Deborah Levy: ‘Did you notice when you said the word feminist an alarm went off?’

Deborah Levy’s recent novel was declined for being ‘too literary’. A Booker-nomination followed


When Deborah Levy arrives in the foyer of a London hotel, it’s hard to miss her. Wild blonde hair, red-lipped and wearing layers against the snow that threatens, she asks the receptionist in a very low voice where I might be found. Her voice, it transpires, is one of the reasons she became a writer. “I was very soft-spoken at school,” says Levy sipping an espresso, “the more they shouted, the quieter I became.

“Eventually a teacher suggested to me that I should write down what I was thinking and when I did, they seemed like very loud thoughts. When I started to write, I actually began to speak louder – my own volume literally went up.”

Perhaps because of this, Levy speaks in an almost conspiratorial manner. Her writing is very similar, boasting a directness that’s hard to turn away from, but there’s nothing quiet about her written words.

Last autumn, the Man Booker Prize judges agreed, hoisting her novel Swimming Home on to the shortlist. Hilary Mantel’s fluid, meticulously researched Bring Up the Bodies won the prize, but Levy’s arch, exceptional novel of a family in crisis was the best book on the shortlist.

Levy admits to being surprised at the Booker attention, not least because Swimming Home has, in publishing terms, a great back story. “The book had been declined by a handful of publishers for being ‘too literary’. As soon as I met Stefan [from independent publishers And Other Stories], I knew he was the real deal and that he would take good care of my book.”

Born in South Africa in 1959, Levy was an ardent reader before gravitating toward a writer’s life. Her father was a historian, but the family’s life was later overshadowed by political unrest. Her mother – “the serious reader in the house” – had a huge influence on the books her daughter consumed. “In my teens I used to comb the bookshelves at home looking for ones that might have some sex in them. I took down Edna O’Brien’s Country Girls books and devoured them.”

Sex surfaces in an oblique way in Swimming Home , when a poet and his war-correspondent wife decamp to France with their daughter. Their brittle marriage is complicated by the arrival of an attractive young stranger who has an incendiary effect on their lives.

“When I finished writing it, I was shaken to the core. I was a different writer to the one who started it, and that surprised me. I knew I was going to have to create a very definite sense of place because strange things were going to happen in that place. Kitty was going to hallucinate that someone could actually walk through walls.”

In that novel, and in her new collection of short stories, Black Vodka , Levy has a way of writing that is very present. “Its originality,” says the New York Times , “lies in its ellipses, its patterns and repetitions”.

Individual paragraphs are almost standalone stories in themselves. Nothing is extraneous and, in a handful of pages, Levy creates conflicting worlds.

In Cave Girl , a young woman decides to have a sex change – not to become a man, but to transform into “a pretend woman”.

“It’s quite a playful story,” the writer says, “but it’s very serious, too. To this young woman, a new, pretend version of herself is a fragile projection of what femininity is. Post-operation, she comes back, doesn’t have opinions and wants to please. To me, it’s based on a mix of anthropology, pop culture and feminist theory.”

From Cave Girl ’s protagonist to Kitty Finch and Isabel from Swimming Home , or the two Louises in Billy & Girl , Levy wants her female characters to be more than tropes.

“Any female writer who is worth reading has a job on her hands when it comes to female characters. She’s got to unknot a lot of stuff. How do you make a female character a subject rather than an object? Kitty is fragile, but really astute. Isabel – to do the thing she needed to do [have a career] – has to sacrifice her place in the home. These days a lot of women are asking themselves, ‘what is that place?’ anyway.”

There is a pronounced vein of feminism in her work and it’s a topic she has written about in non-fiction terms recently. In the hotel lobby, a fire drill starts.

“Did you notice when you said the word ‘feminist’ an alarm went off?” Levy laughs mischievously. “The patriarchy doesn’t like feminism, but what does it mean when women don’t like it? Women have a hard time at work and a hard time at home.

“There are all kinds of domestic and economic humiliations that they suffer all the time. We are very good at politicising it, but then it’s an entire culture’s gaze so we have to.”

Talking to Levy, there is a strong sense of politicisation, which possibly stems from her childhood in apartheid-era South Africa. Her father was an activist who taught township children to read and write, which was illegal. “I come from an ANC family and that whole generation . . . ” she trails off.

Did her family know Mandela?

“Oh yes. My father disappeared when I was five, came back when I was nine, and then we had to leave. It happened to us, to Mandela and to other families who were fighting for a non-racial democracy. If you witness cruelty at an early age, and to children, it stays with you. I remember seeing dogs set on children, or if the African kids came into the school and scavenged in the bins looking for food, the white kids would chase them off and taunt them. How can that not have an effect? We have to articulate what we want to fight for and find the courage to fight for it.”

The move from South Africa to London has infused Levy’s work with a peripatetic feel. The Black Vodka st ories flit between European cities (a key scene happens in a Dublin pub). Airports feature because Levy is interested in “the idea of whether we’re arriving or departing, saying hello or goodbye.” Those absences suit themselves to brevity and Levy admits that she enjoys writing short stories more than novels.

Swimming Home was her first novel for 12 years (with a short-story collection in-between) but Levy has written and adapted almost 20 plays for radio and stage. As professor of writing in illustration at Falmouth University, she is intrigued by the overlap between the visual and written word. There is talk of turning her story Stardust Nation into a graphic novel with illustrator/designer Andrzej Klimowski.

We discuss Joyce and how film seeped into his work. “Short stories are more like films than anything else. I think David Lynch has been an influence on me. I’m more interested in character than he is, but we share a sort of playfulness. I adore Blue Velvet . And then there’s someone like Tarantino, who writes great dialogue. In his work you get gangsters talking about Sylvia Plath, and I love that. So maybe I’m a cross between Michael Haneke and Tarantino. That would suit me.”

Black Vodka is published by And Other Stories.