Structo talks to Stella Duffy

“You’re not a storyteller unless there’s someone who wants to be told”

This interview first appeared in issue nine, published January 2013.

I saw Stella Duffy perform a few months ago at The Story Salon, a monthly short story event held at The Society Club in London’s Soho. The piece was one of those selected for The Best British Short Stories 2012 anthology, which was being celebrated that night. To say it went down well is an understatement – she had the room spellbound. Duffy has written many different kinds of fiction, across novels, short stories and plays. She has written magic realism and regular realism, crime and historical fiction. I was curious about what drives her to write with such refreshing disregard for genre, about how her short stories are born, and—perhaps most importantly—whether she ever got around to finishing that Mills and Boon. — Euan
You’re incredibly prolific. Do you have a lot of ideas on the go at once?

The problem with the word ‘prolific’ is that it’s often used pejoratively. It hardly ever means hardworking, and getting on with stuff. Normally when people think about writers being prolific it’s almost denigration. I know you don’t mean it that way, but I do often think, oh, prolific. I have been writing for 25 years, and I don’t think that 13 novels, 50 short stories and ten plays in 25 years is that much actually. I’m 50 this year so I’ve been going for a while! I do a lot of things at once – because I have a short attention span – and normally I’m writing a novel. So at the moment I’m working on a new book, but while I’m working on this new book  I have a film adaptation of a novel of mine that is out in development that I did three drafts of last year. I have a play that’s out in development that I did a draft of last year; I’m script editing with a theatre writer on some work that she’s developing; and I’m possibly directing two new shows this year that I’m speaking to writers about at the moment. To me, that doesn’t actually feel like a huge amount of work to be doing – I think that if I was just writing a novel I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. I also wouldn’t earn enough! I’ve never had those vast, six-figure advances people seem to assume are common for writers, and the truth is it’s really not that common at all. It’s just that some of the writers who get that kind of big money are the ones who get the press and the publicity. Most of the writers I know earn much more like I do, so financially I’ve often needed to do more than one thing at once. That’s a long answer to a short question!

It’s a very interesting one! You don’t seem to work within a particular genre; I’ve read that you don’t like the ‘genrefication’ of writing…

I think ‘genrefication’ is an ugly word, but I know I’ve written it myself, so I’m not telling you off! I mind it enormously. I think literary fiction is a genre, and having written historical and crime fiction, and literary fiction, I mind hugely when people go ‘oh literary fiction is what one should be aiming for’. None of it’s easy for me; I find them all hard work, and I think that the ‘literary’ section is just as much a genre as anything else. I’m from south-east London, and I grew up in New Zealand, and although people don’t talk about it in theatre any more, they used to talk about received pronunciation – that posh, sort of middle-England voice – that’s not Queen’s posh, but is fairly Oxbridge. It’s really rude to speak about there just being one sort of pronunciation, and everything else is an accent. If you’re from Newcastle, then that’s the received pronunciation, and speaking like a nice middle-class home-counties person is an accent. The idea that there’s one type that we should all be aiming for, i.e. literary fiction – and that the rest are derivation of that – I find immensely annoying. As well as that, and having been published for coming up to 20 years, I’m well aware that it’s the big genre stuff that tends to bring in the money to publishing, which then allows people to start off and to help a new literary fiction writer who may not be getting published otherwise.

The received pronunciation point is interesting, because you do a fair amount of work on the BBC, and they seem to be moving more towards regional accents. You did a programme four or five years ago called How to Write a Mills and Boon. That’s something that one of the people at Structo has been threatening to do for years now! Can you say a little about that?

It wasn’t as though I’d always wanted to write a Mills and Boon! I think a lot of people think they can make money out of doing it — I’m sure there’s a slew of people writing cod Fifty Shades at the moment — and so because it was their hundredth anniversary, they approached me to present this. Their idea was that I should try to write a Mills and Boon and see if I could sell it. I pointed out to them that given a Mills and Boon is 55,000 words and they would be paying me for not quite two weeks of work, there was no way that I was going to do that! But I said, yes, I would give three chapters and a synopsis a go. Actually it was really interesting, and it proved to me what I already knew. I think a lot of people, particularly when they’re starting writing, do think Oh well, all I want to do is write – I’ll turn my hand to anything, and I’ll set out to write the thing I think will make me the most money. Whereas I write because I want to tell stories, and sadly it’s never been about money for me! Not that I don’t like to earn money, but I don’t write in order to have a best-seller or to make as much money out of it as I can. I write in order to tell the best story I can. So when making the documentary it was quite obvious that I’m not cut out to write anything like that without my tongue in my cheek. That said, I did try, and I tried really hard to get it the way they wanted it. In fact the Mills and Boon editor wrote to me at the time and said she really liked the idea I came up with, and they might have bought it if I’d bothered to write it. But the problem was – and their figures might have changed by now – that they pay between £1,000 and £3,000 for a book. People have the assumption that it’s so much more. What happens is that the people who are very good at it make a lot of money from royalties, but they’re also writing five or six or seven a year. I literally can’t type that fast – I’m a three-finger typist, with an occasional thumb for the spacebar. I would have had to take out three months from the book I’m doing; maybe they’d have paid me their top whack; maybe it’d have done brilliantly; but if it didn’t, it would have been like all the rest: pulped after six weeks or two months. There would have been no chance for it to earn out eventually. That’s the thing that we couldn’t talk about in the programme; that they don’t really talk about in public. They do really well from people trying their hand at it and it doing nicely enough, but there are obviously people who make a very successful living at it, but you really have to want to do it – and I don’t. Also, I really only just want to write the next story that’s in my head. The next story I’m driven to write. The quickest I’ve written a book has been six months, that was a novel called Parallel Lies, but I’d already written it as a short story for a German anthology, and I thought – this is too good an idea for a story no one’s going to see in English anyway. That was the fastest I’d written anything. Normally – with editing – it takes within 18 months and four or five years.

And books like Theodora and The Purple Shroud must take a great deal longer than that? Those two did take five years, with the research and a massive amount of re-writing, because I was learning how to write historical fiction as I did it. I had some really great advice from friends who’d written historical fiction, which was really fortunate – the main advice being, stop doing research and get on with the writing! I could have researched till I was blue in the face and I still wouldn’t have started writing the novel.

We interviewed Lindsey Davis a few years ago, and she said a very similar thing…

I think many people do, and this goes for crime writers as well as historical writers. You can find out the truth behind something to the nth degree – but that’s not going to help you be a writer. To be a writer you have to sit down and make stuff up.

Your wife’s a playwright too. Is living with another writer helpful, or is there a constant tension? How does that play out?

[Laughs] No, that’s great. It means we understand how it works. She’s a playwright, doing television things at the moment, and she’s done a lot of radio writing. We don’t cross over that much, but we do a little. It’s a huge help, because we understand what it’s like, we understand that there are days when you get nothing done, although you’re still working in your head, and then there are days when you do have to keep working until 10 o’clock at night and no one’s going to make any dinner. On the other hand, I know very few writers or creators in any field who have a partner who does the same. Generally people have a partner with a proper job. Both of us are freelance, both of us have years when we earn almost nothing and then other years when we earn really well, and that can be really difficult, because there isn’t one of you bringing in a stable income. There can be difficult, lean years.

You mentioned short stories. Do short stories always begin as short stories, or are they born from other projects?

For me, they begin with someone asking me to do them. I simply don’t have time to sit down… weirdly, I feel like I do have time to sit down and write a novel that hasn’t been bought. Right at the moment I’m writing a book – I’m out of contract at the moment – and it’s quite a different idea for me. As I have with other things, my agent hasn’t tried to sell it yet, we’re not interested in selling it until I’ve at least got the first draft done and I know what it really is. That’s the other thing – those people who think: I’ll just write three chapters and a synopsis, then I’ll sell my book – a) the market’s not like that any more, and b) it’s a bit mad. I don’t think you know what your book is until you’ve done a first draft. Well, I don’t. All my work is in remaking it. Anyway, the point is that while I’m doing that, and doing that out of love for the story, and wanting to get the story as good as I can – for the novel – I don’t have time to think I’ll just take a week out to write a short story, I’ve got a great idea – I write stories when people ask me to write stories. Generally, when people ask me to write stories, there’s some degree of commissioner’s idea – we’d like you to write an erotic short story, a crime short story…

One I heard recently was from the Litmus collection, about Minkowski’s positing of space-time.

Yes, oh – that was just a lovely commission. I did science at school, but only until I was sixteen. This was at a time when you could only do the arts or the sciences, you couldn’t do both. Science was something I loved, but [Minkowski’s work on relativity] was well beyond my comprehension. I did get to speak to a lovely scientist, Robert Appleby, a couple of times. We had lunch together and he explained, as basically as he could, the whole Minkowski thing. Then I went away and did lots of reading from the list he’d given me. It was kind of like reading a foreign language. I got the feeling that I understood without having a cognitive understanding. Some kind of irrational understanding.

It really came across.

Good – and that got me to the stage where I thought I could write a story about this. And that was one of the loveliest commissions I’ve ever had. It made me so happy to be asked to do that. It was really hard, but sometimes when it’s about pushing against something you know you don’t get easily, it’s the best. I never understand people who come to workshops and say Oh! I love writing! Really? Do you? I really don’t. I love having written, like Dorothy Parker. I had a good day yesterday, I wrote loads. Lots will go in the edit, but I got a lot of the chapter written, which means that I’ve got today to edit that and tidy it up so it can become part of my first draft. So that was a good day, but I don’t expect that to happen every day – I expect my days to be frustrating. It’s the same when I’m directing theatre. I don’t go in thinking: Oh, we’ll have a brilliant day’s work! You go in and think: Well, we’re making stuff up; there’ll be some actor having a great day and another having a difficult one, and that’s what it’s like. I think that people, particularly new writers, often expect that it should always be joyous – that it should always feel as if you’re being ‘creative’, whatever that might mean. Actually, I think it should always be work, and that we should be grateful that we are doing it for our work. My dad was a labourer; clearly I’m not having to do that – lucky me – and we should treat it like work. There’ll be good days and bad days, and that’s really normal.

So it’s a compulsion to tell stories?

It is entirely a compulsion to tell stories, and absolutely to share them. It is not enough for me to write a story and to put it away in my top drawer. It’s never been enough, which is why I have a blog where I have lots of political rants, it’s why I like Twitter… it’s absolutely not enough for me just to make up a story. For me, it requires an audience, and I think that probably comes from my theatrical background, or just maybe from me… I don’t know. You’re not a storyteller unless there’s someone who wants to be told.

Do you really enjoy performing? You’ve done acting as well…

Yes, I do enjoy performing, and I just wish that other writers took it more seriously. That reading you saw;  I’d edited the piece I was reading in order to make it long enough to read, I’d timed it, and I’d rehearsed it. We were asked to do ten minutes and that’s what I did. A lot of writers go: Oh, that’s about five pages… and they read five pages. They don’t think, they don’t rehearse… Quite often people are paying money to see us read, and I honestly don’t think it’s good enough for writers just to turn up and go: Oh look, I’ll read this bit. It’s a show, so give them a show! And if you’re not adept at it, practise. I rehearse; I don’t understand why other people don’t. I think that if you feel it’s just about what’s on the page, then don’t bother doing the reading, say look I’m not one of those people who want to read. But if you’re going to do it, and you’ve agreed to do it, then turn up and give them a show, to the best of your ability.

Do you have any other personal bugbears – things that writers could do better?

Oh – everything! [Laughs] I mean, I could do better too, I don’t mean that I’m brilliant at it. I don’t know why people don’t edit more, why people think it’s ok to have the same word four times on a page if they could come up with another one, if they’re not going for repetition. If you’re going for repetition, that’s a different thing. But if it’s not, think of another word! It’s lazy writing. I’m sure there are people who would read my stuff and think: Oh, that was lazy, because they don’t like it, but I can assure them that I’ve re-written and edited everything they’ve ever read by me at least three or four times. So they may not like it – that’s a different matter – but it’s never lazy.

You were Writer-in-Residence at Gladstone’s Library. Can you tell me a little bit about that experience?

That was absolutely fantastic. It was a huge gift. I was asked to apply for it in their first year because not that many people knew about it, and I was really chuffed to get it. I’ve never, ever, been away to write in all my career. You know, people say: I have to go away, to find myself… I kind of think that if you can’t write at home, when you’ve got something in the oven and someone on the phone, then you’re not going to write brilliantly just because you’re by the sea in Cornwall. It’s a job. Treat it like a job – get on with it. But, that said, I jumped at this chance. Mostly because I didn’t know what this next book, which I’m now writing, would be, and I thought: Wonderful, I’ll finally get a chance to spend some time and think about it, and read, and go for walks… And then what happened was that a film adaptation of my novel State of Happiness, which I’d done several drafts of several years ago, came back to life having been silent for seven years. It had gone quiet because the potential director I’d been working with, a Danish woman, won the Foreign Film Oscar. This meant of course that she went to Hollywood and dropped our film, which is a shame, but I learnt a huge amount from working with her. So instead of not doing anything except thinking of my new book, I actually spent my time at Gladstone’s Library doing two brand new drafts of that film script. Doing 18-hour days on it. But someone was making my dinner, and somebody else was changing my sheets, and somebody else was making scones, and all I had to do in return was do some work, write a blog a week for them and teach a couple of workshops. And I do that all the time anyway, so it was such a gift. I was so lucky.

To finish up: can you recommend an author or a novel or a short story which you feel has been skipped over or unduly ignored?

[Almost instantly] Janet Frame. She’s a New Zealand writer who is pretty much only known in Britain for her autobiographies, which were made into An Angel at My Table, the Jane Campion film. So Janet Frame’s fiction, which isn’t nearly well-known enough in Britain, is some of my favourite stuff. In fact, there would be two New Zealand writers. One is Janet Frame, and that would be all of her fiction. They’re all really short books, but a good starter would be Owls Do Cry. The other one would be Katherine Mansfield. Virginia Woolf said “Katherine Mansfield’s a better writer than me”, and Virginia Woolf was right.