An Interview with Margot Livesey

Margot Livesey is the author of a collection of short stories, Learning By Heart, and seven novels: Homework, Criminals, The Missing World, Eva Moves the Furniture, Banishing Verona, The House on Fortune Street, and most recently, The Flight of Gemma Hardy. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the N.E.A., the Massachusetts Artists’ Foundation, and the Canada Council for the Arts. She has been a mentor, teacher, and friend to her students across the country, having taught at many writing programs including UC Irvine, the Iowa Writers Workshop, Warren Wilson, and Emerson College where she is currently Distinguished Writer-in-Residence.

Margot generously responded to my questions while busily touring the country with her latest novel The Flight of Gemma Hardy.

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Can you describe the process of revision, re-imagining, and/or re-telling a much-loved novel from an earlier time? As you began writing Gemma, how did you know where to leave Jane Eyre behind and strike out on your own story?

I knew several things when I presumptuously began The Flight of Gemma Hardy.  I knew that I did not want to faithfully transpose Brontë’s novel to another time and place (as, say Jane Smiley does with King Lear in A Thousand Acres), and I knew that I wanted to write a novel that could be read both by people who loved Jane Eyre and those who had never heard of it. Given these ambitions, I never once looked back at Jane once I embarked on Gemma.  And I tried to signal to the reader early on how the re-imagining might work by writing a first chapter in which Gemma finds herself in a situation somewhat comparable to Jane’s and a second chapter which is a radical departure from that novel.

In House on Fortune Street, Dara’s character imagines her life as a contemporary version of Jane Eyre’s story. Was the idea to dedicate an entire novel based on Charlotte Brontë’s novel begun then?

Thank you for asking about The House on Fortune Street.  Who knows exactly how one’s mind works but no, I don’t think that Dara’s section of that novel was the genesis of Gemma.  What I regard as the starting point was a wonderfully lively book club discussion of Jane Eyre soon after I finished Fortune Street.  The room that evening was full of passionate readers who were not orphans, did not have terrible stepmothers, had not attended tyrannical schools, nor had to make their own way in the world, and yet they identified at the deepest level with Brontë’s heroine and her situation.  I was reminded again of the universal appeal of Brontë’s novel, and how relevant her central concerns still are.

In an earlier interview, you mentioned that each of your characters in The House on Fortune Street had a “literary godparent.” Do you feel as though you have your own literary godparent (s) or perhaps that each of your books has a literary godparent?

If only they did.  I think what I’d say is that each of my novels has been inspired and guided in some respects by reading.  In the case of Gemma, I kept in mind not only Brontë’s huge accomplishment but I also spent a good deal of time pondering what I regard as three of the most significant aspects of her novel: her creation of not just a character but a heroine, her use of the intimate first person voice, and her ability to somehow convey the passions of childhood and carry them into adult life.   

Many of your novels and stories describe characters who are isolated in some way, disconnected from their pasts, or orphaned in literal or metaphoric ways. Do you see your books in conversation with one another? Or, in other words, do you see each of your books grappling with similar themes in strikingly different ways?

As I’ve slowly amassed a body of work, I’ve had to think hard about how I can continue to write novels that are true to my deepest concerns and yet explore new territory in a way, that I hope, will entertain and delight the reader.  Camus said, close to the end of his life, that he had only ever had one or two ideas, and while I’m not sure I’d make that claim for myself I would say that yes, I do, in various guises, return to the question of how a character can make her way in the world without a mother.  That said, I think that Criminals, in which a banker finds a baby in a bus station, and, say, Eva Moves the Furniture, in which a motherless girl grows up having companions no one else can see, are very different books.

Both Eva Moves the Furniture and The Flight of Gemma Hardy feature ghostly presences, companions visible to the protagonists, but invisible to the larger world. How do ghosts, the supernatural, premonitions, and other slightly magical elements provide ways to explore these themes of isolation, of personal and shared histories, of ancestry and heritage?

I see Eva and Gemma as having a kind of subterranean connection–Eva is the mother’s story, Gemma the daughter’s–and each is deeply rooted in the Scottish landscape.  It is that landscape which allows me to suggest that the boundaries between this world and some other are perhaps a little more porous than we normally suppose.  For Eva the connection to some other world is part of her central struggle.  For Gemma, it is more a magnification or dramatization of her losses and longings.  I do think that most people, however skeptical, do to some degree believe in forces beyond the explicable–telepathy, coincidence, clairvoyance, etc.

In both The Missing World and Banishing Verona, you created protagonists whose understanding of reality and sense of perception has been altered from the norm–one suffers from memory loss and the other has autism-like social difficulties.  Were these explorations of different mental spaces another way to approach the boundaries between one world and another?

What a lovely question.  Yes, yes.  And I also think in our overly explored world that the human brain is one of the last frontiers left to examine.   So while I’m very interested in sending my characters out into outer space, the world around them, I am also eager to explore inner space.

Earlier, you mentioned that your novels have been inspired and guided by reading. Can you say a bit more about the books or writers who have guided you toward or through your different writing endeavors?  

For me, reading and writing go hand in hand and I am always surprised when I encounter students who very much want to write but have little interest in reading.  In some sense I think I learn from every book I read–either what to do, or what to avoid–but more specifically I think I’ve learned an enormous amount from George Eliot, Ford Maddox Ford, Elizabeth Bowen and Doris Lessing about both the psychological and social possibilities of the novel.  And I think I learned a lot about suspense from reading Rider Haggard and John Buchan’s adventures stories in my childhood.   

You’ve lived in the States for many years now, but aside from Banishing Verona, your stories continue to be set mainly in England and Scotland. Do you feel like your stories have a literary home in the UK rather than in America?

I think of reading as something that exists beyond the normal boundaries of gender, age, nationality, class and race. Although I do have readers in the UK, in many ways America, with its large and generous landscape, has become my literary home. But first as a child and then at university most of my reading was from that great period stretching from Jane Austen to early Doris Lessing. Those books kept me company at a lonely time in my life and they convinced me that one of the primary contracts between author and reader is that a novel will allow a reader to know its characters much more intimately than most of us know our friends or family members.

You have taught for many years and have been a mentor to so many students. Recently, you’ve added editing to your mentoring duties when you joined the Ploughshares staff as Fiction Editor. Can you speak about the pleasures and challenges of editing work?

Well, in the case of Ploughshares, where every issue is guest edited, I do not get to edit in the traditional sense of making suggestions.  My task is to read as many of our submissions as I can and make some very difficult choices in the company of the editor-in-chief, Ladette Randolph.  But I do like to think that reading so much good fiction has made me a better, fiercer editor for my own work.  And of course it has also made me very aware of certain trends in writing and sensibility.  

I know that Gemma has just been released to the world, so perhaps it’s presumptuous to ask you what your plans are for your next book, but if you’re willing to discuss it, I’d love to hear what you’re planning next.

I am, very tentatively, trying to write a novel set in New England.

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