Toby Litt's Life Cycle reveals a man's take on the female experience

By Rob Sharp
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The vocalist Mara Carlyle will perform on Sunday at London's Southbank Centre, as part of Women of the World, a festival celebrating female creativity. She will sing about childbirth, miscarriage and being a mother. There's just one catch. Her words have been written by a man.

The author Toby Litt has collaborated with the composer Emily Hall over Life Cycle, a series of songs about "love, loss and sleep deprivation".

One might well ask what qualifies Litt, an accomplished author who nevertheless lacks the relevant biological machinery, to explore such topics. His songs boast extreme titles such as "Stillborn", "The Pregnant Woman" and "Not Just Milk (There Used to Be a Woman in this Body)".

The author, however, has gone through more than most. His partner suffered three miscarriages before finally being able to conceive, a topic he explores in an extended preface to his 2004 novel Ghost Story.

He is also in good company. From Charles Dickens to Nick Hornby and Daniel Defoe to Samuel Richardson, there have been plenty of male authors assuming female voices with great success.

"I just have to do my best," said Litt. "When I'm writing, I check with other people, like my partner, she is always the first to hear them. What she thinks is important."

Litt's first novel, 1997's Beatniks: An English Road Movie, told from the point of view of recent graduate Mary, was praised for its rich characters.

Now Litt, who premiered some of the material at the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds last year, has raised the stakes by writing for a female singer. The new work will reflect Litt's expectations about having children, as well as the aftermath. "My experience of pregnancy was almost totally of anxiety the whole way through," he added. "We just wanted to get the baby born." He now has two sons with his partner, a lecturer at the University of Westminster.

He will need to wait until next week to see if he has been successful. "The people who judge it will be the women who have gone through it," he said. "It is a subjective piece, it's all inside the main woman's head."

'Life Cycle' at the Southbank Centre, London SE1 (0844 875 0073; on 13 March