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Bookshelf: Fall 2009 Q&A Footnotes, Margot Livesey

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Acclaimed novelist Margot Livesey taught fiction writing at Bowdoin for the past four years as John F. and Dorothy H. Magee Writer-in-Residence. Livesey published her first collection of short stories, Learning By Heart (Penguin) in 1986 and has since written six novels, including Eva Moves the Furniture (Henry Holt & Co., 2001), and Banishing Verona (Henry Holt & Co., 2004). Her most recent, The House on Fortune Street (Harper Collins, 2008), won the 2009 L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award and came out in paperback last spring. Fortune Street, set in contemporary Britain, is structured upon a central tragedy told and re-told from the perspectives of its four principle characters, examining the varied suffering, fortune (and misfortune), lies, and secret pleasures embedded in each private relation of the story.

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Margot Livesey

Bowdoin: How did the characters in The House on Fortune Street come to be?

Livesey: One of my ambitions in writing The House on Fortune Street was to embody the very different ways people see the world, and also the very different ways we come to see people as we get to know them better and learn their inner lives. For instance, I expected readers to find my character, Abigail, not very likable in the first three sections of the novel and then, when they got to her section, the fourth section, to think,“Oh, well it’s actually more complicated than that.” I also think it’s very interesting how stories often come together from different sources; you can’t get the entire story from one source. You have to go to several people, hear several versions, and then put the whole story together. When you realize how often Dara has disappointed Abigail in the friendship, you think, “this isn’t quite how I thought it would be,” and similarly I thought it was interesting to show Dara’s father Cameron just briefly from the point of view of Sean and Abigail — just a little glimpse of him. In his own life, Cameron’s a major figure — of course, we’re all sort of major players in our own life, but often we’re quite minor in those of others. And so, that disjunction really interests me.

Bowdoin: William Faulkner said of The Sound and the Fury, also divided into four different sections from four different perspectives, roughly, that he had tried to write the same story four times and had failed in each. Did you feel the same challenge or that there was still more to tell?

Livesey: I think that’s a very complicated question because once you start opening doors, of course, you realize that there are more versions of the story. But I always had in mind that, despite the fractured form, I wanted to write a novel that offered a complete arc and told a complete story, even if that story, like life, wasn’t entirely resolved. I am not sure we can know why someone like my character Dara, Abigail’s best friend, comes to the edge of despair and then falls over it? Why are some people more resilient than others? Why are some people more resilient than others?

Bowdoin: The novel deals a lot with changing ideas of the self and the ability to change oneself. How did you account for changes in characters across chapters where not only the perspective but also time has passed?

Livesey: That’s one of the things that really appealed to me about this idea of the four parts is that it was a way in which I could cover quite a lot of time in a novel that is not short, but that I hope is not overly long, and show that people do change over time. Cameron does shift — at various times we see him evolving: after his brother’s death, after his father’s death, as his mother disappears into Alzheimer’s. All of those things change him and, similarly, with Sean and Abigail — Abigail thinks “How Sean stops time for me,” and then, rather disturbingly, that feeling starts to be eroded by practical concerns and financial concerns and suddenly time is no longer stopping when Sean is around. I think it’s such a perplexing question to us. I mean, how do we change and evolve and yet remain constant in our affections and loyalties and just some part of ourselves?

Bowdoin: All of the characters seem to have a personal secret that is not revealed explicitly in the novel. How deep do those secrets go or how do they drive the plot?

Livesey: I did mean for each character to have several secrets — sometimes a more innocent secret hiding a more problematic secret, as it were. And in Sean’s case, he starts to have secrets around money and then he starts to have more complicated secrets. And in Abigail’s case, that sort of ferocious need to have a home and have things under her control beats her into secrecy in a certain way. And Dara, who spends so much time listening to other people, I think, sort of keeps secret her own needs and can voice them as a joke, but can’t really voice how much her childhood difficulties really weigh on her.

Bowdoin: How does luck play into the fortunes of the characters in the novel?

Livesey: I intended Davy, who is gay, to be a foil to Cameron, partly because growing up at the time that I did, I saw homosexuality pass from being illegal — or, aspects of it being illegal — to it becoming much more socially acceptable to the point of there now being gay marriage. But if Davy had been born a few years earlier, he would have had to be totally secretive in lots of ways. So, there’s both the sort of luck of whatever disposes people to different kinds of affections and there seems to be a lot of debate about that and the luck of childhood and historical circumstances, personal circumstances, and I don’t know if anyone can get to the end of some of these questions — how some, by virtue of different circumstances and dispositions are much more fortunate than others.

Bowdoin: How have you found publishing today — has it become more difficult?

Livesey: Publishing is in quite a precarious situation and I’m very conscious of that looking at friends who are looking to publish books now or looking for agents or looking for publishers and these are definitely very difficult times. At the same time, enrollments in various writing classes and various book clubs still remains high and I think people recognize that there is considerable solace in reading and writing and that, compared to many other things, they are actually not such expensive activities. So, I’m hoping that people will turn to books in hard times, as they should.

Bowdoin: Are you working on something else now?

Livesey: I am working on a new novel. I’m a that stage where I feel it might be like a t-shirt that you put in the dryer: you put it in life-sized and it comes out fit for a doll. But I like having the open page before me.

Bowdoin: What is the new novel about?

Livesey: All I can really say so far is that — while The House on Fortune Street was a very complicated novel to put together and it required a lot of adjusting to make the four parts fit together — in this novel, I’m trying to write it in the first-person and I suppose that it’s kind of a coming-of-age story. And I suppose that it’s partly inspired by my reading of Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook and her Martha Quest novels and that’s the sense you have in her work of how women’s lives are shaped by larger forces — by society and politics. And I’m hoping to capture a bit of her wit and intelligence on these matters.

Bowdoin: Where is it set?

Livesey: It is a bit embarrassing to admit because I am always swearing that I am going to write about America or a story that is set in America because I spend so much time here, but so far it’s set in Scotland, but I’m hoping that maybe my characters will come here.

Bowdoin: As they do in Fortune Street

Livesey: And in Banishing Verona, my novel before that. So, people do come to America, they just don’t stay very long.

Bowdoin: How do you find the settings for your novels?

Livesey: Once I got the idea of the literary god parents — the idea that each character would have a literary figure or literary work that accompanies them through their section and would hopefully speak to the deeper themes of their section — I also started looking for various settings, very specifically, that I thought would speak to that and I didn’t want the echoes to be too close. For example, I didn’t want in Dara’s section, for them to go off to Heyworth Parsonage and re-enact the Brontës, but I did re-enact Jane Eyre’s first meeting with Rochester in some small way when he falls at her feet and she’s sitting on the stile. And so, I went looking for settings like Sissinghurst, for instance, and it’s meant to be a sort of ironic counter-point because they were famously bi-sexual and they had this complicated marriage that negotiated that bi-sexuality but they somehow managed to make it, at least for the most part, work. And so, bringing Cameron there, cannot make his life work in that way. It was meant to be a sort of ironic comment, but not one that I necessarily expected most readers to get. And similarly, Scotland — the rural Scotland of my childhood — in the first scenes with Cameron and Davy was meant to suggest how far attitudes have come towards homosexuality. In the case of Abigail I visited Chatham and Rochester, where Dickens spent the happiest part of his childhood, and I was really fascinated by seeing things like Miss Havisham’s house from Great Expectations and the marshes which he had in mind at the beginning of the novel and so, those settings played a powerful role for me in the novel and also, of course, London because London belongs to Dickens but also to so many other people.

Bowdoin: Do you find that looking to other literary works provides a starting point for your novels?

Livesey: I think that, like many young writers, many of my early stories were rejected with notes that said something like, “this is too literary,” or, “you can’t have your characters keep talking about King Lear all the time.” There were a lot of complaints about my attempts to be “literary,” and so, I gradually learned this lesson that I should stop mentioning books and reading and writing in my novels. And I think that in this novel, what opened the door was having a character who was working on his dissertation, and so once I let Keats into the novel, I thought, “it’s nice — I like having Keats in my novel,” and I started getting the idea of trying to give each person an influence. But I also worked quite hard to make sure that you didn’t have to be someone who had the great Victorian authors at your fingertips to appreciate the novel. For instance, in the section after Dara meets Edward and he falls at her feet, I immediately have Abigail say, “wow, that’s just like Jane Eyre.” I knew that it was going to be the part of the book that my editor and publisher wouldn’t be entirely thrilled about, so I kind of had to smuggle it in. 

Bowdoin: Have you had any trouble separating events in your novels from the events in your life?

Livesey: The whole business is just a minefield — I mean, I think my friends probably dread my publishing a novel just in the event that they will be in it. And then people are always worrying — sometimes people mistakenly recognize themselves, sometimes people totally don’t recognize something that I’ve taken from them, and sometimes people are convinced that something is autobiographical when it absolutely is completely invented and vice-versa, sometimes when I have taken something from my own life people don’t recognized. And so the whole thing is just deeply confusing, but I do work quite hard to make sure that I have something in common with each character and I think that’s why I put Dara’s father Cameron in a landscape that I knew very well because I thought it would be much easier for me to start imagining this character if I can imagine that places he’s living and the things he’s doing. And in the case of Abigail and Sean, I had written scripts for a theater for some years, so I kind of spent time on the fringes of the theater world and I felt that I could make good use of that in the novel, but then I made a big effort to change the characters so they wouldn’t seem like anyone I had known at that time. But I never know how to solve this. I mean, it doesn’t help to put those little disclaimers at the beginning of my novels: “bears no relation to anyone living or dead.” People never believe those.

Bowdoin: Is this the first time that you’ve written from the perspective of a male character?

Livesey: I do write from the perspective of a man in my last novel, Banishing Verona, and also in my novel Criminals. I’ve tried to be fairly even-handed about that.

Bowdoin: Do you find it more challenging to write from the perspective of a male character?

Livesey: I think there’s the challenge that you just spoke about and it’s that we do tend to think with first-person narrators that they share the gender and other things of their authors. As soon as you write an “I,” people are thinking that it’s probably a middle-aged woman like Margot Livesey, so when I’m actually making it a middle-aged man like Cameron, I have to work pretty hard to make it clear that he’s masculine. And then, people do see you as you’re more vulnerable — people will start to say,  “Your men aren’t macho enough,” and so I work hard to make sure that they have masculine characteristics — supporting football teams, or what-have-you. So, you are vulnerable when you cross gender just as I think you are vulnerable when you cross race or cross any kind of major division.

Bowdoin: Do the characters that you develop stay with you or carry through to your other works?

Livesey: I think, for some reason, most of the characters in Fortune Street are still claiming my attention and I do have this impulse to write more about Abigail and more about Cameron, in particular. My friend Andrea Barrett often brings back characters, as does Julia Glass, and I can understand why. 

Bowdoin: How do you approach controversial and contemporary social and political issues, like euthanasia, in your novels?

Livesey: I think that euthanasia is a particularly issue because there are places — states in America where it’s legal and other states where it’s not legal. And there are some European countries where it’s legal and others where it’s not. It is one of those very pivotal moral and ethical issues where I think people are swayed by individual circumstances and anecdotes and I suppose that I started exploring euthanasia as a kind of foil to what Dara and partly because I knew someone who was working on a comparable handbook on euthanasia and I felt that it was very interesting to explore that topic and it was a wonderful foil to Dara. Novels are a wonderful place to explore those questions even if — I mean, you’re never answering questions in a novel, but you do get to ask them. And in the case of Cameron — normally I do research for a character — but it was hard to, obviously, find people like Cameron, so I talked to people who had worked with people like Cameron and I also talked to a number of people who had encountered people they thought were like Cameron and probably the most helpful couple I talked to, in some sense, was a couple who lived in a nice house in the suburbs and next-door there was a couple with two kids and it was very nice and the kids all played together and they shared childcare and it was a very happy and amicable relationship and then a year before I met them, the man had been charged — an ardent photographer — with downloading child pornography and they were just really confounded by this and all of the things that they had liked about the friendship and all of the photographs that he had taken of their children, they didn’t know what to think — it was really, so disturbing for them. And so, that conversation was really helpful in understanding how from one minute to the next they weren’t quite sure how they felt about him: they felt betrayed, but then the remembered that they had also really liked him; they thought that he had really liked their kids, and they thought that maybe it was something very spooky and unpleasant. It was just so hard to sort out. I did think it was important that — it’s not like Cameron looks at every 10-year-old girl — it’s only really very specific people who spark his desires.

Bowdoin How did you decide on an ending from these four disparate sections of the novel?

Livesey: I think the ending had several ideas in mind and one was the great Victorian idea of the letter — that, finally, Dara’s letter would re-surface so that she would have a voice at the end of the novel. But I also felt that it was really important to see Cameron and Abigail meet, because they were the two people closest to Dara, at the end of the novel, and that he should try to tell her what he has never been able to tell his daughter. It seemed to make sense to me that he would do that as an act of contrition on his part. And, of course, you have this stunning moment for Abigail because here Dara had everything wrong — her father didn’t want to leave her, didn’t want to abandon her — and you have this feeling that she might have found completely unacceptable. And so, it’s meant to be a very complicated moment. And I guess that’s why I chose for Dara’s book Great Expectations because of the famous attempt at two endings. We only get one ending but we often want another one.

I think in Sean’s case, I hint at the ending by having the letter from his supervisor saying, “you were really right on the edge of doing something fine, won’t you think of coming back” — in the midst of his despair, somebody does come along and reach out to him, I hope. One of the things I was interested in writing about is what it’s like to lose an intellectual passion. He does think that losing Keats is like a divorce and it’s really painful to him. I like the idea that he might get some of that back.

Bowdoin: Have you ever had that feeling of loss with a novel?

Livesey: Oh, yes. I have this novel that I worked on for maybe 12 years and we had many divorces, but we did finally have a reconciliation.

Posted June 24, 2009