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Issue 50 / December 2012

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“I’m so pleased that it’s this book, which caused me the most despair and exasperation to write, that was nominated. It was the book I was meant to write. I kind of knew that when I was writing it, and that’s why it was so devastating when it was declined.”

Deborah Levy

Man Booker nominee Deborah Levy talks to Lucy Scholes about her critically acclaimed novel Swimming Home and an upcoming story collection.

Deborah Levy is having a busy autumn, with her novel Swimming Home contesting the Man Booker Prize and 'Black Vodka' shortlisted for the BBC Short Story Award. She manages to find a free hour in her hectic schedule, so I brave the sheeting rain and make my way to her North London home one blustery Monday afternoon to chat about her recent success.

Her smiling husband answers the front door, ushering me inside, past a front room, down into the kitchen then, surprisingly, out through the back door. At this point we have to crouch down to make our way under some rather exuberant creeping plant before we resurface, upright, in a long back garden. At the far end, I can see a shed-cum-summer-house, out of which Levy emerges as I make my way towards her.

swimminghome.jpgThis is where she writes. She invites me inside and I realise, with a pang of envy, that although small, it's cosier and distinctly warmer than my own flat. One wall is a wide window, facing out onto the garden, from which Levy watched a fox teaching her cubs to crawl under the fence the other day. She often hears the family playing on the roof as she writes at night. The back wall is covered with bookshelves. She motions me into a wicker armchair and folds herself into her desk chair, swivelling round to give me her full attention. On the desk behind her is a large MacBook, and, amongst other debris, I spy the remnants of a large glass of coffee and a packet of ten Silk Cut.

Levy is dressed elegantly in a black dress and jacket, grey woollen tights and Russell & Bromley loafers, her blonde hair combed back from her strikingly beautiful face. She's warm and hospitable, and every word she utters is considered and thoughtful. As Tom McCarthy notes in his introduction to Swimming Home, Levy has "read her Lacan and Deleuze, her Barthes, Marguerite Duras, Gertrude Stein, and Ballard, not to mention Kafka and Robbe-Grillet"; and this accumulated intelligence is called upon with formidable ease.

The story of Swimming Home's road to publication has been widely reported. The manuscript was sent out to mainstream publishers back in 2008. It was "admired", Levy states, but widely rejected before being picked up by And Other Stories, a new subscription-based independent publisher whose mission statement is to publish "mind-blowing literary fiction". Despite the rejections, Levy describes Swimming Home as her "most commercial book", so to hand it over to a new publishing house was "a great risk," she concedes, "but one that paid off in aces."

The Man Booker nomination is the icing on the cake. "It's amazing to be on the shortlist," she admits. "I'm so pleased that it's this book, which caused me the most despair and exasperation to write. It was the book I was meant to write. I kind of knew that when I was writing it, and that's why it was so devastating when it was declined."

The most recent twist in the tale is the joint publication, between And Other Stories and Faber (suspected to be one of the mainstream houses that originally turned Levy down) of a mass-market edition of the novel in order to keep up with the Man Booker-inspired demand for the text. It's quite a slim volume, pared down and tightly plotted, which she describes as "deceptively hard" to write, taking about three years all in all. "I wrote so many drafts; a lot of them abandoned. I was trying to get a kind of precision, an economy, that was just maddening to get right."

Critical opinion affirms that she achieved this. Reviewers praised the work for being "intimate in detail"; "a short work [with] an epic quality"; "minuscule yet magisterial". This focus on economy is something more commonly associated with descriptions of the short story, and Swimming Home's honed tightness is very reminiscent of that form, I suggest.

"Oh, no. I don't agree at all," she exclaims. "I think the short story and the novel have very little in common. For me, they're just so entirely different. Personally, I'm not longing for dull and decorative sentences in a novel, my own particular tastes are for writers such as Marguerite Duras or Muriel Spark."

"But it does have the structure of a short story," I begin.

"No way," she interrupts in no uncertain terms, "and when you read my new short story collection, you'll see why they're ten short stories and not ten novels."

And Other Stories will publish an anthology of Levy's new short stories, Black Vodka, in February next year. The title story, she allows, is "quite substantial", but it's "definitely not a novel". The central character is an ad man with a hunchback, a modern-day Quasimodo. "I've always wanted to put him in a suit, give him some status and a girlfriend and see what happens," Levy tells me as a smile plays at the corner of her mouth. She actually thinks that short stories "are more to do with film than the novel: you can jump in time, you have to make a world very quickly; who wants what, and what or who is stopping them getting it."

She describes short stories as "exciting", reminding me that they're also the form that she "cut her teeth as a writer on". But to be brutally honest, she's not that interested in the relationship between the short story and the novel: "Quite simply, there's more to do in a novel" and it's a form that suits her best at present.

Swimming Home, Levy explains, is "a strange mixture of modernism and realism. There's no dominant reality, there's a constellation of realities as the novel unfolds, as experienced by various characters." She learnt from the realist novel, that "you have to create solid walls if you're going to then subvert the genre and have someone walk through them" - an interesting discovery that she's going to work on further in future projects.

That Swimming Home is so clearly, as one reviewer put it, "an intelligent, pulsating literary beast", critics of last year's 'readability'-focused Man Booker shortlist are cheerfully praising its (and Will Self's) inclusion on this year's list. Levy argues that Swimming Home is "designed to be read on any level at all, you can go as far with it to its final conclusion as you like."

"You don't have to be clever to read it," she adds, and this is important to her. But at the same time, it's meticulously plotted. "I was interested in what else plot does, apart from telling the story; I was trying to do something even more radical with plot, and I was subverting the genre of what's come to be called the villa novel."

Kitty Finch, the novel's young agent provocateur, arrives on the scene of a family holiday, claiming she's come to France to save Joe Jacobs, a middle-aged father, husband and poet, from his thoughts. This, Levy explains, is what the novel explores: "Can we be saved from our thoughts? What do we do with disconcerting or unsettling thoughts? What do we do with sorrow? And in terms of plot, where does sorrow begin? It always begins somewhere, but does it have a middle and an end? Where does it fetch up? So I guess in a way I'm interested in how much effort we make, all of us, to switch off, as we have to. How things from our past come to confront us, even in the sunshine, even by the glittering pool."

It's an insidiously unsettling book, a literary page-turner that compels you to keep reading. "Good," says Levy when I tell her this, "as far as I'm concerned, that's my job as a writer".

Job done, she politely but firmly brings our conversation to a close. She has another appointment in ten minutes. We walk back down the garden, under the overgrown bushes by the back door, out through the house, and emerge onto the street. The rain has finally stopped, and I feel oddly like I'm coming up for air.

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Swimming Home is published by And Other Stories/Faber.

Lucy Scholes writes for the Independent, Observer, TLS, Daily Beast, National and the Huffington Post UK. She also teaches at Tate Modern.

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Saturday, 20 October, 2012

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