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Meet the WritersImage of Debbie Taylor
Debbie Taylor
Biography
Debbie Taylor is the editor of Mslexia, the fastest-growing literary magazine in the U.K. She has been writing and traveling ever since she abandoned her career as a research psychologist. She has worked as editor of New Internationalist magazine and co-edited The Virago Book of Writing Women. Her nonfiction book, My Children My Gold, was shortlisted for the Fawcett Prize for women's writing. The Fourth Queen is her first novel.

Author biography courtesy of Random House, Inc.

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Good to Know
Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Taylor:

"I live in a converted 18th century lighthouse overlooking the mouth of the River Tyne with the poet W.N. Herbert who I met at a martial arts class."

"My daughter, now aged ten, was conceived following two failed IVF attempts and traditional fertility treatments by witchdoctors and shamans in China, Uganda, India and Brazil."

"My first novel was written while living in a mud hut on the edge of the Okavango Desert, where I underwent a month-long initiation into the local Batlokwa tribe."

"When travelling in Africa I usually lived in the villages I was writing about. In Botswana, Kenya and Zimbabwe the local woman gave me a name in their language. On each occasion, when I asked what the names meant, I was told they meant ‘honey bee'. The first time this happened was strange enough. When it happened in three different countries in three different languages, it was more than strange. My real name, Deborah, is Hebrew for ‘bee'. If you have read and loved Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy, it will be obvious what shape my daemon must have taken."

"I love gardening, walking, swimming. I'm a very energetic driven person and these activities are my equivalent of meditation. I hate tight clothes. My natural blondeish hair has been dyed red for 20 years. When I'm 70 I plan to crop it short and go white overnight."

and rocket leaves. I never get drunk, but rarely go a day without a glass of wine."

"In a previous life I was a Greek peasant. With the help of the money from The Fourth Queen we bought a derelict mountain house on the Greek island of Crete, where my next book is set. (I related some of the nightmarish experiences involved in renovating it in Heat and Dust, a column I wrote in the Sunday Times newspaper here in 2003 and 2004). In twenty years' time I plan to retire to Crete with my husband and live on olive oil and tomatoes, and ride sidesaddle on a donkey."

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Interview
In the winter of 2004, Debbie Taylor took some time out to answer some of our questions about her favorite books, authors, and interests.

What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?

  • Vida by Marge Piercy -- I read it before I became a writer, and was struck by the intrepid loneliness of the eponymous character. It's years since I read the book so the details have probably been distorted in my mind, as memories often are by the unconscious. So I'll tell you what I remember about it.

    Vida is a very committed political activist, who has to go into hiding from the secret services in a dystopic, slightly futuristic, version of the U.S. The organisation she belongs to is shadowy, but its aims are benevolent. The book is structured around her relationship with a man, also on the run. What made it unusual at the time was its depiction of a woman who has cut herself off from everything most women take for granted: home, family, job, creature comforts. This is presented so normally, as the logical consequence of what Vida believes, that it unhooked me, too, from some of my assumptions and helped me contemplate a wider set of choices for how I would lead my own life. I think good books have the power to tilt your world in exciting and important ways. Shortly afterwards I gave up my job as a research psychologist and went to live in Africa for two years, where I started writing seriously for the first time.

    What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?

  • The Bone People by Keri Hulme – A female artist living alone by the sea befriends a small boy and his father, then discovers the child is being abused. This book, so subtly and beautifully handled by its poet author, still haunts me. It's very spare: just three characters moving across a bare and beautiful landscape.

  • The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx -- Another rather sparse book, setting a few characters in a compelling landscape, this time frozen Alaska. Looking at my choices, I can see that I like books about people in strange and isolated settings. Although I live with my husband and daughter, I must admit that I love being on my own and, before my daughter was born, traveled alone extensively writing about life in poor countries.

  • Shikasta by Doris Lessing -- One of a series of literary science fiction novels Lessing wrote. The compassionate sadness of this book, which is a lament for the state of our beautiful planet, stays with me still.

  • Beloved by Toni Morrison -- Step by step, Morrison draws you into the world and the mind of her main character: brave, sad, Sethe, who would rather kill her child than have her raised in slavery. This book makes me so very grateful to have been born where and when I was, and so full of respect for the humanity of those who make do with far less.

  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck -- Because it conveyed so passionately the careless, almost casual, injustice of that time in the U.S., and again the courage of those who lived through it. The scene at the end where a starving man's life is saved by a breastfeeding woman must be one of the most haunting and shocking in literary history.

  • The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood -- An absorbing, elegant, intellectual tour de force, it doesn't put a foot wrong. People have complained that it's too long. But if it was shorter it wouldn't be as satisfying! Atwood claims everything she writes has happened at some time to someone. Her books have a very deep and satisfying ring of truth about them.

  • Fingersmith by Sarah Waters -- There's such clever plotting in this book, and Waters has the knack of parachuting you right into the place and time her characters are inhabiting: a seedy part of 19th century London, amongst thieves and pickpockets; and an oddly obscene corner of gentility whose morals are no better. This book is that important and rare thing: a literary novel that is also a real page-turner, with some real slap-the-forehead moments when the plot twists sideways and you laugh with admiration at the skill of the writer. In the U.K., where people are rather po-faced about their "literature," this book has helped broaden the concept of what a literary novel can be.

  • The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy -- It has been criticized for being overwritten, but I was captivated by the lush inventiveness of the prose. A very complex, tragic and noble book, full of layers and flashbacks, like a net that entangles you and won't let go.

  • Everything You Need by A L Kennedy -- A great slab of a book full of the wittiest and most profound writing by one of the most accomplished authors in the U.K. No one can match her skill in conveying complicated and contrary human emotions and combining this with philosophical reflection and hilarious repartee. And she writes very viscerally, from right inside her main characters, so you can actually feel their stomachs rumbling.

    What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
    I'm a rather passive and undiscerning moviegoer. My husband has to drag me to the cinema. I tend to watch forgettable videos about serial killers or those with "screwball comedy" on the cover -- and children's films with my ten-year-old daughter, Izzie. I can't cope with subtitles. I don't like films with lots of car chases and explosions. I hate martial arts. I don't like films where nothing happens. I hate watching torture, war, people being sick, drug addicts shooting up. Having said all that I do like the Coen Brothers' films. O Brother, Who Art Thou? was a marvelous, witty, elegant travelogue with a brilliant country music soundtrack. And Wayne Wang's Smoke is a film with the same quality: charm and wit; real characters in a small plot. I also adored L.A. Confidential. I loved its intelligent dialogue and plotting. The truth is, though, I'd rather spend my time reading.

    What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
    I have to have complete silence when I'm writing. I like to think that's because my concentration is so intense, but it's probably because my brain can only do one thing at a time. I wear earplugs if my husband is playing the guitar in the next room. I do like music, though: a wide range of things from rock to classical. Nick Cave. Captain Beefheart. Towns Van Zandt. Tom Waits. But I hate what I call "ditties" -- sing-sing pop songs. And I've never really managed to appreciate opera. I enjoy world music a lot: my current favourite, which I play in the car, is the soundtrack from an Indian film called Thal.

    If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
    Literary fiction -- books that expand and transform consciousness -- and nonfiction books that explore our beliefs and challenge our understanding: psychology, anthropology, philosophy, science.

    What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
    Hot-off-the-press hardbacks I wouldn't normally splash out for. It's wonderful to read a well-reviewed book when you're still excited about it and not have to wait until it comes out in paperback. (Hardback books in the U.K. are twice the price of paperbacks.) I give them as gifts for the same reason -- to give someone else that thrill.

    Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
    I get up extremely early and start writing when I'm still in my nightie. Like many authors I know, I believe that's when you are closest to the unconscious, where the strongest ideas come from. I hang a "do not disturb" notice on the door to prevent my daughter and husband barging in. I love sitting at the computer early on a winter morning when it's dark outside. The light's on beside me; everything else is sleeping. I'm on an island in a sea of quiet.

    On my desk? Flowers, usually. My printer. A bottle of water. Nothing else. I like an uncluttered workspace.

    What are you working on now?
    Hungry Ghosts, a contemporary novel about an infertile woman, Sylvia, who abandons her job as a hospital pathologist and goes to live on a Greek island in order to try to purify her body so that she can conceive a baby. It's about her love affair with Martin, a secretive young vagrant builder she meets there, who helps her renovate the haunted little cottage she buys. Sylvia becomes obsessed with finding out about Martin's past. He was raised by a charismatic but mentally ill mother, who kept him hidden from the world until he was 11, in an overgrown house in Oxford. His mother died when he was 18 in mysterious and shocking circumstances, which the novel gradually reveals.

    Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
    I have been carving out islands of space to write fiction all my adult life. In my twenties, after gaining my doctorate in psychology, I was employed as a research fellow investigating frontal lobe deficits in brain-damaged patients. But when I was offered a permanent position as part of the research team, I resigned and went to Africa.

    I knew I wanted to write. I also knew that if I kept working as a psychologist I never would. In Botswana I lived in a traditional village on the edge of the Kalahari Desert for two years and wrote a very bad first draft of a novel about a woman with a frontal lobe tumour.

    The novel was never finished (I still have it; it was truly awful), but while in Botswana I worked in many different temporary jobs -- researching drought and nutrition, counseling Zimbabwean refugees -- and learnt about what used to be called "Third World Development." I was also initiated into the local Batlokwa tribe following a month-long women's initiation process.

    On returning to the U.K., I wrote about that initiation. It was published in The Guardian and was the first step in my second career as a development journalist.

    At that time I didn't distinguish between fiction and journalism; I just knew that I wanted to write. My novel went into a drawer and I began touting for journalistic commissions. Six months later I was working full-time as an Editor at New Internationalist, an award-winning monthly magazine about social issues with 80,000 subscribers worldwide.

    I was there for six years, during which time my reputation as an analyst of global issues developed, until I was commissioned by United Nations organisations (UNICEF, UNFPA, WHO) to write several of their State of the World report series. One of these -- The State of the World's Women -- was published as a book that I edited (Women: A World Report) with additional contributions by Germaine Greer, Angela Davis, Nawal El Saadawi, Buchi Emecheta and others.

    At the same time I was introducing New Journalism to the pages of New Internationalist magazine in an attempt to escape what I felt was a stylistic straightjacket. I also worked -- on behalf of the magazine -- as a researcher-writer for BBC2 and Channel Four exploring the use of drama-documentary in programmes about social issues. Man-Made Famine won the World Hunger Year award; With These Hands won the UNEP Prize at the Ecovision film festival.

    My journalism was becoming more and more "novelistic" until, when commissioned by WHO to write a factual reports about Zimbabwe and Thailand, I wrote a novel (The Children who Sleep by the River) and a book of short stories (<>A Tale of Two Villages).

    By now I was working freelance, using my journalist fees to subsidise short intense periods of time during which I wrote fiction -- the early chapters of The Fourth Queen. Nonfiction projects I took on during this period include a contract with Oxfam to devise ways of portraying the Third World for a popular audience (which led to four television commissions), a report on servile marriage for Anti-Slavery International (which inspired their campaign on women's rights in marriage), a report on street children in Kenya for UNICEF, research on Muslim women in Jordan and Morocco for the IPPF and a report on violence against women for WHO.

    I also raised funds to research a nonfiction book about single mothers. This research took me to seven countries, where I lived for a week beside seven single mothers. The result -- My Children, My Gold -- was shortlisted for the Fawcett Prize for women's writing in the U.K..

    I began this book shortly after my daughter was conceived and finished it the day before she was born. Her birth meant that long projects involving overseas travel became impossible; my career as a development journalist came to an end.

    By this time I was living in Newcastle upon Tyne in England, and becoming involved with the literary community here. I was invited to co-edit Writing Women, the long-running women's literary magazine, which I developed into an annual anthology, published as the Virago Book of Writing Women. This marked the beginning of a new career as literary journalist.

    In parallel with this I began planning and fundraising for a new quarterly magazine for women writers, Mslexia, which was launched in March 1999. Work at Mslexia has taken up most of my waking hours since September 1998, during which time the magazine has developed into a campaigning publication employing seven people, a renewal rate of 85 per cent and a readership that is currently growing by 2,500 a year.

    These were exciting but highly stressful years, during which The Fourth Queen remained untouched -- until I took out a £5,000 bank-loan, hired a Guest Editor and took a three-month unpaid leave of absence in the autumn of 2001, when I finally completed the book. From start to finish, the novel took me ten years to write.

    If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
    Margaret Wilkinson, a New Yorker who has been living in Newcastle upon Tyne for 20 years and whose quirky, witty, intelligent work is just beginning to be appreciated in the U.K.

    What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
    Read widely. If you never read a bad sentence it will gradually become impossible for you to write one. Create a sacrosanct space to write in, even if it's just the corner of a room. Explore what foster your creativity (solitude, music, dawn rising, exercise, chocolate) and work hard to optimise those conditions. If you get stuck, write the bare bones of what you're trying to convey and move on. Come back to it when you're in a fresher state of mind. Trust your unconscious. Write what occurs to you, however strange. Shape it or cut it afterwards. Commit to your writing. Go part time, get up at dawn, take out a bank loan, make space for it in your life.



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  • About the Writer
    *Debbie Taylor Home
    * Biography
    * Good to Know
    * Interview
    Chronology
    *My Children, My Gold: Meetings with Women of the Fourth World, 1984
    *Women: A World Report, 1987
    *The Children Who Sleep by the River, 1989
    *The Fourth Queen, 2003