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Deborah Levy Talks about How She Makes Reality Slip in Her Novels

posted Dec 2, 2016, 12:59 AM by Sarah Glazer   [ updated Dec 2, 2016, 1:07 AM ]


On the last night of November, Deborah Levy came to speak to the Upper Wimpole Street Literary Salon about voice, volition and how to ask the important questions. Levy is a poet and playwright, the award-winning author of six novels, two of them nominated for the Booker, and the book length essay, Things I Don’t Want to Know, which she was commissioned to write as a response to Orwell’s Why I Write.

Levy’s work often involves a perilous journey of some kind, and last night, life imitated art. Something so terrible happened to the tube system that one invitee was stuck in Holborn tube for an hour and had to turn back. Traffic everywhere was gridlocked, and it took Deborah an hour and a half in two different taxis to reach us. 

We had eaten all the mezze by the time she arrived, and we skipped introductions in order to get started. With only a glass of wine to recover, Deborah Levy impressed us all with her immediate focus, depth of attention and warmth towards her audience.

We started out talking about voice. In her book-length essay, Levy responds to Orwell’s call for “sheer ego” as a necessary quality in a writer by claiming, “even the most arrogant female writer has to work overtime to build an ego that is robust enough to get her through January, never mind all the way to December.” 

Reading her own words, Levy said, as a writer first she had to learn to speak loudly and then even louder, and then in her own voice, not very loudly at all. Sometimes being loud is mistaken for asserting your voice; her voice is not loud, but it is insistent. If you pursue the questions that demand your particular attention, your voice will have power. This is what makes writing interesting for a writer and a reader.

In response to a comment by a novelist who mentors other writers in pursuit of “getting published,” Levy told the story of a friend who displayed the first four pages of her as yet unpublished Swimming Home at the entrance to an art exhibit. The display had to be taken down because the crowds who gathered to read the work were blocking the entrance. Later, when an editor at a major publisher asked her to take out those very pages, she had the courage to resist. Everyone knows what happened next: the book was published by a small independent, went on to acclaim and prizes and is now with Penguin. 

Someone asked Levy about research. Each of Levy’s books is informed by a huge amount of reading and thinking that may in the end appear “only as a whisper.” She draws a line when she starts to write, and will only look up references at the end of the process. To write about the hypochondriac mother in Hot Milk, Levy read all the way from Hippocrates through Freud to neuroscience about psychosomatic illness, a subject much stranger than appears in the book.

If that book seems surreal to readers, Levy offered this explanation: “I went to the sacred altar of the realist novel and moved a few things around to show how reality slips.” If you’re an extreme hypochondriac-- like the mother in Hot Milk, who says she wants her feet amputated--reality slips, Levy observed. “It’s hard to create a reality and subvert it”—something she aimed to do in that novel. 

The importance of place in her writing, Levy agreed, was key. Like Henry James and E.M. Forster, she often takes her characters out of their known environments, where they react under the pressure of the unfamiliar. To write Hot Milk, Levy began with Almeria, Spain. Levy had in mind the idea of a person who feels very small in an enormously large landscape, Almeria’s sky and desert.

Levy was generous with the listeners, drawing them out of their silences. She asked them questions about their writing and their influences. We ended the evening with a discussion about books. Levy described her shelves as full of Freud because of the way he gets her to think about the essential question of where the bodies are buried. She also likes J.G. Ballard, Patricia Highsmith, Marguerite Duras, and is currently reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. 

Levy is also a big fan of Montaigne. His discursive essays on a wide array of questions that demand his attention are not that different from Levy’s narrative non-fiction. It turns out Things You Don’t Want to Know is the first of a planned trilogy, which will surely become one of the most valuable books on any woman writer’s shelf.