Stella Duffy: a life on the page
22nd May 2017
Stella Duffy OBE is an author, playright and short-story writer. Her novels The Room of Lost Things and State of Happiness were long-listed for the Orange Prize. Her novel, The Hidden Room, will be published by Virago in July. She speaks to Rebecca Swirsky about not putting everything into your first book and comparing writing to a game of snakes and ladders
Which authors changed the way you write?
Other people’s writing always makes me think I’m never going to be that good. But some books have remained with me. Depending on how you look at them, JD Salinger wrote two either very long short stories or very short novellas, each narrated by a writer called Buddy Glass – Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters is an impeccable short story, while Seymour: an Introduction, is one of the most accurate pieces of writing that exists about the impossibility of writing, of genuinely getting at the truth; most of us are inefficient tools and can only use ourselves. Katherine Mansfield is an author who writes beyond herself, which I admire. Getting ourselves out of the way is useful.
Can achieving success early be helpful or distracting?
For me, achieving success early on wouldn’t have been helpful. At 29, having sold my first book for very little money to Serpents Tail, I remember thinking, “Okay, I can do this now.” Publishing was a whole new world, it was great to have a first book to practise on. I don’t mean I knew what to do the second time, and it continually changes, but having no expectation allowed me to write the next novel. I was writing in a vacuum. I’d never been to a writing class or a book reading – I just wanted to tell a story.
What would you have told yourself before pursuing a writing career?
Don’t put everything into your first book. It’s a mistake many writers make. Save some for the next. Writing isn’t like climbing a hill. We live in a culture that assumes upwards progression is guaranteed, but writing is more like playing snakes and ladders. Sometimes you’ll write something that works, sometimes you won’t. Everyone has at least one bad piece of writing in them. It should be fine that a writing career isn’t constantly moving forward and upwards. We don’t talk about that, but we should. Also, writers love brilliant reviews, but if you love them you have to take the bad ones seriously, too.
What’s the short story you wish you’d written but haven’t?
Anything to do with my childhood. I’m not that revelatory yet, and I may never be. I can’t begin to open up about that publicly. And if I was, it might make people think things of me that I can’t control. At the moment I want to be able to control what people know about me.
Which of your short stories, if any, had the most impact when you wrote it?
The title story from my anthology Everything is Moving, Everything is Joined, published (and commissioned) by Comma Press was challenging. The subject was science. I worked with a scientist who I trusted, so it was definitely a two-part piece. Where I got things wrong, he told me and I fixed it. Writing from a vulnerable starting point made me a braver writer.
Has rejection gotten any easier?
No, in fact it may possibly have gotten worse. I’m 54 and I’m unsure what I could do other than write; today, I’m all the writer I can be. If I’m on a list, publishers are happy and it makes a difference to book sales. Conversely, not being selected feels like a rejection (although I know it’s not). If I am selected, I try and remember the others who aren’t. That, on that day, these particular judges liked my work. Had one judge been different, perhaps they wouldn’t have.
Is it better to write about big things in a small way or small things in a big way?
It’s probably invidious to choose one over the other, but personally I think small is more interesting. The Gilder’s Apprentice (in the anthology) has a big revelation and yet is ostensibly about quite a small thing and is small in tone. It needed a quietness, which I like.
What was it like revisiting your work for your anthology? Did you wish you could change anything?
A fortnight after any of my books are published I want to change things, but those stories in that anthology were of their time. Some were 25 years-old and some were a year old. The collection wasn’t “Stella Duffy’s recently written stories”. Better to leave them be.
In short fiction what’s harder, the beginning or the end?
Neither – it’s the making it up. Quite often I write the first draft in one go. Actually I find editing more pleasurable. It’s where the real work begins.
How often does inspiration hit you?
When I’m struggling, answers may arrive as I’m swimming or running or doing yoga. Just once, in 15 novels and 60 short stories, have I experienced pure inspiration; for my novel Singling out of the Couples. I was visiting my mum in New Zealand and was on the phone to someone in England. Somehow, from that conversation the story of an anti-romance fell into my head like a gift.
London Lies Beneath by Stella Duffy is out now (Virago £8.99)