Stella Duffy: An empress for our times

Whether writing about Byzantium or south London, the author is always politically engaged, she tells Stephanie Cross

Some nicknames require explanation. Others, such as that of Stella Duffy's latest heroine, speak for themselves. But "Theodora-from- the-Brothel" isn't just any tart-with-a-heart: this Theodora is the Byzantine empress, born in AD500 to the daughter of a hippodrome bear-keeper, who ascended not just to the title of Augusta, but also sainthood.

Her rise was the subject of Duffy's previous novel, Theodora (2010), a book irresistibly subtitled "Actress. Empress. Whore." Duffy's new novel, The Purple Shroud, resumes Theodora's story and isn't – but might be – glossed "The Power Years". And, like its predecessor, it doesn't lack for drama.

"I do believe that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely," Duffy states when we meet. Yet if her Theodora is a Mrs Machiavelli, determined to wear the purple imperial chlamys until she dies – "Purple makes the perfect burial shroud," Theodora informs her husband, the Emperor Justinian – she is also "the people's Empress", and in her devotion to duty even recalls our own monarch. "She's more Evita if she's anybody," Duffy counters. "Because she's common. And that's why she's so amazing."

Duffy learnt of Theodora while attending a crime fiction festival in Italy. Taken to visit the huge mosaic of the empress at Ravenna, she was captivated by Theodora's story, but realised she had too much material for one book. Material that included the AD532 "Nika" riots which devastate Constantinople early in this novel.

Duffy was editing these scenes at the time of the London riots. "I don't think that people go out doing those things to change the world," she says, when we discuss last summer's triggers. But "there has been more stop and search … Under the kind of cuts the Tories are choosing to bring in, we are getting a bigger difference – and God knows it was bad enough under Labour – between the very rich and the very poor. And again, it's never an excuse, but it is a reason."

Emphatic, witty and vital, Duffy shares much with her heroine (brothel experience aside). "She's an improviser: it's what I did for years … she does things that upset people, because of her politics ... And she has great faith: I do too." Duffy became a Buddhist in 1986, and while her trajectory has not been quite as steep as Theodora's, she speaks with pride of her journey from "council estate in Woolwich to little timber town in New Zealand and very nice three-bedroom house in Loughborough Junction."

Born in 1963, Duffy was the youngest of seven. Her father was a New Zealander and when Duffy was five he moved back with his wife and two youngest children to New Zealand. Duffy had no notion that she would become a novelist: "When you grow up in my kind of family, you don't think you're going to be a writer, cos that's for posh people." Instead, she studied English in Wellington and went on to work as an actress. Duffy returned to England in 1986 and joined an improv company whose members included Jake Arnott and Patrick Marber. Improvising, she says, taught her to write.

Duffy's first novels were crime fiction; "a couple of magical-realisty ones" followed, then the Orange-prize longlisted State of Happiness (2004). "People have tried to call it my cancer novel," Duffy grimaces – the illness, for which she was successfully treated, was diagnosed only after she had started on the book. Nor does the C-word appear anywhere in it, as Duffy points out, her aim being to write about the effects of illness more generally.

Before Theodora, Duffy's last novel was The Room of Lost Things (2008) – "very south London gritty realist" – a book that centred on two male friends. Duffy has claimed that she is taken more seriously when writing about men, an assertion that she stands by. "I often say in this context that when Mike Leigh writes about families, he's considered universal. When a woman writes about families, they're considered domestic." I point out that Theodora earned praise from several male critics. "Rome gets reviewed by men," she responds.

While Duffy is a magpie in her subject matter – her next book is to be set in south London one hundred years ago – she is unlikely to become a chronicler of the Hampstead set. "I don't live in a world where everyone's white. I don't live in a world where everyone's straight. I don't live in a world where everyone's my age … I want to reflect that in my books." Does fiction have a duty to be politically engaged? "YES! Yes. And I reserve the right to write frippery." She laughs.

Duffy's resistance to pigeon-holing extends to her personal life: "No one ever says 'He's a straight; she's a heterosexual,' but I'm constantly being called 'a lesbian' and it's just not the most interesting thing about me," she sighs. Duffy is, however, a vocal crusader for gay marriage. Out since the age of 18, she and her partner, the playwright Shelley Silas, entered into a civil partnership in 2004. "If they bring [equal marriage] in the life of this parliament, we will have been together for 25 years before we could get married," she says, both exasperated and incredulous.

She shows me her wedding ring, its inscription, "Magnificent you", a reference to her cancer – the disease to which Theodora, having swept all before her, ultimately succumbed. "I said to Shelley I wanted to be magnificent with it. I want it to magnify me, not diminish me." Looking back on her illness, Duffy sees it as a watershed. "Not that I wasn't driven, and determined, and an achievement freak before, but … I know that time is limited. And I really want to do everything." As with her imperial heroine, one imagines little standing in her way.

The Purple Shroud, By Stella Duffy

Virago £16.99

'I am your Empress, sir. I stand in the purple beside you, here with your men, your advisers, your generals. I know it has been said that too often I speak where a woman should remain silent. It may be inappropriate, but this crisis does not call for what is appropriate, it calls for what is right.'

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on The Crimson Field
Arts & Entertainment
Gian Sammarco plays Adrian Mole in 'The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole'
books

Sue Townsend's much-loved character will live on
Arts & Entertainment
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show
TV

Kylie Minogue quits The Voice UK

Arts & Entertainment
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Favour Asikpa and Thandie Newton in 'Half of a Yellow Sun'
film

Review: Half of A Yellow Sun

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
    Supersize art

    Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

    The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
    Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

    How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

    More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
    10 best activity books for children

    10 best activity books for children

    Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
    Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

    Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

    Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
    Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

    Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

    Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
    Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

    NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

    Politicians urged to find radical solution
    Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

    Ukraine crisis

    How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    A history of the First World War in 100 moments
    Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

    New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

    Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
    Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

    Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

    Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?