Deborah Levy is a writer whose novels Swimming Home and Hot Milk were both shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Last year she published the final instalment of her ‘living autobiography’ trilogy of memoirs, and her earlier work includes plays for the RSC as well as short story collections and poetry. Deborah was born in South Africa in 1959, the eldest child of anti-apartheid activists Norman and Philippa Levy. Her father was arrested when she was five and was imprisoned for four years. During this time, Deborah became an almost silent child, but was encouraged by a teacher to write down her thoughts, sparking her love of creative writing. After her father’s release, the family relocated to the UK and first lived above a menswear shop in London. As a teenager Deborah worked as a cinema usher, and a chance encounter with the film-maker Derek Jarman inspired her to change her plans to take a degree in literature, and instead she headed to Dartington College of Arts, where she studied writing for the stage and performance. Her first play, Pax, was commissioned in 1984, and was followed by more than a dozen dramas. Deborah then turned to writing novels in the late 1980s and 1990s. Swimming Home was shortlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize, although it initially struggled to find a publisher. Her trilogy of autobiographies, beginning in 2013 with Things I Don't Want to Know, have enjoyed considerable critical acclaim. DISC ONE: Nkosi Sikelel I’Afrika by Sol Plaatje DISC TWO: Starman by David Bowie DISC THREE: Opening by Phillip Glass DISC FOUR: Moritat Vom Mackie Messer (German version of Mack the Knife) by Lotte Lenya DISC FIVE: Black is the Color of my True Love’s Hair by Nina Simone DISC SIX: Soothing by Laura Marling DISC SEVEN: Diamonds and Rust by Joan Baez DISC EIGHT: Because the Night by Patti Smith BOOK CHOICE: The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (Collected Works of C. G. Jung) LUXURY ITEM: A silk sheet CASTAWAY'S FAVOURITE: Because the Night by Patti Smith Presenter Lauren Laverne Producer Sarah Taylor
This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
BBC sounds music. Radio, podcasts, hello, I'm Lauren Laverne, and this is the desert island discs podcast. Every week I ask my guests to choose the eight tracks book and luxury they'd want to take with them if they were cast away to a desert island for rights reasons, the music is shorter than the original broadcast. I hope you enjoy listening the
my castaway this week is Deborah lavie novelist, playwright and poets per novels, hot milk and swimming home both made the book price shortlist, but she took her first steps into writing as a schoolgirl, encouraged by a teacher to put down her thoughts on paper as she lost her voice. The results were a record of things she didn't want to know. They included her fathers status as a political prisoner and apartheid if africa, where she was born years later, she would revisit this story and the first of her three much acclaimed and groundbreaking memoirs which she describes as living autobiographies charting her progress through midlife. Her family came to the uk shortly after her fathers release prison making a new life in london where she decides to become a writer an encounter with a filmmaker Derek german. A pay
the cinema where she was a teenage or charrette inspired her to study drama, and she started out writing for the stage she's tackled many form since, but the spotlight has stayed steady. She says I want to work my female characters in the centre of my work. They don't have to be likeable, but they have to be compelling uncomplicated debt relief. We welcome to desert island discs. Thank you. Last year you published the eagerly anticipated said volume real estate of if what you call your living most biographies. What's the distinction of including the word living, it was like a made up word because they not quite memoirs. I not quite autobiographies, because my understanding of an autobiography is that it's a full life and that, on the whole, its chronological, you know you stop
childhood new work through life, but these books de look over my shoulder. They written in the present tense. Obviously the past steps into them, but they written in the first person in the here and now and in the storm of life. So I thought why not call them living off How could face and tell me then about the leading character in those books? You describe Yonah raised his voice in your memoirs as an I that is close to myself and yet not myself. It ass pure voice. I could live with and not felt close to me, but there is an artifice, two or writing and also to memoir irish type. Writing, because you have to create a voice who is
very much like yourself, but is also an other or at Deborah we're going to hear your music today in real estate. You write perhaps that's the way with music. What's the point, if it doesn't hurt, what can we expect from your selections today? My first choice is the song that started out as a hymn and became the anthem that express the struggle for liberation against the apartheid system in south africa. This is the version that we played at my father's funeral. He died recently. It's not the rousing version of my own childhood, but it felt right for this occasion. and very specially it is the first learn recording of quasi singularly africa sung by soul ply key the first secretary.
Television see, recording was made in nineteen twenty three and features Sophia colenso on piano my name it. in that in that the the the
the the causing sickening africa sung by the first secretary general of the air and sea soul, plucky with sylvia colenso on the piano that track then Deborah taking you back to cypher, the way you were born in nineteen fifty nine into apartheid, your father norman, was in an see activist and he was imprisoned for his anti apartheid views. You would just five when he was arrested. Certainly old enough to
be aware of events. How was his absence explained to you? Well, my mother explained that there were many children whose parents didn't agree with the racist system and that they were heroes and heroines. My mother was with someone who thought that we should have a stiff upper lip and to be courageous at all times, and I did my best, but wherever there's a stiff upper lip as a tremor in the lower lip we all did our best. Your father was in prison for I think four years it was a very traumatic time for you and you actually stopped speaking for awhile. How do you look back at that now that loss of your voice, it's curious, wasn't exactly being mute. He was,
the volume of my voice lower and lower and lower? Until no one could hear me so the kids at school say in the playground. Are you dumb a nice to not because that would be the end, that liquid leave me alone. I think it was really about just being totally overwhelmed by everything, not believing that my thoughts were in any way valuable to any one, properly very frightened thoughts. You know I didn't even want to think, and so I just stopped speaking- and it was during this time that you took your first steps into writing thanks to the prompting of one of your teachers when you're away staying with your godmother yeah, it was my father as well. I mean. Obviously this was something that was disgust and a teacher said. Why don't you write down your thoughts, so I had a
and I discovered that my thoughts were quite loud and then I invented a cat that had yellow eyes and was very lonely and could fly and these somersaults over the jack around two trees and of course the cap was myself and my began to understand at quite a young age fetch, you could point an avatar to be you and give it your problems and your thoughts and to your opinions. So really that was the beginning temper, it's time to go to music, your second choice today. What have you got for and why David buys starman from the rise and fall of city start asking spiders from mars? Well, when I was,
thirteen living in england in west finchley and I heard star man on top of the pops, it literally blew my mind. Bali was ahead of everyone else when he created a rock star, all too eager who was a citizen of mars with the bonus of free movement to earth and although bounty killed off is all too eager city stardust way before his own sad tat, I have to confess that cities wearing for makeup and is totally alive in my mind,
Let me now David boeing, starman, so Deborah leave after your father returned from his prison sentence. Your family left south africa. Quite soon after that in the: u k by boat. He was nine years old. I think. Can you tell me what the utmost,
It was like when you are leaving the country, and did you think you are leaving forever? I didn't know really what was happening, except that political prisoners on the whole we're going to have to go into exile and when we arrived in england, it was like a whole new beginning, because I had friends at school that made a change because I was what are those kids in south africa who longed for the bell to ring and and play time, and suddenly I had lively and funny friends I couldn't get over how their parents caught me. Things like lamb and duck and love and sausage you
at first in wembley park. I think you were living in the little flat above a men's, wear shop. Yes, it like well. The deal was that my parents were going to work in it. It was exciting and my father was a historian and later a professor of the history of ideas, but he had to find work and we moved around to wherever he found a job, so he was a schoolteacher in secondary schools. He took lecturing jobs in the evening at about three or four jobs and in the mornings, wherever we lived, I used to see him marking student work that are rarely strong memory and term one day. He noticed that the hem of his suit trousers have come undone. He gave me his staple
Please could you just stay pull up these trousers and off, he went that was her. Life was also has tried to put off for me in a pragmatist than in those kind of get on with it. Yet up generation just got home with you, no hint of food on the table. Let's go to the music, Deborah seal third choice today. What have you got for its philip glass and it's the opening from glass works? I listen to music a lot and especially when I write, because I don't want to read too much when I'm in the middle of writing say a novel. A glass is some only play a lot because of his formal structure, his repetition, the way that the music rises and falls
if allows thoughts of my own to come in at as if his work is somehow entirely necessary to write to the in the
philip glass playing the opening from class wax Deborah levy, evil
pace, women centre stage in your work, then I wonder where whether desire comes from, I know that you ve written, that you never thanked you, mother, from running away from the life that had been planned out for her and untoward something very different determination to do that and to follow her own path and be her own person must have been a big influence on you. I think it must at some level it took me a long time to think that through you know, my mother was from a very different class than from my father. He was We wish you much success story in my mother was from an upper middle class family. The expectations were that she would
learn shorthand and teach a soft type, and then she would marry. It seemed to me when I first started to write novel soft of theater was that this was my opportunity to kind of walk females subjectivity right into the centre of the world, because it was something that we were not given very often, and so the first line of my first novel is actually my mother. Was the ice skating champion moss sky, she thought was incredible line, but he was the favorite of anything I'd I'd written a key moment. Defra in your progressive writer was meeting Derek jarman. It was a bit of an unusual encounter. It happened while you were working as enough. She writes in a london cinema and he ended up changing your plans. Tell me about it and yeah. It was in my ear
How to ye say now? I was going to read literature Germany is an usher rapped at the gate, cinema notting hill, and we were showing derricks films and he was rarely his kind cultured man and he would talk to the slowly usher rat and he said to me: why don't you try applying to dartington college of arts cause? I had this big interest in what would now be called a sort of interdisciplinary arts, education, and so that's exactly what I did. I took his advice and I got in and my life changed forever or I it's disk done before now Debra. What have you chosen and why are you taking it to the island today, while I guess
it's the song that reminds me of those theatre writing days and it sloppy linear, ah singing mac when life from the beggars opera cut fly. Who composed this is one of my favorite composers thing about lahti. Millennia was that she had this die right. Tough voice was emotional and not sentimental, and she had such size, and so she was a role model,
I believe, then, that I see an amnesty law and salt lake Antonio feynman mad man on the moon, but I've got some are saying. Give name on new lawson
yeah, singing mack the knife from the threepenny opera, with lyrics by bertolt brecht and music by kurt vile, so Deborah levy tell me about your time at dartington. College of arts. Then it was a different route for you to take. Did it fulfill your expectations? I think it was the best four years of my life in some ways because he was in the countryside. There wasn't a day I was bored, it was where I was finding my voice as a playwright, and I look back on that time and I just feel Be thinking about it. The characters in your novel steps are so well drawn. Is there a big difference when creating characters in a novel as opposed to a play,
cause. You know you'd written more than a dozen plays over the course of ten years, or so I mean totally. I think what my theater training and a bit of dance training had taught me was how to embody a character in fiction. You don't have to really do that as a playwright, because the actors can to embody that character find out how he stands and all of that, so it was a shaky transition that first novel beautiful maidens, a state of the nation novel written in the thatcher years, but it was a sort of wonderful.
because you could go right inside a kite head. You know you could be in three places all our time zones at the same time so gave me such freedom fat. I needed, then we'll have similar music. If that's all right Deborah. You fifth choice today. What have you got for yeah? Well, I decided that the solemn best evokes falling in love and I did for madly in love is black? Is the color of my true love's hair by nina simone?
She made a language and she owned a piano and in some she sings this ballade with such pain. Employees and elegance is almost like. You get lost in that song and I think that sort of happiness is a little like falling in love. the his. One wonders
in this. The I love I love the black is the color of my true loves her niece among Deborah, leaving you spent five years working on you. Well swimming home, which was short listed for the book uprising, twenty twelve, but I think it fast. You couldn't find a publisher for its. Why not the book that was opposed not to have any economic strength? I think that's how it was but went on to.
so very well indeed, her is writing swimming home towards the end of my marriage. I knew that we were going to separate, and that would be the first novel thought I had written for a very long time to write that night, to my children were sleeping. I remember four in the morning car alarm that is to go off and I think our yes good. I get some sleep, and that is the normal. Actually, that changed my life, because when I separated from my husband and that book had been nominated for the book price sort of strange time
dream unhappiness and shock and jubilation and and and pleasure was all happening at the same time. Do you think about commercial success? Is that important to you at all, to be valued and to be respected and to be read, is an incredible privilege as an extra my feeling. I feel specially writing their living autobiographies and now my next novel, that there is a kind of unheard conversation between writer and reader. You kind of sit there on your own angie thinking about something and you transmit tear into the world, and you see what comes back. I feel strongly that we should write about things that we don't understand, because there is this idea that we have to have
deeper coherence when we write- and I think fat blocks a lot of young writers very interesting thinkers, why not just write something you don't understand for the life of you and see what happens say that you always gain to kind of write in between understanding something and absolutely not, and when you do hit a certain kind of lucidity and coherence heart one. That's the moment when you just kind of have glass of wine and another goody,
name, because his days work done Deborah it's time to go to the music. You sixth choice today. What is it laura, modeling soothing or the funny thing about was great song- is that it's not soothing at all, and if it's the song I associate with falling out of love and needing to change everything. In fact, it's it's about a free break, but what I really love about about voice is: is it some earthly ethereal quality and also I don't really know what the song is about just to go back to our last conversation. Yet it feels true as a kind of ducks charge
that speaks to me about changing all that, isn't working in your life, doing something good for yourself, I No news show laura, smiling and soothing Deborah you,
second living autobiography the cost of living, finds you separated from your husband and writing and thinking about on making the family home as he put it. It was painful to go through how difficult was it to write about? It was painful, because I think I had really hurt. And believed in enduring love. It's been a long relationship of twenty three years and is very hard to believe that life that you ve made together is not going to continue. So it was a loss, but it was something that I wanted to write. So what I feel very strongly about those kind of moments in life is that it's me
church better to write from a position of love and hate and that law mauling song speech that thought, because there is much more to risk in love than there is in anything else. That's where all the risk is, and so the cost of living takes up the idea, it's written from the position of making a new home for my daughter's starting a new life, and then I also looks at lhasa exploring a subject as difficult,
as love and the loss of it every still. It is a new chapter yourself in twenty nineteen, when you were awarded a fellowship by columbia, university from the institute for ideas in imagination, and that meant that you went to live in paris for a year. It was just before your sixtyth birthday, which is pretty cool place to enter a new decades. How did you meet the occasion? Oh, it was. great: can you imagine ideas, imagination enough money sitting on ya know by the cen one of the fellows was a dj. He mecca oc bow and he said when I was feeling of blue
my sixtieth wondering if my life added up to anything and if I had achieved anything worthwhile and had there been enough, love and loving- and you know all those sort of questions when, when you about to turn sixty, he said well, I'm going to be djing at salons here, which was a club designed and started by David lynch, and I think he should have your birthday and that's exactly what I did. My daughter's couldn't believe are cool them other walls and that they were coming to volunteer. Neither could I I think we would have to meet on that note. What are we gonna hear? Next, ever so, every
While I write properly has a sort of playlist and in particular my most recent novel. The man who saw everything- and this features a very narcissistic freakishly, beautiful man, sol adler, who we first meet at twenty eight and his then girlfriend jennifer moreau is twenty three and she takes a photograph of him on the abbey road crossing it comes back to haunt a story and jennifer song would be diamonds rust by joan baez, because this is her song about bob dylan in which the the male character in her song keeps everything vague. There are ghosts in that song and that ghosts in my novel,
my poetry was lousy where you calling from a booth, ten May we memories diamonds in june as and diamonds and rust, Deborah leaving your father eventually returned to live in south africa and china. We became quite disappointed by the corruption that he saw there. Have you been
It's the country that you were born in and lived in during your early life often, but when my father returned after nelson mandela was released, we used to go visit him. Maybe once a year I was always very emotional. My father died in south africa. My mother died in Britain, one of the things that he used to do. He was an absent father, most of my life and arm, but also very present and engage. I didn't know how he managed to do that, but he did. I used to son
im photographs of fruit from a grocery store in london, mangos and papayas melons and I'd say, which one do you think I should buy, because he he always knew which one was ripe, need, study the photo and cape town, and he said the last one on the left and it was always the case that term he was right, and so when he was dying- and I was saying goodbye to him- and he was saying what he thinking I was thinking. I have said goodbye to you so many times in my life, but this is the final good bye and I guess that the fact that he died there aunt and my mother in britain sort of really encapsulate
hu- I am you, know a bit from here and a bit from there- a long journey in between its almost time to cast you away to the island, Deborah you lifespan, peppered by moments of having to recreate and reshape it again on make the homes that you ve lived in and build a new. What lessons have you learned that might come in useful on the desert, island well, swim stretch, the body, I think I'd be quite good to collecting hubs on foraging. I wouldn't be too adverse to that. Some having being born in africa are quite used to solitude, because that is the right to life of how I am also very social persons or maybe I'll make friends with an animal. I'm hoping that you know that there might be
sort of creature. I won't eat me, but who might become my companion while one more track before we send you away to find out? What have you chosen the go to track? My life is patchy smith's because the night it gives me energy it makes me. want to write it's about desire and power in the future, and I love it We know
party smith, because the night, so Deborah levy, it's time to send you away to the islands. I'm gonna give you the bible to take with you on the complete works of shakespeare. Of course you can also take another book or will it be? This is very difficult. I walked around my flat looking at the book shelves trying to figure out what book have I carried around with me for decades, not read but not thrown away. So I have to want to read it and the book that I'm going to take is by the.
swift, psycho, analysed, call you the archetypes and the collective unconscious. So my reasoning is, I would need an interesting mine to keep me company someone. I can argue with had enough to agree with me and after all the swimming and very, very sunburnt, probably starving. I would be in a good place to think about humes idea of the archetypes. What do they mean? You know who is the innocent whose wolf in the hero, the caregiver massachusetts? I think you will keep me very busy, but I certainly will I mean it'll centraal, the rake of us, so I better give you a luxury item to Deborah, just for a little bit of time for angle sensor,
elation. What would you like and definitely my luxury item is a silk sheet, because I am very passionate about silk I like to wear. It is like a second skin and it would be like company. I could wrap myself in it to protect myself from mosquitoes, maybe even make a sort of ten, fabulous it's yours, thank you and finally, which one of the eight tracks that you've shared with us today. Would you save from the waves if you had to because the night patti smith, after a while on the island that song which reminds me of the city and of traffic and pops in crowds, and it would maybe give me the energy to write figure away to get home.
believe e. Thank you so much for letting us here, your desert, island discs and thank you, hello. There hoped employees very happy on an island with her young silk sheet mean who wouldn't be. We ve cost many rice way of the yes, they include matthew, feral, ants, eighty smith, and you can hear their programmes if you say its throughout doesn't antics programme archive or on BBC sans next time. My guess what the businessman, John Caldwell. I do hope you'll join us from the maker.
the battersea poltergeist and new podcast theories, the bbc radio for uncanny. Do you believe in ghosts? Have you seen one? Yes, real life stories of the supernatural told by the people they happen to presented by me danny robin? There was a very strong sense of pure evil subscribe to uncanny on BBC out
Transcript generated on 2022-06-05.