Deborah Levy … Shedworker

Deborah Levy … Shedworker

Deborah Levy (born 1959) is a British playwright, novelist, and poet. She wrote and published her first novel Beautiful Mutants, in 1986. Her second novel, Swallowing Geography, was published in 1993 by Jonathan Cape, while her third, Billy and Girl, was published in 1996 by Bloomsbury. Swimming Home was published in 2011 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012 among other awards. Levy published a short story collection, Black Vodka in 2013. Her novel Hot Milk was published in 2016 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016.

She was interviewed by the Guardian in October 2016 for their My Writing Day series.

“Some years ago, when my marriage was on the rocks, we sold the family house and I ended up living in a small flat. I wrote wherever I could and became accustomed to what Elena Ferrantehas described as being happy and unhappy at the same time. Except, in my case, it was more like being happy and extremely miserable at the same time. This was a strange emotional climate to live in – like blazing sunshine with an icy wind. Perhaps it resembled living in Scandinavia, but without the delicious herrings and crispbreads.

So then my friend, Celia, who is in her early 80s – she’s an actor and book-seller – came to the rescue. “You need a study,” she said. I had to admit she was right. She pointed towards the shed at the back of her garden. It was where her husband, the late, great, beloved poet Adrian Mitchell sometimes wrote, and it was built under an apple tree. I have rented it from her ever since. It’s freezing in winter and sweltering in summer, but I have grown to love my writing shed in every season. 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.

Most days I cycle to the shed at 8am after I have seen my daughter off to school. To avoid starting work, I sometimes stop for coffee at a nearby cafe. I am very fond of the morose Italian waiter, and always ask him: “How are you today?” He stops to think about this, and always replies: “I don’t know.” As far as I’m concerned, his answer is an example of magnificent writing. It sets me up for the day.

When I begin writing a novel, I usually know where I want to get to, I just don’t know how to get there. I plan a route and follow my directions. Sometimes this works well. Yet, it’s when I detour from the map and get lost that the writing starts to open its eyes. In case you think I like getting lost, I should tell you that I resist it with all my will. This is always a futile battle. Eventually I surrender to the unknown route, write for a few hours and take a look at the new view.

My current writing mantra is a quote by EM Forster: “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” This applies to the life of a novel as well as any other kind of life. Come to think of it, the life that is waiting for us might be worse than the life we have planned.

This is such a terrifying thought that I’m going to nip across the garden and make tea in Celia’s kitchen. If I can find the sweet, shy house cat, I will try and persuade her to sit on my lap in the shed. This cat knows that I adore her, so she takes advantage of my love and begs for snacks. Yes, procrastination is part of the writing day and I do enjoy browsing Celia’s vast collection of books.

Now I’m back in the shed (one mug of tea, no cat) and I’m looking at some of my journals, written years ago. To my surprise, I find that I have scribbled down ideas and thoughts on some of the themes I am writing about now. As far as I’m concerned, the writing life is mostly about stamina and the desire to give my complete attention to language. And I don’t just mean literary language. I am never indifferent to the way someone might say “goodbye” or “oh my God” or “I don’t know”. To get to the finishing line requires the writing to become more interesting than everyday life. This is not as easy as it sounds, because I have never found everyday life boring.

At the end of the day, I read through whatever I have written and figure out the various problems I will need to solve in the morning. After I’ve locked up the shed, I cycle home to tell my children all about the way Celia’s cat grooms her paws.

Deborah Levy’s website

A good poem is …

A good poem is …

Len Deighton … the poet of the spy story.

Len Deighton … the poet of the spy story.

Len Deighton photographed for The Daily Telegraph in 2009. Credit: David Rose

Len Deighton, born 18 February 1929, is a British author. Deighton is considered one of the top three spy novelists of his time (along with Ian Fleming and John le Carré). In addition he is a highly acclaimed military historian, cookery writer, and graphic artist. The IPCRESS File (1962), his first novel, was an instant bestseller and broke the mould of thriller writing. The Sunday Times dubbed him “the poet of the spy story”. Deighton’s first protagonist – a nameless spy christened Harry Palmer in the films – was made famous worldwide in the iconic 1960s films starring Michael Caine.

The famously publicity-shy Deighton has this to say about his writing routine …

“Every book is different and every writer is different. My advice to anyone starting to write fiction books is to be ready to devote a great deal of time to it. Write every day, even if its notes and research. I write notes every day. It is a habit that comes of years of research and a poor memory. I was filling notebooks with material that interested me long before I ever thought of becoming a professional writer. I have never completed a book in less than a year and most took longer than that. If you are waking up at four o’clock in the morning wondering if it’s all going wrong, it’s probably all going well.”

“When I started writing I had rules. One was that violence must not solve the problem, and I cannot have the hero overcome violence with a counterweight of violence.”

 “Two things destroy writers: praise and alcohol.”


Once the grammar has been learned …

Once the grammar has been learned …

Mr Dahl & Mr Fox …

Mr Dahl & Mr Fox …

Fantastic Mr Dahl

Fantastic Mr Fox

It is perfectly okay to write garbage …

It is perfectly okay to write garbage …

Chuck Palahniuk …

Chuck Palahniuk

Charles “Chuck” Palahniuk is an American novelist and freelance journalist. He is the author of the award-winning novel Fight Club (1996) which also was made into an acclaimed film of the same name.

According to his website he writes whenever he has an idea that demands he puts it on paper before he loses it. Chuck advocates against forcing yourself to write on a schedule, when you are uninspired and uncompelled. The most basic tenet of his writing philosophy can be paraphrased as “shit or get off the pot.”

He writes wherever he finds himself. Chuck is a physical and a social person. He likes to be in motion and he likes to stay involved with people. He sort of dreads the later stages of drafting and the serious research phases that force him to sequester himself away from the world and plant it in front of a computer. Much of Chuck’s early drafting is pen and paper. He recommends taking your early computer drafts with you when you go places, and line editing with a pen–constantly rolling your ongoing experiences into the work.

When you don’t want to write, set an egg timer for one hour (or half hour) and sit down to write until the timer rings. If you still hate writing, you’re free in an hour. But usually, by the time that alarm rings, you’ll be so involved in your work, enjoying it so much, you’ll keep going. Instead of an egg timer, you can put a load of clothes in the washer or dryer and use them to time your work. Alternating the thoughtful task of writing with the mindless work of laundry or dish washing will give you the breaks you need for new ideas and insights to occur. If you don’t know what comes next in the story… clean your toilet. Change the bed sheets. For Christ sakes, dust the computer. A better idea will come.


Chuck Palahniuk website