Novelist Deborah Levy first discovered writing as a form of therapy when her voice disappeared as a child, she revealed.
Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s desert island pucks, the popular British writer, acclaimed for her Booker Prize shortlisted novels swim at home Y Hot milk, said his voice gradually became calmer during his school days in South Africa.
Born there in 1959, Levy was the eldest child of anti-apartheid activists Norman and Philippa Levy and when her father was arrested five years later, she fell almost silent in response to the stress.
“It’s curious. I wasn’t exactly mute; it was just the volume of my voice going down and down until no one could hear me,” he said. “Kids at school would tell me, ‘Are you dumb?’ and I would nod because they would leave me alone.”
His father was in prison for four years and his silence became a habit. Levy, now 62, recalled: “It was really about being totally overwhelmed by everything, not believing that my thoughts were valuable to anyone, probably very scared thoughts, so I just stopped talking.”
The breakthrough came when a school teacher encouraged her to write down her thoughts: “So I tried and found that my thoughts were quite loud.”
Therapeutic exercise, resulting in a trial called A record of things I don’t know, covering his father’s plight, sparked a love of creative writing that has dominated his life. “Then I invented a cat that had yellow eyes, very lonely, and could fly and do flips, and of course the cat was myself and I started to understand at a fairly young age that you could find an avatar to be you and give it your thoughts, issues, and opinions, so that was really the beginning.”
The family moved to Britain when she was nine, after her father was released from prison, settling in West Finchley, north London. Here, it was a chance meeting with a famous film director that inspired his early professional career.
As a teenager, Levy worked as a movie usher and met the late experimental filmmaker Derek Jarman. His words of advice convinced her to change her plans to study English Literature at university. Instead, he learned to write for theater and performance at Dartington College of Arts in Devon.
Peace, Levy’s first commissioned play in 1984, was followed by more than a dozen dramas, but in the late 1980s he switched to writing novels. swim at home, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize, was initially unable to find a publisher. Its eventual success marked a new era. “That changed my life. Being valued, respected and read is an incredible privilege, it’s an extraordinary feeling,” she said, explaining that it came around the time she divorced her husband, playwright David Gale. “It had been a long relationship of 23 years and it is very difficult to believe that a life that they had made together is not going to continue.”
Levy says that from the beginning she saw her novels as an “opportunity to bring female subjectivity right to the center of the world.”
Last spring, Levy published Real estate, the latest installment in his ‘living autobiography’ trilogy of memoirs.