An Interview with Margot Livesey

Inspirations for novels:
Small item in a London paper
Picket for Operation Rescue
People magazine article
Mother’s life

An Interview with Margot Livesey

Inspirations for novels:
Small item in a London paper
Picket for Operation Rescue
People magazine article
Mother’s life

An Interview with Margot Livesey

Robert Birnbaum
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Margot Livesey was born and grew up in the Scottish Highlands. Her mother died when she was two and a half, and her father, who taught at a private boy’s school, raised her. She read philosophy and literature at the University of York in England; after graduating, she spent a year traveling—in Europe and North Africa—and writing a novel. She eventually landed in Toronto, where she spent the better part of her twenties writing and waitressing. When she came to the United States she began teaching, and since then has taught at numerous writing programs including Warren Wilson, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and the University of California at Irvine. Livesey has received grants from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is writer-in-residence at Emerson College, and is at work on her fifth novel.

She has published Writing about Literature: An Anthology for Reading and Writing (with Lynn Klammkin), Learned by Heart (1986) a collection of short stories, and four novels. Homework (1990) is about an editor traveling to Scotland to escape a love affair, only to end up in another one with a divorced man with an emotionally disturbed nine year old daughter. Criminals (1996) tells the story of a banker who finds a baby in a bus station, and his sister, who wants to keep the child. The baby’s father, discovering who has the child, decides to extort money from them. In The Missing World (2000), a journalist suffers amnesia and becomes a virtual prisoner of her former lover. He doesn’t tell her that, before her amnesia-producing accident, she had already left him. The following year, after intermittent attempts to get the story on the page for well over a decade, Livesey published Eva Moves the Furniture, which Andrea Barrett called “a beautiful novel about the unbreakable bond between mother and daughter.” Eva’s mother dies on the day of her birth and she is raised by her aunt and her grief-stricken father; she is accompanied through her life by two strange, invisible companions. She falls in love with a young plastic surgeon and her companions intervene, forcing her to confront truths about both her past and her future.

The soft-spoken Margot Livesey met with the interviewer and his dog Rosie at a non-franchised coffee shop in Cambridge on a sunny afternoon in late April. She told him that one of the reasons she agreed to meet with him was to see Rosie, who might have been flattered had she not been busy trying find the treats hidden in the interviewer’s bag. What follows is pretty much that conversation, minus the recorded moments of Rosie’s fierce, protective belligerence towards passing canines.

—Robert Birnbaum

THE BELIEVER: I’m not sure if this is the way to ask this question—this may be the rude form—but will you ever be an American writer?

MARGOT LIVESEY: I wonder about that too. My plan for the novel I am currently writing is to set the first half of it in London and the second half in Boston. That said, it took me two hundred and seventy pages to get my characters on a plane to Boston. But now that I’m here I’m finding it quite thrilling to be writing about America and Americans. So maybe now I have made the change. But I don’t know if I will ever think of myself as an American writer.

BLVR: Are you a Scottish writer?

ML: I wish I were. I don’t quite fit into Scottish writing in certain ways. When Gary Fisketjon published  Criminals, he said something like,“You have written the best American-British novel I’ve read.” Rather like what they said about Ford Maddox Ford having written the best French-English novel. So he certainly regarded me as a kind of hybrid. But I think in terms of current Scottish writing, I seem too middle-class.

BLVR: Yeah. You’re thinking of Irvine Welsh…

ML: … and Galloway and James Kelman and Torrington. I mean, they are wonderful writers and I have great admiration for them.

BLVR: Where does Alasdair Gray fit in?

ML: Well, he’s more of a fabulist. There’s Alan Warner, who is somewhere in-between, and Duncan McLean who is also very working-class. There’s just not much room for middle-class Scottish writers at the moment.

BLVR: And A.L. Kennedy?

ML: She stands at sort of an odd angle to the universe. But in her politics and her allegiances she is certainly a Scottish writer.

BLVR: Speaking of allegiances, where do you stand on the role of Scotland within the British government?

ML: Well, I think that it’s fantastic that Scotland has its own parliament now. And it’s already begun to make a difference in environmental matters, which were very contentious north of the border because of things like oil drilling and reforestation or deforestation, whichever way you wanted to go. It does make for a lot of civic responsibility. If you live in Scotland you vote for your Westminster Member of Parliament, your Scottish  Member of Parliament, your European Member of Parliament and then you also vote for your town council.  So you have quite a vigorous democratic life.

BLVR: It’s been a long journey for you. You were born and grew up in Scotland and educated in England.

ML: I went to the University of York.

BLVR: Where you read philosophy and English.

ML: Yes.

BLVR: You traveled for a year after graduation and then you ended up in Toronto.

ML: Excellent. [Laughs]

BLVR: And then you migrated to the Midwest, an area unknown to many coastal Americans—Iowa. And here you are in Boston. So is this a long, strange trip, or not?

ML: It does seem like a long journey. I feel like it’s important that when I talk about growing up in Scot-land that I point out that I grew up in a boys’ private school, which is such a peculiar environment for a girl to grow up in. I feel very strongly attached to Scotland,  but I don’t exactly have a home there because of growing up in an institution, like Randall Jarrell or something. But it does seem like a long journey. And I think one of the things that I dislike about America is that it is so large. But it does give me something in common with many Americans, because so many Americans live thousands of miles from their place of origin, as well.

BLVR: I can understand why you don’t identify so heavily with Scotland but you still maintain a home in London.

ML: I still do. I was discussing the drains only this morning. [Laughs]

BLVR: The drains of London?

ML: Yes. I do feel strongly identified with Scotland but I don’t think other people identify me with Scotland. That’s the distinction, I haven’t felt recognized there in a certain way.

BLVR: What was your comfort level living in Toronto? Were you just passing through?

ML: You know how it is when you are young.

BLVR: I forget.

ML: Everything lasts forever and at the same time you don’t believe anything will last forever. I wasn’t on very good terms with Toronto as a city at that time. Now when I go back, of course, I love it and I think how  wonderful and cosmopolitan it is.

BLVR: Do you go back for their big book festival?

ML: Yes, and I have some friends from my waitressing days whom I go back to see.

BLVR: You have been quoted about this “odd North American aberration,” where one can go from waitressing to teaching. Do things like that only happen in  North America?

ML: Well, I can’t speak for what happens in Helsinki and Florence. I wish I could. I think one of the things that I  find attractive about America is a certain kind of generosity about second chances. People can go to university or college here at almost any age. They can go for as long and as often as they like, which is sometimes problematic. I’m not sure that a British institution would have paid any attention to the kind of letter that I wrote to Tufts University in 1983, saying, “I’ve heard you’ll hire anyone, how about hiring me?”

BLVR: You said that?

ML: Well, I put in a couple of subordinate clauses, but that was the gist of the letter. I only had a B.A. and had no teaching qualifications and had published maybe half a dozen stories. I think they took quite a chance by giving me a position. I’m grateful to them.

BLVR: The subject of second chances, of being able to reinvent oneself, is a subject that comes up for people who are not from here, because the places they come from seem to have such rigid social hierarchies. Is that still true of Britain?

ML: Yes, still.

BLVR: And you met Brian Moore [author of The Magician’s Wife] when you were in Canada?

ML: Yes, he was a writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto and there was a little piece in the university newspaper saying that he was going to have office hours from something like two to four on Wednesdays. And that to see him you had to make an appointment with his secretary and it gave a number. I rang up and made an appointment. And went to see him clutching a story and he was so wonderful to me. He got out his fountain pen and then he sat down behind his desk and read the story aloud to me, acting out all the parts—including the parts of the animals that were in the story.

BLVR: Wow [Laughs]

ML: And he wrote out little suggestions and then he gave it back to me and said, “Have another go.” He never let me leave a single piece of paper on his desk. Which I, in retrospect, think a teacher can aspire to. I took him the story once a week for nine weeks. On the ninth week, maybe because of fatigue or something, he said, “I think this might be finished.” I was so shocked that I blurted out, “I’m not a student, actually, I’m a waitress at a local restaurant.”And he said,“Oh, I knew that all along.” But he was completely gentlemanly to  me in a very charming way. I think his work is wonderful and still quite underrated.

BLVR: He wrote over twenty novels. I wonder if he was taken for granted because he had a healthy and regular output?

ML: He tried all sorts of different things. Political material and all sorts of different countries. Updike is very prolific but he has a strong identity. So does John  McPhee and Frederick Busch. Moore wrote about Aristede, about Vichy France and about Ireland, about  Canada, once. His subject matter was very wide-ranging.

BLVR: So why has he been underrated?

ML: I find it very perplexing who falls into favor and who falls out. When I met him in Canada his star was very high. He was beloved in Canada.

BLVR: How did your migration from Canada come about?

ML: All I am prepared to say sitting outside Simon’s Coffee Shop is that I came to the States for work.

BLVR: And that was here in Boston, at Tufts.

ML: I had this very adjunct position at Tufts, yes.

BLVR: If you had written a more politic and assertive letter you might have gotten a better position.

ML: [Laughs]

BLVR: How did you get to Iowa?

ML: Francine Prose generously recommended me to Frank Conroy and Connie Brothers there and they invited me. What could be better, really? I was there for one and half years and it was great.

BLVR: Why did you want to teach there?

ML: Iowa was legendary. That was appealing. The idea of having really good students was very appealing. I had never taught graduate students before I went to Iowa, except at Warren Wilson low-residency MFA Program. The idea of meeting on a weekly basis was inspiring.  And the idea of having such great colleagues was inspiring. It made me feel like it was a seal of approval. You said what a long journey I had made coming from a place in Scotland you can hardly find on the map. To teach at Iowa seemed like I had arrived, in some sense.

BLVR: I will always associate you with a story you told at a reading in which you tell of walking around Iowa City. You stumbled upon an interesting piece of graffiti: a fragment of a Rilke poem on a railroad viaduct. A Scotswoman travels around the world and arrives in Iowa and this is what she encounters.Who else would see that? [Both laugh]

ML: And of course it was written in German and at the time I didn’t know it was by Rilke.

BLVR: Geoffrey Wolff writes in a piece called “Communal Solitude” that is included in The Eleventh Draft [ed. by Frank Conroy, on writers writing about the writing life] that writers overcome daunting statistical  odds to get into the elite programs and then some graduate and then the humiliation begins. Why, when so  many people understand the uncertainty of a writing  life, that a very small percentage of writers make a living writing, do people subject themselves? What do  they think is going to happen?

ML: [Sighs deeply] Being someone who did not herself go to a writing program but who now is very grateful to be allowed to teach in several of them, I do think there are certain tremendous advantages. You do have colleagues and have peers. It’s a way of signaling to other people that you want to try to move writing from the margins of your life to a more central position, that you want to take yourself more seriously in this respect. Given that the world doesn’t take writing very seriously, there is something very helpful about that.And writing programs provide deadlines.

BLVR: What about the writing?

ML: What I have come to think is my students for the most part learn in six months what it took me six years to learn. Now that I have reached a certain peace with  my long journey, I do envy some of them for the confidence of knowing what they want at an earlier age.  And trying to find a way to get it.

BLVR: I don’t know if it is part of a conventional wisdom, but is there such a thing as “writing program literature”?

ML: I hear this phrase and sometimes it makes sense to me and sometimes it doesn’t. Yesterday, I appeared at an authors’ brunch with Matthew Pearl and it was interesting to hear how he had made his way to writing The Dante Club: he took one writing workshop at university. I think it would be a great shame if people thought going to a writing program would definitely make you into a writer or that it was the only way to become a writer.

BLVR: How I know you is only through a vague sense of you having written three novels (though I also know that Eva Moves the Furniture was a much longer effort) in a seven- or eight-year period. How does time get marked in your own life?

ML: I probably mark my own life a little too much in terms of work.

BLVR: Why do you say that?

ML: I’ve been feeling starved, recently, for certain kinds of experiences that are not necessarily ones that will immediately facilitate my getting sentences on the page.

BLVR: Do you want to take up sky diving?

ML: Sky diving. Going to Rome. [Laughs] I traveled a great deal in my twenties and then in my thirties I suddenly got serious and thought, “I’m not making anything, I’m not leaving any mark.” I passionately wanted  to make something that would at least have a place in the world for a while. Now I have come round to placing a little more value on more ephemeral experiences.  [Pause] But that may change again.

BLVR: Yeah, right. Meaning that you don’t feel like the totality of your life is sitting wherever you sit… We have this picture of the serious writer devoting everything to their craft and suffering for it, but that does come from the universal consensus that it’s so very hard.

ML: All these matters remain very confused to me. It’s absolutely clear at this point that we need better books —not more books. In terms of quantity, we have plenty of books. I’m presently re-reading Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End. And it’s so brilliant. It makes me want to stop everything and I think I should just devote my life to reading this book and thinking about it. But Ford wrote nearly eighty books.

BLVR: Really?

ML: Of those we have, maybe five or six that are still regarded. I find myself thinking, “Did he need to write those seventy five books in order to write the five really brilliant ones? Or is it that fashions change and a few books remain absolutely vivid?”

BLVR: Well, as a practical matter, what was Ford going to do with his time? [Both laugh] Okay, you write, you present your work to an editor to whom you have given some authority, some credence for their judgement. On the other hand, who is responsible for all these books that come out that are both badly written and/or badly edited?

ML: Like many young writers, when my first novel was accepted, I thought,“This is great. It must be perfect if it’s been accepted for publication.” So I really only fixed the things that editor suggested I fix. And I have come to realize that editors should not be counted on to be infallible and that the final book is going to have my name on it, rather than theirs.

BLVR: I’ve talked to many writers who suggest there has been a decline in the quality of editing.

ML: I’ve been very fortunate, both with Gary Fisketjon, my past editor, and Jennifer Barth, my current editor at Holt. They both really do edit and think about the work in a very helpful way.

BLVR: I want to stay on this idea of marking time by  your work. You first published a collection of short stories that I never see mentioned. Have you disavowed  them?

ML: [Laughs] I haven’t disavowed them. They were published in Canada by Penguin in 1986 and they were in print for a decade, which is a long time for a trade paperback. And they now have become very hard to find. So I don’t disavow them and I do still sometimes write stories but it’s become a sort of secret activity.

BLVR: Under what circumstance do you write stories?

ML: More when something occurs to me.

BLVR: There were the short stories and then Homework, your first novel, came from reading a letter that was sent to a London paper about a young girl who terrorized her family. Then Criminals, a novel about a brother who finds an apparently abandoned baby and a sister who wants to keep it without attempting to find the child’s parents.

ML: It was the novel I wrote when I was walking one evening to teach at Emerson College I saw these people standing besides a bus stop with pictures of babies.  Later, I realized it was a picket for Operation Rescue. What I first saw was the image of the bus stop and the baby, which propelled me to write the novel. Or part of what propelled me to write the novel.

BLVR: And then The Missing World, which had its origin in your reading of an item in People magazine about a couple who were engaged for the second time because the first engagement was broken off due to a car accident. Apparently the woman’s head injury resulted in  her being unable to remember her fiancé and so he had to woo her a second time. And then came Eva Moves the Furniture, which is drawn from your own life.

ML: My mother’s life. There are a numbers of reasons why Eva Moves the Furniture took me so much longer than any other novel, and I think a big part of it was because it was conceived in a more personal way. In the other novels there was that intersection of public and private interest. I was very interested in memory [The  Missing World], and so was the culture. I was very interested in how people sorted out who owned a baby  [Criminals], and so was the culture.

BLVR: Was there an intention as you went from Criminals to The Missing World to Eva Moves the Furniture to show the world in more abstract and mystical terms?

ML: I certainly aspired to have a progression in the three novels, even though of course Eva was lurking in the background all the time while I was writing the other two. But whether I’d say it was a progression towards the more abstract or mystical, I’m not sure. I think you can see me wrestling with questions of morality and identity in both Criminals and The Missing World and certainly, in the latter, the conclusions I came to about the connection between memory and identity were very helpful in enabling me to finish Eva. As for Eva, alongside my more personal ambitions for the novel was a more public desire to try to write about the spiritual life. One reason that I made Samuel a plastic surgeon was because reconstructive surgery seemed a wonderfully suggestive way of talking about the perplexing connections between appearance and reality with which Eva struggles.

BLVR: What continues to be present in the books is an interest in moral dilemmas that test people and require some unexpected resultant behavior.

ML: Yes.

BLVR: The recent story that was published in the New Yorker (“The Niece,” April 7, 2003) seemed once again to have a character, Zeke, who is working with some kind of deficit. You only seem to hint at what it is.

ML: Yes…

BLVR: You are not required to say more.

ML: The story is the opening chapter of the novel I’m working on, so I have many more pages in which to explore Zeke’s situation. In my mind, although perhaps it’s not apparent to the reader in the pages of the New Yorker, Zeke is someone who has a version of Asperger’s Syndrome, so he is constantly struggling to read the world.

BLVR: At the heart of the creative impulse is the need to leave a trail and to do something that no one else has done. Your life has been marked by these four or five achievements. Four novels and a collection of short stories—is there any linear connection between your books?

ML: This is a very vexing question for writers. We all want to think we’re getting better. However exhilarating it is to have your first book hailed as utterly brilliant,  you want your second book to be even more brilliant.

BLVR: Utterly, utterly brilliant.

ML: At the same time, reading shows us that most writers don’t get steadily better. So what do you do with  that as a writer? Somehow you have to keep aspiring while somehow also knowing that perhaps some of the things you are going to write are going to be below the level you aspire to and they are not going to be the step  forward that you had hoped. Those are kind of frightening demons and, of course…

BLVR: Having said that, is that how you are looking at yourself? [Both laugh]

ML: Well, it’s something to consider. I don’t consider myself as exempt. I have begun to realize that if you keep writing you have to start looking for new material if you’re not going to keep repeating yourself. And so you put your antennae out into the world.

BLVR: I think in your essay “The Hidden Machinery” you said something about writers not getting steadily better but “unsteadily better.” You haven’t said whether that is true of yourself, nor do I think you ought to be required to make a public declaration. Jenny McPhee mentioned to me the notion that she thought writers were inclined to write with what one of her instructors called “a shitbird sitting on your shoulder whispering, ‘You suck, you suck’ in your ear.”

ML: I have a Scottish translation of that, of course.Yes.

BLVR: In reaching for things that you have not done before, given that you are very much in the writing life—you teach, you go to conferences, do public readings, you guest edit literary publications—how do you intend to find new material? Put on four inch…

ML: … stilettos…

BLVR: … stilettos and hang out in bars?

ML: That would be nice. I don’t know. It remains a constant question. It’s a constant question whether you write or not. How to lead a life you find satisfying, that is socially useful that you feel that is politically in-line with your best self. Everyone faces large questions…

BLVR: Hmm, I was sitting here assuming that you’re going to continue writing fiction for the duration of your life and from what you’re saying that’s not necessarily the case. I’m certain you intend to complete this  fifth novel but could you see yourself after the next book “stilling your pen?”

ML: That isn’t quite accurate. I do see myself continuing to write but I do aspire to take more breaks. To try to expand my world in any number of ways. There is a kind of danger that the huge expansion of my early twenties and thirties has slowed down dramatically and I do want to go exploring some more.

BLVR: There is a tendency to get caught up in the momentum of the publishing industry that calls for regular production.

ML: I want very much to keep writing. I just want to keep finding ways to make my life larger and keep feeding the work in a good way. That’s why Ford Maddox  Ford’s novel is so striking. It’s so big. It’s about romantic love. It’s about the First World War. It’s not just that I haven’t written something like that—I think at the moment I couldn’t.

BLVR: To identify something that is grand and wonderful as opposed to seriously wondering whether one has the skill and/or talent to create it…

ML: This is just my current enthusiasm. I’ll go back to Jane Austen and want to do that.

BLVR: Odd that we want to create our own things and then we also have these paradigms that we aspire to…

ML: My central ambition remains to write novels that are readable and of which every sentence matters, whatever comes under that description.

BLVR: Okay, what comes under “readable’?

ML: Like many people of my generation, I grew up reading the great Victorian novels with their fantastic plots. Plot does remain a big love affair for me. Coming up with plots is part of the exhilaration of trying to write novels.

BLVR: The plots of your books are full of suspense— they certainly create a momentum like those of mystery page-turners.

ML: I think it’s great when people talk about writers and think it’s worth paying attention.

BLVR: Even if they’re wrong and misguided…

ML: Better than being ignored. Isn’t that something Oscar Wilde would have said?

BLVR: Do you have a plan for expanding your universe or is it simply conceptual at the moment?

ML: It’s very largely conceptual—that I happen to be sitting here on April 25th on this pavement with you. I  do have ideas of things I would like to do. If I articulated them they would sound very stuffy, actually.

BLVR: You have made allusions to the preciousness of the sentence. In the process of editing your writing, do you work at getting a first draft out or do you not move forward until you are satisfied with what is in hand?

ML: Of the four novels I have published, I have written them in different ways. The one I’m currently working on I seem to be spending a lot of time revising as I go. That’s partly the effect of renovating our house. There are many days when I am accompanied by so many power tools all I can do is focus very narrowly on a paragraph.

BLVR: I’m still dwelling on this notion of one’s creations marking periods in our life. Some books when I  have completed them, have me wondering how the author will separate themselves from them. Do your novels inhabit you after you have written them?

ML: They do, in various ways. In the case of Criminals, some people in London have been trying to make a film and the scriptwriter happens to live in Cambridge and I talk to her quite often. That novel has remained vivid to me in a very particular way. In the case of Eva Moves the Furniture, because I lived with it for so long and because of the struggle to get the book right and to make it into something public—that was so painful.

BLVR: There will only be one such book for you?

ML: Yes. It was your suggestion that I mark my life in terms of publishing books. I think a healthier way would be to mark one’s life in terms of children or…

BLVR: Relationships? Divorces?

ML: [Laughs] For example…

BLVR:“Healthier” meaning what works?

ML: Yes.

BLVR: Okay, what do you propose as a measuring device?

ML: [Long pause] What comes to mind is going to the west coast of Scotland a couple of years ago at the time of year when primroses are in bloom, which means early to mid-April. I think of certain things as coming around again and again…

BLVR: Kind of the Nietzschean concept of the eternal return. Oh, yes, you did study philosophy. Why would you go and do that?

ML: It was intriguing and it was something I hadn’t studied at Morrison’s Academy for Girls… I had a very naïve idea: I thought it would help me to solve certain problems and to understand the world better. I’d find out the truth. [Laughs] I was thinking of Aristotle in a toga.

BLVR: Thinking of reasons for schooling, why do you think that writing programs get so much criticism?

ML: I think writing programs do more good than harm and certainly most of the people I have had the good fortune to work with have emerged as better readers and as better writers. They have learned things of substance and value, although they may not have gone on to publish the kinds of books they once dreamt about.

BLVR: There’s a great thing—becoming a better reader. It’s been a long time since I had heard such a gloomy report, but a writer I spoke with the other day opined that we were at the end of literature—because of television.

ML: I’m a bad person to ask about this—I don’t watch television. But I don’t think that. More people are literate than ever before and some of those people are reading books and some of them are even reading good books. That’s a very hopeful thing.

BLVR: Suggesting you believe it will continue?

ML: Yes. Reading novels, reading stories is one of the ways to have a larger life. I was talking about that earlier. My life may not be large in terms of what I actually do in the world but in terms of my reading, my life is huge. Also, the evidence suggests that readership can be expanded dramatically, as in the case of J.K. Rowling (to name a Scottish writer). Up until she published, my lovely nieces in Edinburgh had never paid attention to who wrote a book—they all suddenly realized there were authors. So it can be done.

BLVR: You said something earlier to the effect that the world didn’t really care much for writers. why go into an MFA program and I said something about writing not being cherished, people scribbling is not seen as a great thing and if you go to a program, people want you to do this thing.

BLVR: And in the world at large, people seem to want to know what the writers du jour are doing.

ML: I don’t know if you’ve ever read Sartre’s autobiography Les Mots [The Words]. He says that one of the things that made him want to be a writer was a photograph he saw of people waiting in the docks in New York for the boat that was bringing Dickens to one of his reading tours. The idea that so many people would be paying attention to you when you weren’t there was one of the compelling reasons he wanted to be a writer. He wanted to feel that when he left the room he’d still in a sense be there. I claim no such influence myself but there is something apt about it.

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