Q and A with Stella Duffy

11 Feb

Stella Duffy, writer, actorStella Duffy was born in London but grew up in New Zealand (which is responsible for that flavour in her lovely voice). She later returned to London and still lives there with her partner.

She has written eight literary novels, five crime novels (featuring the wonderfully flawed lesbian detective, Saz Martin) and numerous plays. She is also an actress, director and commentator, regularly heard on BBC Radio 4. Her books have been listed for the Orange prize and she’s won Stonewall Writer of the year twice.

So we’re a bit chuffed that she agreed to answer some questions for us and our readers here at UKLesfic!

JF asks: I loved Saz Martin and I’ve noticed that the books are now available on Kindle. Are you ever tempted to write just one more adventure?

SD: Tempted yes, but likely, no. In some ways I feel as if I went as far as I was prepared to go with Saz as a detective in novels, I’d need to develop her in a different way if I were to look at writing more crime stories for her. I think too, that crime fiction readers tend to like their books a bit more gory than I’m prepared to write. That said, the one part of the books I’ve always been interested in is Saz and Molly’s relationship, so there would be space in my thoughts for a book about the two of them and their family. I’m not sure there’s much market for happy ever after love stories though, is there …?

Clare asks: I love Parallel Lies. The main characters are fascinating and have some very unlikeable characteristics. Do you prefer to write likeable or unlikeable characters?

SD: Thank you, I loved writing it. I far prefer the more complicated characters. It doesn’t matter if they’re ‘good’ or ‘bad’, as long as they’re not one-dimensional. Even the small characters need to have a bit of light and shade.

Mags Dixon asks: Did you ever finish or subsequently borrow aspects from the Mills & Boon novel that you put together for the documentary on BBC? (P.S. the funniest scene was the preparation for writing the “scorching” love scene :D)

No, I didn’t. I might, and I think the idea is good for an unusual rom-com perhaps, but it simply wasn’t worth it to me to take time out from my own writing to write for a genre/form that isn’t really me – and even though they were very kind about the three chapters I did do, there’s no guarantee they’d have published the finished thing and I can’t afford to write on spec like that – ie, I’m always happy to write on spec and often do for new projects, but only for something I care hugely about. There’s no point in writing anything you don’t care about, it’s too hard as it is, without making it unimportant to your heart/spirit as well. I think that was the most useful point of the whole doc really, the part that says write what you want to write, not what you’re second-guessing the market wants. And yes, I like the martini bit too.

theodoraKath Murray asks: Kudos to Stella Duffy for doing this Q&A and supporting this blog. I’m just starting Theodora. I hadn’t heard of Theodora before and she sounds really interesting. How did you come across her? And how much time does the research take writing a book like this?

SD: I was in Ravenna for a book festival, saw the mosaics, and was blown away by them. I read a little about Theodora and was stunned when I came home to find that there were no recent books about her (none published in the UK anyway), and so I embarked on what became a much bigger project that I’d ever envisaged – and two books! The research took about six months. I was editing The Room of Lost Things at the same time, doing my reading for Theodora in the morning and my editing in the afternoons. I read about thirty different books on the period and the specific time, and then – taking the advice of friend and lovely historical writer Manda Scott – I just started. Manda was quite right, there comes a point, no matter how much research is useful, where you have to start making it up. (And going back to the books for the bits you don’t know when you get to them – after all, you can’t know what you don’t know until you get to that point.)

Theodora must have taken a lot of planning, but by nature are you a “plotter” or a “pantser”, i.e. do you write a detailed outline of your story or fly by the seat of your pants and see what happens?

SD: A bit of both, I tend not to start writing until I have a pretty good idea of what has to happen in the book, the three or four main plot points perhaps, but that’s not the same as fully plotting the whole thing. I’ve found that when I have tried to plot a book before I start, the writing tends to take it away from where the plot suggested anyway, so it becomes a bit of a pointless exercise. I sometimes find, a third or two thirds into the first draft, that I need to take a good long look and work out what needs to come next (as opposed to what I feel like writing next) and that can help too. I usually write quite a few drafts of a book, so the first draft is about making it all up, the subsequent drafts are to find the real story – which is not always what I thought it was before I start writing – and to bring that out in the book, through editing and rewriting. The Theodora novels were a little different in that there was already a ‘plot’ (ie, her lifeline), so the real work was in deciding what facts had to be there and enjoying finding way to bring them together with the sections I made up.

Which book has stayed with you, and which characters won’t leave you alone even though you’ve politely asked them to leave now they’re published?

SD: All of them to some extent, though Robert and Akeel from The Room of Lost Things are very special to me. And Theodora will always matter I think, because she’s been with me for so long and – generously – brought me a whole new readership, which is always welcome.

calendar-girl-stella-duffy-paperback-cover-artThe UK has several writers, like you, who unapologetically write lesbian stories but who appeal to the mainstream. What about your writing do you think attracts a non-lesbian readership?

SD: I hope that’s true, and if it is, I’d say it’s because I have never written lesbian (or any LGBT characters) as if we’re special or different or otherwise outside. Yes, the world may make us feel like that sometimes, and it can be true that we are outside – especially in countries where the laws are less on our side than they are here (I know it’s not ‘fixed’ here yet, but it’s good to remember there are many places where life is harder as LGBT and we need to do our best for those people too), but all people feel, all people love, all people fear, all people desire. And lesbian characters are all people too. I’ve also made a real effort to include non-white characters in my work. I know I may get it wrong sometimes, of course I must, any writer can only ever write from their own experience and their own life, but I’d rather write a work peopled by LGBT, straight, black, white, asian, young, old, able, disabled … and everything in between, than write (yet another) book about white middle class people having white middle class dramas. Those dramas are very real too, I don’t mean they don’t count, but there are plenty of books about them already, I like a bit of a mix of characters in my writing – just as there are a mix of people in my real life.

What are you working on at the moment?

SD: A new novel set in the early twentieth century, in south London, in the years before WW1. It’s not a family story, but it does include some of the family stories I know about my grandmother’s years in service, my grandfather’s childhood of severe poverty in Deptford – and the good bits of those lives too. Downton Abbey is giving the world plenty of posh people looking lovely in nice frocks, I’m a bit more interested in how it was for those living in a less glamorous world.

Stella-DuffyUKLesfic has loved your readings and performances at the (much missed) YLAF. Where can readers catch you now?

SD: I miss YLAF too, though I had a lovely time at LFest last year. I do readings all over the place, whenever I’m asked, and am very happy to do so if I can fit it in with my other work (theatre directing as well as always having a new book on the go). They’re usually listed on my blog.

Lastly, which book do you most re-read / what’s your comfort read?

SD: I don’t re-read that often, as I always have a massive pile of new books to read, but Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker is the book I’ve given to other people most often, and JD Salinger’s Raise High the Roofbeam Carpenters and Seymour, An Introduction are among my other favourites. As are Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, Mary McCarthy’s The Group, Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman. And Shakespeare, I always like a bit – a lot – of Shakespeare.

Thanks Stella! Keep up with Stella’s work and appearances at her blog: stelladuffy.wordpress.com.


2 Responses to “Q and A with Stella Duffy”


  1. Link Round Up: February 6-19 (Click on covers for their Amazon pages) « The Lesbrary - February 20, 2013

    […] Stella Duffy was interviewed at UK Lesbian Fiction. […]

  2. Mad Cats and English Women – The Story of the UKLesFic Blog’s Birth, by Clare Ashton | Women and Words - June 2, 2013

    […] – Actress, commentator, novelist and good sport Stella Duffy answered questions from us and our readers (https://uklesfic.wordpress.com/2013/02/11/stelladuffy/). […]

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