Stella Duffy is extremely multi-talented author: playwright, comedienne, teacher, an occasional radio presenter, actor and improviser and a member of the BBC Radio sitcom Losers. She has had published feature articles for Elle, Marie Claire, The Independent and The Guardian. She also writes for the radio and theatre. Her work has been published in Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Japan, and Russia.
Born in London, she grew up in New Zealand and is the youngest of seven children. She currently lives south of the river with her partner, the playwright Shelley Silas. As well as being a member of Tart Noir, Stella Duffy has recently joined a group of ad hoc crime writers who have also worked, or continue to work as performers. The group is collectively known as Rogues and Vagabonds.
Ayo: What was the very first crime fiction book that you read and who introduced you to the genre?
Stella: I read Trixie Belden and the Mystery of the Missing Emeralds when I was about 7. ‘Feisty’ heroine not saved by boys, doing big strong and often naughty things. I think maybe it was a second hand book from my cousin!
Ayo: What made you decide to write crime fiction?
Stella: Having nothing else to do, being a not much employed actor and having had an argument with my partner, I wrote the first chapter of Calendar Girl. Though it contained a dead body I NEVER thought the book was a crime novel. I thought it was a love story gone wrong. Of course it was a crime novel and was sold as such!
Ayo: Who were your influences when you decided to start writing and what books also influenced you?
Stella: Very little crime, as I’d read hardly any. Most of the main women writers of the last 40 years though – Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy, Janet Frame, Jeanette Winterson. Plus some great men – Russell Hoban, Anthony Burgess. And poets – Elliot, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens. And Shakespeare!!
Ayo: Many of your books tackle tough and contentious issues. Do you do this deliberately or is it just part of you rebelling?
Stella: Hah! I don’t think any of the issues are tough or contentious. They’re just the things I’m interested in, so they get into the books.
Ayo: Is there another Saz Martin in the wings?
Stella: There’s the possibility of another Saz. But it may not have Saz in it…
Ayo: Is there any chance that we might see any of the Saz Martin books on television or made into films?
Stella: Your guess is as good as mine is. I’d be very happy for it to happen. Singling Out The Couples has been movie-optioned and Immaculate Conceit is being made into a play by the National Youth Theatre, but no Saz as yet. Nearly often, but that lesbian thing (where she just is and it isn’t a big deal) seems to be a sticking point for most tv-types!!
Ayo: You have written three standalone books – Eating Cake, Immaculate Conceit, and Singling Out the Couples where did the ideas for these books come from?
Stella: Thoughts, desires, and any old thing that struck my fancy, just as with the Saz books. I really don’t think there’s any difference between crime and non –crime for me. Just the next thing I want to do. Though the idea for Immaculate Conceit came from me being a 14 year old Catholic girl and being told that Mary was 14 when she had Jesus and me thinking if I came to school and told you I was pregnant with the messiah they’d 1) call me a lying slut and 2) lock me away in a madhouse!!
Ayo: Relationships are a main theme that runs through all your books. Why do they interest you so much?
Stella: I don’t think there’s anything else that matters in the world. All life is based on relationship. With friends, with lovers, with people we hate. Though, actually I think all I’m really writing about – in all the book s is truth and lies. Truth interests me hugely.
Ayo: What do you consider the most important element for you when you are writing your novels?
Stella: In order: character, story (what happens), plot (how it happens).
Ayo: When writing, do you have an outline in your mind?
Stella: I generally know how it starts and how it ends and then fill in the rest. But by the time I’ve done the middle, how it ends is often very different from my first thought.
Ayo: How do you feel about your books being mainly shelved in the lesbian section of bookshops?
Stella: They’re not! Not since I made a fuss years ago anyway. Now I find I’m really lucky and the crime books are in the crime and often in the fiction section too. The non-crime are in the fiction and there are a smattering of books in the gay shelves too. I get to be lots of places, which is really useful.
Ayo: You belong to a group called Tart Noir. How was the group set up and what exactly do you do?
Stella: You need to ask Lauren Henderson or look at the intro to Tart Noir or the website http://www.tartcity.comfor this, as I wasn’t there! Lauren and Sparkle started it, Katy Munger joined in and Beth as webmistress, several others, Lauren asked me to be part of it too.
Ayo: The Tart Noir Anthology has recently been published for which you are co-editor along with fellow Tart Noir member Lauren Henderson and it contains some of the best stories written by women for ages. Who thought up the idea for Tart Noir Anthology and did you enjoy editing it?
Stella: Lauren and I, at a launch party for another crime anthology (which had the usual crime anthology ratio of 15 men to 5 women – and no-one even seemed to notice that but us!!!) thought it might be worth trying to collect stories by women. Maybe an anthology that had 15 women and 5 men (rightly assuming that would be noticed!! Hell, that’s considered a feminist statement!!) or an anthology of just women. Then there were so many women that we didn’t need any men. We might do another one though – with a few men too!!
And yes, editing it was in one way (administratively) way harder work than I’d ever imagined, in another way (because Lauren and I agree on almost every point all the time!!) ever so easy. And enjoyable too.
Ayo: I know that Modesty Blaise and Emma Peel are the heroines for Tart Noir, which one would you, pick out of the two of them that you feel you most associate with?
Stella: Emma Peel. Best clothes. Good period for a woman to be so strong. And at the age of five I was in love with Steed!!
Ayo: What were the last five books that you read?
Stella: Birmingham Noir (sort stories, Tindall Street Press, yet to be published); I, Lucifer (Glenn Duncan); White Mice (Nicholas Blincoe); Walking The Lions (Stephen Burgen); Mr Clive and Mr Page (Neil Bartlett) – fancy that, mostly men!! Not usual for me – but an honest answer!
Ayo: Do you still do work with the comedy company Spontaneous Combustion and when next may we next expect to see you in a show in London?
Stella: Yes I still work with SC. We do bits of corporate work and writing work. I’ll be recording a second series of the radio sitcom Losers (written by two other members of SC) later this year, tickets available from BBC!! And I’ll be performing in Improbable Theatre’s Lifegame at the Brisbane Festival in September … if anyone’s there…
Ayo: How did you become involved in the writers/comedian group, Rogues and Vagabonds
Stella: Martyn Waites and I have performed several times together at various crime and publishing events. I know Mark Billingham from years ago on the comedy circuit – I wasn’t there but I gather the others, or some of them, thought it might be a good idea to do something more formal – and I was asked to be part of it. (See above – I said yes!)
Ayo: If you were hosting a dinner party and you could invite five-crime, fiction characters whom would they be and why?
Stella: Trixie Belden because she was my first. Lady Macbeth – clearly a brilliant crime fiction character and I reckon she’d be a great storyteller. Judas (as above). Phillip Marlowe – to see if Bogart got it right. Actually I think that’s plenty and anyone else would unbalance the table!! But there are two others I‘d like to have so we can all tell them where to go: Kay Scarpetta so we can tell her to stop being such an anally retentive, mad, right wing fascist and whoever that posh bloke Ngaio Marsh wrote – can’t remember his name – have wiped it from my memory – who for his patronizing, rude, arrogant manner towards Maori (and anyone else not middle class) in her books deserves a good kicking. And I don’t care if he was a product of his time, plenty of other people at that time knew better.
Ayo: Finally, what are you working on now?
Stella: Editing a new novel, which I’ve been writing for two years. Virago is publishing it as part of a two-book deal.