Nelle Davy: ‘I was saved by stories’

Author Nelle Davy tells of her struggle from poverty to published author

Nelle Davy may share a birthday with Margaret Thatcher but, determination aside, that is where any resemblance stops. At the young age of 27, Davy has gone from being “ridiculously poor” while growing up (not being able to afford a �12 a month TV licence and hiding from bailiffs) to making her dream of becoming a published author come true.

I meet her at her flat in Highgate. She is overly excited about the chocolate cookies which she has prepared specially for this interview and smiles at me with wide eyes as I get her debut novel from my bag, asking what I think of it. I make the mistake of confessing my frustration of her gripping style and my upset at how one of the characters gets to become so evil that, before I realise it, she’s the one conducting the interview. But that’s Davy. She can’t help but be in control (later admitting to being exactly like Monica from TV’s Friends) and she’s fascinatingly curious – although rather stubborn in her convictions. Naturally, she believes in education as it’s saved her from her past. But she also proudly informs me that she’s very much a working class girl “through and through”. “Most people would say that’s absolute b***s, that I live in Highgate in a two-bedroom flat and that my husband works at the British Museum, that I work in publishing and I’m a writer. But my core values are completely lower working class.”

The only child of a distorted family, Davy grew up in London until the age of nine. She then moved to Surrey and got an assisted scholarship at the Sir William Perkins’s School for girls where she was the only student from an Afro-Caribbean background. She completed her degree in English and creative writing at Warwick University and moved to Dublin to do her master’s in creative writing at Trinity College.

“I was lucky – but lucky doesn’t happen to everybody. I literally had one chair and a small desk until I was 16. I also had about half that bookcase,” she says pointing to one of the now many bookcases in her living room “and that was the sum total of my possessions.

“I was saved by stories. I fell in love with books. I had a fantastic teacher and I had a great education. I got a scholarship to a good school which promoted getting off your arse and making it for yourself.”

Hearing her talk about her childhood, I instantly understand her claimed fear: “Being poor doesn’t scare me, failing scares me. I’ve been poor before – I know how to do it.”

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Her debut novel, The Legacy Of Eden, is a story told through three generations of a family living on a farm in Iowa. I know she has said in other interviews that none of the four female characters narrating their lives is drawn from her experiences but I point out that there must be something of her in Lavinia – the matriarch in her story. Her reply is surprising.

“Oh, very much so! I don’t think the characters are based on anybody and they’re certainly not drawn from life. But Lavinia’s was the kind of character who I could completely understand her motivations when I was writing because we both come from similar backgrounds. She doesn’t have a good relationship with her parents, which is the same as me. She didn’t have a sense of home, which is exactly the same as me. There’s that sense of dislocation, feeling adrift and not quite knowing how and where to anchor herself, which I can very much understand. I think she is the kind of person you could have been if you made different choices and I completely understand her motivations and the snowball effect that her actions lead to. I can see how people like her can come to be and what happens if they are left unchecked. She is the side of me that would have happened if I had been left unchecked.”

Is it this side of her that would have rioted in August (something she discussed in a previous interview)? “I don’t think the people who did the rioting can be excused or justified in any way, shape or form but I can understand how you can go from one place and end up in another. It’s not that far a leap unfortunately – not nearly as much as we would like it to be.”

The Legacy Of Eden, published by Mira Books, is priced at �7.99.