Chris Hall talks to Patricia Duncker about sex, death and sending porn through the German postal system
Speaking from her home in Aberystwyth on the day of the Stop the War rally, Patricia Duncker is excitedly bellowing down the phone. “My niece called and asked if I was going on the march and I said “ABSOLUTELY NOT”! – I’m all for the war!
“All we are saying,” says the author wearily but with tongue in cheek, “is give war a chance. But, I’m just perverse.”
To judge from Seven Tales of Sex and Death, her impressive new collection of apocalyptic and uncanny short stories, Duncker’s imagination certainly is. From the opening ‘Stalker’, we’re deep in darkly ambiguous territory without a moral compass. Duncker says that she conceived of these gothic tales in response to the narrative cliches of the late-night B-movie dreck that she often finds herself watching on French TV when she’s alone writing. And particularly, she says, those with serial killers: “They are the sex beast in the dark. And the interesting thing about him is that largely he doesn’t exist. Most women are going to be attacked by men they know. So I find that intriguing; the obsession with them is obviously something displaced in our imaginations.
“The first two tales in the new book are based on Ovid, a favourite of mine. Now, Metamorphoses is one rape after another. In Ovid, when you see the gods catching up on you and you are a poor, naked nymph you can transform yourself into something else, whereas of course real women can’t do that.’
Does her imagination take her by surprise?
“I do surprise myself because I’m very interested in what goes in and stays. I have what is known in the family as “The Tape”. I recall everything.”
“I have total recall, which is most peculiar and not a blessing. I can run The Tape and I can blank out bits but they’re like deleted messages in a computer – I can undelete the deleted. So that in remembering things, I have no choice in what I remember. I remember everything.”
Duncker, in her writing and in conversation, is clearly steeped in literature. “I read all the time: night and day. My notion of influence is that you want to be influenced. That’s the only way you’re going to get any better. Reading is mainlining adrenaline and blood – it’s where your sense of energy comes from. Writing is about language and other writers and other texts. Behind every book stands another book – it’s up to you to choose what those books are.”
Duncker’s cracking debut novel, Hallucinating Foucault (1996), was about a young English student’s obsession with a novelist, Paul Michel, who is driven insane by the death of Michel Foucault, for which she picked up several best first-novel awards. Duncker followed this up with another critically acclaimed fictional account of a real-life Victorian woman who masqueraded as a man, James Miranda Barry, of which Duncker hopes will soon be a Channel 4 film. As well as her teaching posts at the University of Wales at Aberystwyth and in France, she is professor of Creative Writing at UEA. “I love my students,” she enthuses, “especially the 18 to 23-year-olds; when they’re bumptious and full of themselves.”
Duncker agrees that the story ‘Sophia Walters Shaw’, about a man who relives his wife’s rape over and over, is easily the darkest story in Seven Tales…, perhaps because of its uncanny inspiration. “I was working in a castle in Germany as a writer in residence and there were all these painters and sculptors and artists busy shagging away, which was all extremely irritating. So I decided to send off for a pornographic book, because that would be better than nothing,” she explains matter of factly, before breaking off and laughing throatily. “So I sent off to an unmarked address in Basingstoke, and thought I’d use my home address in Wales so it wouldn’t get lost in the German post and my family could send it on. But it never came. But the publishers insisted that it had been signed for and tracked down the Securicor tab – it was signed for at my address by “Sophia Walters Shaw”. Some time later I had a call from the university at Aberystwyth saying that there was a parcel for me, and – lo and behold – there was my book, which had been re-wrapped and re-addressed to me at work. But I’ve never found her. So I wrote the story instead, with the contents of the book in it. So if you’re out there, Sophia, get in touch.”