Growing up in a small town in New Zealand, out author Stella
Duffy did not necessarily consider writing as a viable career choice. "It
all sounds a little disingenuous," she told AfterEllen.com, "but I
promise I truly didn’t know that it was possible for someone like me to be a
Certainly, Duffy managed to figure it out. The prolific
author of six novels, including Singling
Out the Couples and State of
Happiness, as well five mysteries that feature lesbian private investigator
Saz Martin, her latest book, The Room of
Lost Things, was recently longlisted for the Orange Prize.
"I don’t come from the kind of people who have writers
in their family," explained Duffy, who credits theater for helping her
find her voice. When her best friend’s older brother visited her school with a
company touring Shakespeare, she began to think differently: "His parents
worked at the same timber mill where my parents worked — he was just like me,
but he was in a theater company and suddenly I realized I didn’t have to be a
teacher and an actor in amateur dramatics. I could do it properly."
Duffy’s father was actually more disappointed in his
daughter’s professional calling than her coming out as a lesbian — a surprise,
she said, as he was "a proper old-fashioned, old-school Catholic." The
youngest of seven children, Duffy was the only one afforded a college education,
and he thought she was wasting her intellect.
Though he died when she was 25 and never saw her success,
her mother was always supportive. "She loved that I was a writer and loved
coming to book readings," Duffy said. "She sometimes read with me if
I had an older character."
Studying drama at university, Duffy began to write plays,
and when she returned to Britain she got involved with stand-up comedy and
improvisation. "Improv is just the best way to learn how to write,"
she said. "It taught me how to bring a story together, to trust it. We
didn’t just do comedy, but also hour-long plays. I do think story is a bit like
a river. It will find its own course, but you have to be brave enough to let
Part of finding the story is in the process of writing. With
many of her novels taking up to six drafts, Duffy said she often discovers the
major themes of a book in the reworking.
"I think if you start with ‘this book is about these
five things,’ it’s going to end up being quite didactic. You don’t want to hit
your reader over the head with those things. You want the reader to pick it up
slowly as well, and I think that’s easier if I pick it up slowly."
State of Happiness,
about a couple struggling with the woman’s terminal illness and also longlisted
for the Orange Prize in 2004, was considered a transition in Duffy’s work in
its serious subject matter.
For Duffy, The Room for Lost Things is also a natural
progression. The novel is the complex and richly multilayered story of Robert
Sutton, a dry cleaner in Loughborough Junction, South London, who’s training
his successor, Akeel, to take over the business. It is also a story about love,
racism, secrets, shame and the life of a community.
"I started off writing mysteries, what we call crime
novels," Duffy explained of her development. "Crime novels are absolutely
a political forum, a place to discuss ideas and what can we do about the state
of our world. But then with my literary novels, like Singling Out the Couples, a sexy, nasty, dark fairy tale, my fun is
to play with language."
The Room for Lost Things, she said, brought
together her strong political drive and her love of language and storytelling.
"So in that way, I think it makes sense that it comes after all of those
One of Duffy’s primary goals with the book was to be as
realistic as possible. In terms of capturing the community, for example, she
first wanted to have 20 to 25 other characters pop in and out of the story —
"as people do in real life," she said. That proved too difficult,
however, and finally she had to settle on six characters.
"I wanted to write a very true-to-life novel, and I
found after the first draft that maybe I’m not as good of a writer as I want to
be yet," she admitted about her struggle. She had wanted to set the story
in the hub of a dry cleaner’s shop while telling the whole story of the
community and its members.
"Maybe I’ll be able to do this when I’m 85," she
said, "or maybe it’s not possible to bring in a brilliant character for
three pages that you never see again. A reader gets annoyed. I couldn’t do the
thing I was aiming to do, and I don’t know if that was my inability or that it
just doesn’t work in the novel form."