Interviews · 12/20/2016

An Interview With Margot Livesey

Margot Livesey grew up in the Scottish Highlands, at a boys’ private school where her father taught. Her mother was the school nurse, but passed away when she was very young. After her formal education was finished, Livesey spent much of her twenties “working in shops and restaurants and learning to write.” She published her first collection of stories, Learning by Heart, in 1986 and has subsequently published eight novels: Homework, Criminals, The Missing World, Eva Moves the Furniture, Banishing Verona, The House on Fortune Street, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, and most recently, Mercury. Alice Sebold said that, “Every novel of Margot Livesey’s is, for her readers, a joyous discovery. Her work radiates with compassion and intelligence and always, deliciously, mystery,” while Julia Glass observed, “No one plumbs the depths of ordinary human folly and its consequences like the brilliantly perceptive Margot Livesey.” Jennifer Egan notes that, “Margot Livesey is a searingly intelligent writer at the height of her powers” and Lily King said of Mercury, “Livesey tells her tale masterfully, with intelligence, tenderness and a shrewd understanding of all our mercurial human impulses.” Livesey earned a B.A. in English and philosophy at the University of York in England, and she is a beloved professor and mentor who has taught both undergraduate and graduate level fiction writing at many colleges and universities including Emerson College, the University of California at Irvine, and Carnegie Mellon. She currently teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and she is regularly invited to teach at conferences such as the Sewanee Writers Conference and Bread Loaf. Her other honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the N.E.A., the Massachusetts Artists’ Foundation, and the Canada Council for the Arts. Livesey lives with her husband, a painter, in Cambridge, MA, and goes back to London and Scotland whenever she can.

Livesey’s latest novel Mercury, published in September 2016 by HarperCollins, explores the problems that arise in a marriage when two people grow in different directions and the ways in which seemingly minor choices add up to much larger betrayals. Part mystery, part psychological thriller, it is Livesey’s first novel set in the United States. The story follows Scottish born Donald Stevenson, an optometrist whose dear father has recently passed away, and his equestrian wife Viv, who helps to run a stable outside Boston and who grows increasingly obsessed with an exceptional horse named Mercury. As in all of her books, Livesey’s writing is nuanced, gorgeous, and intelligent in both clear and subtle ways. There are layers of meaning that make the reader feel smart by virtue of reading her work, and yet one does not need to know the many clever references to understand and be drawn into the main story itself. Gripping, tense, sprinkled with a touching humor and humanity amidst the tensions created by this faltering marriage, Mercury was a Kirkus Reviews starred review and made its “Best Fiction of 2016” list. People magazine said, “You’ll be glued to the page” and The New Yorker called Mercury, “consuming” while the Wall Street Journal praised the novel’s, “Intricately convincing relationships, and accomplished sentence-making.” The Seattle Times found it to be “[A] remarkable, powerful novel… The book’s concluding chapters are finely nuanced as Donald wrestles with his moral dilemma, and his own unwitting contributions to it.” The Boston Globe observed that, “Livesey’s prose has a brusque sensuality: It reads lucid and forthright and lean… Livesey roots tension not just in the bones but in the very marrow of the book.”

Margot Livesey talked to Necessary Fiction about the ways in which childhood influences can still hold an unexpected grip, how guns can be a catalyst for action, American exceptionalism, female ambition, and her interest in reluctant narrators amongst other topics related to Mercury.

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You’ve said this novel is an overtly political act, and it’s also your first novel set in the United States, so I’m curious about those two decisions as a writer?

One of the main ideas behind the novel grew out of what happened when I wrote a column on guns for The Boston Globe. Gun control is an incredibly vexed issue in the States and one for which, thankfully, we have no real analogy in Britain. Once I decided this was something I wanted to write about, setting a novel in the States became inevitable. I hope that Mercury implicitly makes an argument that life is safer when fewer people have access to guns.

To write that column, you attempted to purchase a gun legally in Cambridge, MA. Viv’s decision to buy a gun grows out of her fears for Mercury. She doesn’t even attempt to buy a gun legally but instead crosses state lines to buy one illegally. Given that many people in this country would say that she’s justified in wanting a gun why does she go this route?

There are several reasons why Viv makes this choice. One is a conversation she has with her friend Claudia’s boyfriend; Rick reveals that he keeps a gun at his house in New Hampshire. It’s Viv’s first encounter with someone like herself, middle-class, liberal, who sees having a gun as normal. Then there is her level of anxiety about Mercury. Horses are huge and powerful and fragile all at the same time, and she feels she must find a way to protect him immediately; she can’t wait to go through the normal channels. If she did go through those channels, could she keep the gun secret? And what if she failed? In Cambridge, once you’ve passed the gun safety course, you write to the Chief of Police, explaining why you want a gun. Typically a response takes 4-6 weeks. Other municipalities have different procedures and different waiting periods.

So for Viv the choice, which she sees as entirely rational, is whether to risk the delays and difficulties of buying a gun legally in Massachusetts, or whether to go to New Hampshire and get one right away?

Yes. And when I visited gun shops in New Hampshire, the people were very welcoming. I was quite open that I was only doing research for a novel, but they wanted to help me get the details right. They also behaved as if I were there to buy a new toaster. A gun was just another tool, and it was important that I get the right one. I live in a world where gun ownership is rare but very nearby is a world in which it’s the norm.

Because you’ve said this book is political, what would Donald, as a Scots American who is both an insider and an outsider in this country, think of the election?

He would be distressed by the lack of civility, the xenophobia, and the lack of concern for the environment. Donald wishes many things were different in the United States. For instance, he wishes there was good public education that did not depend on property values.

That leads me to one of the little betrayals in Viv and Donald’s marriage: the question of public versus private school for their children. One of your interests when writing the book was the concept of intellectual infidelity and how that can affect a marriage.

I watch my friends who are parents grapple with this issue. Often they passionately believe in public education, but then when their child begins to struggle in a school with large classes, perhaps inept leadership, perhaps little funding, many middle-class parents do break down and decide to try a private school. It makes them feel terrible, but they only have one chance to educate their child. Donald and Viv’s arguments over their son’s education foreshadow how Viv might change her mind about certain cherished ideals.

Talking about ideals and responsibility, I note that Donald holds himself to very high standards. He often seems wracked by guilt and self-blame in a way that neither Viv nor his friend Jack are prone to feeling. I’m curious about this idea of responsibility from an American perspective versus a Scottish one? Jack and Viv are as hard on Donald as he is on himself, but they are not similarly hard on themselves?

It’s easy when one hears of the death of a friend’s elderly father to think, “Oh, what a relief.” Viv really doesn’t understand the degree to which Donald is derailed by his father’s expected death. She has the outsider’s rational position – he was ill for a long time, he was suffering. At the same time, she blames Donald for not noticing that she too is struggling. When she first began running the riding stables, she found it exhilarating but now she feels stuck; there’s nowhere for her ambition to go. Isn’t it her husband’s job to know how she feels? He doesn’t blame her because he believes, in a Scottish-way, that he ought to pull himself together.

And it does make Viv more sympathetic that all the time Donald’s father was dying, she was the good trooper and took care of the household. Now she feels it’s her turn.

Yes. I’m borrowing from the great Elizabeth Bowen who claimed that just keeping something secret changes it. So something fairly innocent – e.g. Viv buying extra vitamins for Mercury – becomes quite complicated.

And when Donald decides not to tell Viv what he sees one night at the stables, it leads her to make a series of decisions she would not have made had she possessed that information. Conversely, when one of Donald’s patients dies and his grieving sons almost blame Donald, Viv says, “Well, you told him he was going to have cataract surgery, so of course he had a heart attack.” It’s a false equivalency, and so there is this question in the book of the grey areas of moral reason, of what is a sin of omission versus an omission meant to protect, a well-intended white lie.

I think even when people share a house, it can be surprisingly hard to have a certain kind of conversation, to get back on the same page, and neither Viv nor Donald is trying that hard. Instead the misunderstandings are piling up between them.

I’m reminded of the Internet meme where everyone was looking at the same dress, but some people insisted it was black and blue while others saw it as white and gold. In Mercury a series of unfortunate events lead to a dramatic conclusion because everyone is seeing a different colored dress so to speak. I was interested in the various moral dilemmas that get posed in conversations. In particular, there is a whole conversation about a man on a bridge, standing beside a fat man, watching two trains. The trains are about to crash and the man could prevent this by pushing the fat man off the bridge into the path of one of the trains; then only one person would die. Or the man could do nothing and the passengers on both trains would die. Donald and his family discuss who is on the train and what would be the consequences of the passengers being lost, but no one ever says, “What if the man jumped over himself to stop the train?” What does it say about these characters that self-sacrifice is not a possible solution?

That is such a good question. This is based on a famous philosophical example and why does no one ask that? I don’t know, Margaret! I think the idea is that the fat man is unusually substantial and could stop a train whereas the other character is normal sized and couldn’t? But it is fascinating that no one asks.

You grew up with the classics, and in this book, the family has an annual event honoring the Scottish poet Robert Burns. I wonder how many younger people, millennials today, are growing up having annual family celebrations for a poet?

I cannot speak to American millennials who may not be celebrating Robert Burns as they should, but in Scotland, it still remains a popular holiday. Burns was an unusual and very radical figure in embracing the Scots dialect. Like Robert Louis Stevenson, he wrote in two languages: proper English, and broad Scots.

It seems clear to me why you would have Robert Louis Stevenson as an influence in Donald’s boyhood and Robert Burns as a shared experience for his Scottish family. I’m curious about your choice of Margaret Fuller as an influence for Viv, the American?

One thing I was interested in exploring in Mercury was Henry James’s idea of American exceptionalism, and of Americans coming to Europe to find themselves. Of course Donald does the reverse, coming to the States. But I wanted to examine exceptionalism and ambition particularly with regard to women. I read Megan Marshall’s wonderful biography of Margaret Fuller, an ambitious woman who was not, in her life-time, cherished for her ambitions; she struck me as the perfect touchstone for Viv.

Regarding this idea of American exceptionalism, Donald says he’s never assumed he’ll be great. Viv always assumes she will be, but her friend Claudia confesses that she doesn’t hold such ideas. I wonder how much of this concept is tied to class? So the upper class Henry James and the upper-middle-class Viv can have an idea of exceptionalism that the less economically secure Claudia can’t. Of course in America we’re not supposed to be classist.

That’s a very astute question. For British writers, class is nearly always front and center. I would say that one of the challenges of writing a novel – there are so many of them – is not wanting your characters to be poster children for a particular view point or ideology. I wanted Viv to embody American exceptionalism, but I also wanted to suggest that by no means all Americans are saying “I’m going to be President,” or “I’m going to ride a champion horse.”

In Viv’s case, this idea of exceptionalism fuels her growing fixation with Mercury. I’m curious, since the novel is about female obsession, why you chose to tell the story from Donald’s point of view? He gets 19 chapters on either end of her 14, 219 pages to her 82. It’s also very clear that Donald is addressing the reader while Viv is appealing to Donald. This leads to the question of whose story is it? Who’s to blame? Who has the power to forgive? Why did you choose Donald’s point of view as the main one?

When I first started, I thought Donald would tell the whole story and then, as Viv began to behave more and more badly, I worried that we’d be seeing her behavior only from the outside. We wouldn’t understand how this woman, who holds many liberal causes dear, comes to cross certain lines, so it seemed essential to have her voice. I decided to write her chapters as if she were confessing to Donald, trying to justify what is perhaps unjustifiable. Her chapters are a distillation of several conversations with Donald as she pleads her case.

Donald is an immigrant raising an American family, but in so many ways he is a Scotsman in exile. Initially, it is not a chosen fate, but over time he makes many choices, for example he goes to school in Scotland, but he comes back, and I was wondering about his baggage of exile, which is very different from Viv’s baggage, and how does that impact his choices?

I think at a number of junctures, Donald chooses his family over himself. He comes back to the States because his father has Parkinson’s. He gives up his beloved surgery and becomes an optometrist with more predictable hours because his father needs more help. One of the reasons he doesn’t fully sympathize with Viv’s situation is because he himself is making sacrifices that are not acknowledged. He has curtailed his ambitions; why can’t she?

You grew up on the grounds of a boys’ boarding school in Scotland. I’m curious how that experience contributed to your shaping of and understanding of Donald’s character and how that shaped your goals for him as a character?

One of the things that I didn’t understand during my childhood was how many of the adults in my life had been involved in the Second World War. Very few of them talked about it. Some of them had had good wars and some of them had bad wars, but good or bad, it wasn’t mentioned. And then late in life, many of these same people suddenly began to talk about things that had happened 40-50 years earlier. I was fascinated by how certain experiences, often traumatic, but not invariably, had stayed with them. It made me think about Flaubert’s remark in Madame Bovary that speech steamrollers experiences. Americans tend to talk more openly about their experiences and does that make their experiences more intense, or less? The Scottish position would probably be less. So I think Donald has a very conflicted position. It’s only when he finds himself mired in indecision that it occurs to him that perhaps he needs help of the kind many Americans might seek from a therapist, or a religious person.

Which brings us to the issue that Donald is the optometrist who can’t see the people around him, and Viv is the equestrian whose ambitions blind, or blinker, her to the consequences of her decisions.

I’m a committed feminist, so I’m in favor of female ambition and indeed most of the women I know are ambitious. At the same time most of the women I know have a hard time admitting to their ambition. It seems unseemly, or boastful, or far-fetched.

On that subject, there is a conversation between Donald and Viv when he learns she has paid for something without telling him. Donald is upset about Viv’s oversight, while she is upset that she has to tell him because it feels like a form of servitude. There is a distinct lack of communication going on here. Part of Viv’s story, part of what she hasn’t dealt with, is the loss of her horse Nutmeg in her youth. She doesn’t recognize the depths of Donald’s feelings over his father, but he has never understood the depths of her grief about Nutmeg. I thought of Langston Hughes and the question of what happens to a dream deferred in terms of these two and how deferred dreams serve as a catalyst for the action?

Yes, and her dream has a time frame. In her late thirties Viv is very fit, but she hears the clock ticking. People do keep riding well into their 80s, but, if she is going to become a champion, she needs to do it soon.

Nutmeg and Mercury are both important to your narrative. I was wondering about your decision to use non-human characters as a way to tell your story? They serve several functions, for example the parrot Nabokov brings humor to moments of tension, like when he quips, “Now is the winter of discount tents.” And the gun begins to function like a character too. Could you talk about using objects and animals as characters?

Growing up in the country, most people I knew shared their lives with animals. In the case of Nabokov, I loved the idea that the parrot could hold on to the father’s words and be a living memory, and that he could also serve as a canary in a coal mine. Donald is grieving so deeply for his father that he doesn’t even notice that Nabokov is pulling out his feathers. But I also wanted to suggest that memory changes; Nabokov begins to sound less and less like the father. In the case of Mercury, I tried not to let him become too anthropomorphized, to show him as this fantastically well trained athlete, which is what equestrians prize in a horse, and at the same time to suggest that for Viv he is much more than that. He’s the embodiment of these possibilities that she hopes at last to realize. And in an interesting way a horse is a more questionable object of ambition than, say, curing diabetes.

Having a gun puts a certain pressure on the narrative and I knew once I produced a gun that it would be used. But that’s also true in life. Guns create possibilities. When I was researching my novel The House on Fortune Street I discovered how many suicides occur only because someone has access to a gun at a moment of despair. Viv thinks at first, “Oh, everyone will know I have a gun,” and then she thinks, “Oh, nobody knows, and I have control of it.”

Even the unknown gun gives her power, and the gun, as you say, works as a catalyst, which leads me to another question: this book is described as a psychological thriller but it’s also clearly literary fiction and a family drama. It’s so many things that it defies genre, which is part of its loveliness. I wonder about your process in terms of writing and structuring the book. There is a lot of foreshadowing whether through dreams or things Donald says. There are these sort of metaphorical guns set to go off, and information is presented like clues, a dramatic irony where the reader can see things the characters don’t, so that it feels very much like a mystery too, though this novel isn’t going to be found in the mystery section of the book store. Was that element purposeful?

As I worked on Mercury, I kept thinking about Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier where all the terrible events have already happened when the narrator begins to write. He says, “Imagine me telling this;” at the same time he doesn’t want to tell the story. People often talk about unreliable narrators, but I think I’m more interested in reluctant narrators, like Donald.

Donald definitely feels like a reluctant narrator, but Viv seems like a very unreliable narrator. Although she says she wants to be a truthful person, she’s constantly lying, to herself mostly, and to Donald. Her equivocation does lead the reader to question how reliable Viv is not just as a narrator, but as a person. How did she become that way?

As a child, my formidable Sunday school teacher, Mr. Chisolm, divided the world into good and bad, right and wrong. He made it sound very simple. All you had to do was be a good person, tell the truth, be kind, and all would be well. It was a big shock to discover that things didn’t work that way.

This is a book about a marriage and two people who have grown in different directions. Metaphorically, some kind of gun is going to go off between these two because life circumstances are driving them apart. I wonder how much is fate and how much is choice?

I wish I knew! In telling their life stories people often make it sound as if they’d made decisions but I think things often feel rather random at the time. Middle-class people want to believe that they have free will, that they’re not in the grip of history. They also want to believe that they can shed their childhood pressures and patterns and remake themselves. But are either of these things true? Looking at my own life, I go back and forth between different versions. Was that freely chosen? Or was it chosen because I lost my mother at an early age? My current view is that we’re all negotiating between our past and present selves, and we all live in the grip of history.

Which ties back into the idea of American exceptionalism, that we are bound for greatness, that is where we are inexorably headed, contrasted with the idea from Robert Burns, “the best laid plans of mice and men.” Donald, despite his love of Robert Burns, seems unprepared for the reality that he can’t control of everything.

Yes, Donald discovers that being who he is, a reticent person who tends to hang back at moments of decision, is very unhelpful at times of crisis. The big question for Donald, and it becomes more and more piercing as the novel continues, is, “Which should you betray: your ideals, or the people you love?” He struggles to answer this question in various ways. And Viv too, in a way, is choosing between her ideals and the people she loves.

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Margot Livesey is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels The Flight of Gemma Hardy, The House on Fortune Street, Banishing Verona, Eva Moves the Furniture, The Missing World, Criminals, and Homework. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Vogue, and the Atlantic, and she is the recipient of grants from both the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. The House on Fortune Street won the 2009 L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award. Born in Scotland, Livesey currently lives in the Boston area and is a professor of fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. To find out more about Margot Livesey, her writing, and her appearances, you can go to her website, MargotLivesey.com

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Margaret Zamos-Monteith (margaretzamosmonteith.com) earned a BA from USC, an MA from Columbia University, and an MFA from Brooklyn College. The recipient of an NEH stipend, a finalist for the Southwest Review’s David Nathan Meyerson Fiction Prize, and a semi-finalist for The L Magazine’s Literary Upstart, her writing has appeared in BOMB, Fugue, Gargoyle, Evergreen Review, and other places.