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Tuesday January 15, 2013

Swimming upstream

Her book was shortlisted for one of the English-speaking world’s most prestigious literary awards. But for two years, she couldn’t get a publisher interested in it.

BRITISH playwright Deborah Levy had a good year for prose in 2012. Swimming Home, her first novel in 15 years, was in the running for the Man Booker Prize, while Black Vodka, a short story written around the same time, was shortlisted for the noted BBC International Short Story Award.

“You wait 20 years to be shortlisted and then two come along in the same week,” Levy, 53, says with a laugh from her home in north London.

While neither the novel Swimming Home nor the short story Black Vodka won first prize – Hilary Mantel took the £50,000 (RM243,451) Booker for her Tudor-era story Bring Up The Bodies and Miroslav Penkov the £15,000 (RM73,035) award for his tale, East Meets West – South African-born Levy says she is just thrilled by the exposure.

After all, it took her two years just to find a publisher for the Booker-shortlisted Swimming Home, a tight, chilling narrative about a holiday gone wrong. “The book was admired, but they felt it wouldn’t prosper in a tough economy. I was devastated,” she says.

The manuscript languished in limbo until independent outfit And Other Stories took a chance and printed it. The subscription-based publisher (readers pay between £20 and £50, or RM9 and RM243, to receive two to six books a year) first sent the book out to just over 100 subscribers.

After Swimming Home made it to the longlist last July, “sales increased tenfold”, according to a spokesman for the publisher. When the short list was announced in September, e-book sales doubled again. “In a nutshell, Swimming Home sold more units in a fortnight than across 2011,” the spokesman adds.

And Other Stories has since partnered with major publisher Faber & Faber to reprint the 158-page novel for markets overseas. It is also publishing a collection of Levy’s short stories this year.

While hallucinogenic in parts, Swimming Home has a real-world origin. Levy is an avid swimmer and, on her way to the beach in Nice, France, several years ago, she encountered a naked young girl on a box of rotten plums. Attempts to help or intervene were rejected, so she found herself revisiting the experience in writing but giving it a different conclusion.

Almost the same scene appears in the middle of Swimming Home. Yet, unlike in real life, the elderly woman character forces the young girl to receive medical attention for her condition.

“The consequences of her intervention is what the book is about. One of the questions in the book is how do we live with madness, and what is sanity,” says Levy.

Questions of identity and individuality have interested her for years, since she was nine. Transplanted from South Africa to Britain, she and her younger brother failed to fit into the schoolyard. They decided they had to lose their accents and watched sitcoms on TV to modify their speech patterns.

“It ignited my interest in how we constructed our cultural identities,” she recalls. Her father, a historian and former political prisoner in apartheid South Africa, and her mother, a secretary, divorced when she was 15. She has two other siblings, a brother and a sister.

Levy gravitated towards theatre and studied in the Dartington College of Arts. She wrote plays for various drama troupes including the renowned Royal Shakespeare Company, most of which were about gender and feminism. In Pushing The Prince Into Denmark, written in the 1990s, she gave greater voice to two fictional female characters, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and his love interest Ophelia.

But the lack of control in theatre was disturbing. “The writer goes off and writes a script, the script is then interpreted by actors, director, sound guys – you’re working together as a whole. I wanted to kind of be in more control and really get my hands on language.”

So she turned to fiction. Her first novel, Beautiful Mutants, was published in 1986 and her most recent, before Swimming Home, was the 1996 Billy And The Girl, the story of two abandoned adolescents.

In between, she raised two children, daughters Sadie, 18 and Leila, 13, with her husband, playwright David Gale. She also wrote many short stories, including those collected in the 2004 compilation Pillow Talk In Europe And Other Places, and several plays for radio and theatre.

“There was a lot of writing in those years,” says Levy. “This writing will now be seeing the light of day.” – The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network

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