‘TO BECOME A WRITER, I had to learn to interrupt, to speak up, to speak a little louder, and then louder, and then to speak in my own voice which is not loud at all,’ writes Deborah Levy, in her 2013 essay Things I Don’t Want To Know, recounting her childhood in South Africa for the first time. Her father, a member of the African National Congress (ANC), was jailed when she was 5, and, little by little, she went quiet, losing her voice, only to find it again as a teenager, tentatively taking her first steps as a writer in the greasy spoons of West Finchley.
Since 2011, and the publication of the Booker-shortlisted Swimming Home, Deborah Levy’s voice has boomed loud and clear across the dreary plains of literary Britain. Those who have seen her speak or read her work can testify that hers is a voice worth hearing – and has been, for years. A successful playwright in the early 1980s (Pax, Heresies, The B File), Deborah Levy published her first novel Beautiful Mutants in 1989, the next step in a lifelong engagement with form, ideas, and most of all, language. ‘Her prose dazzles like sunlight on water,’ wrote one critic of Swimming Home – an appraisal that, applied to her entire body of work, stands up.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is surprising that her most successful novel to date was also the hardest to publish, eight years after her last book of stories, Pillow Talk, came out in 2003. ‘There is no way you can send a fierce, exotic and brutally hothead novel out into the British rain during a recession and expect a deal to be on the table with scones, tea and the Daily Mail,’ Levy has commented. The good news is that the recession may be over: after Swimming Home came Black Vodka, a collection of stories shortlisted for this year’s Frank O’Connor Prize, and the aforementioned essay, a response to George Orwell’s ‘Why I Write’. In 2016, Hot Milk, a novel on hypochondria, will be published by Hamish Hamilton, who will also reissue her early novels. Success of the type she has been afforded of late has not altered Deborah Levy. She remains approachable, kind, attentive, thoughtful, and wonderfully bizarre.
We first met in a greenhouse bookshop in the garden of the Wapping Project in early 2011; it therefore seemed fitting that this interview was conducted in her writing shed. Formerly occupied by the late poet Andrew Mitchell, Levy’s shed is nestled in the back of a quietly overgrown garden in an unassuming residential street east of Hampstead Heath, where Mitchell’s widow Celia still lives. Inside the shed, a copy of Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick lay prominently open in front of a desktop Mac, ‘the most cutting-edge technology I can afford’. Above the bookshelves to the left of the desk, a Ralph Steadman print stood watch.
It is customary for Levy to end her writing day by sharing a glass of rum with Celia. We met in the morning, so rum was off the cards, but it was late enough to smoke a cigarette rolled in liquorice paper – no filter – in the garden before getting started. Listening back to my tape, I noticed birds chirping away as we talked. In Deborah Levy’s fiction, birds on occasion have their heads wrenched off.