Naomi Benaron, whose Bellwether Prize winning first novel, Running the Rift, is set during the Rwandan genocide, chats with Deborah Levy about her latest novel, Swimming Home.
Naomi: First, I would like to congratulate you on all your honors for Swimming Home: shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Jewish Quarterly Wingate Prize and shortlisted for National Book Awards Author of the Year.
There is a quote from your interview with Gareth Evans that I love: "If I let 'the market' write my books for me and tell me what I think and how you think and what we are like, what kind of conversation would I be having with my readers? What kind of conversation would they be having with me?" In light of this, how do you see your role in terms of changing or influencing the direction of writing and publishing in this sadly corporate world?
Deborah: I didn't really set out to change the direction of writing and publishing. I wrote a book that I knew was worth something because the act of writing it had shaken me to the core. By the time I had finished Swimming Home I had become a different sort of writer to the one I was when I started it.
If a change had happened inside me while I was writing this book, my hunch was that it would happen inside the readers too. Swimming Home had tested everything I thought I knew about writing a novel: how time works and how I might attempt to bend it - as in repeating and extending the car ride with Kitty Finch on the mountain road throughout the novel; the consistency and coherence of character - we all know that we ourselves are not as entirely consistent and coherent as we might think we are, and most tricky of all, how to reveal and conceal information. This is key to the narrative design of Swimming Home. There is much that is apparently unsaid in my novel, yet what is unspoken is nevertheless there to be found. It is a highly plotted book and its signifiers are on side with any reader who wants to know more.
You asked me if I had set the novel in 1994 because this was the year of the Rwandan civil war and subsequent genocide. Yes, absolutely Naomi, this is why it is set in 1994 - and so we see that this holiday, which is set in a heat wave in a posh villa in the French Riviera, is happening at the same time as terrible, tragic things in the world are happening too. The genocide appears to be incomprehensible, yet we have to understand it, and then we have to figure what we do with this knowledge. Does knowledge, which we are all supposed to want to acquire, make us happier? Swimming Home is designed to be read on any number of levels, this is what makes it subversive. All the same, is it just about a sunny holiday that goes wrong? I have no problem whatsoever with this reading; I believe that the themes the book is exploring: the death wish in us all, our yearning for enduring love, the ways in which events from the past can make us misbehave in the present, the thin membrane between sanity and insanity - both in ourselves and in society, these are the big mysteries that take up a lot of our attention, whatever our education or class. Most of us have had a boss or a teacher or a medical practitioner or a parent who has made us wonder if we are actually safe in their hands.
I reckoned that at some level, the questions I was asking in Swimming Home would touch the unconscious of the reader, irrespective of whether they trashed or triumphed my book. So yes, Freud was an influence, the fact I trained as a dramatist was an influence, history and the ways it is told was an influence, the lies concealed in the language of politics was an influence, the bold, crazy poetry of Appolinaire and film makers like David Lynch were an influence, but so were murder mysteries and the structure of various thrillers.
It's hard to classify and pin down a book like Swimming Home. When it was initially declined by mainstream publishers, I was devastated and incredibly sad, but I was not going to change my book into something perceived as acceptable to The Market. That was too abstract for me. It just didn't ring true for this particular book. Readers are The Market, and in the end, it is the readers who carried me home.
Swimming Home is being translated all over the world, so in this sense, The Market (you and me) was way ahead of the cynical mentality of those who tried to second guess what makes our lives meaningful. This is really good news for us all.
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