The Booker-nominated novelist, poet, and playwright discusses her latest work, Hot Milk.
Deborah Levy’s latest novel, Hot Milk, was just shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. She is also an accomplished playwright and poet, and an earlier novel, Swimming Home, was shortlisted for the Booker in 2012.
The central character in Hot Milk, Sofia, is a young anthropologist visiting Spain, trying to find a cure for her mother’s multiple mysterious ailments. Levy and I spoke recently about the novel.
What was the creative seed for Hot Milk?
I was interested in the strategies we use to gather love and attention to us. We all learn as children that if we feel unwell, it is likely (if we are lucky) that our parents will be concerned and comforting. If it is true (from a psychoanalytic point of view) that symptoms can speak for us, then what are they saying? Hot Milk is a thriller of symptoms.
The relationship between Sofia and her mother, Rose, is layered, shifting, and hypnotic, with a powerful undercurrent of rage. Is it fair to say they are both in the grip of hypochondria? Have you seen similar mother-daughter relationships?
I don't see Sofia as a hypochondriac. She is burdened with responsibility for her mother at a young age, and when the book opens, she is a little lost in life. It is true, as Dr. Gomez points out, that she is using her mother as an excuse to not take risks and make a life for herself. Sofia's story is one of transformation.
As a reader, I’m grateful you decided to make this story a novel instead of a play — maybe that was a conscious decision, maybe it wasn’t — because you create such a palpable sense of place in Almeria, which would be difficult to do in a theater. Did you do some of the work there?
Hot Milk was never going to be a play. But it would certainly make a great film. Yes, I did write some of the novel in Almeria. When I wrote Swimming Home (which is set in the hills above Nice, France) I stayed there, too. I was interested in how writers such as E.M. Forster and Henry James took their characters out of Britain and America and placed them in Europe. In a sense, this displacement makes them more vulnerable, but also gives them freedom to be more experimental with their habits and long-held views.
You refer to tomatoes grown in the “sweltering desert slave farms.” Do you mean the extensive greenhouses near Almeria? And why do you refer to them that way?
The vegetables that are grown under plastic (the greenhouses) are often picked by poorly paid migrant laborers.
The character of Dr. Gomez is an interesting one: The reader may feel like alerting the authorities to a dangerous quack, but then we discover he might actually be doing Rose some good. What speaks to you about Gomez?
Dr. Gomez: Is he a quack or a genius? My novel asks this question and attempts to answer it. In some ways, Dr. Gomez resembles a more flamboyant Freud. More generally, when we are unwell, we have to put our trust in doctors. This is a very tricky thing to do, this surrendering of the body to someone else. So the subject of trust is another theme in Hot Milk.
What are you working on now?
My next novel is set three days before the Berlin Wall comes down in 1989. Walls are very interesting for all sorts of reasons. Why is that? I will have to write my new book to find out. It will be a story about masculinity and a psychological crash.
Susan Storer Clark is a frequent contributor to the Washington Independent Review of Books. She is a former radio and television journalist and, since retiring from the federal government, has completed her first novel, set in the urban turbulence of 19th-century America, and is at work on her second, the fictionalized life of a slave captured by Francis Drake in 1580. Clark has been a member of the Holey Road Writers for more than 10 years. She and her husband, Rich, live in the Seattle area, where they are remodeling an old farmhouse.