About The Author
Stella Duffy has written thirteen novels, over fifty short stories, and ten plays. She has twice won Stonewall Writer of the Year and twice won the CWA Short Story Dagger. HBO have optioned her two Theodora novels for television. In addition to her writing work, Stella is a theatre-maker and the co-director of the national Fun Palaces campaign for greater access to culture for all. She was awarded an OBE in 2016 for her services to the Arts. Her website is www.stelladuffy.wordpress.com
Opening in 1912 and inspired by real events, her new book, London Lies Beneath, now out in paperback, is the story of three friends and a tragedy that will change them forever. It is also a song of south London, of working class families with hidden histories, of a bright and complex world long neglected.
Exclusively for Foyles, we chatted to Stella about the complex meanings of her book's title, the different kinds of poverty, faith and spirituality and her Fun Palaces campaign to get communities more involved in the arts.
Questions & Answers
Can you say anything about the intriguing title of your book, and whether it refers to the overlapping tales that wrap the city.
There are several reasons for calling it London Lies Beneath – there is the play on words of ‘lies’ (stories as lies, tales as lies), there is also the idea of the ‘real’ London lying beneath where we stand now – as the past, as something to be uncovered, to be searched for. There is another suggestion (as a south Londoner) that the ‘real’ London lies beneath the river Thames – i.e, in south London. There’s also a very prosaic reason which, as a bookseller, I think you’ll appreciate – some years ago I did a book reading with Iain Sinclair, he of ‘London Orbital’ fame and much else besides. He said that having the word ‘London’ in a title helps sales ... we shall see!
What came first, your interest in London in the early 20th century or your fascination with the true story that inspired your novel?
My mum was born in Kennington in 1921, her mother in Kennington in 1885, my mum’s father in Deptford in 1895. My nana’s father’s family were carpenters on an estate in Wiltshire, and – like so many – must have moved to London to seek work, the census shows them in London from not long before my grandmother’s birth. They were what they used to call the ‘deserving poor’. My nana started work in service when she was quite young – some of Ida’s stories in the book are based on what my mother told me about her mother’s time in service. My grandfather’s family in Deptford were definitely not ‘deserving poor’ – they were just very poor.
The 1911 census shows my great grandmother as a widow of 45 with four children, both of the older boys (only just in their teens) already working – one a firewood dealer and one a greengrocer’s boy – and living in the streets coloured dark blue in Booth’s map of London – so they were not entirely destitute, but close. I’d never really understood why my mother said her mum’s side of the family looked down on her father’s side – they all just seemed poor to me. But looking at the census reports and the Booth map (of course, being poor there are no photos), I can see they were perceived to be different kinds of poor. Some of Victor’s story – and much of the novel – is fed by this sense of different kinds of poverty.
So there was some family influence in terms of reaching back to get an idea of the real people – although my grandfather died before I was born and my nana died when I was three, so the little I know is from my mother’s own stories, and she’s been dead a while too. In a way that makes it easier to make fiction from these ideas – no-one is going to hold me to account for having got their story wrong.
As for the true story of the boys, I’d heard about it maybe a decade or so ago, and had tried to write it as a radio play, several times, but it didn’t seem to quite work. I think finding the (also true) story of Edward Lovett and his Magic in Modern London was the key to my feeling I could make it as a novel – family tales, spinning out from one community, held together by poverty and spirit and a sense of change, alongside this gentleman who dipped in and out of their lives, recording their beliefs, though not subscribing to them himself.
What sort of research did you do, and did you find the plethora of available sources and information more liberating or more restrictive than it was for, say, your Theodora novels, set in Byzantine Rome?
In some ways this was easier than the Theodora research – I knew nothing about that period or place at all. At least with this book, I know these kinds of people. They are not my generation, but the boys in the story are only twenty-odd years older than my parents, and they are younger than my grandparents, so I have a sense of the people – they speak in the rhythms of my mum’s family, south Londoners all, who grew up just off Kennington Park, so less then ten minutes run from the streets of the families in the book.
As with the Theodora novels, I also read a huge amount about the time, the people. It’s tricky with this period – there is so very much about the wealthy and the middle class, and much less about the poor. To me, the poor are always far more interesting than the rich – perhaps because I come from them, or because the rich have been over-studied for so long, but also because if you want to know what is really happening in a society, it’s no good just looking at the lives of the rich and famous, it’s everyday lives – often lived in what we might now consider to be quite extreme circumstances of difficulty or poverty – that show us what people really thought, how they really felt. Mary Chamberlain’s excellent Growing Up in Lambeth was hugely useful, not least because it led me to Maud Pember Reeves’ Round About a Pound a Week.
There are quite a few accounts online about the sailing tragedy, so finding the details about the event itself was slightly easier – though some of the stories made very sad reading.
Many different characters get to tell their stories. Was it fun to be able to use a wide range of narrative voices within one book?
Yes. Fun AND difficult. Initially this book had even more voices in it – in a similar fashion to The Room of Lost Things, my other London novel – I’m really interested in telling the story of a time and place through the voices of those who live there and then. I had to do a lot of work in the edits to bring it together in a more traditional narrative – I have a dream of one day writing a novel that is simply a collection of short stories, allowing the reader to tie it up together without me, the author, telling them how to do it. A sort of Robert Altman Short Cuts but in novel form. However, I know this can be unsatisfying for a reader, especially when they find characters they love, so I winnowed down my original cast of many and settled on just three families and the people around them. It’s still quite heavily populated, but hopefully not confusingly so.
Is there a strong tradition of storytelling in your own family?
I suppose there is – my parents were of the generation that learned poems by rote, and even though they both had to leave school at 14, they read a great deal and shared stories with us as children. My dad less so than my mother – he was a Prisoner of War in Germany during WW2, and I heard far more about his time as a prisoner on the day of his funeral, talking to his friends, than I’d ever heard directly from him. Both of my parents were good at sharing their childhood stories, and my mother was especially skilled at a couple of ghost stories, sometimes reducing my friends to tears of fear.
There is a theme of faith and spirituality tying the characters and their fates together. Do you yourself believe in fate?
I’m not sure I think about fate a great deal, at least not in the Greek sense, of there being no way to avoid our fate – or fates, but I have been practicing Buddhism for thirty years and my practice teaches ‘turning destiny into mission’. So, my own destiny has been to have the good fortune to become a writer, someone who works in the arts, someone who has had so many more chances than my parents, and even than some of my siblings – but that’s just the luck of being born the seventh and last child, the good fortune of getting a good education and being able to stay at school, not having to leave to get a job at 16, the great good fortune of finding a thing (the arts) that I loved and wanted to work in quite early on in my life. But – according to my practice – what I do with this good fortune is what really matters. It’s why I co-founded Fun Palaces, to support and enable many more people to have not only access to creativity in the arts and sciences as audiences, but to experience the excitement and joy of being creative themselves, and how much that can contribute to their own lives and that of their community. .
How does your work in the theatre influence your novel-writing and vice-versa?
They’re totally joined. I think about writing in terms of scenes and beats, I think about dialogue carrying emotional impact and character notes, about scene-setting in terms of time and place and how that isn’t always conveyed by a physical description, but can be told in dialogue or how a character behaves. These things are all intrinsically theatrical. Similarly, my writing has influenced my theatre-making enormously, less specifically perhaps, but definitely in terms of thinking about character and place.
Can you say more about the Fun Palaces campaign with which you are involved?
I mentioned briefly above why Fun Palaces came into being – to help more people, anywhere and everywhere, not just access the arts and sciences, but join in, take part – to DO. We all know that much as it’s fun to sit in an audience or a lecture, it’s even more interesting to really get involved; Fun Palaces helps community groups, organisations and individual people create their own public events, using arts and sciences as a catalyst for community. We’re definitely not about audience development – but we are about community development. It’s been amazing to meet the incredible people who’ve got involved, all simply because they want to do something for and with the community where they live. We’re an ongoing campaign around increasing engagement – we truly do believe in our motto ‘everyone an artist, everyone a scientist’ and we have an annual weekend of action every year at the beginning of October, when communities all across the UK and internationally make Fun Palaces – pop-up events, run by and for local people, using arts and sciences, crafts and technologies to bring people together. From dry land synchronised swimming to feltmaking to neuroscience experiments and science ceilidhs – Fun Palaces welcomes it all. It’s free to make a local Fun Palace and free to take part. In the long run, I look forward to new forms of work coming from bringing artists and scientists together before either of them has an idea, so they are truly creating together – and also to the new culture that arises when we finally make cultural activity genuinely accessible to everyone, not just a privileged few. Over 90,000 people took part last year so we’re off to a good start.
When writing this book were there any writers whose work inspired you?
Having had cancer for the second time in 2014, I’ve been reading many writers on illness, mortality and anxiety – in particular, Irvin Yalom on death-anxiety, grief and fear of mortality in Staring at the Sun. I’ve found all of this useful in thinking about the grief the parents in the book go through. And, personally, in terms of my cancer recovery, I’ve found several books on MBSR mindfulness work, hugely useful – including those by John Kabat-Zinn, and Mark Williams and Danny Penman.
Are you planning your next writing project already and can you tell us anything about it?
I’m beyond planning and on to the copyedit – I’m very excited (and a little nervous) to say that my first crime novel in 12 years will be published by Virago in 2017 – it’s called The Hidden Room, it’s set in the UK and the US, and there’s a cult in the plot ... hopefully that’s enough for now!