‘Humour too relies on chaos’: A chat with Lucy Ellmann on her book, Ducks, Newburyport
American-born Scotland-based writer Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport was recently named the winner of The Goldsmiths Prize for 2019.
The book is more than 1,000 pages long and yet, mostly consists of one long monologue, in the stream of consciousness vein, of a housewife from rural Ohio. Suffice to say, it still keeps the reader hooked through to the very end.
In an email interview, the Booker-shortlisted author chatted with Indulge about the conception of the book, which has become the talk of literary circles across the globe, comparisons with modernists Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, and what her writing process was like for the novel.
Tell us about your book. How did the idea of the one sentence and thousand plus pages-long book come into being?
By itself. I don’t have moments of formal decision-making. Ideas accrue, and I follow that up with many adjustments and accommodations.
The lack of full stops reflects how we talk to ourselves. I don’t think we punctuate internal thoughts all that carefully. Not a lot of colons and semi-colons going on in there.
I had no idea the book was so long while I was writing it (I’d split it up into different sections and files to help my computer cope with it all). I was rather amazed when I finally did a word count, as all my previous novels were about 200 pages.
But I just wrote it the way it had to be. The length was right for this particular book. The usual instinct to pare down and compress everything had no place here. Ducks is about everything.
You have referred to this book as an "approximation of a consciousness." What was your thought process behind taking on the voice of an American 'housewife' while not having lived in the US yourself? How difficult was it to achieve a sense of authenticity for your narrator?
I have lived in the US! I’m a dual national, British and American, but I started off as an American, with an American’s arrogant assumption that America is the centre of the universe. I grew up in Illinois and Connecticut until I was thirteen, when my family moved to England, and for many years I intended to return to the US when I was older.
At one point, I considered going to graduate school there, but didn’t want to leave my cat behind. Good decision, I still think. Later, I married an American, and we both continue to have many friends and relatives in the US, and we visit it fairly often.
So I feel involved in the country’s plight. But there’s also a global awareness of the culture of the US. More’s the pity. America’s influence far exceeds its benevolence.
What was your writing process like with this novel?
It was unusually harsh, partly because I thought I’d never finish this book if I didn’t keep at it. I had no deadline to meet, but a sense of urgency took over none the less.
For the last few years, I was working on it non-stop, twelve hours a day – and worrying about it the rest of the time! It was quite a relief to get it done.
Writing’s a very solitary business, as I can’t share work in progress with anybody. I was simply sitting in my study for seven years, alone with this novel. It was an exhausting process of ordering the material, adding to it, and re-ordering it, while trying to retain the whole thing in my head at once.
How do you respond to comparisons with modernists such as Woolf and Joyce?
With gratitude! They’re two of the best writers in the English language.
Do you feel that apart from the 'stream of consciousness' mode of writing, this comparison also stems from how the modernists sort of came to be seen as the voices of a world in disruption or chaos and the same can also be said of Ducks, Newburyport that it has the potential to represent the fractured times we live in?
Great question. I do feel that the arts were permanently affected by the invention, and use, of nuclear bombs. That enslaved us all. Nothing has been the same since. The First World War was devastating enough, but the Second fatally narrowed human access to hope. The threat of total annihilation is inhuman – except that it isn’t. It was all our idea.
Everything written since the advent of the bomb either sheepishly ignores it, or reacts to it in some way. Even sex and shopping novels have to be, at heart, a desperate bid for happiness in a society where true happiness has been squelched.
Modernism certainly reflects an awareness of the chaos and mercilessness unleashed in the Twentieth Century. My novels are born out of these woeful events of the last hundred years, and of the injury done to nature by patriarchy and industrialisation over many centuries. And I hope, like a lot of modernists’ work, they’re also funny. Humour too relies on chaos.
Are there any literary works or authors who influenced your own writing or inspired you through theirs?
I’m fascinated by innovators in the novel form from its beginning, so I have got a lot from reading Sterne, Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, Hardy, Flaubert, Joyce, Beckett, Molly Keane, Thomas Bernhard and Elfriede Jelinek.
Your narrator's thoughts on motherhood have become a major point of discussion around the book. How much of that is what you feel about the feminist movement and motherhood's place in it?
I wanted the book to rest on the subject of motherhood, in the form of a mother who mourns her own mother, and an animal tending her offspring.
Motherhood is vastly undervalued and overlooked these days, because we live in a patriarchal society which assesses life and accomplishments from a very male, violent and anti-nature perspective.
Motherhood is not only a huge cultural factor, it’s a biological wonder. Menstruation, pregnancy, lactation, and the menopause have huge implications for women’s history.
In male culture, they are seen merely as commercially exploitable facts, and whenever possible transformed into sources of shame. Thanks a lot, guys.
Getting down to the nitty-gritty, feminists have long tried to show the ways in which childbearing has been used as a way of enslaving women, from restrictions on reproductive rights (the right to abortion and to control over one’s own fertility) to the lack of provision for health care and childcare for working women.
Until you look seriously at women’s lives, until you respect what women can uniquely do, and what their history and their priorities are, you will not have any kind of true feminism.
Do you feel the fact that the novel was passed on by a major publishing house to be picked up by an independent one says something about the lack of risk-taking in the publishing world today?
The book has actually now been taken on by several major publishing houses – in India, France, Sweden and Italy. Hooray. But it did have a rocky start, you’re right.
My marvellous agent David Godwin never gave up on the book, and the first publisher he found for it was Galley Beggar Press, in the UK Working with them has been such a breakthrough for me, and so rewarding, as Galley Beggar is a hands-on type of publisher, fully committed to its books and very friendly to its authors.
They have a very thorough editing process, and enlisted dozens of volunteer proof-readers to comb out typos, which was a brilliant idea. They also seem to have access to just my type of audience.
There’s a lot of warmth and camaraderie involved in the world of smaller presses, and I’m impressed by the way these independents all support each other too.
They seem more dedicated, more concerned with books on a human scale, and much freer to buy the books they really care about.
And, paradoxically, though they’re poorer than the bigger houses, smaller presses can be less hampered by financial considerations. Eloise Millar and Sam Jordison of Galley Beggar are very literary types, and publish only the books they really like.
They put their all into each one. In contrast, bigger publishers seem to have lost their way, and lost courage. They’ve also lost contact with readers.
A huge need for profit doesn’t suit the book industry, nor does it serve the public. All publishers take gambles, and I admire their chutzpah – but these day, the smaller presses’ gambles often seem a lot more interesting.
What are you currently reading and what is on your reading wish-list?
Lately, I’ve been rereading Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. It’s not just that it’s funny (as all good writing is). I also like revisiting how revelatory I found it when I read it as a teenager. It seems a pity we haven’t seen his later writing yet.
Top of my reading list is Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Ducks has been compared to it a lot, so I need to find out why. And anyway, Woolf is a treat, whatever the reason you might have for reading her. I’ve read more of her essay than her fiction, and it’s time I corrected that.
Any contemporary authors who you feel are underrated and haven't been given their due?
It’s quite patronising to declare that someone is underrated, so I won’t.
What are you working on next? Any upcoming writing projects?
As I said, I can’t talk about work in progress, as that kills it, but I’ve started another novel. I also intend to bring out a book of essays with my Canadian publisher, Biblioasis, another very exciting small press.
INR 999, Pan Macmillan India.
— Simar Bhasin