May 2004

Jessa Crispin


An Interview with Deborah Levy

My recent discovery of Deborah Levy's Pillow Talk in Europe and Other Places felt like a revelation. Her short stories are so beautiful, so cutting, you find it difficult to believe you have gone this long without having heard of the author. Most of her books are out of print in the United States, and only two, her novel Billy and Girl and Pillow Talk are available, thanks to the good work of Dalkey Archive Press.

Levy agreed to an exchange of e-mails before sequestering herself in Texas.

Ever since I read your story "CaveGirl," I've been telling everyone I run into to read it. Was there something in particular that sparked that story or the character of Pretend Woman?

Well, I've always been interested in the ways girls and women play out what "femininity" means to them. In the same way, I'm also intrigued (probably because of my theater training) in how drag queens perform femininity. Any sort of imitation interests me. Did you ever want to laugh in exactly the same way your best friend at school laughed? I met an Elvis impersonator at a party last week and after his very good set, I had to stop myself asking him nerdy questions like "what have you learned about Elvis from your imitation of him?"... I could see that quite understandably he just wanted to knock back the sea breezes and flirt!

In "Cave Girl" I wanted Cass to have a go at being a "pretend woman" so I could say something about the ways women perform themselves. So when Cass comes home from the "OP" she is very tuned into the things some men need her to play act for them: Cass comes back confident but non-confrontational, attractive but not frighteningly beautiful, appears to have no inner life but is not stupid, is emotionally undemanding but not numb -- and she has some scary sort of mythic power over her brother. The new Cass is not passive, she is manipulative. Her mythic power has something to do with that her brother says... "What if old Cass suddenly jumps through the smooth white skin of new Cass, laughing like a demon?"

With "CaveGirl" as well as "Conversations with Famous Artists I Have Known" and the two Louises in "Billy and Girl," you seem to keep returning to theidea of what society wants women to be versus the women who don't fulfill that expectation. Is this something you're consciously trying to explore through your work?

I guess the female characters in my books are always quite slippery... ambivalent... restless. My male characters are more rooted in work and home, but in a sense they are also more vulnerable. I know this is a reversal of the stereotype, but I think on the whole it's probably true. I'm not actually sure what society wants women to be anymore.

What struck me about "Conversations with Famous Artists" was that it could be read as either two old friends or as an inner conversation in one woman pondering her future options. Was it your intention to have that story be approachable in different ways?

Yes, it is two old friends having a conversation but as you suggest, it is also a conversation I've had with myself... in a sense I am both characters. I was quite shocked when a reader told me how much she disliked the Marly character... as if I'd somehow be pleased about that. But I really admire Marly for the way she has decided not to give her life away to other people and dared to live with the consequences..

The topic of "Conversations with Famous Artists" (career versus family) seems to be a uniquely feminine quandary. Did your own life affect that story?

Sure. When I had children, the kind of introspection a writer needs to work was just about 100% blown out. My identity up to then had always been as a woman who earned her living by thinking and writing. It was challenging for me to find a way of joining up the earth shattering love I felt for my children and the need to be alone, think, read, have some financial independence. It is very important to me that women spin their ideas and thinking into the world and this takes time, solitude and a certain kind of courage. But here's the uniquely feminine quandary: It is equally important to me to have children and to experience the enduring love I have with their brilliant father. This too takes time, involves no solitude and a certain kind of courage. It is a uniquely "feminine" quandary because it is women who give birth and it is she who the children most need in the early years. But I reckon all of life is one sort of quandary or another -- the best thing to do is laugh a lot, cry a lot, swim a lot, know how to make a really good margarita and sooner or later the shattered mother who is also a writer will, as Morrissey once put it, "feel a double album coming on"

You were awarded the Lannan Foundation to write "Pillow Talk in Europe and Other Places." How did this come about?

Having read my novel Billy and Girl (published by Bloomsbury in UK + Dalkey Archive in USA) the Lannan Literary Committee awarded me a writing fellowship as part of their fellowship program to help writers finish specific projects. It just so happened that Pillow Talk was the book I wanted to complete.

More of your books are out of print in the US. Do you find the reception for your books warmer in the UK?

Neither warmer or colder but there is a different literary culture, a different tone. I certainly appreciate the different tone to reviews and critical writing in the USA. It is somehow more lively, witty, nervy, hipper, not so class bound -- it's gotta bit of blue sky in it. Or do we always feel that things are more sparky away from home?

You work in so many different formats -- novels, short stories, plays, poetry. Do you know what format a story is going to take, or is that something that must be worked out?

Yes I mostly always know when something is fiction and when something is a play. For a start, the novelist is in control of all meanings. Writing plays is a different discipline all together, it lives or dies on the strength of its collaborators... director, performers, designers, etc. Talking of which, I've just got a great job: it's writing a 20 minute dialogue for a ventriloquist and dummy. The dummy is made by German sculptor Asta Groting and the ventriloquist is an American Indian called Buddy Big Mountain. Asta has a lovely name for this project: it's called The Inner Voice.

You've commented that "having one's books out of print is a bit like dying." You also said you're working on having your backlist reprinted. How is that going?

Yes, being out of print is like a voice that has kind of been snuffed out. I realise so many books that mean something to me are out of print. The short stories of Pamela Zoline for example, or Edmund White's brilliant biography of Jean Genet. When I have finished my next novel and it makes it way into the world, so I hope will the backlist. What I don't want to happen to me is that thing that happens to so many Women -- it's as if we burst out of the birthday cake without context, history, or past with every book. Better to have body of work than a body covered in chocolate and cream... it lasts longer.