Q & A: Deborah Levy
Waterstones Online's Sally Campbell caught up with Levy to discuss her approach to writing and the origins of this bold and vital novel.
Henry David Thoreau said, “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.” You tend to write shorter novels, is Thoreau right?
My novels are quite long before I edit them.
Many reviewers have noted an elliptical, surreal quality to your writing, what influences, literary or otherwise, do you feel may have inspired this aspect of your work?
I have always been inspired by artists such as Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Paul Delevaux, Magritte, Duchamp, Meret Oppenheim. They show us how the surreal is always closely entwined with the real. The films of David Lynch taught me the most about realism and the uncanny. I think he has been the greatest influence on my most recent novels. Lynch creates a hugely enjoyable and apparently stable world in all his films, and then sets about destabilizing it.
The female relationships in Hot Milk are darker, subtler and more ambiguous than in the majority of novels, did you set out to balance the representation of women in literature or do you believe female friendship is in fact as dark, ambiguous and tinged with pain as it is in Hot Milk?
Women and girls tend to battle with the complications of the male gaze in life and in literature – my books explore what happens when we gaze at each other.
Female friendship is a totally fascinating subject. No one has mined it better than Elena Ferrante. Most novels circle female friendships in relation to men, as Ferrante does of course, but she allows her own more dislikeable emotions to come out to play. Ferrante goes in deep to show us not only how women love and admire each other, but how we betray, impersonate and envy each other.
In Hot Milk, I have Sofia say of Ingrid, “she is not a safe person to love, but I’m prepared to take the risk.” I work against the idea that it is male characters who are dangerous and exciting, and that the function of female characters is to support and understand them.
Would you describe yourself as a Feminist?
Yes, for sure. It takes such immense energy to organise a world that is to the disadvantage of women and children – why not flip this and arrange the world in a way that helps women and children to thrive? Everyone would live happier lives, including men.
Writers talk of living with their characters in their heads while they are writing a novel, what was it like having Sofia and her mother in your mind? Did you begin to imagine illnesses?
Characters do have a way of speaking back to the author. Every time I told Rose to stand up and get on with her life, she had a witty reply about why that was not going to happen. Sofia was too obsessed with Ingrid to listen to anything I might tell her. One day she turned on me and said, “Look, I just want to know what happens next, what’s wrong with that?”
The characters in Hot Milk, as in many of your novels, cannot quite see themselves as they really are, what is it that fascinates you about this idea?
They do see themselves as they are – but that’s not the only story. The other story is about who they could be if circumstances did not stand in their way. What are they reaching for? It is my belief that in literature, the pleasure of reading is to know more about the character, than the character apparently knows about herself.
Where did you write Hot Milk? And do you usually confine yourself to an office or write out in the bustle of the world?
I wrote some of Hot Milk in Almeria. This meant I could write a chapter and then swim in the sea. I think this might be my idea of a perfect life. And then I got stung by jelly fish and the man who owns the local beach bar gave me a glass of chilled red wine with a splash of vermouth in it. At first I thought I was supposed to put it on the stings, but then he told me to drink it. I finished writing Hot Milk in a marathon writing stint in my flat in London.
American author Willa Cather said “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen”, do you agree?
Freud was even more extreme than Willa Cather. He thought that all our problems are laid down in early childhood and we spend the rest of our lives getting over them. It does intuitively feel true. But nothing that a long swim can’t put right.
As someone who has written a large body of work, what does it feel like to look back at your earlier writing?
I stand by all the early writing, which is not to say that I’m uncritical. I was young and trying out everything I could possibly do with language. I wrote my first anthology of stories when I was nineteen, so I’m not going to let my wiser, more skilled older self, stand over my younger self while she hammered her typewriter, and like a mean headmistress, tell her to take fewer risks with her writing and be more sensible.
What one thing would you advise to all aspiring writers?
Same thing as J.G. Ballard always advised – follow your obsessions. My own advice: Write something you don’t fully understand and then spend the next few years writing your way to a better understanding of your intentions and literary purpose. And here’s something unfashionable to keep in mind: what’s wrong with attempting to create a work of art of the highest order? If a nasty voice in your head tells you that you are getting above yourself, ask it how low it wants you to stoop to please it? And then stop pleasing it and start the work.