Novelist Deborah Levy discovered writing as a kind of therapy when her voice disappeared as a child, she has revealed.
Appearing on BBC Radio 4 Desert Island Discs, the popular British writer, acclaimed for her novels nominated for the Booker Prize Swimming Home and Hot milk, said his voice gradually quieted during his school years in South Africa.
Born there in 1959, Levy was the eldest child of anti-apartheid campaigners Norman and Philippa Levy and when her father was arrested five years later she went almost silent in response to the stress.
“It’s curious. I wasn’t really mute; it was just that the volume of my voice got lower and lower until no one could hear me,” she said “Kids at school were like, ‘are you stupid?’, and I was nodding because they were leaving me alone.”
Her father was detained for four years and his silence became a habit. Levy, now 62, recalls: “It was really about being totally overwhelmed by everything, not believing my thoughts were of any value to anyone, probably very scared thoughts, and so I just stopped talking.”
The breakthrough came when a teacher encouraged her to write down her thoughts: “So I gave it a try and found that my thoughts were quite loud.”
Therapeutic exercise, which gave rise to an essay entitled A record of things I don’t know, which covered his father’s fate, sparked a love of creative writing that dominated his life. “Then I invented a cat that had yellow eyes, very solitary, that could fly and do summer jumps, and of course the cat was myself and I started to understand very young that you could find an avatar to be yourself and give it your thoughts and issues and opinions, so that was really the start.
The family moved to Britain when she was nine, following her father’s release from prison, and settled in West Finchley, north London. Here, it was a chance meeting with a famous director that inspired his start to his professional career.
As a teenager, Levy worked as a movie usher and met the late experimental filmmaker Derek Jarman. His advice persuaded her to change her plans to study English literature at university. Instead, she learned to write for stage and performance at Dartington College of Arts in Devon.
pax, the first play Levy commissioned in 1984, was followed by more than a dozen dramas, but in the late 1980s she turned to writing novels. Swimming Home, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize, initially failed to find a publisher. Its eventual success marked a new era. “It changed my life. To be valued, respected and read is an incredible privilege, it’s an amazing feeling,” she said, explaining that it happened when she divorced her husband, playwright David Gale. “It’s been a 23-year long relationship and it’s very hard to believe that a life you’ve made together isn’t going to continue.”
Levy says from the start that she saw her novels as an “opportunity to bring female subjectivity to the center of the world”.
The levy from last spring has been published Real estate, the final installment of his “living autobiography” trilogy of memoirs.