The Great Gay Reads Interview: Stella Duffy

As you will know from reading this blog I love today’s interviewee’s work very much. Add to that the fact that she is delightful in person as well as in prose and what more could you want from an author? Now if you haven’t read any Stella Duffy then more fool you and please head to your nearest store online or not and pic up some of her works if not all of them. Stella is multi-talented not only as an author of eleven novels also as an actress, performer and playwright. She has been up for the Orange Prize twice and last year won Stonewall Writer of the Year for ‘The Room of Lost Things’. You can follow her blog here and learn much more about her there too. So here is an interview especially for The Great Gay Reads from our first lady interviewee Stella Duffy…

Introduce yourself to the readers, tell us more about yourself…
Stella Duffy, 46, married to writer Shelley Silas, living in South London. Born in Woolwich SE18, youngest of 7, raised Catholic, practising Buddhist.
We moved to New Zealand/Aotearoa when I was a child. My father was a New Zealander, came here in World War 2, wireless op/gunner in Lancasters – therefore he was shot down quite early! – got together with my South London (Kennington) mother, had a bunch of kids, they took the two youngest of us back to NZ in ’68 when my father could no longer stay away from home.
I still think my mother, 48 at the time, was enormously brave to leave behind her older children, travel – by ship – on a one-way ticket to somewhere she had never seen, not knowing when she’d be back, and arriving with absolutely nothing but half a dozen tea chests that arrived six months later, not one without some damage to the contents. All we had in the lounge for ages was my Nana’s old carpet and two deckchairs for my Mum and dad to sit on! As it turned out, it was the right move for them, and certainly for the two of us who went there – not least because I then had access to great NZ education in the 70’s – but certainly NOT an easy thing for her to do. I also completely understand why my older siblings, late teens and early 20’s in ‘swinging’ London had no desire to do the same!
I grew up in small timber town in the central North Island, Tokoroa – often sneered at by the NZ city types but a brilliant place for an enquiring mind to grow up, not least because in 70’s approx 75% of the population was Maori/Polynesian and the town was therefore brilliantly multicultural (and all that was good about that) LONG before the concept became fashionable! It also taught me the value of small towns/rural life. Not that I choose to live rurally, loving London as I do, but that I know it, too, can be lovely.

How long have you been writing for?
First book published in 1994, was writing theatre/stories for at least 12 years before then, and all through school. I started out writing plays for us kids to perform, both as an actor and as a writer.

What made you want to write?
Liking reading, wanting to tell stories, wanting to share stories, wanting to change the world.

Who made you want to write?
Mostly my mother, a bit my father, and quite a bit Mr Shakespeare.

What were your favourite reads growing up?
The Trixie Belden books (not Nancy Drew), Narnia, Malory Towers/Chalet School/Angela Brazil, Bunty, Tammy, anything really – Mum and Dad belonged to book clubs, new books came through the letterbox every month … my Dad was a boiler man, it can be a dreadful job when something goes wrong, he’d come home from the night shift caked in gunge and shattered, having lost a stone in a night … but, if nothing went wrong he’d read a novel overnight. My Mum got a 20 min bus ride to and from work (also at the timber mill) every day, reading on the bus … I ended up reading whatever they had*. From Georgette Heyer to Charles Dickens to Erich von Daniken to Harold Robbins. Later on I discovered a world of writers, far outside the bookshelves of my home, but as a child it wasn’t so much about the style or the genre, it was about books, about stories. I think it mostly still is.
* My Dad’s books stank of the mill … pine/ply/pulp/salt-cake, a peculiarly Tokoroa smell.

Where there any books that really helped you growing up gay?
Sadly not. The early 70’s were a dreadful time to look for LGBT role models – not least from a small town in New Zealand!

How do you feel about the state of gay fiction today?
Fine. I know lots of people complain about the demise of the gay publishing houses, but actually, I think it serves us all to have mainstream publishers publishing us all – and while SOME of the gay publishers published great work, a good many of them published not very great or even dire work, merely because it was LGBT. And publishing bad work, merely to have LGBT characters doesn’t serve any of us well.
That said, I think there probably is a gap in the market for a good lesbian/bi-women publisher right now. There are certainly a lot more out women wanting to or actually writing. Maybe a recession’s a good time to try??!!

Do you feel that as a gay writer you are obligated to include gay characters in your work…
Not exactly obliged, but I do live in a world with LGBT people, so it would be odd not to have any LGBT characters in a book. It simply depends on the story, I wouldn’t put them in merely to have them there, if the story didn’t need them, but then again, nor can I imagine living in a world without LGBT people (like I don’t live in an entirely white world or female world or British world etc etc), so I don’t think it’s very likely I’d write a book with NO LGBT characters at all. (Never say never though!)

…Or to give something back to gay readers?
Gosh, don’t know about this one. I don’t mean to sound rude, but I truly don’t think about the reader that much when I’m writing. I think about the story I’m telling and I seriously believe that’s the most important thing. If I was thinking about the reader while I worked … well, which one? Surely we don’t think all gay readers want the same thing??!! It would make me crazy … so no, not to give something back to gay readers, not specifically, ‘all’ I want to give to readers is the best piece of work I can make.

What new gay authors do you think we should be looking out for in the future?
You Simon?
Paul Burston’s new book sounds brilliant. Out in May I think?
And I really enjoyed Mia Farlane’s first novel – Footnotes to Sex.
Looking forward to more from Karen McLeod too.

What are your thoughts on the ‘gay fiction’ section of book stores, shouldn’t it be all inclusive or is it a good device for people to be able to find gay fiction?
I want all my books to be everywhere! So I’m happy to be in Gay Sections BUT I don’t ever want to be ONLY in the ‘gay section’. As a young woman, I would have loved to be able to seek out a gay section in a book shop or library, but I similarly might have been shy to be seen there, so I’d want to find that same author on any other shelf as well. It helps publishers and booksellers (and sometimes the public) to categorise. I don’t mind that, I just don’t want to be ONLY in the ghetto.

What is your Great Gay Read of all time and why?
Oh I can’t just have one!
Patricia Highsmith’s Carol. Lovely, sad, happy, gorgeous, sexy. Brilliantly written of course, and far more appropriately a ‘first lesbian novel’ than the all-too-oft-cited Well of Loneliness.
Sarah Water’s Fingersmith is the ONLY book I have ever read that made me (literally) gasp aloud (at the ‘big twist’). I remain astonished at her audacity and skill in pulling that off.
Neil Bartlett’s Skin Lane. Neil Bartlett is a glorious writer and this is one of his best.


~ by greatgayreads on November 12, 2009.

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