Margot Livesey was born and grew up on the edge of the Scottish Highlands. She has taught in numerous colleges and writing programs including Bowdoin College, Boston University, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the Warren Wilson MFA program, and is the author of a collection of stories and seven novels, including Eva Moves the Furniture, The House on Fortune Street and The Flight of Gemma Hardy. She is the fiction editor at Ploughshares magazine and a distinguished writer-in-residence at Emerson College in Boston.
This interview was conducted via email and phone by Interview Editor Monica Petersen. Of the process, she said, “I absolutely loved my experience interviewing Margot Livesey. She was extremely generous with her time and thoughtful in her responses. I love her honest answers and her clear willingness to delve deeper into her own consciousness to answer a question.” In this interview, Margot Livesey discusses the significance of place, our relationship with death, and literary godparents.
Superstition Review: Your newest novel The Flight of Gemma Hardy was inspired by the universal connection you noticed people have with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. In writing your own version of the Jane Eyre story, how did you seek to maintain this valuable link between the reader and the story while also updating it?
Margot Livesey: Talking to American readers, people who outwardly shared very little with Jane Eyre, was extremely helpful to my thinking about the novel and why it remains so beloved. One thing I realized from these conversations is that the orphan remains a powerful literary figure. Even people with robust family lives have an inner orphan, a part of themselves that responds to that mythical story of the heroine or hero who is forced to go out in the world and grapple with difficulties and demons. The orphan story, a story without the safety net of family, is all our stories writ large. It's no accident that Harry Potter was such a wild success. So in writing about Gemma Hardy I was very conscious of writing in that tradition and of trying to make clear that she is one in a long line of valiant orphans.
SR: In The Flight of Gemma Hardy, the 1960s Scottish setting is a key factor to Gemma’s isolation. What is the significance of setting to this novel?
ML: I never looked at Jane Eyre after starting my own novel but one thing that stayed with me as a distinctive part of the novel was Bronte's use of five very separate locations—the aunt's house, the horrible Lowood School, Thornfield Hall where she meets Rochester, her cousin's house and finally the house where she and Rochester are reunited. Jane's story is very much a pilgrim's progress. I knew that, even while I wanted my heroine to undergo very different trials, I wanted to keep this structure, having Gemma travel south to the Borders of Scotland and north to the Orkney Islands. Each place she lives in has a different atmosphere and presents new difficulties and challenges which deepen her character.
SR: One of my favorite quotes from The Flight of Gemma Hardy is “We each begin as an island, but we soon build bridges. Even the most solitary person has, perhaps without knowing it, a causeway, a cable, a line of stepping-stones, connecting him or her to others, allowing for the possibility of communication and affection.” What prompted your examination of human connection?
ML: I lost my mother when I was two and a half and I think that's the right way to put it; I did feel as if I had mislaid her and was partly to blame for her disappearance. The combination of Eva's death and of living with my father and my difficult step-mother, left me with a strong sense that human relationships were something I had to actively seek, that I could never take them for granted. My heroine Gemma too makes her way through a series of losses to that feeling.
SR: You have taught at several universities, including Boston University, Carnegie Mellon, and the University of California at Irvine. I’m curious about your experiences at so many institutions. Will you describe some of what you learned from interacting with such varied students? How has teaching influenced your writing?
ML: I think teaching has influenced my writing in several crucial respects. Sitting in a room with my students week after week, studying their work, has made me aware of how many ways there are to read a story, of how easy it is to take things for granted or to make the wrong assumptions about your reader. My students often (mostly?) write better drafts than I do but I am very stubborn in revision. I try to learn from the confidence with which they get material on the page and I try to teach them how much can be accomplished in revising and editing.
SR: Your novel, The House on Fortune Street, is told from the points of view of four characters, each of whom knows the other three to varying degrees. How did you approach crafting these identities through the perspectives of others?
ML: The process of writing the novel was one of discovery for me and I wanted the reader to share that sense. The first section, for instance, is told from the point of view of Sean, a Keats' scholar, who lives with his actress girlfriend, Abigail. By the end of that section I was quite cross with Abigail; she seemed to be behaving so badly to Sean, and to her best friend Dara. I assumed most readers would share my judgement. But when I got to Dara's point of view I began to understand that the relationship between the two women was more complicated than I'd understood. By the time I came to write the fourth section, Abigail's section, I was ready to create a much more complicated portrait of this difficult woman, one that I hoped would make readers revise their initial judgement.
SR: Each narrative in The House on Fortune Street can function as its own story. At the end of the novel, four sections combine together to form a larger narrative about the characters. What was your process in crafting each distinct narrative and bringing them together in the end?
ML: I wrote a version of the first section, the one in which Dara commits suicide, as a novella which didn't work. I put it aside for several years, knowing that it was unfinished and knowing that I didn't want to expand it in a conventional way. Then one day I suddenly woke up with the opening line of Dara's father's section—I always intended to live as an upright man—running through my brain. And I knew that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to write about the people around Dara to create a kind of fractured portrait of her, one which will never be entirely whole.
SR: The significance of the place is very distinct in your novels. What is your process in crafting a particular landscape for a story? Does the setting develop before the plot?
ML: I remember talking to the playwright Tine Howe years ago and she remarked how much an unusual setting could help to bring a play to life.
Growing up in rural Scotland, I was always very aware of how setting controlled the possibilities of my life. I couldn't play hockey after school, I couldn't go to the cinema with friends because we lived so far out in the country. As a writer, I'm always thinking of how where my characters live—both their immediate abode and the larger landscape—can reveal more of their outer and inner lives. For me plot and setting are inextricably connected and the two usually emerge on the page together, part of the world that helps to bring my characters to life.
SR: You said in an interview with Olive TV that friendship is often overshadowed by romantic and familial love in novels. How did you approach writing a novel with friendship as the main driving theme?
ML: I do think friendship is often overshadowed in art while happily in life remaining crucially important. We don't, as readers, have such clear ideas, or ideals, about the ups and downs of friendship, and of what's at stake. I tried to solve this in The House on Fortune Street by showing the two women over time, both when they first meet at university, and later when their relationship has to grapple with more complicated issues of money and success and romantic love.
SR: In Eva Moves the Furniture, Eva develops a relationship with her “companions,” creatures that no one else can see. What was the process of crafting these creatures?
ML: Creating ghosts isn't easy. I had to figure out the rules for my companions. Would they regularly walk through walls? Would they change their clothes? Or their hair? And that meant figuring out readers' expectations and our traditions in the supernatural. Finally I decided to have them look pretty much the same for two decades but I don't often let them do show offy things like walk through walls.
SR: In an article in Ploughshares, you said “I've come to realize that almost everyone over a certain age has lost someone—through death or distance or some kind of emotional struggle—whom they long to have back in their lives; they recognize that loss and longing in Eva." How did you approach writing a story of loss that so many readers would connect with?
ML: You know, I didn't approach writing Eva that way. I just wanted, after many flawed attempts over twelve years, to write a love song to my mother that I could keep on my study shelf and no longer be tormented by. I wasn't thinking about trying to reach many readers. But the novel came out on 9/11, a deeply sorrowful time, and I found myself talking to people about loss and death in intimate ways. When my husband read Eva he said that at first he hadn't been enthusiastic about her mysterious companions but finally he'd understood that whether they exist doesn't matter. What matters is Eva's relationship with them. We do have a relationship with the dead. Of course it's different but it's much better than nothing.
SR: Your upcoming novel, unlike your last seven, is going to be set in the United States. You described the process as both “exhilarating and terrifying.” How does this change in setting present new opportunities and obstacles to your writing?
ML: Gosh, it may be too soon to say but I am having a good time interviewing friends and strangers about life in New England.
SR: In your lecture at Harvard University in 2012, you comment on your “obligation to take care of the reader.” How do you take care of your reader?
ML: I grew up reading the great Victorian novels whose authors, I think, do a wonderful job of making sure that the reader is never lost. That early training has proved very useful during the last thirty years during which I've been living mostly in the States and writing novels set mostly in the UK. I try not to take anything for granted, and to make sure that my reader always knows where she is and when and what she should be paying attention to.
SR: Additionally in that lecture, you discuss The House on Fortune Street and Sean’s fascination with Keats, calling Keats Sean’s “literary godparent.” How does this literary god-parentage affect Sean’s development in the novel?
ML: There’s something to say about Keats’ life: the impossible hardship of it and the way he is surrounded by death at a very young age, the huge uncertainty he has whether any of his work will survive. Sean is someone who has great feelings for literature and writing. He is probably the person whose work is not going to survive, I suppose. But I think there’s a way in which Keats’ biography and poetry speak to Sean’s feelings about romantic love and his idea that romantic love is a great project, of giving meaning to everything, and his disappointment when that fails.
I suppose for me the characters’ godparents teach them something different. With Dara, it’s her kind of Jane Eyre syndrome: looking at someone and not seeing what they’re hiding in, more or less, plain sight. With Abigail, it’s thinking more about Dickens and how much incredible hard work and determination it took for him to become very successful. With Cameron, it’s really more to do with Lewis Carroll’s complex biography and his uneasy relationship to his affectionate interest in young girls.
When I wrote the first part of the novel about Sean, I thought it would be a self-contained novella, thinking he would be studying Keats, writing his dissertation. I was really interested in what it did to have Keats wandering in the margins as it were. And I thought maybe I could find a cunning way to do that for the other characters that wouldn’t be too obnoxiously literary or would make readers feel stupid if they didn’t know these things, but would still amplify the preoccupations of the scenes with each character.
SR: Do you have a literary godparent?
ML: Well of course I think of different people. I mean it’s so hard to recognize one’s own literary godparent. And of course it seems presumptuous to claim one when one’s aspiring to write. If I say, “oh it’s George Eliot or Charlotte Bronte,” it seems as if I’m claiming some kind of kinship. But I do think I have a little group of Victorians standing behind me, whom I think about very often.
SR: One of the main characters in Banishing Verona, Zeke, has Asperger’s syndrome. What led you to this character choice? How did you incorporate his condition into this novel while still respecting it?
ML: It wasn’t a subject I was particularly looking for. Charlie Baxter has a wonderful essay about writing fiction in which he talks about the need to make the familiar strange. In the early nineties I got to know a boy with Asperger's, the only son of a dear friend. I would be babysitting for him or visiting them and it was just spending time in his company that made me start seeing the world as he saw it and understanding how difficult some of the things people take for granted are. Spending time with John, as I'll call him, I discovered that he couldn't lie, didn't understand subtext, and had trouble reading facial expressions. Seeing the world through his eyes, as best I could, I found the familiar had been made strange. I hope that my character Zeke embodies some of the major characteristics of Asperger's but is not defined by them. I really wanted to emphasize this in a way but I certainly didn’t want to come across that I was thinking of him as disabled. There are some ordinary things he can’t do, but some extraordinary things he can do.
SR: Death has a strong presence in your novels, but affects many of your characters differently. How do you approach it in so many unique ways?
ML: Death entered my life early, in fact you might almost say death was my sponsor. My father lost his dominating mother when he was nearly fifty; only then was he at last able to get married. And of course my mother died when I was very young. One of my early stories is called "Obituary" and is about a watch-maker in a small town who writes obituaries. For a long time that was how I thought of writing fiction. People disappear; words remain. As a child I was fairly robust about all this. As an adult I've grown more tender hearted, more vexed, by people, like Dara in The House on Fortune Street, leaving early. And at the same time I've come to have a new respect for the fortitude with which many older people survive the deaths of those around them—partners and friends. These different attitudes, and phases, all play some role in my novels.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
ML: I have a lovely writing room with windows on two sides and skylights. One wall is devoted to photographs of my family. There's a floor to ceiling bookcase that I struggle to keep alphabetized. And a sofa on which I read and fret over sentences. I do write on a computer but I don't allow it to go online. I have another computer which I keep in a small downstairs office and use for email and to faff around on the internet.