Andrea Levy: Award-winning author

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image-andrealevy200The Long Song is award-winning author, Andrea Levy’s latest book. It is the story of July – a slave girl on a sugar plantation in Jamaica. Set during the time of the Baptist War, when slavery eventually came to an end.

Levy didn’t start her writing career until her mid-30s. After taking a creative writing course, she started work on her first novel, Every Light in the House Burnin’. Since then, she has also published Never Far From Nowhere, Fruit of the Lemon, and Small Island. Small Island won her a number of awards, including the Orange Prize for Fiction 2004, the Whitbread Noel Award 2004, and the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize Best Book in 2005.

The inspiration from her books comes from the experiences of black Jamaicans in Britain. Her own parents migrated from Jamaica in 1948 and, as a young woman, Levy always wanted to see more books written about the lives of black Britons.

Click play to listen. Running time: 31.28

The Long Song

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
Thanks for joining us today, Andrea.

Andrea
Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.

Valerie
Your writing career started relatively late. I understand that it didn’t really get going until your mid-thirties. When did you realize that you wanted to be a writer and why did it sort of take a while?

Andrea
Right. Everybody says this… that it started quite late. I always thought that writers did start in their thirties. It used to always be the case, but now it seems like if you haven’t written your first book by the age of 21, you’re really tardy. So, I wasn’t aware of that. OK, I’ll take it. I started late.

If you would have told me that one day that I would be a writer I would have thought you were insane, if you had told me in my twenties that. I never intended to be. It was a bit of an accident. In my thirties I was sort of- I always used to do evening classes. I was sort of looking around for something to do. “Should I do yoga?” “Should I do a bit of painting?” I thought, “I’ll try writing,” and so I joined a class for creative writing, two hours a week, and I began to love it.

I realized after a while that not only were people responding well to what I wrote, but also that I had a story that I really wanted to tell. I had things that I wanted to explore. So my writer career had begun at the grand old age of 32, I think.

Valerie
When you were doing your evening classes in your yoga, and in your writing, and your whatever- which I can completely relate to- what were you doing at the time professionally? Just tell us about what your day job was at the time.

Andrea
At the time I was a graphic designer. I had a business with my husband and we were graphic designers. I sort of ran a little studio that we had on the river, Thames. And it was very nice.

Valerie
What was that story that you wanted to tell? That you discovered when you did that creative writing course?

Andrea
When you start creative writing usually the thing that they do, the first thing that they say to you is to write about what you know. So, they started us writing about our families and about our backgrounds. It was then I was sort of writing these stories about growing up as a Black working class girl in a counselor state in London.

People were surprised to here that coming from me, and also they hadn’t heard about my parents coming from Jamaica and all of that sort of thing, before. There weren’t many books on the subject. You know? Any fiction written. Then I sort of thought, “Yeah. This is the story…” You know?

Valerie
Yeah, and so when you started writing that how long until that eventuated into what became your first novel?

Andrea
It was about two years, I suppose. I was sort of doing this class. I just loved it. It was great. It was such fun. At one point I had lots of little vignettes, lots of little sort of snippets of life- my life, sort of thing. Semi-autobiographical things. I thought, “I could put it together. Write a few more of these and see what happens.” That’s when I wrote Every Light in the House Burnin’, which is my most sort of autobiographical book.

That took me about another two years to complete it.

Valerie
How long was that first creative writing course, and did you then follow it up with others?

Andrea
Well, I went to that course two hours a week on and off for about six years.

Valerie
Wow.

Andrea
Yes, I know. I think they threw me out in the end.

I think I had a book published and they said, “Enough, off you go.”

But it was wonderful to sit and you sort of read your stuff out and people listen and they comment. For me, it was a very good sort of grounding in what works and what doesn’t work. Listening to other people’s stuff and things like that as well. And sort of hearing it and sort of trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t is very good.

Valerie
When you wrote that first novel and you decided, “I’m going to write a long piece,” you were still working as a graphic designer? Or, did you go full time to write that novel?

Andrea
No. What I did was I went down to four days a week, as a graphic designer and I took Fridays off to write, which was a- because I work for myself I sort of kind of do that- juggle a bit.

So, I would work just in that one day that I had.

Valerie
When did you go full time?

Andrea
As a writer?

Valerie
Yeah.

Andrea
I suppose not until Small Island came out, really. Yeah, because I was always sort of- I mean contrary to popular belief writers don’t often make a lot of money.

It’s actually very difficult to make enough money to go full time. It’s quite a bit of luck if that happens for you.

Valerie
Sure.

Andrea
So, that didn’t happen for me until Small Island and then I could decide, “I think I’ll go full time now.”

Valerie
Now, we’ll get to your most recent book, your latest book, The Long Song in a bit, but I just want to talk a little bit more because people are so interested in how you get started. Right?

Andrea
Right.

Valerie
Just talk us through how you got your first publishing contract. And the steps you actually took to turn what was coming out of this creative writing course into a real book.

Andrea
Right. OK. Well, once I got this book to what I thought was finished I sent it to some publishers, which you could do in those days. I don’t think you can now, but I sent it to about six publishers and I sent it to about six agents. I don’t know why I chose six, but I just did. And then I waited for the rejection letters.

Which just came flooding back. But, funnily enough one person did say, “I’d like to meet you. I’d like to talk about what you have just written,” which was very encouraging. She was a publisher and I went to see her and she said, “I really like this book. It’s not long enough,” and told me all the things that were wrong with it and why she couldn’t publish it, etc. etc., but told me to carry on. And that was fantastic, you know? That was walking on air. That was what I needed. I just needed that.

Then I went away and I took on her notes and sort of rewrote it, and then sent it out again. By that time an agent had looked at it and said, “Yes, I’ll try and sell it for you.”

It’s a good job he did, because I had got by that time, what? Probably ten rejection letters, which I could just about cope with. And then he took it on and he got, oh I don’t know, maybe another thirty.

But, he didn’t tell me. Bless him. He just sort of would get these letters in just saying they didn’t want to do it. And, then of course it only takes one person to say they do want to do it and that was it. Eventually, after a year of my agent trying then Headline, who I’m still with said, “Yes. We’d like to take it on,” and they published the first book.

I think that most publishers were worried that because it was a book about a Black family, a family from the Caribbean, that only people of that background would be interested in reading it. You know? That it isn’t a universal story about family, or anything like that. That it is specific to Black people. Nothing I could say could persuade them otherwise.

They sort of worked it out, “Oh, how many Black people are there in Britain? How many of them read? How many of those that read are going to buy it?” And they came down to, “We’re going to sell three copies if we’re lucky,” you know? That sort of thing. But, they were surprised. They were taken by surprise. It sold better than they thought and in fact it’s still in print and still selling. So, hurray!

There were hurdles to jump that perhaps had I not been from the Caribbean I wouldn’t have had to jump.

Valerie
Now you mentioned Small Island, which is your fourth book?

Andrea
That’s right. Yes.

Valerie
Now, it has won so many awards. It’s crazy.

Andrea
I know.

Valerie
How did you feel? I mean you started off as a graphic designer, and you did this little creative writing course and suddenly, you know, you’ve got the Orange Prize, the Commonwealth Writer’s Best Book. I mean how did you feel? Did you think this was real?

Andrea
No. No. I still don’t.

I’m still convinced that I slipped through some time warp and I landed in this other place.

No, I mean it was an enormous surprise to me. I mean I knew that with Small Island I’d written the best book I could. I try to do that with every book. Every book I write is absolutely the most you could get from me as a writer.

Small Island I knew I’d really, really worked hard at that book. I worked really hard. I had hoped that it would do OK, but I didn’t think it would. When it first came out, of course nobody knew me still really, even though I had three books. And the book came out- I remember being at the Adelaide festival here and sort of wanted to sort of beg people, “Just read it. Try it,” because they hadn’t heard of it, or anything.

In London I sort of said to my publisher at one point, “Look, put some of the books in a basket and I’ll go door to door with them.” I couldn’t think how I was going to sell many books.

Valerie
Wow.

Andrea
Then it got onto the long list of the Orange Prize and I thought, “Oh, great. That’s good.” Then, you know, the rest is history as they say. But, I won the Orange Prize I was absolutely over the moon about that. It was just a real dream come true.

Then winning the Whitbread I thought, “Well, that’s crazy.” Then when I won the Commonwealth I said, “They’re being silly.”

And then the Orange Best of the Best, that was it. I was just, you know, it was fantastic. It was absolutely fantastic, as you can imagine.

Valerie
Yes. Now, you say with each book you want to be the best writer you can be. What practical things do you actually do to get your best writing out there?

Andrea
I never accept my first ideas. I always take time. That’s one that that’s very important to me. I’ve never, ever sold a book before I’ve finished it. So, I never have a deal and somebody breathing down my neck saying, “What are you doing?” And, “How is it?”

I like to take time and space to really, really think about what I’m writing and how I’m writing it, how it’s going to work. That for me is extremely, extremely important. My publishers are always saying, “Well, I hope you’re not going to take so long with your next book.” Long Song took me six years. Now they sort of, they’re rather resigned to the fact that I’ll take as long as it takes to write a book, because I really, really do like to think.

Valerie
Now, Small Island has been also adapted for a BBC drama series.

Andrea
That’s right.

Valerie
Tell us about your involvement in that. Did you have a lot to do with it? What were your expectations? Were they met?

Andrea
The book was bought long before all the prizes. It was bought by two producers, Sticky Licorice and Joanna Anderson, lovely women. We sort of talked about it, about how they envisioned it being.

I was completely in agreement with what they said. I didn’t want to have anything to do with. I was already writing The Long Song and I don’t write scripts anyway. I don’t quite understand them.

So, they went off and for five long years these women worked on it, and found script writers, and found the BBC to do it, and all sorts of things like that. They kept me informed every sort of step of the way, but it seemed like so many hurdles, that we were never ever going to get to the screen.

I mean I don’t know if people know this, but TV and film come to writers like myself all the time. With every book I think somebody has come, but actually getting it from the initial sort of excitement to the screen is a long, long journey and often so many more fall by the wayside than ever get made.

About a year and a bit ago, a year and a half ago, we got the green light, as they say, to get it done. I just couldn’t believe it. It was just absolutely wonderful. I met the cast. Actually, I did suggest an actor for the part of Bernard who did play him in the end and I was so thrilled with that. That was my bit of casting. Apart from that I didn’t really have anything to do with it.

Valerie
Right. OK.

Andrea
They showed me the script. I think my one note to them was to make sure that it stayed light. That it wasn’t too- because with the TV thing it’s sort of, it’s not as big as a book. It comes really down to the main story. I didn’t want it to get two-faced in that transition. I wanted it still to have the humor and lightness of touch that I try to bring to all my books.

But, they did that. I think they did a fantastic job. I mean- you haven’t seen it have you?

Valerie
No.

Andrea
No. Well, it’s coming on here, soon, hopefully.

Valerie
I’m looking forward to it.

Andrea
Yeah. I love it. It’s its own thing, if you know what I mean. The book is- I was going to say better, but I don’t think you can say that, can you?

Valerie
Of course you can.

Andrea
The book is different. The book is bigger. It has more story in it, and little nuances that have got lost in the TV thing, but having said that it’s fantastic television that they have put together, and the story stands up really well. I was thrilled with it. The acting is superb. I think two of the actors are up for awards for their part in it. The direction is fantastic. The music…

Valerie
You obviously like it.

Andrea
I like it. Yeah, I like it.

Valerie
Now, tell us about The Long Song. Six years?

Andrea
Yeah.

Valerie
Where did the story come from? Just tell us about your latest book.

Andrea
Well, The Long Song is me still looking into my ancestry, really. Small Island was about my parent’s generation, them going to Britain from the Caribbean and what that immigration meant for them. I thought after that, I thought, “OK, so I want to know a little more about the Caribbean island they came from.” “Why were they there?”- that sort of thing.

Of course you don’t go very far back in history before you hit slavery. So, I thought, “Oh, OK. Slavery.” I thought, “No, I don’t want to write a book about slavery. No, no, no, no, no…” I mean I was very, very reluctant because I just thought it would be a story of misery and violence, and it would have to be about these victims that had a terrible time. What could you do with that story?

But, I started researching and I realized that slavery existed in the Caribbean for 300 years. And once I sort of realized that I thought, “Now, hang on, this isn’t a short sort of aberration.” This was 300 years- you would have built up a society, and a culture, and a way of being. These people had to.

So, I thought if I’m going to write a book I want to try and explore that. Try and explore sort of the society that was built up. So, not looking at it from the horror and the victimhood, but actually from the life that they led.

So, I started sort of seeing if I could find someway of getting into that, because there’s nothing written down at all.

Valerie
So, presumably it required a lot of research.

Andrea
It did.

Valerie
Where did most of that take place and how did you go about doing that?

Andrea
Well, the research- I was going to say there wasn’t any sort of slave testimonies and there isn’t any writing. There isn’t any pictures. Very few songs. Anything that came down from that 300 years- there’s like this huge silence. But, what there was, was a lot of diaries, and writings, and testimonies, and books from the sort of planter classes, or the missionaries that went to the Caribbean. Or the missionary’s wives, or the planter’s wives.

They all wrote about their time in the Caribbean and they wrote about the Black people, but they wrote about it from their point of view. So, they were usually complaining about them- how lazy and deceitful, etc. they were.

But, I found that you could look through what they were saying and you could reflect it back. So, you could actually see those Black people, those enslaved people through what the White people were saying.

Does that make any sense?

Valerie
Yeah. Yeah, definitely.

Andrea
Shall I give you an example?

Valerie
Please do. Yeah.

Andrea
For example you have one man who wrote, Matthew Lewis, in 1816 or something, about going to visit his plantation and how the Negroes had all come up to his house to have a party because he just returned. And, how they came at 2:00 in the afternoon and stayed until 4:00 in the morning dancing and singing. And, then they left him and he had a headache. And then the next day he got up and they were back again for the rest of the party.

And they stayed, but this time only from 2:00 o’clock in the afternoon until 10:00 o’clock at night. I thought, “How incredible.”

“A weekend rave up the big house.”

And he would just say, “Ah, these Negroes they’re terrible.” I just thought, “How wonderful.” You could just sort of see that they had time off to have a party and they were going to have a party. You know? So, it’s things like that, that I sort of found.

Valerie
Did you do all that research first and then start writing? Or, did you do it as you went along, or-?

Andrea
A bit of both. I mean what I usually do with research is I like to research enough so that I know I’ve got a story, so that I know I’ve got enough to be able to think myself into a situation. Then as I go through, obviously all the fine details, and all the little details of what people ate, or what people wore, or what people sang, those sorts of things I would have to do as I was going along, because I couldn’t possibly keep it all in my head.

Valerie.
Right. No.

So, when you are in the depths of your writing, do you have a particular writing routine? Some writers have very set schedules, or have a certain number of words a day, or have a ritual, or you know. What do you do?

Andrea
Well, there’s two bits to it. When I first start I usually write in small chunks of maybe about ten pages. It’s usually sort of a chapter probably.

Valerie
That’s not a small chunk!

Andrea
Isn’t it?

Valerie
I think so.

Andrea
OK. Well, I write in a very large chunk of about ten pages.

First of all I write by hand, and I will go to my local library to do that. There’s a room in my local library upstairs that is so grim that you can do nothing but write there. You don’t really want to look at the walls. I’m there with lots of students doing their A-levels and essays. I just write the first draft. So, that’s the sort of complete meanderings and babble coming from my head.

Then I go home and I work on the computer. When I work on the computer putting in what I’ve written I work from 2:30 every day…

Valerie
2:30 in the…

Andrea
Afternoon.

Valerie
Afternoon, yes.

Andrea
Usually until about 2:35. 2:35 is a bad day, but usually a bit longer than that. I don’t often work from a blank page to something for more than two or three hours a day.

Valerie
Right.

Andrea
Actually writing. I might research. I’m still working.

I usually, then like I say, I have this little bit written that I did that day, and I will carry it around with me, and I will leave it by the side of my bed. I’ll add little things to it while I’m watching the telly. Something will come up while I’m eating, while I’m- so it’s always with me.

But actually sitting there writing it, I don’t do for very long. At least I don’t think that’s very long… is it very long? If you think ten pages is long, do you think…

Valerie
Well, some writers are lucky do 500 words.

Andrea
Yeah. Oh, cricky, some days 500 words is quite good.

Sometimes in that two hours I might do very little, very little actually written down. It’s amazing every book I’ve written I get to the end and think, “I don’t know how I did that,” but it is literally just one foot in front of the other. Just try not to see how much you’ve got to go.

Sometimes I think midway through a book usually I have a panic about, “I’ve got so far to go,” you know, “I’ve taken three years to get this far. It’s going to take me… I’m never going to finish,” and that sort of thing.

Valerie
It’s like running a marathon.

Andrea
It is. It is.

Valerie
Now, what’s next for you? Are you already working on your next novel? And can you tell us what it’s about?

Andrea
Well, I never, ever talk about books that I’m working on.

Valerie
Ah, OK.

Andrea
I am deeply superstitious. I don’t quite know why, but there’s something about sort of talking out an idea that worries me, saying it out loud.

There’s definitely something brewing, let me put it like that. It’s such a great feeling when you have something brewing, because when I did finish The Long Song- The Long Song took me so long. It was a very difficult book to write. When I finished I think my head just went completely blank and I thought, “Oh, there’s nothing in there.”

But now something is beginning to come back.

Valerie
But also when you’ve been working on something for that long, do you wake up and sort of go, “Oh well, what am I going to do today?”

Andrea
Yes! You do, except there’s so much to do. There’s the writing a book, which is one thing and it’s a very solitary job and you’re at home and you’re just doing it. And then there’s the publishing a book, which is incredibly public.

Valerie
Yes. Yes.

Andrea
So, I’m here in Australia at the moment. I’ll be in New Zealand. I’ll be in Singapore. I’ll be in America. I’ll be in Canada. I’ll be in Europe. So, you don’t get a lot of time to think, “Oh, what will I do today?”

Valerie
I suppose not.

On a final note, what’s your advice to aspiring writers who are potentially – like you did – doing their creative writing course and they’re thinking, “I really enjoy this”?

Andrea
I think you’ve got to keep going. I did a lot of writing courses and I met and heard some of the most amazing writings in those courses, around those tables. Really fantastic writing, but we’re never going to see it because the people who wrote it didn’t have a certain sort of hudspa- is that a word that you know here?

Valerie
Yeah. Yeah.

Andrea
Didn’t have a sort of tenacity, or sort of desire to really sort of put themselves out there and have rejections, but work through that. You really do need to have a tenacity to do it. I know that there will be a lot of people who are writing fantastic stuff that with the first rejection letter that’s it for them. They can’t get past it.

So, I would just say really try and get that sort of grit, that tenacity that you might need and really listen to what people are saying about your writing.

Valerie
Discipline and a thick skin?

Andrea
Yes. You never get thick skin. I haven’t got a thick skin, but just a sort of- I don’t know. A toughness rather than a thick skin. Just say, “I’m going to try anyway.”

Valerie
Yeah, definitely.

On that note, thank you very much for your time today. I hope you enjoy your time in Australia. I appreciate  you talking to us.

Andrea
Thank you.


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