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Home » Books, Interviews, Non-fiction

INTERVIEW – MAUREEN DUFFY

Submitted by admin on December 21, 2009 – 3:23 pmNo Comment

by Hannah Gilkes

Maureen Duffy (b. 1933 in Worthing, Sussex) is a notable contemporary British poet, playwright and novelist. She has also published a literary biography of Aphra Behn, and The Erotic World of Faery a book-length study of eroticism in faery fantasy literature.

After a tough childhood, Duffy took her degree in English from King’s College London. She went on to be a schoolteacher from 1956 to 1961, and edited three editions of a poetry magazine called the sixties. She then turned to writing full-time as a poet and playwright after being commissioned to produce a screenplay by Granada Television. Her first novel, written at the suggestion of a publisher, That’s How It Was (1962), was published to great acclaim. Her first openly lesbian novel was The Microcosm (1966), set in the famous lesbian Gateways club in London.

Maureen Duffy

Maureen Duffy

Your most recent publication is The Orpheus Trail. As a thriller there is a really strong narrative line. What is your view of the importance of a strong linear narrative in a novel?

Well I know that many readers like a strong linear narrative. I like to undermine it in some way, which I did in the Orpheus Trail with the inserts. However, it is also necessary to leave enough in the narrative so that there is some sort of page turning element for the reader. But I don’t want to feel that the linear narrative is all and that you can’t digress. There are many different kinds of novel. Some are much more discursive, some, as I have done myself in earlier novels, juxtapose characters against each other. But I do like some forward movement and I’m glad that you found the narrative strong in this particular case because I felt I needed that to counterbalance the other things that I was wanting to put in the periodic inserts.

There is definitely a compelling criminal plot with the murders and their grotesque arrangements as well as a developing relationship between Alex and Hilary. Which of these came first?

What started it was reading an article about the discovery of Orphic texts in Greece when they were building a new road, and then the discovery of the Anglo Saxon tomb in Essex at Prittlewell, containing lots of interesting artefacts which were very well preserved and subsequently called the Prittlewell Prince. So it really kicked off from the archaeology rather than from the story of people smuggling and the abuse of conceptual art or the love story.

Click on the image to buy this novel from Amazon

Click on the image to buy this novel from Amazon

Why are the child smugglers never seen? There is one scene in the novel where Alex is talking to Professor Smallridge; he finds that he is too repulsed by him to even touch his sleeve. Is it the same kind of thing? Were they too repulsive to touch in a literary sense?

No, it was partly that I think that if you show the demons, they lose their magic. And also, partly simple realism. So many of these international people smugglers and those who run internet pornography sites and so on are simply never caught. They exist as sort of dark thread through our society. A bit like the hydra, you cut off one head and another grows in its place.

So quite simply, most of them are never caught, simply forced to reduce their activities, or to move underground or to move to other countries, but not themselves physically taken.

Was it difficult to research a topic like this? Information can’t be readily available.

Yes. I saw an article, a very small one, which was about children being abducted or enticed away from care homes for children in the Netherlands. These were children who had been smuggled and had been picked up by the Dutch police and put into the equivalent of Dr Barnados because, certainly under EU law, children can’t be deported until they reach the age of maturity for that society. So they have to be cared for but then, in some ways, the smugglers track them down and then entice or kidnap them away. I was interested and appalled that this was going on in the Netherlands which one thinks of as a law abiding country, and I put this to a met police contact and he said that we have never heard of it in this country and it seemed to me that if it was going on in Holland then it was probably be going on in other parts of the world too and probably in the UK.

Usually the media has concentrated on the smuggling of young women or girls for the sex trade. But this was a case of the smuggling of children and of course it is all the more horrific.

Many authors have been criticised for incorporating myth into their writing but altering historical tradition for the sake of plot. Is your use of mythology accurate?

I hope so! I did a lot of research on this book. Lots of grubbing around in the London library and reading up on those areas that I was least informed about and then feeding it into a chronological narrative. You begin with Persia and you end up in Essex, progressing down the ages to that point.

The importance of history is a continuing theme in the novel, with two different perspectives offered. Do you think that history shows the inevitability of human mistakes or offers a way to learn from these mistakes?

I think there is probably an element of truth in both. Depending on how we understand and emotionally treat the past. If you look at human history, you’ll find yourself at the end of the 20th century thinking thank goodness that this period of war and bloodshed is over, and here we are, not 10 years into the 21st century and we have terrorism, war and violence again. I think very much what Harry Patch said ‘they never learn’. Humans never learn because we have this element genetically programmed into us that gives us a capacity for violence, a sort of animal projection of the survival of the fittest. This can only be combated by things like art, humanity and understanding.

Is there an equal attraction in working on fact and fiction?

I am extremely interested by fact and history. The facts have to feed into whatever creative form begins to manifest itself. It may be a poem or a play or a more traditional work of fiction. It may be non fiction. The facts are intimately fascinating but they have to be transmuted by the Keatsian imagination.

I find that I go through phases of writing lots of poems and then perhaps a dramatic monologue.

Do you think that different kinds of facts end to call for a different creative form?

They may do. I have a poem which is called Evolution, which is a sort of fictionalised version of how the first woman left Africa 200,000 years ago and fed the different races around the world and eventually came back to Africa and died. She had hoped that the children that she had populated the earth with would be peaceful and was appalled when she saw in the afterlife what they had bee up to.

Now that’s a poem but it contains many other interests in archaeology, pre history and that sort of thing. But what decides the form is a process of the brain that I don’t have much control over. I don’t think it matters greatly to me what form it takes.  I suppose ultimately to me poetry is the highest art form. Possibly along with music.

Would you consider yourself a poet first?

I think so. I think I am inclined to use the word in the 17th century sense, in the sense in which Aphra Benn used it. ‘My masculine part, the poet in me.’ She writes at one point. But of course she was novelist, dramatist, translator and poet, in the 17th century you could use poet as we would now say writer. So I agree with that usage.

Who are you reading at the moment?

Marilynne Robinson’s Home, the orange prize winner.

Are you enjoying it?

Yes in a way. Though, as ever, appalled by small town America. Thinking I’d rather be dead!

You have talked a lot in the past about how hard it can be to be a writer, especially one that is not a bestseller. Do you have any advice for struggling writers?

Well, the I mean the usual advice is don’t give up the day job. But of course, the impulse is always to give up the day job and concentrate full time on writing. There are a number of subsidiary jobs, editing, giving readings etc that you can fit in with your writing. Without eating and paying the rent you aren’t going to complete anything. Unless you are very lucky you will always have to do the balancing act in some way. Even Dr Johnson had to. So it is nothing new. But I do think that it is very difficult at the moment, harder than it has been in my writing lifetime. So good luck is what I would mostly say.

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