02.22.13

Literary City: Deborah Levy’s London

Booker Prize-shortlisted author Deborah Levy takes us on a tour of her literary London. From her cozy garden shed to the medical museum she revisits to why you can wear a bikini on the bus and no one cares, she explores her city with Henry Krempels.

Deborah Levy was born in apartheid South Africa. Her father—an academic and member of the ANC—was a political prisoner for four years, and it was following his release, when Levy was 9, that the family moved to England.

Levy trained as a playwright, writing frequently for the Royal Shakespeare Company, among others, but it was last year’s Man Booker nomination that has pushed her firmly into the spotlight. Her shortlisted novel, Swimming Home, follows a “philandering poet” as he takes a family holiday in the French Riviera. Things turn unsettling when a naked woman emerges from the villa’s swimming pool to a mixed reception.

Now her new collection of short stories, Black Vodka, is about to be released, and she finds herself again concerned with her two favorite topics, swimming and travel. 

Could you describe the area of London that you live?

We have just this week moved from a family house off the Holloway Road to an apartment on the fifth floor, in the leafy hills of the Highgate Village end of Hornsey Lane, North London. The communal heating system has broken down in the whole art deco apartment block, it’s a cold Sunday night, I'm surrounded by packing boxes, and I’m really missing the corner shops and Turkish cafés down the hill in uglier Archway. Friends came over for lunch today to see our new building for the first time. Someone had anonymously written a note and stuck it on the elevator: “HELP. Please help. The flats are unbearably cold, could someone DO something." Like, who is this someone? In the meanwhile, there are amazing views of London from the windows. I can see the Alexandra Palace and some hills in the distance.

Where do you get the books you read?

My favorite place to browse books is the Broadway Bookshop in East London. It is a tiny independent store right in the heart of Broadway market, but it generally has all the fiction I most want to buy and a good travel section, too. While I’m there, I can also do two great things: swim in the heated open-air pool in London Fields and then walk over to one of the many pubs in the market. The Cat and Mutton serves the best Bloody Mary in London. I also like the London Review Bookshop in Bury Place just opposite the British Museum. It is intimate, modern, and the pleasant, clever staff know everything. I usually find exactly what I’m looking for and a few books that I didn’t know I was looking for, too.

Where do you read them?

I like to read on trains and planes best of all—there is something about being on the way to somewhere that suits the way I read a book—fiction is always more or less on the way to somewhere too, though sometimes we jump out of the window before we get to the end. I do sometimes read in the Wellcome Collection’s Cafe on the Euston Road and in its library, too, but it is distracting, because there is so much to see there. The Wellcome Collection is a museum that curates exhibitions that explore ideas about the connections between medicine, life, and art. It really is fascinating—it’s the only museum I return to regularly—especially as my next novel is about hypochondria. The permanent display Medicine Man shows a small part of Henry Wellcome’s collection—here you can see boxes full of glass eyes, ancient Japanese sex aids, Napoleon’s toothbrush, and George III’s hair. Actually, I think it might be the most interesting place to visit in London.

My favorite line so far is from an elderly, elegant woman who said to her male companion sitting next to her: “George, you know my name is not really Eileen?”

Am I right to say that you work mainly in a shed?

Yes. In the old house I worked in a posh shed, a sort of modernist summer house in the garden. But now that we have moved, I want to hire an office outside the home. So in the meanwhile, I am writing in a real garden shed that used to belong to the late great poet Adrian Mitchell. His lovely wife, who is also a formidable actress, Celia, has lent it to me for a couple of months, and I do really love it. It's in the garden of their house, which is on the edge of Hampstead Heath. I have a writing desk, a few bookshelves, lamps, heaters, my desktop Mac computer, a writing chair, which I have covered with a sheepskin fleece for extra warmth—and there are also a few cobwebs and spiders.

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R: Deborah Levy (Getty)

Are there any places, outside of the sheds, that you go to write?

I keep journals—there's one in my bag at the moment—and I take it everywhere with me.

What do you do when you're not writing?

I swim and cook for my children. That's my life: writing, swimming, cooking.

Has your relationship with London changed since you began to focus on novels? I mean this in the sense of distance between you and your audience.

Not really. I guess when I'm writing plays my ear is tuned in a different way. I find myself listening to people's conversations on the subway when I write plays. My favorite line so far is from an elderly, elegant woman who said to her male companion sitting next to her: “George, you know my name is not really Eileen?”

Can you describe how London has affected your work?

London is one of my favourite European cities. It is incredibly multicultural and people, on the whole, are easygoing. Nothing really shocks a Londoner—you can wear a bikini on the bus and have purple hair, and no one will take much notice. It is not a particularly serene or peaceful city, though. That is probably why I quite like writing in tranquil garden sheds.

What's your relationship like with South Africa now? Do you consider it your home?

My family left South Africa for the U.K. when I was 9 years old, so I have never considered it my home. My childhood memory is of waking up early in the morning to sunshine, blue skies, and loud birdsong. I still miss all those things.

How important was a sense of place, when you were putting together Black Vodka?

Very important. Black Vodka is an anthology of stories that in some ways resembles a road movie through contemporary Europe. The title story, “Black Vodka” is set in West London, while “Cave Girl” is set in the suburbs outside London. Other stories are set in Prague, Barcelona, Vienna. There is one dreamlike setting in the story called “ROMA”; this is more or less like Rome and mentions specific places in it. “ROMA” is a story about betrayal, but it was only after I finished writing it that I realized “ROMA” was AMOR spelt backwards. I just couldn’t believe that had happened. I keep journals while I travel, and some of my notes tend to find their way in to my stories. There is an airport in former East Berlin called Schönefeld—one day I will write a story set there too—mostly because there is an old-fashioned diner, a sort of caravan parked outside the airport, and its speciality is Berlin’s most popular fast food, currywurst. This is a pork sausage served with curry sauce. Once, when my plane was delayed for six hours, I sat in this diner and tried every variety of currywurst on offer. You know, I will have to make the pain of that experience pay its way!

What are some of your favorite works of literature set in London?

Almost all of Dickens—I am a major fan and am rereading him at the moment. I admire the humor and exuberance of Angela Carter’s Wise Children, which is set in South London. It follows the lives of the identical twin chorus girls Dora and Nora Chance. We first meet them when they’re 75.

“Think of Manhattan. Then think of Brooklyn. See what I mean? ... With London, it’s the North and South divide. Me and Nora, that’s my sister, we’ve always lived on the left-hand side, the side the tourist rarely sees, the bastard side of Old Father Thames.”

Finally, can you recommend some contemporary British writers?

For me, the most consistently interesting and innovative British and Scottish writers are Jeanette Winterson and Ali Smith. Also the poets Sam Riviere and Julian Stannard.