DIVA editor Carrie Lyell chats to the acclaimed writer and performer about her new book, Lullaby Beach
BY CARRIE LYELL
Devoured Stella Duffy’s latest novel, Lullaby Beach, and left wanting more after reading our interview in the April issue? You’re in luck…
Lullaby Beach has had wonderful reviews from critics and readers alike. Are they important to you, at this point in your career, with so many books under your belt?
Yes, because that makes a difference for sales. I’m not someone that people will have on order and buy the next book every year, because I don’t write a book every year. Every time, it makes a difference, and particularly in the last year. It’s been a really different experience because we’re not doing events, we’re not doing festivals, we’re not at book shops. People have done really exciting [online] things… they’re all great. And they are really helping. But our usual manner of meeting readers and being in touch with potential new readers isn’t here. And so I think the press reviews and things like GoodReads and Amazon reviews by readers probably matter more than ever, actually.
Have the reactions surprised you?
I have been slightly surprised that so many people have said that they absolutely love it. I am slightly more used to people going, “This book’s amazing!’ Or “This book’s terrible!” [Laughs] Seriously. I guess I’m just a marmite writer. As yet, and of course they may will still be coming, but as yet, the vast majority are really, really liking it. There’s some pretty fucking hard shit in this book. I thought it might put more people off. And I think it’s really important that that hard shit is in this book: the violence, the rape, the abortion. When I was writing this, the stuff that was starting to happen in the States, under Trump, around the revision of abortion laws. The stuff that’s happening in Poland, for Polish women, that no one seems to be talking about. That we have to keep saying that we have the right to live in our own bodies time and time again, it was really important to me that the abortion stuff was in this book. The Northern Irish stuff only happened in the past, what, 18 months? I thought more people would balk at the graphicness and the extremity of that, but actually, as you’ve said and a couple of the reviewers have said, there is that, but there is something about the family dynamic and the family relationships that is also comforting within the really difficult stuff. So I’m glad I achieved that. I certainly wasn’t sure I could!
There are so many layers to this book and it’s all the more impactful because we know these characters. We know these women. We are these women. How much of you is in Lullaby Beach?
My love of the sea is in this book. An absolute pining for the sea, at the moment, because of lockdown and not being able to get there. I think perhaps my passion for resilience is in it, in that I don’t believe things get tidied up and I don’t believe in happy ever afters, but I do believe that we can survive and survival can be about our choices. There are very different choices made in this book by the four lead women, and they are the choices they can make around their own survival. Including Kitty’s choice to kill herself, which she does very early on in the book and all the reviews have mentioned so it’s not like it’s a spoiler saying it. One of my dearest, closest, oldest friends killed herself 18 months ago. I had already written three drafts of this book, and I had to tell our group of friends who have known each other since we were 12-year-old girls at school, that I had this in a novel. The one thing that makes it bearable for me that our friend made this choice, and all of us are really clear, it was her choice. She was stubborn as hell [laughs]. An absolutely brilliant, stubborn as hell person. I wish she’d made a different choice. She didn’t, but I do think it’s her life. And so I think all of these characters make very clear choices about how they want to live their lives and that to me is deeply important. And they do it from a place, eventually, of some freedom. Individually and out of what they choose to do, they make choices, and that’s all there is in the end. Making choices and taking responsibility for those choices.
Lullaby Beach is something of a love letter to what you call diagonal family relationships. Could you say a little more about that?
I’m the youngest of seven. I have 15 nieces and nephews and 31 grand nieces and nephews. Those relationships have always been really important to me, long before I wanted to have children and then wasn’t able to have children because chemotherapy made me infertile and Shelley [Silas, Stella’s wife] miscarried. Long before I even was trying to be a mother myself, my relationships with my nieces and nephews were so important to me. That sideways, diagonal relationship isn’t often explored in fiction. People talk about mothers and fathers and sons and daughters. They talk about siblings. They certainly do mothers and daughters and fathers and sons. But aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews haven’t been done a lot. Those relationships are really precious and really important and for those of us who don’t have children and do have families where we have nieces and nephews or perhaps god children, it’s a very special and very “other” relationship. It’s really not a parental relationship and that’s what gives it its juice. Therefore, there’s something else going on to write about it in fiction. There’s a lot less that is assumed and a lot less that is a given, and that gives us loads more to play with as writers.
It’s certainly refreshing to see a different family narrative explored.
Yeah! And the queer aunt: it’s a thing, right!? That’s who Sara is. She’s the queer aunt. That allows her to be “inside outside” the family and therefore Lucy’s confidant. That’s really cool.
The ending to Lullaby Beach feels satisfying, even though as you said earlier, you don’t believe in happily ever after, and in Beth’s words, “We can’t win”. There’s something of a victory, still.
They can’t win. They literally cannot win, because regardless of who the men are, the men have power in patriarchy, and capitalism is a patriarchy. But I think perhaps the reason people are finding it satisfying is that they don’t give up. They try. And while knowing they can’t win, they still try, and I think there’s something really important in that. We will all die, right? We know that, on a certain level, but most of us don’t know it properly or every day and mostly we ignore it. But we do still try. We get up. We have a day. We connect with people. We try and create something, be that a cake or a loaf of bread or a novel or a song. We try and create something and then we go to bed and we keep doing that, and at the end of it we do die. But it doesn’t mean that your attempts to live doesn’t count. And I think that’s what these characters are doing. They know they can’t win, and they’re attempting to live anyway.
When you finish a book, when you put the pen down, how much of these characters and their stories stay with you?
Not a lot [laughs]. Because it’s done. Also, because, bloody hell. I wrote a novel with three timescales. That’s insane and I’m never doing it again! It was so, so difficult to get right in the end. I sob when it’s done. I knew this was done, and I had a big cry. And then it does go, because it’s really important to let it go. Kitty is the character that a lot of people have told me matter enormously to her. There’s at least three or four chapters of Kitty that aren’t in the book, because I enjoyed writing her so much I wrote far too much! So she might find her way into a short story one day. But they’re in and of themselves now. Just there, at the beach, off having their lives…
You seem to me such a naturally gifted writer, but you’ve talked in the past about the pressure to prove yourself, and I know you didn’t call yourself a writer until you’d had three books published. Tell us about that.
Partly, there’s a working class, “I don’t belong in this world” [mentality]. And sometimes the people from those worlds have made it very clear that I didn’t. Partly there was that for a long time I was just interested in performance work and didn’t really understand that I could be a performer and a writer. I thought you had to make a choice to be just one thing. Thank god I worked that one out pretty quickly! And partly it’s that I lived with a sense of not feeling like I’m enough. Like lots and lots and lots of us do. Some days, I feel like I’m on my way to overcoming that. And that’s lovely. Other days, I slip straight back into feeling like I’m not enough and I don’t fit and I don’t belong. I’ve done a couple of really big keynote speeches for some very big companies recently and one of the things I always ask is “Who here has ever felt that they don’t belong?” And everyone puts up their hand. Every single one of us. I don’t know, maybe if you went to Eton and then Oxford and joined The Bullingdon Club and then ran the government, maybe then you’d feel like you belong? But most of it, on some pretty intrinsic levels, struggle with belonging, and some of us struggle with it more than others. For me, doing my work to the best of my ability is where I am trying to be now. Literally hour by hour, day by day. It’s enough if I can get to the end of the day and think I did my best by myself. I’m trying. I’m getting better at judging myself by my standards, not by other people’s.
How has the pandemic impacted you creatively?
I finished my yoga teacher training in lockdown, I finished the edit on this book in lockdown, I started my doctorate in existential psychotherapy half in lockdown. I’ve probably done more work in the past year than I ever have. I don’t know who the people are who’ve got all this fucking time off, because as a freelancer, it’s been even harder to try and make work and keep going! Most of the freelancers I know have been trying more things and struggling more, of course. I’m loving the study I’m doing, the psychotherapy training, and working with clients. The bulk of my reading has been academic reading, which is entirely new to me. It’s all been very new and pretty scary but really exciting. I’m occasionally reading fiction, but not a lot. I haven’t been as open to the work of strangers as I might have been in the past. I want to read work by people I know I’m going to get something from. I think perhaps, because I’m doing so much new stuff in my academic work, fiction for me at the moment, and in the past year, has been more of a place of safety.
How do you push aside feelings of anxiety that so many of us are experiencing at the moment?
I live fairly successfully with low level anxiety because I put myself out there so much and have done for such a long time. So it’s not that I don’t feel it. It’s not that events or publishing a book and knowing that they’ll be people who love it and people who hate it, and they’ll have no qualms about saying so in public… it’s not that those things don’t also scare me, but I am really used now to living with that fear and I’ve sort of trained myself to accept that that’s just how it is… Sports people live with low and high level anxiety all the time. Usain Bolt prepares for a race, he’s not chilled and feeling calm, but we call it nervousness or excitement when it’s sport. In the creative field, we call it anxiety…. I feel it all the time, Carrie. Actually, I’m having a bit of a shitty day today. I don’t really know why. But I have learned over my years that I can feel like this and I can still contribute. There certainly was a time in my late teens and my early 20s when I felt like this and I felt I couldn’t contribute and that I didn’t have anything to give. Helping myself understand that even when I feel like crap and like I’m not of value, I can still create value. It’s probably a life’s work, but it’s something I believe as a concept even when I don’t feel it emotionally. That’s kind of a longwinded answer to you, but the truth is I genuinely believe that everyone can contribute and can create value, therefore that has to be able to apply to me too, including on the days – and sometimes weeks – when I feel like there’s nothing I can do.
Where do you think you get your passion for resilience from?
I’ve seen three therapists in my life, including when I was 25 when my dad died… I was earning £25 per house that I cleaned when I was starting to be a performer and not earning any money, and therapy cost £40 an hour. I still took myself to a therapist because I knew I needed help. I knew I couldn’t do this by myself. When I had my first cancer at 36, I found a cancer therapist. And then when I had my second cancer in my early 50s and things were particularly bad, that’s when I, almost by accident, found the therapist I have now who is an existential psychotherapist. It’s very personal, the type of therapy that works for somebody, but that particular type of work has touched my core, my spirit, my heart, in a way that nothing else ever has. I’ve been practicing Buddhism for over 30 years and I’ve been doing yoga for decades, and now teaching yoga for writers. The philosophy behind yoga is connected with Buddhism, which connects strongly with existential philosophy. There’s an existential phrase, “Living towards death”. Living towards it. Living, underlined. But towards death. Towards an end. There is an end. If we know there’s an end, then each minute begins to matter a little bit more.
Speaking of endings, you’ve stepped down from Fun Palaces after eight years. How does that feel?
Fun Palaces is probably the biggest thing I’ll ever create in my life. The day I left, I spent most of the day sobbing! It was entirely co-created, so I had the huge joy of working both with my creative partner, Sarah-Jane Rawlings, really intensively for eight years. But also with this fantastic team of people that we built around us, and with the tens of thousands of people around the UK. I’ve always been so passionate about the possibility that everyone is creative, and everyone needs an opportunity to share their creativity. They can do it themselves – we don’t have to lead it for them. I’m immensely proud of having been part of making that. But more than anything, I got so much benefit from just being in touch with individual and groups of human beings across the UK that I could never have met otherwise. It was really hard to leave and it was really right. People talk about “founder’s syndrome”, particularly for charities. Leaving it, making space for someone new to come in who will dream things that I cannot dream, because I’m not them, is exactly right for Fun Palaces. It felt like the right time. I know that the people I’ve left behind, like our ambassadors in the Highlands and the Central Belt of Scotland and Northern Ireland and Wales and Sheffield and Cornwall, they’re all fantastic people. With me out the way, they get to shine more, and that’s really important.
Read Stella’s thoughts on bisexual representation in fiction, living with anxiety, and why she doesn’t call herself a lesbian anymore in our April 2021 issue. On sale now via the link below.
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