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Booker Prize shortlist author Deborah Levy ‘inspired to write by schoolteacher’

Booker Prize nominated Deborah Levy inspired to write by schoolteacher (Amanda Benson/BBC)
Booker Prize nominated Deborah Levy inspired to write by schoolteacher (Amanda Benson/BBC)

Booker Prize-nominated author Deborah Levy has told how she was inspired to write by a schoolteacher in South Africa.

The novelist, 62, whose books Hot Milk and Swimming Home both made the Booker Prize shortlist, lost her voice as a child while her father was a political prisoner in apartheid South Africa.

At school, she was encouraged by a teacher to put down her thoughts on paper, and the results were A Record Of Things I Don’t Know – which included her father’s status.

BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs heard how the author revisited the story years later in the first of her three memoirs, which she describes as “living autobiographies”.

Levy said: “It’s curious, I wasn’t exactly a mute, it was just the volume of my voice got lower and lower and lower until no one could hear me.

“The kids at school used to say to me, ‘are you dumb?’, and I used to nod because they would leave me alone.

“I think it was really about being totally overwhelmed by everything, not believing that my thoughts were in any way valuable to anyone, probably very frightened thoughts, and so I just stopped speaking.”

2012 Man Booker Prize shortlist
Swimming Home was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2012 (Philip Toscano/PA)

She added: “A teacher said, ‘why don’t you write down your thoughts?’, and so I had a go and I discovered my thoughts were quite loud.

“And then I invented a cat that had yellow eyes, very lonely, and could fly and do summersaults, and of course the cat was myself and I began to understand at quite a young age that you could find an avatar to be you and give it your thoughts, problems and opinions, so really that was the beginning.”

Levy spent fives years working on Swimming Home, which was nominated for a Booker Prize in 2012, but initially struggled to find a publisher.

She said: “That was the novel that changed my life because when I separated from my husband, that book had been nominated for the Booker Prize, a strange time of extreme unhappiness and shock and jubilation and pleasure all happening at the same time.

“To be valued, respected and read is an incredible privilege, it is an extraordinary feeling.

“It had been a long relationship of 23 years and it is very hard to believe that a life you had made together is not going to continue.

“It is much better to write from a position of love than hate. There is much more to risk in love than anything else.”

Man Booker Prize 2016
Hot Milk was shortlisted in 2016 (Man Booker Prize/PA)

In 2019, she was awarded a fellowship by Columbia University’s Institute for Ideas and Imagination, which meant moving to Paris.

Levy told Desert Island Discs presenter Lauren Laverne: “One of the fellows was DJ Emeka Ogboh. When I was feeling a bit blue about my 60th (birthday), wondering if my life added up to anything, he said I am going to be DJing at Silencio – a club designed and started by David Lynch.

“I had my birthday party there and my daughters couldn’t believe how cool their mother was, and neither could I.”

Levy’s family moved to the UK after her father’s release from prison when she was nine, travelling by boat and settling in West Finchley, north London, when she was a young teenager.

Having studied writing for the stage and performance at Dartington College Of Arts, after a chance encounter with film-maker Derek Jarman, Levy began writing women into her novels.

She added: “It seemed to me when I first started to write novels after the theatre, this was my opportunity to walk female subjectivity right into the centre of the world because it was something that we were not given very often.

“The first line of my first novel was, ‘My mother was the ice-skating champion of Moscow’ – she thought that was an incredible line.”

Desert Island Discs airs on BBC Sounds and BBC Radio 4 on Sunday at 11am.

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