Lucy Ellmann is the British-American author of eight novels, including Sweet Desserts and Mimi. Her latest, Ducks, Newburyport, is a 1,000 page, one-sentence stream of consciousness, told from inside the mind of an Ohio mother as she worries about everything from gun control to toilet training, from her weak ankles to white supremacy. It was shortlisted for this year’s Booker prize and won the £10,000 Goldsmiths prize, which goes to a book that “opens up new possibilities for the novel form”.
When you first started writing Ducks, Newburyport, did you know it would take the shape that it did?
No, it doesn’t work to overplan things. My novels are generated by my preoccupations at the time. The principle I stuck to was simply writing the book I wanted to write. There’s no point in writing anything but that.
Did you start with the voice or the idea?
It started with the phrase “the fact that”: I wrote a page of sentences starting with “the fact that” one morning at dawn, and I liked its effect. It can be either emphatic or soothing, and it’s suspenseful: you don’t know how the sentence will end. I set about discovering if I could keep using this phrase ad infinitum in a full-length novel, and it seems that I could.
The ideas floating around when I started the novel stemmed from my anger and despair about what we’ve done to the environment. A woman recently came up to me after a talk and said: “I’m so glad I’m not you.” She was appalled by my level of gloom. But I’m sort of appalled by her resilience. Also, her deafness to satire.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I wanted to be a sculptor, but I didn’t really enjoy the cold and manky atmosphere of art schools. I’m a wimp. In retrospect, I think there was also an unspoken prejudice against female sculptors, which subtly undermined me.
You don’t tend to read contemporary fiction – why is that? What books are currently on your bedside table?
[Virginia] Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Caradoc Evans’s story collection My People. She wrestles with the English upper middle class, he tangles with Wales.
I find the annual celebration of contemporary writing, the Xmas lists of 2019 books, quite offensive. It seems so arrogant. These lists suggest that the most relevant books must be the ones most recently published. That’s daft. It’s nice of people to take an interest in new writing of course, especially when one has a book out that year oneself, but let’s face it, it’s a marketing ploy. They want to shift some books, and to do so they glory in the “now” – while everybody knows readers would get more from reading Ulysses or Woolf or Kafka. Private Eye’s logrolling investigations are getting tired too. So what if some writers know each other? It’s hard to avoid. The British literary world is pretty small. Some time ago I pretty much decided to read only books written before the atom bomb was dropped, when everything changed for all life on Earth. The industrial revolution’s bad enough, but nuclear weapons really are party-poopers.
I don’t stick strictly to this policy, but I often find it more rewarding to read what people thought about, and what they did with literature, before we were reduced by war and capitalism to mere monetary units, bomb fodder and password generators. And before the natural world became a depository for plastics and nuclear waste.
Anger and alienation have resulted, and they’re fine subjects, but there are times when you’d like to remember some of the higher points in the history of civilisation as well, and the natural world before we learned to view it all as tainted. The intense humour, innocence, sexiness and play of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, for instance – could this have been written after Hiroshima? Could Gargantua and Pantagruel? Don Quixote? Emma? I don’t see how. Thanks to the offences of patriarchy, a lot of the fun has gone out of being human, and I like books that look at life in less constricted ways.
Many reviewers of Ducks have written about it reverentially, while also straining to emphasise its length, its literary qualities, its challenging nature. How does all this make you feel?
Size isn’t everything. I do understand the trials of rushed reviewers, but you can always say no if you can’t face reviewing something. This book had to be long, to do what it does, but I never wanted it to be unapproachable. There’s a tinge of sexism in certain male reviewers’ comments on the book’s length. They’re probably further miffed that it’s a novel about womanhood. The feeling is, how dare a woman, the narrator or the author, take up so much of my time?
Can we also talk about the rumour that the book is made up of eight sentences? I’m afraid this seems to have been started by an Observer review. I don’t know how the number eight was arrived at, but that review had legs and the idea really got around. It’s a frustrating miscalculation, as making it eight sentences would not have made any sense at all.
I’m planning to get “ONE SENTENCE NOT EIGHT” put on my tombstone. That should settle the matter, right? But it seems churlish to complain about the reviews. They have mostly been wonderfully generous.
In Ducks, our narrator – a mother – thinks: “I’m scared of all young women now, because when I look at them I see another potential mother-hater, the fact that I always wonder now how they treat their own moms.” You’re a mother, and both a great defender and critic of motherhood. How do you balance these positions?
What worries me is the big divide I’ve occasionally observed between mothers and daughters. I suspect patriarchy is behind this hostility. When women turn on each other, you have to look for the source of that, who benefits. It’s a great pity, because all this woman-on-woman anger could be better directed against our oppressors.
I was very close to my own mother, and feel the power and meaning of motherhood are widely overlooked – again, in service to patriarchy. But now that we’re in a climate emergency, the closer we can get to zero births, the better. I do admire women who decide to not have children for the environment. I think it’s touching and noble and generous. It’s also incredibly sensible. People don’t talk enough about how tiring, boring, enraging, time-consuming, expensive and thankless parenthood is. Why must we keep pretending it’s a joy? Sure, there are delightful elements: children are endearing and fascinating, and if you have some, you get to play with toys again and read children’s books and remember your childhood. But illness, worry, conflict, overcrowding, the relentless cooking, the driving, the loss of privacy, the repression of your own sexuality, the education dilemmas, the lack of employment prospects, and all the wretched insanity of adolescence – these are big deterrents.
You watch people get pregnant and know they’ll be emotionally and intellectually absent for 20 years. Thought, knowledge, adult conversation and vital political action are all put on hold while this needless perpetuation of the species is prioritised. Having babies is a strong impulse, a forgivable one, but it’s also just a habit, a tradition, like weddings or putting butter on popcorn.
A couple months on from the Booker, how do you feel about the decision to award two prizes?
It was a really crappy decision. Five judges and they can’t reach a democratic result? But they were so determined to reward a famous author this year, they seem to have forgotten about fair and logical voting techniques. The glory of the award can apparently be doubled, not divided, so that’s good. But it doesn’t seem very nice to make the winners share the money! Why in hell would you give the first black woman to win the Booker half the dough? It’s deeply mistaken and insulting.
What I like about the Booker Foundation, a registered charity, is its arrangement with the RNIB. All the shortlisted books are recorded for the blind, and that’s an honour.
Your books are unabashedly, furiously feminist. Mimi ends with a great manifesto calling for the creation of a global matriarchy to save the planet. If you were in charge in such a world, what would you change and do with that power?
If I were in charge? That’s a rather patriarchal concept! Women should be in charge collectively. This leader shit doesn’t seem to be getting us anywhere. But what would we change? Here’s my plan, based on prehistoric matriarchal cultures (only called “prehistoric”, by the way, because they predate male rule): a three-hour working day, free health care, open borders, wealth redistribution, a fair-minded pooling of resources, and devotion to the common good, veneration of women, harmony with nature, more snow storms, respect for animals, more allotments (I just like the look of them), non-violence, a ban on all weaponry, an end to imprisonment and the beauty cult (another prison), and a moratorium on the mention of religion. (Pursue these belief systems if you must, but keep it to yourself.) And that includes the religions of exercise: jogging, yoga, aerobics, going to the stupid gym (you could be out planting trees!), along with mindfulness, plastic surgery and other supposed forms of self-improvement that really exist only to bug people. We need to raise the level of discourse to which our capitalist masters have relegated us. In service to this, we should redirect all our energies to a wholehearted concentration on the arts, our greatest achievement as a species.
And everybody has to eat either Chinese, Indian, Spanish or Italian food. Well, I will anyway.
• Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann is published by Galley Beggar Press (£13.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15
Source: The Guardian