Lucy Ellmann: “You’re on your own with this book, no nursemaid”

Lucy Ellmann on her Goldsmiths Prize-winning novel Ducks, Newburyport, the female experience and scaring “the shit out of” her readers.

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Lucy Ellmann was born in Illinois in 1958. When she was 13, she moved to England with her parents, the literary critics Richard and Mary Ellmann, and though she always meant to return to the US, she has remained in the UK ever since. She is the author of seven novels, including the Guardian Fiction Prize-winning Sweet Desserts. She lives in Scotland with her husband, the writer Todd McEwen.

On 13 November, her latest novel, Ducks, Newburyport, a 1,000-page epic written almost entirely in one sprawling sentence, was announced as winner of the 2019 Goldsmiths Prize. Its anonymous narrator is a woman from Newcomerstown, Ohio, who is raising her four children while running a bakery from the family kitchen. Her thoughts rapidly unspool before us, each one preceded by the phrase “the fact that”, obeying no logic other than the instinctive associations that dictate all our internal monologues, interrupted and re-routed by daily life. Accepting the £10,000 prize, Ellmann said: “It’s a lot of money for one sentence!”

The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovative” approach offer the reader (and writer) that a more conventional novel might not?

A kick in the ass, otherwise known as artistic inspiration. A free piece of art can free other writers and readers, just as a good piece of art leads other people to make good art. It’s essential to keep clawing our way out of the prison of conformity.

The most immediately striking element of Ducks, Newburyport, and the most remarked upon in the press, is its form: a 1,000 page novel that consists, for the most part, of one long sentence. Tell me about how you came to decide on this particular form.

Ducks is the result of a lifetime spent trying to figure out how to write a novel, seeing where it can go and what I can do with it. Nothing gets “decided”. These things are not methodically thought out. Writing is not NASA. It’s a fluid, organic process, and the best moments are when you surprise yourself.

I wanted to create a different kind of reading experience. I know how to be concise, but that was not the object here. I wanted a long soft slow book that the reader can float around in for some time, to sink or swim, engulfed in one woman’s thoughts. You’re on your own with this book, no nursemaid. I think we’re all adults, and capable of much more adventurous reading than we’re usually offered. I sense people are hungry for something new, and sick of fiction that lazily kowtows to the reader or, God help us, the “market”. Anyone who thinks writing is easy really isn’t trying hard enough.

This is a stream-of-consciousness novel with all the tangents of a human mind. There isn’t a great deal of traditional plotting to dictate the path of the story. How much of the narrator’s thought process did you map out in advance?

I don’t find most “stories” very interesting. They just seem like vehicles for conveying the richer stuff like thought and mood and sensation, sounds, smells, sights, or intimacy and linguistic extravagance. So I kept the plot down to a minimum. The basic technique I used for this book was collage, allowing incongruous juxtapositions to generate new ironies and fresh directions.

Your narrator is a Midwestern American mother whose life is overwhelmed by domestic responsibilities. Why did you want to foreground those aspects of the female experience?

Because that is the female experience! And women and motherhood never get their due. I saw this 1940s Porky Pig cartoon recently about the 4th of July, a sort of history lesson about the founding of America, the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the whole kerfuffle of the American Revolution – and there was not one single female character to be seen throughout the entire cartoon. As if men create everything, through parthenogenesis. I think some people still think of the world that way. Unfortunately, they’re in charge of the United States.

One of the most moving parts of the novel, for me, was the narrator’s list of life’s certainties - which begins with “the sun will rise and set every day” but ends up including many things which aren’t really certainties at all, such as “people will dress their little dogs up in matching Santa outfits”. Can you tell me a bit about why you included that list?

But those are certainties! Are you telling me people won’t occasionally dress their dogs up in Santa costumes well into the foreseeable future? Let’s get real here. This section of the novel is a satirical, Rabelaisian list. I do like a good list, and it breaks up the density of the monologue for a while. Moreover, there is comfort in certainty. For my character, for us all. I wanted to build a wall of certainties against the terrors of the future. But it is inevitably a flimsy wall.

Similarly, each thought of the narrator’s is preceded by the three-word phrase “the fact that”, even though her subjective thoughts are of course not usually facts. Are you interested in the subjective nature of things we think of as “facts” or “definites”?

Yes, we are inundated with facts these days, thanks to our mistaken devotion to science. And then there is the world of ‘fake facts’, an idea invented by the amoral wretches who aim to distort truth. Subjectivity’s got a really bad name these days. But not everything is subjective: the climate crisis is an awful fact.

The way I use “the fact that” in Ducks is a totally different matter. The expression may contain the word ‘fact’ but it’s a turn of speech that has no real meaning. It’s a phrase with which to pound the table, or disguise a hesitation. It’s got rhythm, emphasis, suspense, and sometimes a softening effect, and the repetition of it becomes another ‘certainty’ in the sentence structure of the novel. But the idea that anything very factual is about to be uttered is a joke.

A fear of ecological collapse haunts this book, and you adopt the perspective of a lioness for a significant portion of the novel. Do you hope Ducks, Newburyport encourages readers to have greater empathy and respect for the natural world?

No, I hope to scare the shit out of them.

It is bleak and scary at times, but this is a very funny book. How important was it to you that this book should have a sense of humour?

I don’t believe that humourless writing is any more tragic than work that jokes around. I don’t trust it. It’s unnatural. The brain longs for comedy. Jokes release tension, Freud said. They’re also a survival strategy in a world gone to hell.

One of the most delightful elements of the book for me was all the literary and pop culture references that are tangled up in the narrator’s brain, from Jane Austen to Jane Fonda. How did you go about choosing those references – are these particular fragments ones that preoccupy you as well as your narrator?

Not necessarily. I censored many of my own preoccupations as unsuitable for my narrator. I don’t stand by many of the cultural products she dwells on. It’s Complicated and Anne Tyler novels and many other references are there for their attention to the domestic scene, echoing the narrator’s plight, and that’s it. I’m not recommending them! The narrator accepts uncritically a lot of dumb stuff she hears, or sees on the internet, stuff I feel demeans everybody. I tried to show how these influences encroach on her ability to think through things. She rarely reaches conclusions about the info she’s receiving, rarely settles a question for herself. She’s too busy absorbing more and more of this bombardment – a hazard of our age.

Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you in the writing of this book.

Gina Adams’s “Broken Treaty Quilts” move me deeply. And the domestically-minded assemblages of the Ohioan artist La Wilson added another level to my understanding of Ohio. Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? was an unconscious influence, I now realise. It’s a novel that takes the form of a list of questions, and gets funnier and more daring the longer it goes on. I repeatedly played (or rather, exploited) Glass and Einaudi recordings while writing this book. The flatness, steadiness and repetition provided the right kind of unobtrusive continuo, matching certain refrains in the novel itself, while being pleasing enough at the same time to lure me to the desk.

As I understand it, the process of getting this book published was not without obstacles. Can you tell us a bit about that process?

Many of the larger publishers could not see a way to handle it. They didn’t seem to get it, didn’t think it would sell, and thought it would be too expensive to produce. But my agent David Godwin stood by the book and took it to a small but extremely enterprising young publishing house, Galley Beggar Press, run by Elly Millar and Sam Jordison. They only publish a few books a year, and only writing they really care about. To my delight, they wanted Ducks. It’s been a revelation being published by very committed, literary people with direct access to a literary audience. I didn’t know such readers were still out there, but they are. Elly and Sam were so committed to this novel they didn’t even bat an eyelid when I added another 30,000 words during the editing process. (The thing kept growing!)

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

The mainstream publishing world is starting to look as slack, sludgy and polluted as the Ohio River. We need to recognise and pinpoint good writing outside the mainstream (and reward it with CASH whenever possible too!) I’ve never had any interest in bestsellers, always assuming they’ll bore me. So why not have a prize that directs people towards more inventive and divergent writing? Past Goldsmith Prize shortlists make fascinating reading.

What past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize? Why?

Ah, I think Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend deserves one. It’s a most unusual book, full of Dickensian surrealism but this time he’s really off the leash, running wild. It’s stratospherically subversive.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman and a judge on the 2019 Goldsmiths Prize. Lucy Ellmann will be in conversation with Anna at Cambridge Literary Festival on 30 November. Tickets are available here.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.