Lucy Ellmann’s first novel, Sweet Desserts, won the Guardian Fiction Prize. It was followed by Varying Degrees of Hopelessness, Man or Mango? A Lament, Dot in the Universe, Doctors & Nurses, and Mimi. Her short stories have appeared in magazines, newspapers and anthologies, and she has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, Independent, Independent on Sunday, Times Literary Supplement, Telegraph, New Statesman and Society, Spectator, Herald, Scottish Review of Books, Time Out (London), Art Monthly, Thirsty Books, Bookforum, Aeon, The Evergreen, and The Baffler. A screenplay, The Spy Who Caught a Cold, was filmed and broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK. She edits fiction for the Fiction Atelier (fictionatelier.wordpress.com), and abhors standard ways of teaching Creative Writing, which she considers mostly criminal. Though American by birth, she lives in Scotland.
One doesn’t read Lucy Ellmann’s addictive 2019 Booker Prize short-listed novel, Ducks, Newburyport as much as live inside it, pressed under the great rolling pin of the narrator’s anxieties, until masterfully, Ellmann delivers the inevitable moment of catharsis. Much like spending a lifetime inside one’s own head, the novel’s major narrative is one, long unbroken sentence, each clause beginning with the same three words: the fact that. “The fact that I really think I’ve been embarrassed more or less since birth.”
About the time one pauses to ask what IS this? the novel’s narrator and plot rise and take shape from the layers of Ellmann’s generous, frustrated, and funny prose. “The fact that shopping carts are covered in bacteria and fecal matter, but Jake still likes sitting in them.” “The fact that Stacy always sort of acts like global warming is my fault.” “The fact that I don’t know where all the plastic trash in the world should go, but not on a turtle.”
Though it took seven years to write, the novel’s concerns are up-to the-moment current, making it a time capsule of sorts, holding all the chaos, hope, and fear that is life in America following the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Ellmann’s questions for humanity, literally 1,000 pages of them, are as complex as her word choices are spare, “the fact that mothers have to keep quiet about so much stuff.”
Ducks, Newburyport is a modern-day reckoning with Virginia Woolf’s eternal question, “Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor?” Indeed, by its very form, the book is a statement about who gets to take up space in a culture with a habit of making mothers silent and invisible. “The fact that crimes against children are really crimes against mothers.”
I spoke with Ellmann, who is American, via email from her home in Scotland, about Ducks, Newburyport, her seventh novel, which since has won the 2019 Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction. We discussed why it’s time for women to get up off the floor and start speaking for themselves, how it takes time for influences to rise to the surface, and why art must be play.
Amy Reardon: Can you talk about your decision to have a conversation about the value of women and motherhood that takes up so much space? I read that you worked on this book for seven years. You must have had many long discussions with yourself about form and execution. How is the novel’s structure connected to its central question?
Lucy Ellmann: Long discussions with myself on form and execution? Sounds too much like school. It’s more about seeing what’s right for the book, as it gestates. Being alert to resonances, which grow in depth as the book grows. Sounds crazy, now I think about it, but that’s what works for me.
I wanted to locate the lioness in all of us, and that takes time! In this case, seven years. Novels take all the time you have in the world. People try to circumvent the intangibility of novel-writing by setting themselves to write 500 words a day, or 1,000 words a day, or 2,000. This is fine if you like that sort of thing, but it doesn’t guarantee you’ll have a good book at the end of it. You may just become Anthony Trollope.
There is a cozy female world of the mundane, familiar from dumb movies and Laura Ingalls Wilder books, that I wanted to present in some sort of verbal form—a soft, slow book, but welcoming. Many women in America spend a lot of time just cooking, knitting, talking, tidying, thinking, helping out and keeping quiet. That was all part of the fabric of this novel: the innocuous traditions of womanhood and their limitations, and the frequent kindliness of women, despite the torments people have gone through in the past and now.
I do think women need to take up more space, more territory. Be loud. We’ve heard enough from men by now, and Trump is the final straw. The size of my book has perturbed some male critics. Which just proves my point. This book really doesn’t take up much space compared to the horrors men have produced, the mess they’ve made of the environment. They’ve messed with our heads as well.
AR: Many women I know have struggled with making themselves small, speaking up, having desires, because of the costs. Where do you think this comes from, have you experienced it?
LE: Helen Gurley Brown felt it necessary to physically sit below the level of a man. She intentionally demeaned herself. And spent her life eating diet Jell-O. Did it make her happy? One can only hope so. It helped her fulfil some hearty ambitions, one of which was unfortunately to spread this cult of subservience amongst other women.
I was never consciously subservient to men, but there is an ingrained politeness, and fear, in the way I treat them, especially strangers. There’s a wariness I don’t know that I can overcome. I don’t think it’s misplaced. Men are volatile, emotional, unpredictable beings, and sometimes violent. So of course we’re careful with them!
All of this worry about men, though, stops women voicing their own needs. We barely even know what female sexuality is, while male pleasure is explored on every porn site, daily expanding the most lucrative industry in the world.
If you’re trained to feed the menfolk first (I wasn’t, but I’ve seen that happen), if you’re ignored in decision-making situations all your life, mocked for having a female body, and scrutinized for every little mistake you make, you are bound to feel weighed down by a lot of controlling factors. The last thing patriarchy wants is for women to get up off the floor and start speaking up for themselves. Which is why we must. Dump the Jell-O, sisters.
AR: Your narrator is a history professor and reads a lot of Jane Austen. There’s a contradiction here between her rich internal life and her passive, silent external life, one in which she declines to speak up, to ask for what she wants, to take action. Why?
LE: She means well, but she’s so busy complying with all the expectations of women and mothers, she has no time to work out solutions. She thinks a lot, yes, but does she think anything through? She’s not stupid or insensible, but she has been rendered so, in terms of taking any action about the stuff that bothers her. She’s pretty frozen. To some extent, this is because she was hurt, especially by her mother’s death. She’s injured. She’s frail. She’s busy. She’s worn out. She is essentially hiding in this marriage, in this family, in Ohio. The question is, can she gather herself to do something? Can any of us?
AR: Can you talk about the narrator’s body shame, where it comes from? What’s it going to take to normalize women’s bodies?
LE: She’s quite thin—I was tired of writing about plump women. But like all women, she’s learnt to look at herself very critically. She can’t just prance around feeling good about her svelte figure. It’s not polite, and it wouldn’t be true either. She only knows how to feel bad about herself.
Body-shaming is an ancient technique of patriarchy, and it looks like we’ll have to remove patriarchy itself before it’s possible for women to love themselves fully or to be fully loved by men, because we’re all so steeped in misogyny. Hatred of mothers is a symptom of that. To distrust the very source of life on earth stinks of a very dangerous death urge. Patriarchy thrives on this. Death is a most powerful weapon against women, some of whom have died to bring forth life. Violence chastens them, it shuts them up.
It’s amazing, when you think about it, how contorted we now are about the body. How far we are from appreciating that having a body at all is a great piece of luck, any body. It allows you to participate in the world of living things. That’s a great position to be in! Stones and plastic bottles have a harder time of it, I think. It’s a pity that patriarchal self-loathing demands that we forget this all the time. It demands shame and misery.
Just look at the makeup industry now, never mind plastic surgery. They’ve convinced schoolgirls with homework, and normal women with careers of their own, to become professional makeup artists in their spare time, lugging whole suitcases full of face paint with them wherever they go. You see them bringing out all their little brushes whenever they get the chance, fixing their faces some more. Then there are the nail bars, manned by slave labor. The clothes industry, manned by slave labor. The idiotic fascism of food gurus and health nuts. The grim joggers passing by. Passing life by.
None of this effortful artistry and expense and self-punishment will ever finally legitimize the female body. The only way of doing that is by declaring the beauty cult a load of hooey. It’s a contest everybody’s bound to fail in the end anyway, when they get old or sick. I wish people would ask themselves why the hell it matters so much how people look. Aren’t there a lot more interesting things we could all be talking about?
AR: The narrator often behaves in a way that seems to make her complicit in the world’s misogyny. A word she uses sometimes is “numb.” I mean, she doesn’t like Trump, but she doesn’t like Hillary either. Is internalized misogyny and becoming numb to injustice a factor in how we ended up with Trump (whose name appears 160 times in the novel)?
LE: We are all complicit in misogyny. And yes, if we weren’t, there would be no Trump. He would have grown up respecting women (I know, it’s very hard to imagine) and would never have become this babyish bully whose every tantrum we have to placate.
America’s plagued too by a benumbed intelligentsia, and I can’t figure out why. Education is a dying art, I get that, and brutishness reigns, but why the echoing silence from people who are educated? Are they in shock or what?
I’m surprised though by the distinction you draw between Trump and Hillary Clinton. They’re not so different, and I don’t see loyalty to Hillary Clinton as inevitable in intelligent people. I feel my narrator rightly disdains her. Clinton’s a warmonger who laughed at Gaddafi’s horrific death. She takes advice from Kissinger, a mass-murderer. And I have no faith in her feminism, which is either an act, or feminism lite. A true feminist has to be a socialist, not a neo-con. Women are amongst the poorest in society. If you’re not helping the poor, you are not helping women, no matter how much you scream about reproductive rights.
I’m so tired of people blaming Bernie Sanders and his followers for taking votes from Clinton, and supposedly thereby allowing Trump to get elected. If the DNC had done its job and nominated Sanders as he deserved (he earned that nomination, there was huge excitement about his candidacy), he would have carried the election. Trump could have happily played bad golf and counted his gold for the rest of his life. And his followers would now be benefitting from compassionate social programs. We would have entered a new FDR age: free healthcare, free college, control over billionaires.
Instead, Clinton insisted on clouding the water with her utterly meaningless longing to be the first woman president. Why her, of all people? Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (if she were older), sure, or Nina Turner—but Clinton? That compromised, calculating, cold-hearted social-climbing gadfly? Margaret Thatcher was the first female prime minister in Britain. You think that helped women? Like hell it did.
AR: What’s the science behind the novel’s structure? Is it a math formula? A lyrical pattern? I’m picturing you AirBNB-ing in a Scottish castle, taping up 1,000 pages along the walls of an interminable hallway, running along inserting current events as they happen—the news report of gay penguins raising chicks together, discoveries of new carcinogens. Many current events in the book didn’t happen until you were probably in final revisions. Can you give us a peek into the process?
LE: Hmmm, I wish! That would have been a great method. Though Scottish castles tend to be rather cold, I think a moat would be a big help to any writer.
There was no math involved, that’s for sure. I failed all my math classes after about 2nd Grade. But you’re right, there was a lot of amassing going on, and puzzling over where to insert things, and how to shape the novel. I updated it as I went along, though it’s essentially set in 2017.
When I first started out as a novelist, and often over the years since, I sometimes hoped I could create a formula that worked—there must be an easier way! one wails. But I’ve now reached the conclusion that novels need to be organic masses, heaving themselves where they will. You have to leave some things to chance. Ideas form into an amorphous blob, which I then sculpt. Art is play. If you’re not playing, the novel will never get off the ground.
AR: The book takes some unexpected turns toward the end. One of the things I love most in novels is an emotionally rewarding ending, the payoff for the work of closely reading the whole way through. Can you talk about architecting that experience in Ducks, Newburyport?
LE: The story gradually formed itself, though I always had a plan how the novel would end. I agree the reader deserves some attention. Some! You write to please yourself, most of all, but the hope is that your readers will be able to respond to it too. I would never knowingly try to disappoint people. I value clarity. So I never try to be obscure. It’s not meant to be a hard job to read my books. We’ve all got enough troubles already.
AR: I am reading a lot of women writers right now, so is everyone I know. Which books are sparking joy for you right now? Any you feel your work is in conversation with?
LE: I’m glad to see a surge of interest in writing by women. Shoving us to the side lines seems to be over (somewhat). Many men still find it a big step to read work by women, but I don’t think these men are really literary types. Art transcends gender.
I read men and women, but not much contemporary fiction. I reread Austen and Dickens a lot. So I’m probably not the most up-to-date reading consultant.
Padgett Powell, it occurred to me recently, had an effect on my latest book. His novel, The Interrogative Mood, is an exciting example of sustaining an unusual form throughout a whole novel. And it’s terribly witty. I read it years ago. It takes time for influences to rise to the surface. You can’t force these things.
But if it’s women you want to read, I think it would be a pity never to have come across Elfriede Jelinek. It’s like never eating salmorejo soup, which everyone on earth should get a chance to try. Jelinek’s writing is wild, free, angry and agile. Just what one needs at the moment.
AR: Your narrator is silent and dismissive of herself, but also she is powerful. What do you think would happen if women really understood their own power?
LE: Ah, nice question. I think it would be great! I don’t agree with Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power, that female emancipation would result in hatefulness, just as bad or worse than that of toxic masculinity. I think we would have a peaceful resumption of matriarchy, a stable system that functioned well in most human societies in prehistory. We would relearn how to live with nature, rather than trying to crush it all the time and squeeze it dry. The female orgasm would finally get the veneration it deserves. Male orgasms are shit by comparison. Women would have so much more time—leisure time, thinking time—because they wouldn’t be wasting their days trying to be polite and dutiful. I think the effects of all this would be profound. It would fill people with genuine hope. Let’s get back to matriarchy.
Men don’t have to be excluded from this blissful new world, as long as they stop their whining and their goddamn habit of interfering in what women do. They won’t be able to have porn anymore either, no, but they can still have beer.
AR: The cinnamon rolls, the pies in this novel, I’m craving it all. Do you bake? Surely you had to sample some of these while writing, for research? What fueled you through the writing of this project? Also, women and deprivation. Can you imagine what we could accomplish if we weren’t so hungry?
LE: I really don’t get why women deprive themselves of anything. Leave that game to men. They’re handling female deprivation just fine. Why knock ourselves out to please men? I’m sure they’d still crave female company whatever happens. They can’t help it. Women are where it’s at. Men seek the life essence (to misquote Dr. Strangelove).
As for baking, I have made cinnamon rolls and tartes tatin many a time. And I stand by that beanless chili recipe too. But I never cooked less than when I was writing this novel. It took everything I had. My husband did the cooking.