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Interview with Stella Duffy

31 Jan 2012

Stella Duffy, the critically acclaimed novelist, theatre director and performer talks to Rosie Wilby about her writing career, her life and the inspiration behind her work.

Rosie-Wilby-portrait.jpgBy Rosie Wilby

I’ve always been slightly in awe of Stella Duffy’s work ethic. Last year alone, she wrote her thirteenth novel (a sequel to her historical tale of Roman Empress Theodora, published in 2010), directed a devised play Taniwha Thames at the Oval House, and worked on a couple of films and several short stories.

It’s a relief to see her on Twitter occasionally, distracted like the rest of us. And also to find out that before my visit to their bright Loughborough Junction kitchen, she and her wife Shelley Silas had disagreed about something as trivial as to whether to fold and put away the dusters that were drying on the clothes horse.

On arrival, I immediately feel a bit of a ditz because my interview notes have fallen out of my back pocket somewhere in Ruskin Park. Perhaps I shouldn’t have let the frosty sunny morning inspire me to pretend I was out on an early run in the guise of Saz Martin, Duffy’s endearingly hopeless lesbian detective and protagonist of her five crime novels. Novels which I once devoured on a beach holiday in Lesvos. "How lesbian!" we laugh.

"I don’t know why I stopped writing the Saz books," says Duffy. "Sarah Lund of The Killing (who we both confess to being a little in love with) is a much worse detective!" Discussing the current popularity of another unconventional crime heroine Lisbeth Salander of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, she says: "Val McDermid, Lauren Henderson, Denise Danks and me were writing about women who had sex all over the place, were taking drugs, were tattooed and doing all sorts of counter cultural things in the 90’s." I suggest, "It takes a while for things to catch on." She says, "Yes it takes a while. And it takes a bloke. Women have their big breakthroughs when they write about men. It’s considered groundbreaking. When I wrote The Room Of Lost Things, I wrote about two male protagonists because that’s what the book needed. But I also knew I’d be taken more seriously. And I was." 

The-room-of-lost-things.jpgThe book was longlisted for the Orange Prize. A rich multicultural tapestry of South London dwellers, it revolved around Robert the dry cleaner, a character inspired by his real life counterpart Faisal. "He’s since sold the shop which is good because it makes my book more fictional," she laughs. He once said to Duffy, "You should write about a dry cleaner. We know people’s secrets." Duffy says, "You don’t get everything dry cleaned. It’s for special clothes. They’re already coming with an emotional content." And sometimes, it seems, with a love letter in the pocket that the wearer has forgotten about.

Written soon after 9/11 and the London bombs, the characters learn, change and stumble through the misappropriation of grief that happened at the time, something which Duffy can’t stand. She similarly hates the generalisations made about the white working class as racist and as all being like ‘those guys’ who killed Stephen Lawrence.

Stella-Duffy-smiling.jpgShe was born on a Woolwich Estate and wanted to talk about her own roots and, more simply, her love for the hills, parks and streets of South London. Childhood memories for Duffy, such as hearing pre-Thames Barrier ships sailing up the river, are incredibly vivid - perhaps because at the age of 4 she was told that the family were moving to New Zealand. Her mum was 47 and had only previously ever travelled to Wales. "It was huge for her. She kept saying ‘You’ve got to remember this.'’’

New Zealand was a great place for a teenage Duffy to go to University and work out her own sexuality. The country was "really re-evaluating itself in terms of its race relations. Because of that, everything else came up too. So the gay society at Uni was really strong and welcoming. And there were quite a few out lesbians wearing fantastic 1950s frocks from the 'op shops' [charity shops]. In the ‘80s that was really unusual and, when I came to London, I realised how unusual." She describes herself wearing a black gymslip, black tights, white plimsolls and with very bright red hair looking "really cute".

Returning to London in 1986, she was struck by how "dour" and "dark" it seemed at the time. Although she describes her first big Pride event at Jubilee Gardens on the South Bank as "the most incredible thing ever", she didn’t enjoy how separatist the scene was and how strongly divided it was between lesbians and gay men. Looking for a lesbian flatshare, she was told "we’re a separatist household". Not even her brother was allowed to visit. "I value that those spaces are there," she says, "but my personal choice is to try to be as integrative as possible. There’s a place for someone as politically active as Peter Tatchell and somewhere as middle of the road as Stonewall - because we need people talking to the Tories. I believe we make change through dialogue, something that my Buddhist practise talks about a lot."

Her Buddhism also informs her sense of duty to be out and make it as good as we can for other LGBT people around the world by "shining a light" here. "I’m not saying it’s easy for everyone but we do have a responsibility." She has talked in previous interviews about how difficult it was to gain acceptance from her wife Shelley’s parents. "It took nine and a half years for them to come to this house and that was the first time I met her Dad. I met her mum once before. It was really, really hard. We kept on trying, Shelley kept asking them." Eventually Shelley’s father said yes. "I was so scared and so nervous and didn’t know how I’d feel. But all the anger I thought I might feel wasn’t there." She now describes her in laws as "brilliant people" and "really good friends". Recently, at Shelley’s nephew’s Bar Mitzvah, her dad danced publicly with Stella. "It was a real statement on his part."

calendar-girl-stella-duffy-paperback-cover-art.jpgShe talks about her near 22 year relationship as being "forged through fire" after going through cancer and infertility almost as soon as she’d discovered that bond with Shelley’s parents. With absolute certainty, she says, she and Shelley are soul mates. They met via a mutual friend when Stella was doing an impro gig at the Banana in Balham – a scenario that forms the basis of the first chapter of Calendar Girl (apparently the only true bit of the book). Both nursing broken hearts, they fell in love "at first sight" but not actually with each other. "I fell in love with someone who was a little bit of a Liza Minelli lookalike, and she fell in love with somebody who was being funny onstage." Their early years were full of "big screamy, shouty fights" which she reckons are actually pretty healthy.

theodora-book---duffy.jpgShe clearly loves her home with Shelley and describes a very happy six month period spent editing The Room Of Lost Things in the afternoons and researching Theodora in the mornings. "For the first time, on my 11th and 12th books, I felt like a proper writer because I wasn’t also directing a show." Her retelling of the life of the Empress who rose from poverty and child prostitution was inspired by seeing her depicted in a mosaic in Ravenna, and now spans two books. The Purple Shroud, due out in July, covers ‘the power years’ when Theodora took the reins of government when Emperor Justinian got the plague. Confined to the palace, however, it became something of a "gilded prison". Because more historical documentation existed for this era, Duffy describes the process of fictionalising the sequel as harder – a challenge she enjoyed. "I want it to be knotty. I don’t trust it when it’s too easy."

Over the last few weeks, she’s been grappling with what to write next. Happily, one of six floating ideas has just "coalesced" and passed her agent’s "goosebump test". Even more serendipitously, she is going to be a writer in residence this May at Gladstone’s Library in Flintshire, Wales. Considering that her new work is set between 1850 and 1920 and overlaps with the former PM's era, it’s likely that she will have access to all the books that she needs. She’s almost tearful about how proud her parents would have been for a "working class girl done good, who grew up in a timber town" to have the opportunity to live for a month in a place designed for study. "My dad was a boilerman and worked night shifts. If the boiler broke down he had to fix it and would come home a stone lighter from sweating, and covered in bruises. But if the boiler was fine, he read a novel a night."

I retrace my steps through a glorious Ruskin park. There’s no sign of my notes. But I do feel a bit more inspired to get on with writing that novel I’ve had in the back of my head...


Stella Duffy's blog: http://stelladuffy.wordpress.com/