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24 October 2016

Deborah Levy: “Literature is very dusty compared to the visual arts”

Deborah Levy’s novel Hot Milk is shortlisted for both the Man Booker and the Goldsmiths Prize. She talks Brexit, family politics and why publishers are insulting readers.

By Tom Gatti

Deborah Levy is a poet, playwright, short story writer and novelist. Hot Milk, her second novel to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize (after Swimming Home, in 2012), is set in Andalusia in southern Spain, where a mother, Rose, and a daughter, Sofia, have come to seek specialist treatment for Rose’s mysterious medical problems. Reviewing Hot Milk for the New Statesman earlier this year, Eimear McBride praised Levy’s “great lush writing” and the book’s treatment of “the exploration of the nature of hypochondria, the boundaries of parental responsibility and the cynicism of pharmaceutical giants thwarting practitioners who refuse the doctrine of ‘A pill for every ill’.”

Hot Milk has been shortlisted for the Booker and the Goldsmiths Prize. Do you think we need both prizes?

Yes, we need both prizes. Why not?  I would say we definitely need the Bailey’s too, and I have never been nominated for that prize. I might disagree with the literary values that are often garlanded, but a lively, fierce, public debate about literature is always a good thing. Generally, literary culture is very dusty compared to the visual arts. For example, if you are a contemporary visual artist and have no creative daring, you are nothing. You might as well chalk up imitations of old masters on the pavement. Contemporary visual art pulls in huge audiences, as we know. I believe we can learn from its confidence.

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?

The nasty truth is that so called innovative fiction is perceived to be a commercial risk. This is insulting to readers, but it’s a hard perception to shift. Anything that is innovative is always going to be trashed and triumphed in equal measure. Freud sold six copies of the Interpretation of Dreams when it was first published. When Matisse first exhibited in Paris, punters actually tried to scratch off the paint with their fingernails. So it is a tremendously good idea to reward creative daring rather than punish it. As far as I’m concerned, fiction that extends the possibilities of the novel form, is what a writing life is all about. Every skilled writer knows there is no such thing as a generic innovative approach to a stretch of writing. We dismantle literary conventions and we borrow from literary conventions, but in the end, innovative writing always makes a language that can speak most eloquently for the book. On this subject, Marguerite Duras nailed it for me; I quote her here:

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“I think what I blame books for, in general, is that they are not free. One can see it in the writing; they are fabricated, organised, regulated; one could say they conform. There are still dead generations that produce prim books. Even young people: charming books, without extension, without darkness. Without silence. In other words, without a true author.”

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Sofia is 25 and drifting. Do you see her in the context of the “millennial” generation – the first to be worse off than their parents? What was life like for you when you were that age?

I want to give value to the action of drifting. It’s a necessary part of life. Sofia fears she’s a failure, but drifting, like walking, is conducive to thinking. It is not a passive action to drift or to think. When I was 25, I was writing plays and I was very broke. I rented a room in a house in East London, which was affordable in those days, and I wrote in the boiler room because it was the warmest place in the house. One of the tenants was a canoe maker. After he had varnished parts of the paddles he had carved from wood, he needed them to dry in the boiler room. So we had a system where he would lay the unvarnished parts of the oars across my feet, and this was how all my early plays were written.

Sofia has studied anthropology and is interested in “kinship structures”. Do you think the family unit is a particularly rich subject for the writer?

The family, as Aristotle told us, is a political subject. All Greek myths are about unhappy families. Did you know that Virginia Woolf’s, To The Lighthouse, was reviewed as “domestic psychology”-  despite the middle section being the most devastating critique of the first world war? If we are lucky, the family is where we learn to love and be loved – if we are unlucky, it’s where we learn to be unloved and have difficulties with love as a result. The family is always a site of conflict, rage, compromise, turbulent emotions. Hot Milk, in part, pays homage to the way a single mother has kept the wolf from the door and raised an argumentative, thoughtful daughter.

Sofia’s mother Rose is frustratingly delusional about her supposed illness but her strength of character and self-belief is remarkable. What was it about the character of the hypochondriac that interested you?

Lacan reckoned the hypochondriac is asking a question she does not want answered. So what is the question?  Sofia is trying to figure out what kind of conversation her mother’s lame legs are having with the world.

Hot Milk is set in 2015 and touches on current preoccupations from austerity to immigration to artisan coffee. Could you describe it as a political novel?

The challenge in my fiction is to embody political arguments. By the way, the language that was used in the media at the time of the Greek economic crisis, spoke to the themes of illness in my novel. Debt was described as contagious and contaminating, an epidemic raging through Europe, an outbreak that was infectious. The bitter pill prescribed was the disastrous ideology of austerity. Hot Milk also offers a critique of big pharma, channelled through the character called Dr. Gomez.   

The landscape of southern Spain, where most of the novel is set, seems particularly unforgiving: jellyfish and oil in the sea, horseflies on the beach, furnace-like greenhouses marking the plains and valleys. How important is the idea of place to your writing?

Yes, place always gives the key mood to my writing. My next novel opens in Berlin 1989, a few days after the wall comes down. I have recently spent a lot of time in various DDR museums, and my favourite exhibit is a stuffed badger shot by the head of the Stasi. Its eyes seem to have been stuck in the wrong place. Given the Stasi were supposed to have eyes on everyone, this object might feature in the first draft of my book. 

The novel, which references Yorkshire, London, Andalusia and Greece, was written before Britain voted to leave the European Union. How do you feel about the prospect of Brexit.

I am heartbroken about Brexit. What is there to look forward to in the UK if you are young? Student debt, unaffordable housing, unaffordable public transport, unpaid internships, zero hour contracts, no freedom of movement to work and travel in Europe. Thank you Sir, thank you Ma’am, that’s your legend. I have come to believe the voting age must be lowered to 16.

You recently said, referring to the book’s brevity, that “You can pack a lot into a sentence”. Are your sentences the product of much re-writing and editing?


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

I looked at Lowry paintings. Partly because Lowry’s mother used her illness to control her son and keep him at her side, which is Sofia’s plight, too. Lowry cared for his depressed mother in the day and painted at night. His tutor was the French impressionist painter, Valette. Lowry turned up to his life classes at the Manchester School of Art. It was Valette who suggested to him, the possibility of using the urban landscape as a subject. Lowry was influenced by Valette’s aesthetic enthusiasm for Monet and Degas when he painted industrial North West England. I really like the way Lowry talks about his work – I can relate to it – such as, “I wanted to paint myself into what absorbed me …” and, in relation to Hot Milk, this in particular: “Most of my land and townscape is composite. Made up; part real and part imaginary … bits and pieces of my home locality. I don’t even know I’m putting them in. They just crop up on their own, like things do in dreams.”

“Hot Milk” is published by Hamish Hamilton.

The winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, announced on 9 November, will appear in conversation at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 26 November.