The Friday Slot - author Margot Livesey

Margot Livesey is a Scots-born writer who has lived in the States now for many years, and perhaps because of that, she's been slightly on the periphery of UK literature, I always think. Each new book she brings out should be an event, especially for Scottish readers, but somehow we've let her slip away from us. I'm hoping this interview will go a little way towards bringing her back to us.

She has an amazing literary pedigree, having been published since 1986, when her first book, a collection of short stories, Learning By Heart, came out in Canada. Since then, seven novels have appeared, including the highly acclaimed Eva Moves the Furniture and The House on Fortune Street, as well as short stories in The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly. She grew up in the Scottish Highlands and took a degree in English Literature at York University before heading across the Atlantic, and is currently writer-in-residence at Emerson College.

I'd read her novel, The Missing World, when it came out 12 years ago, and wondered why I hadn't heard of her before, why Scotland didn't lay a greater claim to such a wonderful writer. In 2001, Margot published Eva Moves the Furniture, an autobiographical novel about her mother, who died when she was very young, then in 2004 she wrote Banishing Veronica, with a narrator who suffers with Asperger's, based on the son of a friend she knew. Her books are always different, always a challenge, yet 'readable' too. In fact, on that topic of readability, she talks very revealingly in this interview around the time of that book's publication, and I thought it would be worth repeating here what she says:

"As someone who, for almost a decade, got rejections that began "This is beautifully written, but..." I think I had a period as a young writer when I saw beautiful writing as a liability, but I was also confused as to what beautiful writing was. I think I was, like many young writers, infatuated with a certain kind of rather purplish prose, a rather obvious kind of beauty, and I think one of the ways in which I improved as a writer was when I realized that beauty in fiction, and beauty in prose, was more complicated than that. And the challenge was not really to write about a sunset as if it were beautiful, because that had a very obvious beauty. You know the challenge was to write about going to MacDonald's as if it was beautiful. If one's prose was going to be beautiful, then it had to manage to be beautiful about the less obvious as well as the more obvious. It's terribly important to me how my sentences are shaped, and how they sound, and where they carry the reader, even though part of my ambition is that readers will just be able to give themselves over to the flow of the narrative and to the characters and the plot. So I'm trying simultaneously to write prose that I think is beautiful and that can be read and reread with pleasure and that is also not too obtrusive."

But I'm here to ask her about her new novel, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, a wonderful tale of an orphaned young Scottish girl who goes to work for a strange, silent landowner. Its plot deliberately recalls Jane Eyre, and Margot has written about the Brontes here, for The Millions website: As always, it is a sensitive, touching read that reveals something about how we interact with one another, but it's also about how we relate to the spaces around us. I hope it will work to remind those of us in Scotland what a wonderful writer we have in Margot! 

LM: Your latest book, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, is an 'updating' of Jane Eyre. Is that a fitting description? What made you want to tackle such an established classic? Did you have any particular difficulties with this novel that you didn't have with others, perhaps because of that classic in the background? Or were there some things that made it easier?

ML: I think of my novel as a reimagining of Jane Eyre rather than an updating.  My premise is similar to Bronte's - how is a girl of no means and no family (that she knows of) to make her way in the world?  But while there are strong parallels between Gemma's story and Jane's in the early chapters, I hope that Gemma soon becomes her own heroine with her own story.

I have long identified with Jane but I never meant to tackle a classic.  Indeed if you had suggested this to me five years ago I would have laughed and said what a mad idea.  Why reimagine a novel that has never been out of print since it was published in 1847?  What changed my mind was a visit to a book club in Boston.  The room was full of lively opinionated readers, mostly women, all of them American, and everyone, like me, passionately identified with Bronte's heroine.  In the days that followed this meeting, I found myself thinking again and again about how Bronte had created a novel with such enduring appeal.  What would it be like, I wondered, to ask the same question Bronte asks about a girl who is growing up in Scotland just before that great tidal wave of feminism came to shore.

I've never written a novel that was easy but in the case of Gemma I was very much aware that I was writing in the shadow of a deeply beloved book and that my work would inevitably be compared to that book.  I decided right away that there would be no attics in Gemma but I knew I had to have my Mr. Rochester and that I had to negotiate around Bronte's great scenes.  I also had to deal with Bronte's flagrant use of coincidence - Jane wanders on the moors and collapse on the doorstep of her long lost cousins - and with her religiosity; she was, after all, a vicar's daughter.      

LM: You're the author of several highly acclaimed novels, including Eva Moves the Furniture and The House on Fortune Street, through a long and varied career. How would you characterise your literary career? Has it been a smooth ride, or have there been lots of ups and downs? What has helped during the tougher times? What has kept you going? Is your writing career what you thought it would be? 

ML: My literary career has been very up and down.  When I published my first book - a collection of stories with Penguin Books in Canada - I knew nothing about how publishing worked.  I thought the publishers published, the reviewers reviewed and then the readers bought and read.  I had no idea that I might be expected to play any part in this process, and how much of that process occurred before the book actually appeared in the world.  Nor did I realise how much luck would be involved.  Eva Moves The Furniture was published on 9/11 and it wasn't really until the following year that it seemed possible, or appropriate, to start talking about the novel.  And The House on Fortune Street which is set entirely in London and Scotland has failed (so far) to find a British publisher.

As for what kept me going - I was lucky enough to grow up in a household full of books.  My father had many Victorian novels on his bookshelves and also those orange penguins with the little black bird on the spine.  So on the one hand I thought of books as eternal; on the other hand I had no idea that there were living authors until I was well into my twenties.  We didn't study them either at Morrison's Academy for Girls or at the University of York.  Although I was reading such wonderful writers as Margaret Drabble and Doris Lessing they didn't seem to be on the same planet as me.  Which is all to say that I remain a passionate reader - I never go anywhere without a book - and what has helped me through the hard times in my literary career and in my life is reading.  When things go badly, when things go well, I turn to whatever book, usually a novel, is currently occupying my imagination. 

LM: You were born in Scotland and lived in the Highlands, so perhaps you're part of the 'Scottish diaspora' now living abroad. What do you miss about Scotland, and what have you been glad to leave behind? There's a theme of exile running through Gemma Hardy - is exile something you are always conscious of? Is exile good for a writer?   

ML: Growing up in the country, I was thrilled to discover first Edinburgh and then London but I never meant to spend so much time abroad.  After spending most of my twenties working in shops and restaurants in Toronto and London, I stumbled into teaching at a university in the US.  I soon realised that I liked talking about Chekhov more than asking people how they wanted their steak done and one job led to another but I miss everything about Scotland and there is nothing that I am glad to leave behind.  I think that love and longing come through in Gemma.  It is a consolation to know that I am one of the many, many writers who is looking over her shoulder as she writes, her gaze firmly fixed on some other time or place, some younger self.  So yes, maybe exile is good for a writer.  And happily I come back to Scotland often to visit my beloved adopted family.


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