Sharlene Teo, a UEA graduate of the MA in Creative Writing programme and the current David TK Wong Fellow, interviews Deborah Levy, author of Beautiful Mutants, Things I Don’t Want to Know and the Booker Prize-shortlisted Swimming Home.
Sharlene Teo: What are three recently published books that you’ve read and admired – and what qualities most set them apart?
Deborah Levy: I am loving the exuberance and heartbreak of We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo – she is making a unique language; the prose is modern and tough and I know that Bulawayo is going to become a major writer. All her books will be on my shelves. My second choice is a startling new novel, The Vegetarian by South Korean writer Han Kang, due to be published in the UK in 2015. It is about an unloved, dutiful wife who decides she wants a more ‘plant-like’ existence and makes the decision to become a vegetarian – which apparently is an act of subversion in South Korea. This is a story about metamorphosis, rage and the desire for another sort of life. It is written in cool, still, poetic but matter-of-fact short sentences, translated luminously by Deborah Smith, who is obviously a genius. For those interested in new innovations in short fiction, I highly recommend Fractals by Joanna Walsh.
ST: Things I Don’t Want to Know has been called a feminist response to Orwell’s Why I Write. Do you have any further thoughts on why we write that did not make it into the book or that have occurred to you after its publication? What was the most valuable/interesting thing you learnt in the writing of that essay?
DL: I am more interested in how we write because that tells us a quite a lot about why we write. So for example, I would say that the American poet, Walt Whitman, writes in a more or less rhapsodic voice and though his poetry is written in free verse and is very modern, I can hear how Dante, Blake and Shakespeare spoke to his sensibility. I love the minimal last line in his poem, A Clear Midnight: ‘Night, sleep, death and the stars’ more than I love the reason he wrote it. As you can see I tend to like the arrangement of a few words that conjure something truthful, existential, epic, personal, mysterious – and that leave some space for the reader to float in. Why did Whitman write this line? Probably to seduce someone – he had a well-developed libido. Writing the essay taught me how to construct an apparently intimate voice, a formal intimacy that began to work for me because I could not see the point of writing about political purpose or historical impulse (two of the Orwell inspired headings in my essay) in any other kind of voice. All good essayists have the skills of fiction writers.
ST: You have a very precise, yet lyrical and hallucinatory fictive voice; the language stings and sings. Do you edit as you go along, or go through many drafts in the editing process?
DL: I am a brutal editor of my writing as I go along – in fact I have begun to wonder if this is a flaw rather than a skill. The edit is always the most exciting part of writing; so perhaps I just crave constant excitement. There is nothing to beat the exhilaration of cadence and form coming together in an edit. For myself in regard to writing, it is all or nothing. I don’t have a polite relationship with my own writing, I don’t murmur to myself, there there, it will be better in the next draft. This is probably not the right way to go about things but it is what keeps me hammering the keyboards.
ST: What are the three best pieces of advice you would give to young writers who are just starting out?
DL: I am just going to give one (long) note. All young writers starting out need to believe that no one has stupid dreams. No one has stupid regrets. Everyone has had a childhood that they will spend their lives getting over. Everyone is capable of doing something heroic and destructive and we all have reasons to conceal what we feel and think. So now we are getting closer to some of the things we need to consider when we start to write. Most importantly, ask interesting questions that you don’t fully understand yet and attempt to answer them until you cannot write any longer and are so shattered at 3am that the only thing to do is sleep with all your clothes on and have a stupid dream which you will forget as soon as you wake up.
ST: What memory or image would you say was most formative of your writing or how you aspire to write?
DL: This is something I discuss at length in Things I Don’t Want to Know, so I won’t repeat myself here. An image: when I was about 14 and living in a London suburb, I saw a photograph in a magazine of a teenage girl in Mongolia, standing on top of a mountain. She was hunting in the snow with her eagle. I think I sort of fell in love with her. Oh my goodness, there were girls my age who went out hunting with eagles in the mountains.
The strange thing is that I saw another image very like that one again today – someone emailed it to me. I realised that the first image I saw (perhaps in a National Geographic) might not have been in Mongolia and the eagle might have been a falcon or some other kind of bird, but the important thing is that it has been laid down inside me all these years.
That is the joy of reading too – there are certain books that are embedded within us for the rest of our lives, they become part of our living cells, we are nourished by them in ways that are not just intellectual. Perhaps that girl hunting with her bird best sums up how I might aspire to write, the adventure of writing which always resembles a sort of chase, a hunt. When we have caught everything we need, we know the book is finished and feel that strange combination of elation and loss.