Novelist Margot Livesey On Writing and Teaching at Bowdoin

Story posted April 09, 2007

Acclaimed author Margot Livesey once gave an interview in which she advised writers who were looking to be discovered to "... write as if you were writing a personal advertisement and had to pay for every word."

Margot Livesey
Novelist Margot Livesey

That exquisite precision of language has earned the Bowdoin writer-in-residence worldwide acclaim for five novels including "Criminals," "Eva Moves the Furniture," and "Banishing Verona." It also has earned Livesey the reputation as a "writer's writer" — a masterful artist who creates suspense out of what is most deeply and tenderly ambiguous in the human character.

Bowdoin audiences got a chance to hear Livesey read from her last novel, "Banishing Verona," at 4:30 p.m., Tuesday, April 17, 2007, at Lancaster Lounge, Moulton Union

"Bowdoin has been very warm in recognizing me as a teacher," notes Livesey, who has taught creative writing in the English department since 2006. "I haven't been as much in evidence at the College as a writer so I was very pleased to be invited to read. I'm glad to have a chance to signal to my students that I'm not just lecturing about how to build characters; I'm also trying to do what I teach them."

"Banishing Verona" is an intensely character-driven work that centers around Zeke, a mildly autistic young British handyman, and Verona, a pregnant radio talk-show host. The pair has a brief tryst in London, after which Verona disappears, leaving her coveralls nailed to the floor. This is just the first in a web of mysteries that divides — and ultimately holds — these two improbable lovers as they search for each other across continents.

Those themes of mystery and discovery that pervade much of Livesey's fiction also enter into the classroom as she teaches the basics of fiction writing:

Banishing Verona

"One thing we spend a lot of time on — it seems rudimentary, but it's quite sophisticated — is what the writer has actually put on the page," she says. "What we could point to as detectives as evidence. If we, as readers, are all roughly imagining the same thing, it suggests the writer is doing something right. If our imaginings diverge widely, is it because the prose is not sufficiently clear or defined?"

Livesey has long straddled a writing and academic life. Before coming to Bowdoin, she taught at Carnegie-Mellon, Brandeis, and the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop. She continues to teach at Emerson College in Boston, where she lives.

She says her work with students influences her own craft in unexpected ways.

"One thing that startled me when I first started teaching at Bowdoin was how fearless and ambitious my students can be," she says. "They'll sit down and write a story in a single sitting or a single day, and often produce something quite readable and absorbing.

"I'm typically the kind of person where, if I write two pages a day, I'm doing fantastically. I revise incessantly. Sometimes now I try to imitate my students and say, okay, I'll write 10 pages today. They may be terrible, but they'll get me to a new place. That is incredibly helpful to me."

Currently, Livesey is at work on a new novel, which is scheduled to be released by Harper Collins in 2008.

She says the yet-to-be-titled work examines a fundamental and deeply ambiguous question: "What happens if you love the wrong person? I don't just mean romantic love, I also mean friendship and familial love. It's a question which all the characters face in different ways."

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