Interview by Nicole Melanson ~
Margot Livesey was born and grew up on the edge of the Scottish Highlands. Her father taught at a boys’ private school founded by William Gladstone in 1847 and her mother, Eva, was the school nurse. She attended the University of York in England and has taught in numerous American colleges and writing programs including Bowdoin College, Boston University, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She has been awarded fellowships by the Guggenheim Foundation, the N.E.A., and the Radcliffe Institute and is the author of a collection of stories and seven novels, including Eva Moves the Furniture, The House on Fortune Street and The Flight of Gemma Hardy. She is the fiction editor at Ploughshares magazine and a writer-in-residence at Emerson College in Boston. In August 2015 she will return to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?
I started writing the year after I graduated from university when I went travelling with my boyfriend of the time. While we wandered around Europe and North Africa he wrote a terrific book about the philosophy of science and I wrote a dreadful novel. My first breakthrough was realizing how bad the novel was; my next was writing a short story about something I could truly imagine (as opposed to only fantasise.) It helped that that story became my first publication.
WHAT IS YOUR LATEST BOOK OR CURRENT PROJECT?
I am working on a novel about an ophthalmologist whose wife becomes obsessed with training an amazing horse.
WHAT IS YOUR WORK ENVIRONMENT LIKE?
I mostly live in Cambridge, MA where I have a very nice work room at the top of the house. My husband, who paints beautiful abstract oil paintings, has a studio at the bottom. My work room looks out on our neighbours’ garden and contains many books and a computer which is never allowed to go online. Downstairs I have an office where I pay bills and do email and read my students’ work. I keep planning to do a new version of Virginia Woolf’s famous essay: two computers of one’s own.
WHEN DO YOU WORK? WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE?
I try to be at my desk, with a cup of coffee, by eight. I usually take a break around 12:30 to eat and faff around with email. Then I try to work some more and go to the gym. Later I cook. Many days have interruptions, either self-inflicted or from the outside world but I do try to keep the morning hours peaceful and for my own work.
WHAT IS YOUR WRITING PROCESS?
In an odd way that’s hard to say. I sit at my desk for four hours a day, making sentences but there is often a lot of thinking and looking things up and false starts. My novels have been written in very different ways. I wrote a draft of a novel called Criminals in three weeks and then revised it for a year. Another novel, Eva Moves the Furniture, took me twelve years (although happily I also did other things.)
WHY DO YOU DO WHAT YOU DO?
I used to think that I ought to work for Amnesty or Oxfam, do something more obviously useful than writing fiction, but as I’ve got older I’ve come to accept that writing fiction is what I do. I could make up reasons why this is the case but none of them would be the real reason.
WHO OR WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
Some combination of life, books and my personal preoccupations.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST PART OF WHAT YOU DO?
Right now I’d say that the hardest part is seeing clearly what I’ve actually put on the page, as opposed to what I hope I’ve put on the page.
WHAT IS YOUR ARTISTIC OR PROFESSIONAL VISION?
I keep trying to get better, to write something that is both beautiful and useful.
I wish the publishing industry were more like I used to imagine it was when I started writing: that publishers encouraged and supported young writers, helping them to get better. I wish, given the burgeoning number of books, there were more review space.
WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITE FEMALE AUTHORS?
George Eliot, Elizabeth Bowen, the Brontes.
WHICH FEMALE AUTHOR WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE INTERVIEWED ON WORDMOTHERS NEXT?
Thank you, Margot Livesey!
— Nicole Melanson
* Author photo by Rob Hann
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