Margot Livesey is the award-winning author of a story collection, Learning by Heart, and of the novels Homework, Criminals, The Missing World, and Eva Moves the Furniture, which was a New York Times Notable Book, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of the Year, and a PEN/Winship finalist. Born in Scotland, she currently lives in the Boston area, where she is writer in residence at Emerson College.
Author biography courtesy of Henry Holt and Company.
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Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Livesey:
"My worst job was a very brief stint at a Hare Krishna factory in Toronto, packing incense. The combination of compulsory prayers and of having my friends get out their handkerchiefs whenever I entered a room soon made me give notice. My favorite job was working as a cleaner at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. We managed to do the work in half the time we were paid for and I loved pushing my broom around the galleries, getting to look at the art day after day."
"The first Americans I ever met were a family who came to teach for a year at the boys' school where my father taught. They invited us over for New Year's Eve and instead of the usual festivities spent the evening showing us slides of their very extensive holidays in Yosemite. Ever since I've had a mild aversion to slide shows and I still haven't been to Yosemite."
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In the fall of 2004, Margot Livesey took some time out to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
This sounds self-centered but the book that had the biggest impact on me as a writer was the novel I wrote when I was twenty-two and traveling around Europe and North Africa. When I reread it at the end of the year I was amazed at how completely I had failed to be influenced by the many wonderful books I'd read. My characters were unbelievable, their conversations preposterous, the plot simultaneously dull and far-fetched, etc., etc. Seeing the enormous gap between the books I loved and my own was what made me want to be a writer in a serious way.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë -- I read this novel when I was twelve or thirteen and identified passionately with Jane. I was almost an orphan, I went to a school I detested, and I was still waiting for Rochester to fall off his horse at my feet.
Sunset Song by Lewis Grassick Gibbon -- After writing many books of nonfiction, the Scottish journalist Lewis Grassick Gibbon wrote this novel shortly before his early death. The book is set on a small farm outside Aberdeen, where Grassick Gibbon grew up, and revolves around Chris Guthrie, the farmer's daughter, who is torn between her loyalty to the land and her love of education. The ending brings tears to my eyes every time.
Parade's End by Ford Maddox Ford -- Ford's novel The Good Soldier is frequently mentioned in literary circles for its wonderful depiction of jealousy and betrayal but I'm even more interested in his stupendous novel Parade's End and his ruined hero Christopher Tietjens. Tietjens is a good man who almost always acts in his own worst interests. The scenes with his ex-wife are hair-raising and the account of the First World War, and the battles behind the battles, is remarkable.
The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West -- From the moment I read the opening sentence, "There was such a long pause that I wondered whether my Mamma and my Papa were ever going to speak to each other again," I was hooked on this gorgeous, eccentric novel about a family of musicians.
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino -- Surely everyone who reads this book is captivated by Calvino's inspired account of the imaginary cities that the explorer Marco Polo describes to Kubla Khan. And surely we can't help inventing our own cities.
Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar -- At my detestable school (and later at one I quite liked) one of my great pleasures was studying Latin. I loved the smug feeling of suddenly understanding the origins of certain words. And I loved reading about gods and heroes and adventures. Memoirs of Hadrian is not an easy book, but if you can make it through the first twenty or thirty pages then you're in for an amazing experience. How often does a book make you feel that you're on intimate terms with a man who ruled the ancient world?
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov -- I laughed, I cried, I sighed with readerly delight and writerly envy. Recently my pleasure in Nabokov's tour de force was deepened by reading The Annotated Lolita.
A Simple Heart by Flaubert -- My childhood was full of elderly aunts, women who'd lost their husbands or lovers or sons -- or the possibility thereof -- in two world wars, and all these women were devoted to housework. So I responded strongly to Flaubert's beautiful story of a housemaid who ends up giving most of her affection to a parrot.
The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant -- This marvelous Canadian writer, who has spent most of her adult life in Paris, does more in a short story than many writer do in a novel. Her stories are beautifully crafted, sophisticated, engaging, and, in the best way, utterly surprising.
The Collected Stories of William Trevor -- Over and over again the great Irish writer with his brilliant prose and his inexhaustible gift for empathy, shines a light on the secret, carefully hidden lives of his seemingly ordinary characters and in doing so shines a light on our lives.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?Rules of the Game by Jean Renoir -- I can't believe how much Renoir knows about his characters and how much he allows us to know about them.
Local Hero -- The West coast of Scotland is one of my favorite places in the world and I love how this film captures that landscape and its inhabitants.
Perhaps more surprisingly I also love The Road Warrior and The Terminator. Even though I spend most of my time with my eyes closed to avoid the violence, I have a secret affection for this genre where the hero faces insuperable odds and overcomes them, or at least lives to fight another day.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
My father always referred to music of any kind as "noise," and as a result I'm woefully ignorant in this area. Happily, my husband worships Bach and Brahms and also loves Brazilian music. I can't listen to anything while I write because I'm trying to listen to my own prose.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
I think we might be reading George Orwell's 1984. The reasons are surely obvious.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I almost always give fiction as gifts and that's what I hope to receive too. All my friends and relatives know to prepare themselves for hard, rectangular parcels at holidays and birthdays. I just sent my nieces in Australia Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle and Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
When I was younger and, at least in my memories, less busy, I had to start work at a certain time -- 8 a.m. -- and sit at my desk until 1 a.m. If I didn't have the whole morning it seemed hopeless to even pick up my pen. Now I ruthlessly snatch time whenever I can find it. On my desk I have various notes: "Six sausages, three men in purple ties," reads one. I also have a postcard of a painting of London Bridge in 1630 and the vertebra of a seal that my dear friend Andrea Barrett brought back from the Arctic.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I was the opposite of a natural writer. Growing up, I wanted to be a scientist, like Marie Curie, and discover a new element. But for reasons I can't quite explain, when I went to university I studied literature and philosophy. Creative writing wasn't taught in British universities at that time and I'm not sure it would have occurred to me to take a course if it had been. After writing my terrible novel (see above), I decided to work on short stories. They fitted better with the split shifts I was working as a waitress. Like many young writers I was attracted to extremity: I wrote one story about man who lived under a bridge in Toronto and was haunted by a smell, and another about a woman who kept being evicted. I spent most of my twenties gathering very well-deserved rejection slips. Finally I wrote a story about something I knew -- a young woman who hitchhikes home from her job in a late-night restaurant -- and it was accepted.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Be a good reader and try to write as if you were writing a personal advertisement and had to pay for every word.
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