Deborah Levy: ‘Writing and swimming help each other’ | Deborah Levy

Deborah Levy: ‘Writing and swimming help each other’ | Deborah Levy

Deborah Levy’s books include three memoirs and eight novels, half of them published between 1989 and 1999, the other half since 2011, when her Booker-shortlisted Swimming Home came out with a small startup press after rejection by traditional publishers. For the Times Literary Supplement, her novels “teem with oddness, with dreamlike, vertiginous scenes … [and characters] in search of a haunting from their past”. When she was again shortlisted for the Booker in 2016 with Hot Milk, a judge said the novel’s “symbolic richness and mythic complexity … is also underpinned by a wicked humour: it’s like Virginia Woolf with good jokes”. Levy, 64, spoke from her home in London about her most recent novel, August Blue, in which a classical pianist meets her doppelganger while having a breakdown amid the pandemic.

How does a novel start life for you?
An idea or feeling won’t go away. Sometimes, you can’t believe what’s preoccupying you, then it becomes clear that this is what you’re going to write about: you’re going to dig in and find out what’s going on.

So what intrigued you about a virtuoso pianist living in the aftermath of bungling Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2?
She calls it “messing up”, and it is, because it’s in front of a large audience, but the novel itself refutes those deliberately flat words. That piece of music was written to help Rachmaninov break the paralysis of depression; Elsa’s journey reflects something of that. The piano, for her, is a connection to her unknown mother, as well as an instrument to lift her out of the humble home of her foster parents and into the bigger home of art. But she’s a performer; as a composer, she’s been shut down. And when her own composition returns – as the repressed always does – it’s at the most inappropriate moment, when her fingers mess up and the composition begins to insert itself into Rachmaninov in the middle of a concert.

Reviews of August Blue have drawn several connections to the Disney film Frozen. Was it on your mind?
Absolutely not – but you could say Elsa really has to “let it go”.

Did you want to write a pandemic novel?
Somehow it documents the pandemic in a very everyday way. In two references to Covid tests, I simply write down what’s written on the test: where it’s manufactured, the batch number. I didn’t want to write a pandemic novel – I didn’t want to read one – but I didn’t know what to do about living and writing through a big historical event, pretending it wasn’t happening. I was thinking a lot about Woolf writing Mrs Dalloway, having lived through the first world war and a global influenza epidemic that killed millions. I could sort of feel her thinking through what to do with that. What she does is have Mrs Dalloway host a party into which [the novel] inserts a psychological double who’ll ruin it: Septimus Smith, shell-shocked from war. That sort of narrative design and experiment with surface and depth and history is something that interests me in my books from Swimming Home on.

How different do those books feel to you from the ones you published in the 80s and 90s?
Ballard was asked that, wasn’t he? About the early books and then the books from Cocaine Nights [1996]: Super-Cannes, Kingdom Come. I wrote Beautiful Mutants [1989] in my 20s when I was making the transition from theatre writing to prose, which was such a pleasure. By Swimming Home, I’m becoming interested in how you can’t subvert a reality unless you establish one, which is what surrealist paintings do – a big influence on me, as they were for Ballard. Dalí’s lobster phone wouldn’t work unless you knew it was a telephone. I became interested in the uncanny; in how to make narrative porous; in the importance of what you leave out. You could call it spectral realism.

Does the publishing climate feel different to you now, too?
The late 2000s was a very particular time: looking back, when mainstream publishers declined Swimming Home on the grounds that it was too literary – in other words, wasn’t going to sell – there was a disconnect between what was being published and what a new generation of readers wanted to read. Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder were being declined. Something shifted, but it’s not like the writers changed. It was about readers. They bought the books they wanted to read.

Which comes more easily to you, fiction or nonfiction?
All writing is really about stamina and solitude. So much is said about process, but that’s what it is. Arguments about genre are dissolving; no one knows what the novel is any more. If we’re not interested in how the writer thinks, it doesn’t matter what the form is, or the genre, or the level of sentence – I tend not to stay on the bus.

Name something you need in order to write.
Water: to swim. Writing and swimming help each other, so I like to be near water, whether just a local public pool or a river or whatever. I will somehow try to organise my writing life so I get a swim in.

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What’s the last book you gave as a gift?
Emily Berry’s poetry collection Stranger, Baby is probably the book I give most often. I think it’s a tremendous achievement. She finds a form for the chaotic conversations we have with ourselves in the face of a big loss – in her case, the loss of her mother.

Tell us what you’ve been reading lately.
Pier Paolo Pasolini
’s The Long Road of Sand, about a road trip he took in his Fiat along the Italian coastline in 1959. It’s travel writing like I’ve never read it before. I always loved his films but I didn’t even know he’d done any kind of travel writing. It’s incredible. I picked it up in a bookshop and opened it on a page about Naples: “It is sunstruck. It has remained the same over the centuries, physically emitting beauty as if beauty were a kind of spittle.” I thought, yeah, OK, Pier Paolo Pasolini, we’re going to buy this book.

August Blue by Deborah Levy will be published in paperback on 16 May by Penguin. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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