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Stella Duffy: Author, survivor and trying hard

Fri 20 May 2005 In: Events

New Zealand-born, London-based Stella Duffy is clearly happy to talk about sex and horrible illness. Her two most recent books are full of both, though not always at the same time. State of Happiness is the story of Cindy, a New York girl who follows her bloke to California where she knows no one then discovers she has cancer. Inoperable, terminal, galloping cancer. To this bloke it's a damned depressing book, an almost hour by hour account of Cindy's discovery of the lump through the diagnosis, chemo and death. Perversely uplifting in a sad kind of way, but still a downer. A weepie. A book for chicks who like a good cry, or maybe gay guys who would have loved Beaches even if Bette Midler wasn't in it. Yet it seems churlish to describe State of Happiness in those terms because there's a fair amount of biographical stuff in it. Duffy herself was diagnosed with breast cancer and has fought through it to the point where her hair's grown back and she's banging out books and this week she's doing a rigorous author's tour of her homeland, New Zealand, from her adopted city, London, with a sparkle on her eye and a spring in her step. Parallel Lies, her most recent book, is an adaptation of the whodunit genre, but with a lot of who's gonna do it and to whom and how and with the biggest dick in Hollywood thrown in for good measure. It's a gloriously cynical romp through the real and stereotypical excesses of self-obsessed, paranoid, desperate moviedom. If Parallel Lies has two literary parents they might well be Dirk Bogarde's West of Sunset and Jackie Collins' Hollywood Wives. Stella Duffy is more than a writer though, she's a performer, does improv shows and loves it. And in the Guardian newspaper she was described as "Superbly sluttish." So over a cafe lunch, with feijoa-flavoured mineral water which she cannot resist trying, we have an improvised, quick response, “first thing that comes into your head” chat, starting with Hollywood, classic Hollywood, big star Hollywood, Warner Brothers and MGM Hollywood, film noir Hollywood. "All about Eve is the best film in the world and Bette Davis is my hero! Fucking brilliant! And that dress! Her dresses in All About Eve were fucking brilliant." Davis and closeted lesbian actress Barbara Stanwyck were each renowned for playing strong women characters. "Yeah, Barbara Stanwyck was all right, but too much hiding of her dykeness for me. I go with more the Dietrichs who didn't mind letting some of that out. I think you can see how much Barbara Stanwyck's hiding, it looks a bit painful." In nearly every role we can recall, Stanwyck's character kills a man. Maybe the studio bosses were slyly casting her as “the man hater” because they must have known she was a lesbian. "There are two lesbian stereotypes I hate and they've probably both been made by the same parts of the media. One is that dykes hate men. Of course I know dykes that hate men but I know probably more straight women that do! The other is the lesbian porn stereotype that all we need is a good bloke and getting a good hump to save us." As opposed to the getting a good hump and saving the world stereotype character like James Bond? "I've never watched any Bond movies, never been interested. I mean, I've seen the clips and I know all the Pussy Galore jokes. I do think the young Roger Moore was prettier that the young Sean Connery." What about all those Bond girls? Halle Berry... I think she was in one, she's gorgeous.” In reality the only people taking on saving the world, well their version of the “free world,” seem to be George Bush and Tony Blair. “George Bush is wonderful! No! The problem with George Bush becoming this icon of what's bad with America is that it lets other people off the hook. We go ‘Oh, it's all George Bush's fault.' So it's not Rumsfeld's fault. And its not Condoleezza Rice's fault. And it's not all the Americans who voted them in. And it's too easy to say Bush is thick, but he's not thick and that's the problem! I was in Russia when Britain went into Iraq and all the Russians were going ‘Your Tony Blair, how could he go to war against Iraq? How terrible!' And I went, ‘Yeah, what about Chechnya!' There are very few powerful countries in the world that do not have to look at their own politics before they start slagging off at other countries. I voted for Blair every time and I would again because I'm a congenital Labour voter. Voting Liberal Democrat would split the vote and give the Tories even more power and Michael Howard's discussions in recent months on immigration have been terrifying. Tony shouldn't have taken the country to war in Iraq. But, like Bush, he didn't do it by himself. It's far too easy to blame one person.” Veiled Middle-Eastern women, abayas, chadors? "If it's a choice go for it. But if it's law then that's a shame. I think any religious thing, if it's a choice, it's up to you, great. If it gets you through, fine. But if someone imposes it on other people then its dodgy. My gut feeling is that the west, who did exactly the same thing with Christianity 1,500 years ago, should shut up and stop slagging off Islam. Like many, many others I said the Taliban were terrible about women and yes, they are. But that's not why we went into Afghanistan... no one cared about the women who were being oppressed about the Taliban. But my gut feeling that the west is the pot calling the kettle black when it keeps having a go about Islam. Feminism? "It hasn't happened yet. I don't know why people keep talking about post-feminism!" Hillary Clinton? It's a shame that America's political view of what women are like is what it is, because Hillary Clinton has had to tone herself down so much to get even where she is now. The Hillary of twenty years ago would have been a fantastic president! You know Tony Blair [used to have] good, strong left wing politics, but we live in a pragmatic world, sadly." Helen Clark? "She doesn't get as much publicity in England as she did when she first came in. There was a time when we heard about her fairly regularly. I've been proud to be able to say to British people that New Zealand had both its Prime Minister and its leader of the opposition women. But I would never say that having a woman politician is a good thing just because she's a woman. Because just look at Margaret Thatcher!" Germaine Greer? "I would love to be Germaine Greer. I'd probably have a shorter haircut because I don't think my hair would do that good, frizzy thing, but I love Germaine Greer. I love that she's gone bonkers sometimes and done stupid things. She did our Celebrity in the Jungle thing, and then she said on national television "I'm leaving, I've made a mistake! I shouldn't have done this." I think the woman's a genius." Helen Reddy? "I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar!? Oh, God, anyone who's sung that... wow! She's got a great voice. Snowbird! Yeah, I like Helen Reddy." Madonna? "In Britain we get this stupid twat... maybe she's lovely, maybe she's a brilliant person, maybe she's always being misquoted, but she's been misquoted an awful lot if that's the case. Her last one that really upset me was something about what a shame it is that British council houses, those great big ghastly council blocks, are so close to the central city. But that's what's so wonderful about London! That's where the bomb sites were, where people got bombed out. But you can't do what the Americans do and push the poor people way out in the suburbs where you cant see them!" Absolutely Fabulous? "The first two series were better than the last two series. The only time I've been utterly terrified doing the show that I do, which is improv theatre called Life Games where people are interviewed and as the person answers the questions about their life we, the actors and the musicians, get up and start performing it. It's not comedy, it's trying to be truthful. It's also not therapy, it's absolutely entertaining. I've played loads of famous people but the one time my mouth dried as I crossed the stage to play somebody was when Joanna picked me to play her. I was terrified. I'm sure everyone in the audience was thinking ‘What the hell's she doing picking the short redhead?' She was great though." Ab Fab script editor Ruby Wax? "Here's my Ruby Wax story: After I played Joanna Lumley, Ruby Wax spent the whole night at dinner saying: "What was it like to play Joanna! Oh my God it must have been amazing! How amazing for you. Oh, because look at you! A nerd!” Horrendous. I'm sure she's a brilliant woman but she didn't make me feel very good!" The 1970s "Bare feet. Jelly tips. Topsies. Uncle Dennis's farm. Tokoroa Central School. My dad's working shifts." The 1980s "University. Having sex, coming out, going back in, coming out, going back in... moving to London, sex, shagging, acting." The 1990s "Becoming me. Finding Shelly in 1990. Becoming myself in London where I felt like I could really become whatever self I was going to be. But mostly finding my partner, Shelley, and our life." What does Shelly have that you need? "Apart from lovely eyes and great tits? Shelly is grounding for me... I don't go very up and I don't go very down but Shelly goes very up and very down. She brings me up and I level her when she's down. Conversely she's actually very grounded, she'll say no when I say yes. Her first answer is often ‘no,' my first answer is almost always ‘yes.' Much as I approve of the desire to say ‘yes,' to accept, to be brave choices and I like to live my life that way, it's not always appropriate. So it's really good to have someone who can pull me back. And she loves me! I've been with someone for fifteen years who every day tells me I'm beautiful! It makes all the difference." Glbt nesting? "That's me! I'm a very happily settled person, part of a couple, it works for me. But I've always been the sort of lesbian that when I turn up at lesbian bars I'm told “Sorry this is a lesbian bar!” So maybe ‘the scene' was never that welcoming to me in the first place, turning up in my high heels and my dresses and my long hair and make up. Occasionally it still happens: “but I'm here for the book reading, I'm your lesbian author!” When I lost my hair I had a great haircut. I can't have it now because everyone's going to think I'm sick again. I'll have to wait a bit. This baby dyke came up to me in a bar and said “Fucking brilliant. It's about time you had a lesbian haircut Stella Duffy!” She spent the rest of the night drunkenly apologising, but she didn't even know me! She had no right to fucking comment... and who gets to decide what's a lesbian haircut!" Stella Duffy? "Oh good Lord! Umm.... ‘trying hard.' That's it. Trying hard." NZ crime-writing icon Ngaio Marsh? "As someone who writes crime novels occasionally I'm supposed to say that I think the golden age of crime novel writing was brilliant, but the truth is that I find both Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie really boring. Dorothy L Sayers is much more interesting. But Ngaio Marsh was great for theatre. She's too well known around the world as a crime writer whereas she was very good for New Zealand theatre." The worst stage of writing a novel? "The bit between chapter three and three chapters from the end! All the middle of it is what I work hard at.. No, it's not hard work, I have a very nice job and I'm very very lucky." What's your starting point? "I get an idea and it might hang around for three years... and then I might find out whether its a crime novel or not but I never know where that idea's going to go until its formed more solidly." Two great female characters other than your own? "Harriet Vale, Nancy Drew." Enid Blighton books? "The Mallory Towers series, which was what I thought that high school and boarding school were going to be like were really wrong and really good fun. And for all that terrible “What are those gypsies doing down at the end of the road” kind of stuff, well, when I was a kid there were very few books that had girls doing much and Enid Blighton had girls doing much." Harry Potter? "Over-rated. I don't like to slag off other writers but..." Reality Television? "Good and bad. I'm really enjoying the ballroom dancing thing, that's fine... people learning skills, doing something interesting. Big Brother, that's really weird, voyeuristic, odd. So reality TV programmes where people learn something or do something valuable, that's really great. Where it's just pandering... I mean human beings are voyeuristic, it's what we're like and I'm not sure that just because it's what we're like we should pander to it." Therapy/12 Step programmes? "12 Step is fine unless it's the American view of what an alcoholic is. As someone who has had a disease I truly don't believe that alcoholism is a disease... I truly believe that those things are a choice. Any form of addiction is a choice. I didn't have any choice about my disease and they are utterly, utterly different kettles of fish. Therapy? I've found it extremely useful several times in my life and often recommend other people to try it. Whatever they find will work for them... of course a lot of that is finding the therapist that works for you." California? "I have great Californian friends. They're northern Californians, they're utterly left-wing, groovy, brilliant. I have so many intellectual, intelligent American friends... I slag off at George Bush but it's far to easy to go “all Americans are bad.” The political Americans are generally more political than anyone else I know from anywhere. I love the Pacific Coast of California... it looks an awful lot like the Pacific coast here which makes me very happy. That's why I love San Francisco... I walked all the way from downtown through the park from the panhandle out to the coast and I'd never seen the American Pacific coast. I was so excited because it looked like the New Zealand coast. I like it, but I wouldn't want to live there." New York? "I love New York! Fantastic! Although I have only been in Manhattan and the middle of Brooklyn but I really, really enjoy Manhattan... It's true about it being alive and the city that never sleeps and all that. I did a show off-Broadway which was about ‘a million dreams come true.' I did it the year I'd been ill. I'd finished my chemotherapy and a week later I went to do a show off-Broadway." Dallas and Dynasty? "When I was at university we didn't have TV so I never watched either of them... oh, I think I watched bit of Dallas later, didn't care for it." Coronation Street? "I really liked Coronation Street when I was younger. But they were much better before they went three and four and five times a week." Elsie Tanner? "Fantastic woman! And [actress] Pat Phoenix too. Both character and actress were brilliant. There are great stories about Pat Phoenix... and the character of Elsie Tanner... if I could be like them I would be happy. I loved the clothes, the hair. Great character." Serial relationships? "Fine, but I do believe it often means that people don't work through the bits where its boring. You can't judge anyone else's experiences by your own relationships, but my experience is that getting through the boring bits gets you somewhere even more amazing." Sport sex, no emotional strings? "That was very good when I was not in a monogamous relationship and very enjoyable." Pornography (not erotica)? "Bad and Wrong. I don't care about gay men's porn, it doesn't affect me in any way. I really do still believe that as long as straight men have the spare money to waste on women's naked bodies with sometimes awful things happening to those naked bodies then we are nowhere near the state we were hoping we would be in this century. You don't see many women with that kind of spare income to waste. I think a lot of it is the anti-capitalist argument: who's got the spare income for prostitutes, who's got the spare income for porn? Very few women. It's an argument against capitalism. And its almost always men who own the means of production as well." Silicone boob enhancement? "You're speaking to a woman who's had breast cancer here! Bad, wrong and ‘why?' What a waste. Why put yourself through that pain? Definitely bad." Hormone Replacement therapy? "It's stupid really because we don't know what it's doing. And God, all our mothers went through menopause and got on with it! My mum worked full time and brought up seven kids! It was nothing to her, she got on with it. And why would you want to go through menopause finally at 75? It is hard, it is difficult having twenty hot flushes a day, truly it can be debilitating, but unless it's so debilitating you can't get out of bed, get on with it. I say that now... but it doesn't mean to say in ten years time I wont take it... For me I don't know, I never know. But having been so sick the idea of taking something that might fuck you up in a while and you didn't know, that just terrifies me." Best bit of advice your mum ever gave you? “What goes around comes around.” Best bit of advice your dad ever gave you? “To thine own self be true.” And they've both worked for me." Most important tenets in your life? "Being honest, telling the truth. I'm a very positive person, I choose to be a positive person. I really believe in the power of hope. As a Buddhist I believe I was very lucky to have been born into a Catholic family, a family that had a sense of spirit. So: truth, hope and sense of spirit." 22 May Editor's note: An observant reader has noted that Barbara Stanwyck may have been closeted but she did not shy away from portraying a lesbian in the 1962 movie Walk on the Wild Side. Jay Bennie - 20th May 2005    

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Friday, 20th May 2005 - 12:00pm

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