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Off the Page: Margot Livesey

Margot Livesey
Author, Eva Moves the Furniture
Thursday, December 2, 2004; 1:00 PM

The directness of Margot Livesey's writing belies the complexity of her stories, which explore both the dark and light sides of human nature.

In her novel, The Missing World, a man doesn't tell the ex-girlfriend who's lost her memory that she had moved out in a bitter break-up; in Eva Moves the Furniture, a girl, whose mother died giving birth to her, is visited by two ghostly figures, a mother and daughter, who sometimes protect her, and sometimes seem to hurt her.

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Her new book, Banishing Verona, is similarly tricky. It is, on the one hand, just a love story: a man with Asperger's syndrome sleeps with a pregnant, older woman, who then disappears. But his search for her reveals many buried stories, and the novel becomes an exploration of family, and past.

Livesey, born in Scotland and now writer in residence at Emerson College in Boston, was online Thursday, Dec. 2 at 1 p.m. ET to answer questions about her work.

A transcript follows.

Host Carole Burns is a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Carole Burns: Hello, and welcome to today's "Off the Page." I'm thrilled to have Margot Livesey, to talk about her new book, Banishing Verona.

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Mobile, Alabama: Hi Margot, I was a participant at the Sewanee Writers conference this past summer and was delighted to meet you there. My question is, did you have a personal connection to Asperger's Syndrome? How did making a character possess that element affect the plot of the book, if at all? What made you think of it?

Margot Livesey: A son of a friend was diagnosed in the early '90s with Asperger's syndrome, about which at that time I knew virtually nothing, although Asperger's was first diagnosed about 50 years ago. And watching my friend's son and watching him grow up, I became very fascinated by this condition, and wanted for a number of years to write something about a character who has this. So I started, as it were, auditioning the character for a role in my novels and decided he couldn't be the person to find a baby in the bus station in CRIMINALS, and he couldn't be the person to keep his girlfriend prisoner in THE MISSING WORLD. Finally after nearly a decade, I decided he needed his own novel. And I thought that novel ought to take place in the territory where people with Asperger's had the most difficulty, that is, dealing with relationships and social interactions. I also wanted to write a novel that enabled me to bring my characters to America.

In addition, I very much liked the idea of writing a quest novel, seeing as the quest is one of our oldest literary forms, but to write it in the 21st century you need to think very carefully about the psychology of your characters. Clearly, the Odyssey would be a very different story if Odysseus had a mobile phone. And I also wanted to explore two questions that remain very pressing in my own life, namely, can we ever know another person, and can we ever know ourselves, and if the answer to both questions is no, then, how do we navigate our way through life?

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Carole Burns: I loved the character of Zeke in Banishing Verona, and how his Asperger's syndrome, and his personality, made me see the world in a different way. I imagine that was on purpose? Margot Livesey: Yes. The difficulty the character has in reading the world seems like a perfect metaphor for struggles that most of us have in understanding our interactions with each other. One thing I realized, interviewing people with Asperger's, was that many of them had difficulties understanding facial expressions, talking to them made me realize how much we summarize when we say, she smiled, or, she frowned, and what a complex activity we go through when we utter those judgments, if you like, about other people. So one of the challenges of writing this novel was inhabiting a character who didn't take these short cuts and who helped me and hopefully my readers to look at the world from a fresh point of view.

Bringing such a character to America enabled me in addition to look at America in a very fresh way. And to re-examine some of the differences that I find particularly striking between Britain and America, such as fire hydrants, the different ways people greet each other and sort of do business in shops and restaurants, the way in which these are these little misunderstandings around similar words.

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Carole Burns: I remember hearing you talk once about wanting to make your work accessible--smart, literary but also accessible. And it is. Why is that important to you? Margot Livesey: I think it's important to me for the most obvious personal reasons--that reading really saved my life when I was growing up. In my rather solitary childhood I was extremely dependent on the library. I grew up mostly reading these wonderful Victorian novels where you can completely enter into the lives of the characters. And that still remains one of my deep ambitions as a writer, to make my readers feel as if the people in my books are like neighbors or friends, about whom you can have opinions and arguments, about whom you can approve or disapprove, their lives becoming an extension if you will of your own life. And I would also say that I have two very hard-working adopted sisters in Scotland who are also passionate readers, and when I'm writing, I always have in mind my desire to keep them awake a little longer when they come home to read after their long days. They do read my work, they're both wonderful generous readers of my work.

Carole Burns: So much "literary" writing today is difficult. Are you reacting against that?

Margot Livesey: I think that I've always believed that literature could achieve its higher aims while still being entertaining and enjoyable, that it's possible to write really good literary novels that are still a pleasure to read, and entertaining.

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Cardiff, Wales: When <em>Eva Moves the Furniture</em>, did you look at Scottish folk tales? There's a very strong sense of ancient folklore there. Have you read The Golden Bough, for example? The story seemed informed by that, it seems to be under the surface and on the surface throughout the book. It feels like a very Scottish book.

Margot Livesey: I did read Scottish folk tales, but I had also grown up Scottish folk tales, so many of them were already embedded in my memory and in my way of looking at life. I have to confess that I still haven't The Golden Bough. (minus 10!) And the Scottish folk tales were not only present in books but present in the landscape of my childhood. On the way to school every day, I passed the legendary grave of the legendary Scottish poet, Ossian, a Roman encampment, a place where a dairymaid had drowned in the river and was meant to walk at harvest time. All of this fueled my imagination when writing, Eva Moves the Furniture.

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Washington, DC: You were born in Scotland yet are living/teaching in Boston. Do you find that changing environments/cultures has changed your approach to your stories? Do your characters now seem more "American" than Scottish? (Of course, I don't know how long you've lived in the States ... or Boston.)

Margot Livesey: Certainly living between two countries has changed my approach to fiction. I first came to Boston in 1983, and although I still go back to Britain frequently, I haven't lived there continuously for quite a long time. I think one of the most significant advantages of this back and forth is enabling me to see what I previously took for granted in Britain with a much sharper eye. People and situations that would previously have seemed too ordinary to play a role in fiction, from a distance of 2300 miles seem extraordinarily interesting. I would also add that I'm aware of the gaps in my knowledge of British life, and I work very assiduously doing research while I write my novels and having British friends read my work to make sure I am keeping abreast of the many changes in the culture.

So far, my main characters have all been British, but I'm imagining as time goes on that American characters will begin to play a larger role in my fiction.

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Lyme, Conn.: Your writings are excellent explorations of relationships and families. Are you aware of any particular events or times in your life that drew you to contemplate how people interrelate? What sparked your interest in these matters?

Margot Livesey: My father was 50 years old when I was born, and my mother, Eva, died when I was 2 1/2. Subsequently my father remarried a woman of his own age, so at the age of 5, I was living with two fifty-five-year-olds who were elderly fifty-five-year-olds. I took refuge with a neighboring family who had four children. I think this early experience of inventing my own family is a major factor in the on-going preoccupation in my work with what constitutes a family, how we sort out the competing loyalties of family vs. new affections. And I'm aware at this point in the 21st century that many people are in a similar situation of inventing and re-inventing their families.

Carole Burns: Do you friends these days are often our families?

Margot Livesey: I think many of us as we grow older have really two families, one the family that we're stuck with, for good and ill, which is many blessings, and another the family that we've chosen for ourselves over the years.

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Carole Burns: Your novels deal, I think, with the concept of evil--or bad people. There's the character in The Missing World who doesn't tell his girlfriend when she wakes from a coma that they'd had a bitter break-up--he's pretty horrible. And now there's the loveable Henry, Verona's evil brother. Do you think some people are just bad? Margot Livesey: I think, like many writers, I'm quite fascinated by bad behavior, both the bad behavior that comes with inattention, which I wrote about in CRIMINALS, and the much more active and self-interested of bad behavior of a character like Henry. And I think the other side of that fascination is how I'm very interested in how people will tolerate extremely bad behavior if they feel that they're the one exception to the bad behavior. How sometimes we feel particularly flattered when someone who is obnoxious to someone else is nice to us. And I think I'm also very fascinated in how much one can get away with if one's sufficiently charming and sufficiently bold.

Part of what interested me about Henry is that he doesn't think of himself as behaving particularly badly. To him, the great pursuit of sort of Henry-dom justifies plagiarism, embezzling, financial misdealings. It all makes to him perfect sense. And I think such people put the rest of us who operate by different rules at a remarkable disadvantage.

Carole Burns: Can you talk about the character in THE MISSING WORLD at all? By the end of that book, I thought it was a study of evil.

Margot Livesey: I agree, and I think Jonathan in THE MISSING WORLD is clearly one of Henry's immediately ancestors, and it's hard to live in the contemporary world without being forced to ponder how it is that people can behave badly in so many different spheres. From the blatantly personal to the much more impersonal such as Enron or some of our leaders.

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Washington, DC: Do you feel you got closer to an answer to these questions through the process of writing the novel? By the way, I'm another Sewanee participant, and in 2002 heard you read from what was then your work-in-progress. The image of the clothing nailed to the floor has stayed with me ever since.

Margot Livesey: The image of the clothing nailed to the floor was one of the first things I came to in writing the novel. I was walking past a crime scene in London, and saw the outline of a body drawn on the pavement. Something about that eerie moment stayed with me, and when I sat down to begin BANISHING VERONA, I returned to that image as a way in which Verona, by nailing the coveralls she was wearing to the bedroom floor after sleeping with Zeke, could send a secret message to both Zeke and the reader.

The corny translation of the image would be, the crime that has taken place here is that you've stolen my heart. That something momentous has taken place.

Regarding the underlying questions of the novel--whether one can ever know another person or oneself--I think I did get closer to an answer, but it's the kind of answer that is mostly about an on-going experience rather than a finite or ultimate resolution. I think that like my character Zeke, I'm someone who finds change, particularly changes in my own feelings, quite confounding. Writing the novel made me realize all over again that there's something hopeful about these changes as well as confusing.

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Takoma Park, MD: I've watched with interest (and pleasure) as your work moves back and forth from more realistic to more mythical.

How do you strike the balance, and is it coincidence or a conscious aim to incorporate such "realistic oddities" as the two figures in Eva Moves the Furniture?

Margot Livesey: I think in EVA MOVES THE FURNITURE, the two companions were central to my aim in writing the novel and in dramatizing the way in which Eva is both blessed and isolated by her unique relationship with what we might call the supernatural. As for striking a balance between the mythical and the realistic, that's something I very much aspire to do, and I think several of my works have been based on very old stories. In CRIMINALS, I returned to the image of finding a baby or a changeling, and in BANISHING VERONA, I'm very much following in the footsteps of the many writers who have written novels of quests or pilgrimages, whether for romantic love or some other aim.

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Somewhere in America: I know that not all Scottish writers are alike, but...

there is a common outsiderness in approach. YOu're not English, but you're not all that upset about it unlike the Irish.

Comments?

Margot Livesey: I think there is some outsider approach shared by Scottish writers. That said, many Scottish writers seem to be writing in a working-class tradition, for instance, Irvine Welsh, Jeff Torrington, Janice Galloway, and A.L. Kennedy. So I sometimes feel like an outsider among outsiders, given that my fiction often seems to revolve around more middle-class characters.

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everready: hi, where are the announcements for these chats and which books are to be discussed in advance? thanks

Carole Burns: A question for me! You can sign up for announcements about "Off the Page" by sending me an e-mail at offthepage2004@yahoo.com.

You can also check the archive, which will post upcoming discussions, at this url:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/liveonline/style/books/offthepage/

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Carole Burns: When you talked about your mother's life, it made me wonder: How autobiographical is EVA MOVES THE FURNITURE? Margot Livesey: EVA MOVES THE FURNITURE is really a love song to my mother. It was a very conscious decision to put her name in the title, to use her real name, and to use everything I knew about her, which was not a great deal. But the parts about the character's relationship with the supernatural, about being visited by poltergeists, and seeing people who are not visible to most other people, comes directly from the handful of stories that I had about my mother. Many people recorded the presence of poltergeists. To say it's a joke is not quite round, but it was known that when she was around poltergeists would visit and move the furniture. And the story about her seeing other people who were not visible to most other people comes from someone who had what in Scotland we call "second sight," or being fey.

When I started the novel in 1987, those stories about the supernatural were one of the main reasons I wanted to write the novel. However, as soon became apparent, writing about otherworldly matters in the white Anglo-Saxon tradition is a peculiarly complicated thing to do, and I found myself struggling to bridge the gap between credulity and skepticism, which I think informs how many people regard such occurrences. Most people that I talk to turned out to have had a number of supernatural experiences themselves, whether it's a moment of telepathy or coincidence or a sense of intimacy with someone who's dead or far away. At the same time, most people express scorn or skepticism for other people's stories. So finding a way to say how Eva glimpses a world beyond normal appearance and yet not offend my more skeptical readers was a real challenge.

Carole Burns: Have you ever felt close to your mother in that way?

Margot Livesey: In writing the last chapter of EVA MOVES THE FURNITURE, which I wrote almost in a single sitting, I did have the experience of somehow being in contact with her, and although I'm the kind of person who revises things endlessly, I knew when I had written that chapter that I was not going to change it substantially.

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Carole Burns: And that's a wonderful way to end our discussion today. Thanks so much, Margot, for coming online, and thanks for all those fantastic questions.

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