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Deborah Levy: ‘Do aliens dream? Of course they do’

Deborah Levy says if aliens landed on earth, she’d give them The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud.

Sheila Burnett

An award-winning novelist and an acclaimed playwright whose work has been staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Deborah Levy's books include the short-story collection Black Vodka and the novels Swallowing Geography and Swimming Home, which was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize in 2012. Her most recent novel, Hot Milk, about a woman investigating her mother's mysterious illness, was also shortlisted for this year's Booker Prize. It was published last month in Canada by Hamish Hamilton.

Why did you write your new book?

I wanted to have a go at writing about the daunting subject of hypochondria – through the character of a controlling, spirited and loving mother. If her apparently lame legs are having a conversation with the world – what are they saying? Her fierce, clever daughter, 25-year-old Sofia, would attempt to answer this complicated question. So really, I wrote Hot Milk to try and work something out.

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What scares you as a writer?

When I am near the finish of writing a book, I have this irrational fear that I am going to lose the whole manuscript. Of course, I save every draft and back it up, but I start to get anxious that the computer will die or that my dusty writing shed will burn down. And then there is that scary moment when I write the last sentence of the book and understand that it really is the last sentence. It's sort of devastating to let go.

If aliens landed on Earth, which book would you give them to teach them about humanity?

The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud. Do aliens dream? Of course they do. It's well known they are looking for a book that will reveal the psychological structure and significance of their alien dreams.

What's the best romance in literature?

The Lover by Marguerite Duras is a masterpiece. It's about an impoverished young French woman in 1930s Saigon who has a culturally forbidden sexual encounter with an older Chinese banker. More existential than feminist, it is told with mind-blowing passion and intensity. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte has got to be one of the most enduring literary romances. I once taught that novel to an early morning class of students, many of whom had jobs at night working in bars or as security guards. So, to test if they were awake, I said, 'Today, we're going to look at the opening chapter of Charlotte Bronte by Jane Eyre.' No one corrected me.

What's more important, the beginning of a book or the end?

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Well, in every book I write, I tend to figure out what kind of conversation the beginning is going to have with the end. So, they have equal rights in this industrial dispute. However, sometimes the ending can surprise the author – the life of the novel starts to push for an ending that is not part of the plan.

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