Award-winning author Margot Livesey is interviewed by Gulf Stream’s Jennifer Maritza McCauley. Livesey was a resident author at the Miami Writer’s Institute, a program run by the Florida Center for the Literary Arts during the 2012 Miami International Book Fair. McCauley and Livesey discuss re-imagining the classic novel, the writer’s identity and process, inspiration and the triumphs and burdens of success.
JM: Re-imagining classic novels has become a popular trend in modern literature. The Flight of Gemma Hardy is loosely based on Jane Eyre. You also reference Jane Eyre in your novel House on Fortune Street. What was your relationship with Jane Eyre prior to writing The Flight of Gemma Hardy, and why did you choose to give Jane Eyre a “makeover”?
ML: I first read Jane Eyre when I was nine years old because the book had a girl’s name on the cover, and when I opened it, it turned out to be about a girl only a little older than me. (Jane is ten when the novel opens.) On that first reading there was much that I didn’t understand but I did passionately identify with Jane. I read the novel again at university for a course on Victorian literature and then several times thereafter to teach. I loved the novel differently each time I read it but I had never considered writing a remake of it, or indeed of any book. But then five or so years ago I found myself talking about Jane Eyre to a book club in Boston. The room was full of lively, opinionated readers, all of whom identified passionately with Jane. I drove home that night thinking about the enduring appeal of Bronte’s novel and of the great question she asks: how is a girl of no means and no family that she knows of to make her way in the world? I thought it would be interesting to ask that question again right before the great wave of feminism broke over both Europe and the States. A few weeks later I hid my copy of Jane Eyre and sat down to write The Flight of Gemma Hardy.
JM: Iceland is described with fresh, striking language. The country also has ties to Gemma’s identity. Why did you decide to give Iceland such importance in this novel?
ML: Soon after beginning my novel I became sharply aware that I needed to signal to the reader that I was not trying to reimagine Jane Eyre in every detail, not trying to transpose every scene to 1960s Scotland. To that end I decided that Gemma should have a non-Scottish part to her life. I cast around for where that should be and decided on Iceland in part because, along with Northern Scotland and Denmark, Iceland used to be part of the old Viking Empire and in part because it’s a small, literate country where a sizable proportion of the population claims to believe that elves are still living somewhere in Iceland.
JM: In an introduction to Ploughshares (Fall 2002), you stated, “One of the oddities of human discourse…is the discrepancy between the way we talk about ourselves and the way we talk about other people.” You go on to say, beautifully, “One of the principal virtues of reading fiction has always been that — more than biography or memoir, more than history — it allows us to pour our own inchoate lives…into those of another, and in so doing to begin to organize that experience, and to have a larger life. Do you feel your books contain scattered pieces of yourself? Do you feel you¹ve grown any closer acquiring “a larger life” when you complete a novel?
ML: I do feel that parts of myself are scattered throughout my various books. There is always something or someone in each of my novels that I care passionately about for personal reasons so, for instance, in The Missing World when I describe a woman losing part of her memory, I was in part writing about my own dependence on memory. Spending most of my time three thousand miles away from where I grew up, I am very dependent on memory to make my life whole. (Of course this is true for many people in the States.) I do feel that my life is larger when I’m writing a novel – it’s one of the reasons I love writing – but also when I’m reading one. I just re-read Great Expectations and was once again astonished by the amazing scene when Pip discovers that Magwitch the convict is his benefactor.
JM: Banishing Verona and The House on Fortune Street tackle multiple viewpoints from both male and female characters. Can you speak a bit about the difficulties of weaving all of these disparate voices into a coherent whole?
ML: One of the things that interests me about life is how persistently we inhabit our own point of view and one of the great virtues of literature is that, almost more than any other art form, it allows us to inhabit in an intimate way another point of view. The House on Fortune Street was a particularly complicated novel to write because I wanted to explore the very different points of view of characters who know each other well (or think they do). I also wanted to put the reader in the position of changing her mind as she reads so I hoped that most readers would dislike Abigail in part I of the novel (which is told from the point of view of her boyfriend, Sean). And that then, when the reader comes to part IV, which is told from Abigail’s point of view, she would begin to change her mind, or at least to realize that the story is more complicated than she understood. Juggling the four different points of view in the novel and deciding when they should overlap was very complicated but also thrilling. I loved the challenge of showing how differently two characters could understand the same situation or the same conversation.
JM: How does a story come to you? Do you start with a seedling of an idea or do you write about a subject that inspires you?
ML: Stories, and inspiration, come to me in different ways. My novel Eva Moves the Furniture is a love song to my mother who died when I was two and a half. Several people told me about her relationship with the supernatural. My novel Criminals grew out of seeing someone holding a poster of a baby beside a bus stop. From one moment to the next I decided to write a novel about someone who finds a baby at a bus station. My most recent novel, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, is inspired by Jane Eyre.
JM: You’ve accomplished so much. You’ve received the Guggenheim, the N.E.A., the Massachusetts Artists’ Foundation Fellowship, and teaching appointments at major universities. You write novels that book clubs read again and again. At your level of success, do you feel impervious to compliments and criticisms? What has been the most memorable criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?
ML: I think the most useful criticism I’ve received was from the editor who asked, quite simply, why would anyone want to read my novel? The fact that I couldn’t answer spoke volumes. Since then, I’ve tried to always be able to answer that question. The best compliment I’ve had recently came from a woman who told me she missed her subway stop in DC because she was reading The Flight of Gemma Hardy.