This is an extended version of an interview with Stella Duffy, conducted in mid-November while I was in London and originally published in Fairfax's Saturday Your Weekend magazine. Since the interview, Stella has made her trip to Nigeria (and written beautifully about it on Facebook), got married to Shelley for the fourth time, seen her Doctor Who book published, summed up her year and, earlier this month, had remedial surgery for the problematic breast reconstruction that had left her in pain and discomfort for months. Uncharacteristically, she is reported to have brifely listened to entreaties for her to take a damn rest afterwards. She is now back talking about Fun Palaces to anyone who will listen. You can follow Stella on Twitter.
Many thanks to Your Weekend editor Sarah Daniell, who originally commissioned the story, for permission to post this here.
"I'm such an idiot," laments Stella Duffy. "I should have known better."
It's been an interesting week for Stella Duffy, novelist, playwright, theatre director, actor, occasional cancer patient, New Zealander. Yesterday, the Independent newspaper named her and her wife, playwright Shelley Silas, as one of Britain's "rainbow power couples". Today, she's being lambasted as an ungrateful wretch by Guardian readers.
It began the week before, when she wrote a laser-focus blog post about a consultation on the surgery that had addressed her second breast cancer (the first was in 1999, when she was 36). About standing semi-naked in front of a young, male breast reconstruction surgeon who seemed concerned only with how her breasts, including the one "that has, brilliantly, not had cancer," looked to him, rather than felt to her.
The British Medical Journal approached her to ask if it could run a shortened version, but The Guardian's Comment is Free editor was keen to re-publish it in full, where it would reach a bigger audience. She agreed. Now, the site's moderators can barely keep up with comments that don't "abide by our community standards". Her wife is away and she's been working at home all day, unable not to look at the comments.
She will end the week by flying to Lagos for the British Council, to lead workshops around her retrospective anthology of short stories, Everything is Moving, Everything is Joined. She's realistic about the need to tread carefully around "the sex and the lesbian stuff" in the collection, but otherwise has little idea of what to expect.
Although she grew up in Tokoroa and got her degree at Victoria, Duffy is far less well-known in New Zealand than she is in the land she left as a four year-old and has once again made home.
The journeys between London and Tokoroa are, to her, the story of her life and work. She tells the story in long, elliptical loops: her father, who came from New Zealand "to fight the fascists" in 1939, flew with the RAF's 75th Squadron, was a Nazi prisoner of war for four years, settled in London, had one failed marriage, met and wed her mother. And then, momentously, in 1967, boarded a vessel to New Zealand with Stella, her mother and her older sister Veronica, leaving five grown kids behind.
Pic: Four year-old Stella crosses the equator on her way to New Zealand.
"Two times in my life I saw my dad cry," she says. "Once, when I said I wasn't going to be a lawyer or a teacher. The other, when I was nearly five years old and the ship came into Wellington Harbour and my dad said 'I never thought I'd see this again' …"
She has to let a sob escape before she can carry on.
On landing, her penniless father found a job at Kinleith Mill and the family settled in Tokoroa. She was in all the school plays, wrote half of them. And one day, two young men from Theatre Corporate came to town with a shortened, two-handed Hamlet. One of them, her friends marvelled, looked like Paul Michael Glaser from Starsky and Hutch. She looked closer and realised that Starsky was Johnny Givens, from Tokoroa.
"I went to talk to him afterwards and said 'how do you do this?'. There was somebody like me in the arts. The scales fell from my eyes. I suddenly knew I could do what I wanted to do."
After taking a scholarship to Sacred Heart in Hamilton so she could study languages, she landed in Wellington to study at Victoria.
"First week at university, the week of my 18th birthday and I knew one other person who'd gone to Victoria. I was utterly scared. And on the second night there was a sort of cabaret night and I was sitting on the floor and the Topp Twins came on …"
She sighs theatrically.
"And Linda was funny and Jools was lovely and they sang beautifully. And they were clearly out. They weren't using the word 'lesbian' but it was obvious who and what they were. And they were brilliant. The Topp Twins were so important in my life.
"It all goes to this. All of it leads to what I'm doing now."
What's she's doing now, what all these stories tumble out and lead to, is the biggest project of her life.
That project is Fun Palaces, a nationwide arts-and-sciences festival that revives an idea championed by the stage director Joan Littlewood in 1961. The concept is that communities convene to gather, share and celebrate their own knowledge and skills; and that magic happens in the juxtaposition. The Tokoroa girl with the British class-consciousness is delighted that two thirds of Fun Palaces activity took place outside London.
"What Joan wanted was that ordinary people would feel empowered and capable," she explains. "In 1961, the Arts Council sent her a letter that said 'Unfortunately, the Arts Council is interested in something Miss Littlewood isn't: art'."
In 2014, the British Arts Council gave Duffy and her collaborators £200,000 for costs as an "extraordinary award".
It was work she had personally held to through the year of her second cancer, and through the traumatic death of Silas's father. After her mastectomy and breast reconstruction, she looked out her window at St Thomas's hospital at the Royal Festival Hall, vowing that she would turn up there in three weeks' time to give a speech about Fun Palaces.
"We were prepared for me to do it in a wheelchair."
Duty, she says, was part of the family culture. Her father was president of the Tokoroa RSA for years ("a pisshead too, of course") and her mother president of the women's section.
I put it to her that she seems to understand her own motivations as clearly as if she was a character she'd written. She cackles.
"Well, I have written me. I've done two solo shows about me. Two cancers, where I have really looked at where I am and what I'm doing. So I've had to think about it a lot."
To suggest that she's a public intellectual would be to invite a slap, but she grants that she wants to be a good citizen.
"Yes. I still want to change the world, Russell. I haven't stopped wanting to change the world."
Is she always this busy?
"Yes. I am always this busy."
Today she's been working on the second draft of a commissioned play and looking forward to another dream realised -- the publication of The Anti-Hero, her first official Doctor Who novella. She picked the second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, "because he's my Doctor. The slightly grumpy twinkle-in-the-eye flute and recorder player. Brilliant. And you get to have Zoe.
"It was a really different process than anything else. I had a long conversation then gave them three potential ideas. Those ideas then had to be checked with two people -- the editor, and the Doctor Who geek who works for the BBC. So I got things back that said 'At this period in the Doctor's life, Zoe wouldn't be able to be saying this'. They compare it to every episode, all the books, everything the BBC has ever endorsed and say yes, you can have that, that and that, but you can't have this piece of the idea because it was done differently there. It was so interesting."
It's illustrative of both Duffy's remarkable range and her unsqueamish embrace of what snobs call "genre fiction". Alongside her "literary" work, she has written five crime novels starring lesbian detective Saz Martin and two reimaginings of Theodora, the empress of Constantinople, which went down a storm in Eastern Europe and have been optioned by HBO.
I have been friends with Stella Duffy since she arrived in London in the mid-80s, along with the rest of us; freed of the political strictures of eighties Wellington and growing back her sensuous red curls.
"In Wellington in 1984, it was considered inappropriate to be a lesbian and have the long red curly hair that I had. I was told that many, many times by the extreme wing of how-to-be-a-lesbian in New Zealand. It … wasn't me."
She came to be an actor, "but also because Wellington was too small. The only parts anyone wanted to see me for were the lesbian in the play. No one was ever going to see me for the sexy female girl lead, no matter what fucking haircut I had."
She says she never expected to stay, but even then she always seemed more purposeful than her peers, if no less up for fun. She kept house for the rich, saved money, embraced Buddhist practice, found acting work. She never forgets Tokoroa, or misses an All Black test. Did she even then have a vision for what she wanted to be?
"Yeah. Lady Macbeth at Stratford. I still do. And there's still time. I really believe that people play the Macbeths too young. Lady Macbeth should be in her sixties, it should be her fucking last-ditch attempt.
"There's still 10 years for that. That's why I came."
Stella Duffy dances by the Thames. Photo credit: Nadia Nervo.