Saturday, October 27, 2018

Top 10 writers’ tips on writing / Buy a cat, stay up late, don't drink

Top 10s

Creative writing

Buy a cat, stay up late, don't drink: top 10 writers’ tips on writing

Made a New Year resolution to start writing that novel? Take some writing tips from Leo Tolstoy, Muriel Spark, John Steinbeck and other famous authors

Travis Elborough
Wed 3 Jan 2018

ver the past year, Helen Gordon and I have been putting together Being a Writer, a collection of musings, tips and essays from some of our favourite authors about the business of writing, ranging from the time of Samuel Johnson and Grub Street, to the age of Silicon Roundabout and Lorrie Moore.

Researching the book, it quickly became obvious that there isn’t a correct way to set about writing creatively, which is a liberating thought. For every novelist who needs to isolate themselves in a quiet office (Jonathan Franzen), there’s another who works best at the local coffee shop (Rivka Galchen) or who struggles to snatch an hour between chores and children (a young Alice Munro).
Conversely, it also became apparent that alongside all this variety of approach, there are certain ideas and pieces of advice that many writers hold in common. In an 1866 letter to Mrs Brookfield, Charles Dickens suggests that: “You constantly hurry your narrative ... by telling it, in a sort of impetuous breathless way, in your own person, when the people [characters] should tell it and act it for themselves.” Basically: SHOW DON’T TELL. Three words that will be familiar to anyone who has sat in a 21st-century creative writing class.
Our book therefore contains a lot of writing advice, ranging from the sternly practical to the gloriously idiosyncratic. We have writers talking about what went wrong, as well as what went right. They discuss failing to finish a manuscript, failing to find a publisher, badly realised characters and tortuous, unwieldy plots. Here are a just few of our favourite tips, which we believe any aspiring writer should take to heart.
1. Hilary Mantel – a little arrogance can be a great help

“The most helpful quality a writer can cultivate is self-confidence – arrogance, if you can manage it. You write to impose yourself on the world, and you have to believe in your own ability when the world shows no sign of agreeing with you.”

2. Leo Tolstoy and HP Lovecraft – pick the hours that work best for you

Tolstoy believed in starting first thing: “I always write in the morning. I was pleased to hear lately that Rousseau, too, after he got up in the morning, went for a short walk and sat down to work. In the morning one’s head is particularly fresh. The best thoughts most often come in the morning after waking while still in bed or during the walk.”
Or stay up late as HP Lovecraft did: “At night, when the objective world has slunk back into its cavern and left dreamers to their own, there come inspirations and capabilities impossible at any less magical and quiet hour. No one knows whether or not he is a writer unless he has tried writing at night.”

3. William Faulkner – read to write

“Read, read, read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.”
4. Katherine Mansfield – writing anything is better than nothing

“Looking back I imagine I was always writing. Twaddle it was too. But better far write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all.”

Hemingway writing while on a big game hunt in Kenya, September 1952. Photograph: Earl Theisen 

5. Ernest Hemingway – stop while the going is good

“Always stop while you are going good and don’t worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry bout it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.”

John Steinbeck at Sag Harbor, 1962 … presumably after he’d finished his daily schedule.
John Steinbeck at Sag Harbor, 1962 … presumably after he’d finished his daily schedule. Photograph: Rolls Press
6. John Steinbeck – take it a page at a time

“Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day. It helps.”
7. Miranda July – don’t worry about the bad drafts

“I was a lot dumber when I was writing the novel. I felt like worse of a writer … would come home every day from my office and say, ‘Well, I still really like the story, I just wish it was better written.’ At that point, I didn’t realise I was writing a first draft. And the first draft was the hardest part. From there, it was comparatively easy. It was like I had some Play-Doh to work with and could just keep working with it – doing a million drafts and things changing radically and characters appearing and disappearing and solving mysteries: Why is this thing here? Should I just take that away? And then realising, no, that is there, in fact, because that is the key to this. I love that sort of detective work, keeping the faith alive until all the questions have been sleuthed out.

 ‘The first draft was the hardest part’ ... Miranda July. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer

8. F Scott Fitzgerald – don’t write and drink

“It has become increasingly plain to me that the very excellent organisation of a long book or the finest perceptions and judgment in time of revision do not go well with liquor. A short story can be written on the bottle, but for a novel you need the mental speed that enables you to keep the whole pattern inside your head and ruthlessly sacrifice the sideshows … I would give anything if I hadn’t written Part III of Tender Is the Night entirely on stimulant.”
9. Zadie Smith – get offline

“Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.”
10. Muriel Spark* – get a cat

“If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially on some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work … the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle under the desk lamp. The light from a lamp … gives the cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impeded your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, and very mysterious.’ 
*(or rather, the character of Mrs Hawkins in A Far Cry from Kensington.)

  • Being a Writer by Travis Elborough and Helen Gordon is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £15.

“Muriel Spark: The Biography” / A fearless novelist, betrayed

Muriel Spark by Alexander (Sandy) Moffat

“Muriel Spark: The Biography”: 
A fearless novelist, betrayed

A new biography of the writer reveals a life of personal struggle — and a lover with an unscrupulous agenda

APRIL 20, 2010 6:21PM (UTC)
At age forty-three, the witty, exacting, and wholly original Muriel Spark became known to American readers when The New Yorker devoted an entire issue to her sixth and most celebrated novel,"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie". Brodie, a magnetic and domineering schoolteacher, selects a group of girls to mold into the "crème de la crème" -- young women made in her image who will recognize their prime when it arrives and know how to exploit it. Propping up their history textbooks for appearances as she recounts a pre-war love affair, trailing after her through strange neighborhoods on the way to plays and picnics, Miss Brodie's chosen pupils idolize her -- until the danger of her manipulations becomes clear.
Spark herself attended an Edinburgh girls' school much like the one she depicts so vividly and in such biting detail -- students in stiff blazers, boys hovering on the periphery with their bicycles after the final bell, and the portrait of the widow who endowed the school "hung in the great hall, and was honoured every Founder's Day by a bunch of hard-wearing flowers such as chrysanthemums or dahlias. These were placed in a vase beneath the portrait, upon a lectern which also held an open Bible with the text underlined in red ink, 'O where shall I find a virtuous woman, for her price is above rubies.'" Yet the uniquely charming and monstrous Miss Brodie, for all her verisimilitude, could only have sprung from Muriel Spark's complex mind.
Martin Stannard's sprawling, respectful, frequently overwritten new life, "Muriel Spark: The Biography," underscores just how much the existence of Spark's novels -- some of the finest and funniest of the last century -- owes to happenstance. It's astonishing (and, at least to this aspiring writer, sobering) to realize just how easily she could have failed to bring them into being.
After a painful divorce in her late twenties, Spark left the son of her disastrous marriage in her parents' care, toiled during the day in often thankless office jobs, and wrote poetry and criticism at night, slowly earning respect as a literary scholar. She first tried her hand at fiction at the age of thirty-three, almost by accident. The Observer announced a £250 holiday story contest, and Spark, who hoped to avoid another secretarial gig but had fallen behind on her bills and a book-length study of John Masefield, dashed off an entry and mailed it in. Until then, she claimed, she had no intention of writing narrative prose. She might well have continued to dedicate herself to verse and to tomes on other people's writing had the newspaper's literary editor not called that Christmas Eve morning to let her know she'd won the prize.
Even for a few years afterward, Spark's literary path remained uncertain. She published reviews, wrote poems and stories, worked on a book about the Brontës, and tried to sort out her life. Finding solace in Catholicism, she slowly extricated herself from a poisonous relationship with her live-in lover, the needy, far less talented writer Derek Stanford.
After her Observer winnings dwindled, she took Dexedrine diet pills not only to stay slim but to keep her food costs down. The hallucinatory, paranoiac effects of amphetamine poisoning were unknown at the time, and Spark had always been given to intense literary passions, so friends saw nothing amiss in her fixation on T. S. Eliot's Christian play "The Confidential Clerk" until she began to speak of threatening codes that she believed were embedded in the text and directed at her. "Obsessively she began to seek them out, covering sheet after sheet of paper with anagrams and cryptographic experiments." As her delusions intensified, she became convinced that Eliot had taken a job with some of her acquaintances as a window-washer in order to rifle through their papers.
"We loved her so much during that period," a friend said. "It was really like watching someone using spiritual crossword puzzles.... The text [of the play] kept her mind together somehow." While she recovered, Spark focused on fiction.
Her first novel, "The Comforters," which the novelist Katharine Weber and others have argued she wrote "to save herself from madness," explicitly deals with hallucinations. The protagonist, Caroline, a literary critic, is plagued by voices -- as though, she tells her priest, "'a writer on another plane of existence was writing a story about us.'"
Stannard sensitively but persuasively examines the way Spark's breakdown found its way into her work -- and may even have enabled it -- but also reveals how desperately she wanted to prevent anyone from making the connection. Not only is "The Comforters'" Caroline, like the author, "[t]orn between the spiritual and the material worlds," but a later novel, "The Bachelors," plays back conversations … as a psychodrama of jabbering demons." Like her friend Evelyn Waugh, who was also suffering from amphetamine overdose, Spark coped with her illness by transforming it into art.
Spark published "The Comforters" in 1957, at thirty-nine, to acclaim and confusion (it employed a postmodern structure that was still unfamiliar). Her next book came six months later. "Usually," Stannard observes, "she had one ... finished while another was in proof and a third being launched." Writing novels was so easy, she said in 1960, "I was in some doubt about its value."
Having found her literary footing, Spark was increasingly certain of her talents. She forbade her editors to alter so much as a punctuation mark without permission. She didn't, or at least claimed not to, revise. "If I write it, it's grammatical," she told a friend and fellow novelist who dared to question one of her sentences. When one of her essays was "updated" without her consent, she demanded the culprit make reparations by contributing to her church's organ fund. He balked; she threatened to sue. In the end, he paid. The one critic she relied on was her Persian cat, Bluebell, "a gifted clairvoyante," who "would sit on my notebooks if what I had written therein was all right."
Spark's staggering confidence in her work was largely warranted. "If she thinks it's good," one of her publishers said, "it is good." Her characters, she informed Iris Murdoch, "do exactly what I tell them to do." Novel-writing was "the easiest thing I had ever done." Love affairs, by contrast, were fraught -- and dangerous.
In her fiction, Spark developed stunning authorial control, reminiscent of fellow Catholic Flannery O'Connor's in its precision, insight, and detachment, but less austere and far more inclined to hilarity and wit. Her characters' disagreements are often played for laughs, even as they somehow remain human, believable, and completely engrossing. In "Memento Mori," the most dog-eared among my copies, of her books, Godfrey Colson cross-examines his Catholic wife and housekeeper about cremation:
"It isn't a matter of how you feel, it's a question of what your Church says you've not got to do. Your Church says you must not be cremated, that's the point."
"Well, as I say, Mr. Colston, I don't really fancy the idea --"
"'Fancy the idea' ... It is not a question of what you fancy. You have no choice in the matter, do you see?"
"Well, I always like to see a proper burial, I always like --"
"It's a point of discipline in your Church," he said, "that you mustn't be cremated. You women don't know your own system."
"I see, Mr. Colston. I've got something on the stove."
Spark wrote fearlessly but lived, especially once she became famous, defensively. Success made her wary. When considering attachments, she was exceedingly conscious of "the fragility of reputation, the carelessness with which this precious commodity was handled by third parties, the exposure to competitive defamation and gossip-mongering."
Stanford, perhaps her greatest love, betrayed her most egregiously. He sold the letters she'd sent him, stole and did a small trade in her private papers, wrote a patronizing "biographical and critical study" of Spark and her work, and, until he died, published withering reviews of her books. Most unforgiveable of all, though, he told her family of her secret breakdown. And publicly, he insinuated that her work was infected by madness.
Spark raged. An artist, she believed, "was in one sense 'possessed' by her vision but must never be possessed by anyone or anything obstructing this vision. Above all, she must not be possessed by insanity. Great art always walked close to that borderline but the great artist always knew her way back." Her attempts to keep the Dexedrine debacle a secret failed, and not just because of Stanford; as her literary fame grew, other friends, and even her son, proved loose-lipped and judgmental. When they did, she added them to her "menagerie of bêtes noires, the unforgiveables." And she hit back hard.
When her novella "The Driver's Seat" appeared, Stanford implied in The Scotsman that Spark's fiction was fixated on "batty" women and traded in "giggles and sniggers." Her revenge in "A Far Cry from Kensington" rivals Somerset Maugham's brilliantly scathing attack on Walpole in "Cakes and Ale." Bartlett, Spark's pisseur de copie, has Stanford's "speech mannerisms and literary style, the yellow tie and check shirt." His prose "reveals him not only as pompous but also a traitor."
In 1993, Spark's former longtime editor Alan Maclean echoed Stanford, telling the New Yorker that she was "really quite batty" in the diet pill years. "[S]he thought I was one of 'them' -- 'them' being the people who were planting the clues. For a long time afterwards, when she was under pressure she would react very badly." Asked for comment, Spark called him an "indescribably filthy liar" who "must be on the bottle again."
For many years, she avoided interviews lest they depict her in an unflattering light. Her life was the raw material of her art; she refused to squander it just to fill out lazy journalists' puff pieces. Yet she was always cognizant of the public eye, and in some sense enjoyed playing to it. She kept herself thin, dressed as fashionably and expensively as her finances would allow, and reveled in being admired, especially by men.
When in complete control of how she was presented, Spark could be surprisingly revealing. In 1996, she kept an online diary for Slate about her failing health and the way she spent her days. Her warm, confiding tone prefigured blogging; unlike many of today's online diarists, though, she doled out the confessions sparingly.
Even as a girl, she deplored idle curiosity and enjoyed thwarting it. She wrote letters to herself from imaginary admirers and tucked them between the sofa cushions for her nosy mother to find. "Dear Colin," one of her fake responses began, "You were wonderful last night." This trickery is pure Spark: theatrical, clever, subversive -- effortlessly outwitting those who would intrude on her private world.
Her best novels -- "Jean Brodie," "The Girls of Slender Means,""Memento Mori,""The Bachelors,""The Finishing School" -- evince this same amusement at people's foibles, at our half-truths and half-baked schemes, our prying and evasions and delusions and prejudices. All of her characters are viewed through her shrewd, unsentimental lens, a perspective that prefigured those Iris Murdoch and Hilary Mantel later adopted. Her work is sui generis, her influence unquantifiable. The people in her books live and speak believably, passionately, ridiculously -- like lovers overheard arguing in an adjacent apartment.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Viola Davis / 'I stifled who I was to be seen as pretty. I lost years'

Dress, by Alexander McQueen, from the Outnet. Earrings, by Effy.
Photograph: Dylan Coulter for the Guardian

Viola Davis: 'I stifled who I was to be seen as pretty. I lost years'

Success hasn’t come easy for the Oscar-winning star. She talks to Benjamin Lee about the limited roles black actors are offered, why The Help was a missed opportunity, and how she learned to take the lead – in life and on screen

Benjamin Lee
Saturday 20 October 2018

In the opening scene of Widows, the new thriller from artist-turned-director Steve McQueen, Viola Davis lies in bed, passionately kissing her on-screen husband, Liam Neeson. A kiss between a married couple might not seem remarkable, but for Davis it is a groundbreaking moment.
“For me, this is something you’ll not see this year, last year, the year before that,” Davis says, sitting in her living room in Toluca Lake, Los Angeles. “That is, a dark-skinned woman of colour, at 53 years old, kissing Liam Neeson. Not just kissing a white man,” she adds, “Liam Neeson, a hunk. And kissing him sexually, romantically.”
Viola Davis: ‘The black women that I know have taken it into their own hands.’ Photograph: Dylan Coulter for The Guardian. Styling: Elizabeth Stewart

We meet after Davis has finished her photoshoot for the Guardian, a simple grey robe now pulled over her shimmering evening gown. She turns up the heating in the sparsely furnished open-plan room that opens out on to the rest of the ground floor; assistants mill around the house, and her eight-year-old daughter, Genesis, who greeted me at the door, pops in and out.
Viola Davis

Davis predicts that few people will want to talk about the significance of the Widows’ kiss. “Nobody will pay attention to that. And if you mention it to someone, I think they’ll feel like it’s hip and it’s funky that they didn’t notice it. But will you see it again?” she asks. “If you don’t think that’s a big deal, then tell me, why isn’t it happening more?” She sighs. “There’s a part of me that can answer that.”After a three-decade career playing more than 75 mostly supporting roles, Widows – an adaptation of Lynda La Plante’s 1983 British miniseries – marks Davis’s first lead role in a major studio movie. She plays the wife of a master criminal (Neeson), forced to continue his work after his death. It’s a film that’s both familiar and fresh; a heist movie, but spearheaded by a group of strong-willed female characters (played by Michelle RodriguezElizabeth DebickiCynthia Erivo) whose racial diversity is almost incidental, something that Davis says is unusual.
“I always say that one thing missing in cinema is that regular black woman,” she says, maintaining direct eye contact, as she does the whole time I’m with her. “Not anyone didactic, or whose sole purpose in the narrative is to illustrate some social abnormality. There’s no meaning behind it, other than she is just there.” Davis says she wants to play the sort of roles Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep have had. “I would love to have a black female Klute, or Kramer, or Unmarried Woman, or Annie Hall. But who’s gonna write it, who’s gonna produce it, who’s gonna see it, again and again and again?”

With Octavia Spencer in The Help

In the past 10 years, Davis has become one of the most decorated actors in Hollywood – winning Tonys for roles in August Wilson’s stage plays King Hedley II and Fences, an Oscar for the big-screen take on the latter and an Emmy for her performance in Shonda Rhimes’s pulpy TV series How To Get Away With Murder. She’s a Grammy short of an EGOT, a full sweep, but tells me it’s not going to happen: she can’t sing.
Davis refers to her latest role as a “gift” from McQueen, “because it was just a woman in the middle of a narrative who was facing personal challenges”. Widows is undoubtedly more multiplex-leaning fare than the director’s previous work (Hunger12 Years A Slave), though his script, co-written by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, raises issues of political corruption, poverty and police brutality.
The decision to switch the setting from London to Chicago, a city struggling with a rise in violent crime, turns the city into a character in itself. “There was a shooting every single day, every single night,” Davis says of her time in Chicago. “It has a history that is palpable and, in the present, it’s obviously a city that’s in crisis. But at the same time, there’s this beautiful mix of cultures and art. It made the movie bigger than it could have been.”
Davis says she enjoyed working with McQueen. She has played many roles written by white men and says that, when she has tried to offer insight on the black female experience, she hasn’t felt listened to. “I get a gag order placed on me. They don’t want to see your liberation, they don’t want to see your mess – they don’t want to see you.”
For years, she says, this had a damaging effect. “I was trying to fit in, stifling my voice, stifling who I was, in order to be seen as pretty, in order for people to like me. And then going home, not being able to sleep and having anxiety. I have found that the labelling of me, and having to fit into that box, has cost me a great deal. I’ve had a lot of lost years.”
What did she do in the lost years? “A lot of things I didn’t believe in, in order to further my career. All the things I thought had great value haven’t served me. It’s been the whole hair thing,” she says, gesturing to her close-cropped natural hair – a look that she rarely wore in her early career, but kept for her role in Widows. (“Your own hair is beautiful – just wear it that way,” McQueen told her.) “Even the weight thing, how I look in a dress, how I look on the red carpet. I’ve never been the beauty queen. Listen, when I was six years old, I lost the Miss Central Falls Recreation Contest – that was a beauty contest and I was in a bathing suit that I bought in the Salvation Army. Still, you hold on to the feeling of ‘Do people think I’m pretty?’ But pretty doesn’t have a value. Pretty didn’t serve me when I was grieving for my father when he passed away.”

Davis has a rallying tone that recalls the acceptance speeches she gave at last year’s Oscars and the 2015 Emmys, performances that in themselves received wide acclaim. When she won her Emmy, she quoted Harriet Tubman, founder of the Underground Railroad – a network set up to help African American slaves escape to free states – and spoke about opportunity (“You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”) At the Oscars, she praised Wilson, “who exhumed and exalted the ordinary people”. And in January this year, she gave an emotional speech to the Women’s March in Los Angeles. “I am speaking today,” she said, “not just for the #MeToos, because I was a #MeToo, but when I raise my hand, I am aware of all the women who are still in silence.”
Recently, Davis caused waves when she told the New York Times that she had some regrets about one of her most commercially successful roles to date, maid Aibileen Clark in The Help. The drama about racial tensions in the 60s was told mostly from the viewpoint of a white woman, played by Emma Stone. It was a box-office hit and led to a best actress Oscar nomination for Davis, but was seen by many critics as a whitewash of a shameful time in US history. Davis told the New York Times that, “I just felt at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard.”
Dress, by David Koma, from Bloomingdales New York. Earrings, Jamie Wolf. Styling: Elizabeth Stewart. Hair: Jamika Wilson. Makeup: Autumn Moultrie. Photograph: Dylan Coulter for the Guardian

She says now that the film was both a blessing and a curse. “Listen, The Help changed my life in a lot of different ways. First of all, the friendships that I got – that experience is something I know I’ll never have again. And Tate [Taylor, the director] is a great collaborator. I don’t want them to feel that I am blasting them in any way. It has nothing to do with the players. It has something to do with the culture – that I don’t feel that people want to see, want to hear that voice in that time period. Because what it will become is an indictment, and it shouldn’t be. I look back at that movie as a missed opportunity.”
In what way? “For me, it was just too filtered down,” Davis says. “I know Jim Crow, I understand that time period. It’s a 100-year time period that was rife with lots of violence and anger, and people with lost dreams and hopes. I wanted the frustration and that anger to be more palpable.”

With Denzel Washington in Fences. Photograph: David Lee/AP

On a more personal level, Davis expected that her most widely seen role would change her career. It didn’t. “I went right back to playing the same roles I did before The Help, only getting paid a little bit more money. It’s like you have to sift through sewage in order to get what you feel like you deserve. I was not a box-office draw. So I just went back to having my five or six days on a film.”
White actors, she says, are afforded a vast range of roles in comparison. “The Forbes list of the top 10 highest-paid actresses are all Caucasian,” she says. “Some of them haven’t even done a film in the past year, and they’re still up there.”
She praises her peers, women from Octavia Spencer to Taraji P Henson to Lupita Nyong’o, for producing and seeking out their own projects. (Spencer is set to produce and star in a new Netflix series about the first black, female self-made millionaire; Henson is executive producer on her upcoming remake of What Men Want; and Nyong’o is adapting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah). If there has been any improvement, Davis says, it is “only because the black women that I know have taken it into their own hands”. Without them, “I would say no, it has not changed. I still find that we only exist within certain genres.”

With her Oscar, awarded in 2017 for best supporting actress in Fences.
Photograph: Ullstein Bild

She points out that even her new role wasn’t specifically written for a black woman. “If I had turned down the role in Widows, it would have gone to a white actor. The same thing with a lot of Denzel Washington’s roles.”

Davis fell in love with acting at the age of six, when she saw Cicely Tyson in a TV adaptation of The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pitman (“That magic, how she transformed, the beauty of that artistry,” she recalls). She grew up desperately poor, born in what she has described as a “one-room shack” in South Carolina, before moving to Rhode Island with two of her four siblings, while the others stayed to live with her grandmother. Her father was a horse trainer; her mother a maid and factory worker, as well as a civil rights campaigner fighting for welfare reform. Aged two, Davis was with her mother at a protest outside Brown University, when she was arrested; they spent hours in a holding cell. At times Davis relied on school lunches as her only meal of the day.
But she enrolled in the theatre programme at high school and, after graduating from college, auditioned for the drama course at the Juilliard School, New York’s performing arts conservatory. She was 26 and won one of only 14 funded places; her audition was a monologue from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.
Davis as Veronica in her new film Widows

Looking back, she thinks she learned a lot from those gruelling early years. “I feel like my past has been the perfect foundation to teach me everything about this business and about life,” she says. “I know what it’s like not to have food. I know what it means to even have half of my refrigerator full, or not to have electricity and hot water, to have a job and a pay cheque. It was ripe ground to study human behaviour. Everyone knew who the town drunk was, who was beating their wife, everyone knew everyone’s mess. So that’s helped me greatly, informing my work.”She knew from an early age that she would have to work twice as hard as anyone else because she didn’t have any connections. “When I say connections, I don’t mean that I didn’t know Steven Spielberg, blah blah blah,” she says. “I mean a connection with someone who knows how to fill out a college application. Someone who knows how to get a job, so you can make at least minimum wage, so you can afford bus fare. I’m talking that. I’m talking low level.”

Davis struggled with her confidence in the early days. “I’m not an extroverted person,” she says, wrapping her robe tighter. “I used to have crippling social anxiety. When I first started acting, I would get bad stage fright and when I say bad, I mean heart palpitations. I would stop cold in rehearsal. I’d have people screaming at me just to open my mouth and say a word.” But she persevered. “This is socialisation on steroids, this business. I’m so much better than I used to be.”
She has been married for 15 years, to fellow actor Julius Tennon (“Me and my husband are really fun, we have some great parties”) and she talks with pride of their adopted daughter. Family are key; fame and fortune don’t automatically lead to happiness, she notes. “No one ever talks about significance. They talk about success.” It’s an important distinction for Davis. “When I was young, I said I wanted to be rich and famous. I’m really embarrassed by that. I wanted to be a great actress of the stage, I wanted people to throw flowers at me. People have thrown flowers at me, I’ve got my awards, all of that, and still, bam, disillusionment. Especially when you’re working so hard and you’re away from your family – you’re exhausted. There’s no measuring significance and living a life of purpose. Significance is something way deeper. It’s about legacy.”
With her husband, actor Julius Tennon, and daughter.
hotograph: Albert L Ortega

A legacy is something she takes seriously, and to this end she has set up her own production company, JuVee, with Tennon. This year they released two documentary series, Two Sides and The Last Defence, focusing on racial discrimination within the criminal justice system. “It will shift the pendulum because it’s changing the narrative for people of colour,” she says.
When she talks about the things most important to her, it’s easy to hear echoes of Davis’s rousing public speeches. “Sanford Meisner,” she continues, “who’s a great acting teacher, one of the things he says – and it’s my motto for life – is that the most important question an actor can ask is, ‘Why?’ So that’s been my big thing. Why don’t I have a say in whatever character I choose to play? Why can’t I speak up in a room? Why do I have to feel scared because I spoke up and I pissed someone off? Why can’t I call my agents and tell them how much I want to get paid? When I answer that question for myself and I see ‘nothing’ as the answer, it gives me the impetus to speak up. And I’ll tell you what else gives me the impetus to speak up: my daughter, that whole generation, who need to find their way.”
Davis recently published a book for children, an updated version of a 1968 classic, Corduroy, which she used to read to Genesis. She takes seriously her role as an inspiration for young girls of colour, many of whom even come to the house to seek advice. “I feel it’s my responsibility – just as a person who’s taking up space, and also because I have a production company – to be honest with them.” She encourages them to reject any imagined ceiling on their ambitions: “Just because we represent 20% of the population, doesn’t mean we just want 20% of the pie,” she tells me. “Or even 30% of the pie. We want the whole pie. We know we’re not going to get it, but I’m not going to tell my daughter, at eight years old, ‘Genesis, when you go out into the world, just be satisfied with that 20% because that’s all you’re allotted – that’s all you represent.’”
She remains hopeful, praising Streep, a friend, and Reese Witherspoon, for campaigning for change; and the #MeToo and TimesUp movements for their effect on the industry. “The silence is just not acceptable any more,” Davis says. “The old days of the 50s, of hiding your feelings and your desires and your dreams behind vacuum cleaners and perfectly applied lipstick and wax floors – hell, no! I think #MeToo/Time’s Up has a lot to do with it. People may see flaws in it, but one beauty is that women are stepping into who they are.”
She’s keen to find more roles that reflect real-life experiences. “I’ve gone through the heartache of losing a parent, the joys of being married, the joys of getting a job. I’ve lived a life, so when I read a script and it strikes me as being disingenuous – a person who’s not fully explored – that’s what stops me.”

Pinterest With Meryl Streep at the Screen Actors Guild awards, 2017. Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Her next project might be her biggest part to date, playing Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, and the first woman to run for president, against Nixon, McGovern and George Wallace. Chisholm’s campaign slogan, “Unbossed and unbought”, might be Davis’s own mantra.
But her most pressing concern as I prepare to leave is whether she can bear to sit through a YouTube series that Genesis wants to watch (Genesis says it involves a hacker and someone called Rebecca Zamolo; Davis describes it as “mindless”.)
In a few weeks’ time, Widows will be released, something Davis is mildly anxious about, saying, “If it doesn’t do well, then I would take it personally. It’s the first movie that I can really say I was a lead in. So it’s more of a statement about me.” Still, she has a sort of fatalistic confidence: “I know that whatever the results are going to be, there’s a famous saying, ‘God willing and the creek don’t rise’. Meaning, if I’m still alive, whatever it takes, I’m going to continue.”