone better than Muriel Spark.
“My influences are visual artists too – particularly the photography of Francesca Woodman and the surrealist female artists, not that they liked being described in this way,” she adds, listing several others including Lee Miller, who Levy previously wrote about for the Guardian’s My Hero series.
Levy reveals that her next published work will be a long essay, which has been commissioned by Nottinghill Editions, and is a response to George Orwell’s 1946 essay, ‘Why I Write.’ “It will be fairly autobiographical,” she adds.
Levy is also working on her next novel, Hot Milk, which she reveals will be about hypochondria, and I imagine will be full of the complex, complicated and realistic female characters that inspire Levy, and that are worthy of the spotlight of many more literary awards.