Deborah Levy: ‘The new generation of young women can change the world’

The writer discusses the quest for a freer life and why she always returns to JG Ballard

Rejected by mainstream publishers for being “too literary”, Deborah Levy’s fifth novel, Swimming Home, was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker prize after being picked up by a small independent press. Hot Milk, her next novel, was also shortlisted for the Booker in 2016. Her early fiction has since been reissued by Penguin. Part memoir, part meditation on writing and gender, Things I Don’t Want to Know, the first volume of what she calls her “living autobiography”, recalled her childhood in South Africa (her father was imprisoned as a member of the ANC) and her teenage years “in exile” in England. The second instalment, The Cost of Living (Hamish Hamilton, £12.99), continues these reflections on art, identity and philosophy, alongside building a new life after the breakdown of her marriage.

What do you mean by the term “living autobiography”?
I’m writing three living autobiographies: Things I Don’t Want to Know is my 40s; The Cost of Living my 50s; my third one will be my 60s – I’m not there yet, so I don’t know what’s going to be in that one. Those decades – the 40s, 50s and 60s – were really undocumented years in terms of female experience. I thought it would be exciting to see what they were about and what they reveal. It seemed to me that autobiographies are usually written in retrospect, right at the end of one’s life: what would it be like to write one while you were living?

Of your new study, a shed in a friend’s garden, you say: “It was there that I would begin to write in the first person, using an I that is close to myself and yet not myself.” What do you mean by that?
The “I” in my autobiography is myself, but you also have to invent a persona through which to speak, in the same way as when I write about a character in a novel; you leave as much out in nonfiction as you do in fiction. On the whole, I think they are pretty similar.

Described by one reviewer as a “feminist riposte to Orwell”, Things I Don’t Want to Know uses Orwell’s essay Why I Write as a platform for your own contemplation of the writing life. What were the influences and inspirations for volume two?
There are many. I discuss Louise Bourgeois and Barbara Hepworth, and the forms that they are creating at different times. Marguerite Duras is in both books because she is so intellectually irreverent and honest. She cuts as close to human subjectivity as it is possible to get without dying of pain. She’s also very witty.

Rachel Cusk similarly explores the boundaries between autobiography and fiction in her work. Her 2012 memoir, Aftermath, also about the end of her marriage, caused something of an outcry. Do you worry about writing such a personal book?
I don’t think that is the question asked of men. This book is not about the break-up of a marriage. It is about making an “other” life. It’s a mashup of travel writing, gender politics; it’s about the narrator’s search for a major new female character who can live in a less narrowly defined way. So it’s not about the guy, it’s not about marriage: it’s about making an other life.

You describe both enduring love – “one that does not reduce its major players to something less than they are” – and femininity as “phantoms”. Do you feel they are both illusions?
I’m trying to get away from that old-fashioned female character as written by men for women, which is all about suffering, endurance and sacrifice. Why don’t we find some other talents and separate ourselves from the boredom of always having to be defined or pinned down in that way? The book is about a quest for a freer life and what that means. My conclusion is that the search for a freer life for both men and women is a journey without end.

The book begins and ends with sharply observed anecdotes of young women not being properly listened to or else made to physically take up less space. Why did you feel it was important to include these scenes?
My point is that the world is her world too. Those examples are ways of dramatising the – obvious – idea that she comes with a whole life and a libido of her own.

Are you hopeful there will be new roles for your daughters? That they will be able to be the “major characters” in their own stories more easily?
Absolutely! I love and admire the new generation of young women. I think they can change the world.

You have described your life during this period as what Elena Ferrante called “being happy and unhappy” at the same time: “Except, in my case, it was more like being happy and extremely miserable at the same time.” Do you still feel that way?
All of us live with happiness and unhappiness. So we don’t want to “other-ise” people and privilege one experience over the other. As Freud told us, it would be a good thing to convert everyday misery into ordinary, everyday unhappiness.

“The writing life is mostly about stamina,” you write. How do your keep your resolve?
You have to be interested enough and curious enough to sit down for many hours, like on a long-haul flight, and haul your ideas home. You either have an appetite for the slog of that, the solitude of that – or you don’t.

There are several affectionate and lively cameos by your friends in the book. Was it important to show their involvement in your new life?
A family of friends! There is an idea that in a marriage you might not ever feel lonely, or ever long for physical intimacy, and we all know that story is a lie. It’s not as if after a marriage ends suddenly friendships become more important. So if a woman steps out of society’s story, my point is that is a pretty good place to be. My book is about the joy of creating a home for this other life.

What books are on your bedside table?
A transcendent poetry collection by Ocean Vuong, Night Sky With Exit Wounds – it is delicate, intimate and political. I have just been to see the Picasso exhibition at Tate Modern, so I read Gertrude Stein’s 1938 essay on Picasso – they were great pals in their younger years in Paris.

What’s the last really great book you read?
The Mother of All Questions: Further Feminisms by Rebecca Solnit. Her nuanced critique of the narrow way women are pinned to a single story about what makes a good life is liberating and witty.

Which genres do you particularly enjoy reading? Are there any you avoid?
I don’t really believe in genres. It is true that the genre thing helps me find my way around a bookshop, but I wonder if it might be a total revolution to dissolve genre and pile up philosophy with science fiction, travel writing, poetry, history and the natural sciences, etc. Most good writing is a mix of all these, anyway.

How do you organise your books?
I have now given away every book that I started, never finished, and never want to read again. This is sort of a way of organising my books.

Do you prefer to read on paper or a screen?
Both. I prefer paper because I work on a screen most of the day. Somehow paper feels quieter than a screen.

Which book or author do you always return to?
JG Ballard. He is the British writer of his generation who magnificently put his major, very un-British influences (Freud and surrealism) to work in every novel and short story.

What are you working on now?
I’m halfway through my next novel and it is all about masculinity. It’s about an amazing man and it’s called The Man Who Saw Everything.

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy is published by Hamish Hamilton (£12.99). To order a copy for £9.75 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Lisa Allardice

The GuardianTramp

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