American-born Scotland-based writer Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, was named the winner of The Goldsmiths Prize for 2019. Her book is more than 1,000 pages long and yet, mostly consists of a long monologue, in the stream of consciousness vein, of a housewife from rural Ohio. Suffice to say, it keeps the reader hooked to the very end. Excerpts from an email interview:
How did the idea of the one sentence and a 1,000-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 semicolons 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.
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, 12 hours a day – and worrying about it the rest of the time! It was quite a relief to get it done.
Writing’s a 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.
Your narrator’s thoughts on motherhood have become a major point of discussion around the book.
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 a biological wonder. Menstruation, pregnancy, lactation, and 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.
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 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.
`999, Pan Macmillan India.