Interviews December 2004

Character Is Action

Margot Livesey talks about her new novel, Banishing Verona, and her commitment to writing literary page-turners
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Banishing Verona
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by Margot Livesey
Henry Holt and Co.
336 pages, $24.00

A woman shows up unannounced at a home in North London, suitcase in hand. She is pregnant. She needs a place to hide, but she doesn't reveal this fact to the man who answers the door, the man who she knows has been hired to paint the house. Instead, she tells him that she is the owners' niece. He invites her in. He has no reason to distrust her, no reason to believe that in the next twenty-four hours he will fall in love, and no reason to suspect she will leave before he even learns her name.

Meet Zeke and Verona, the protagonists of Margot Livesey's new novel, Banishing Verona. In the tradition of the epic journey narrative, Livesey set out to write a modern-day quest novel, and this is where Zeke and Verona begin their journeys. Zeke's goal: to find the "non-niece." Verona's: to find her brother, whose debts have him—and now her—on the run. Zeke and Verona travel paths that are mostly separate yet that take both of them to America and toward certain realizations about what they will risk for love.

Banishing Verona is a love story, but it wouldn't be a Livesey novel without an element of mystery and a few plots twists to keep us turning the pages. Whether it be a man who finds a baby at a bus station (in Criminals), a woman who gets in an accident and loses her memory (in The Missing World), or a young girl who realizes that her otherworldly friends may do her harm (in Eva Moves the Furniture), Livesey has a way of putting her characters in difficult situations that require action.

In Banishing Verona she has two strong, very dissimilar characters on the stage. Zeke, a carpenter and painter, has Asperger's syndrome, a condition that gives him a unique perspective on the world. He cannot lie; he doesn't understand humor; he likes numbers but can't always "cope with the people on the other end of them." Verona, in contrast, is a successful radio-show host, and dealing with people and their myriad problems is her job. She is independent, well traveled, and impulsive. Before walking out on Zeke with no explanation, she leaves him a sign:

Upstairs, she rolled up the rug at the foot of the bed. Then she spread out the coveralls she had worn the day before and nailed them at the collar, the sleeves, the ankles. No way he could think that this gesture was an accident, part of her careless housekeeping. And perhaps he would understand what she was trying to tell him: that what had happened here was as important as the events in any crime scene.

Zeke does take notice, even if he does not entirely understand the message. As he sets off on his search for Verona, he faces a difficult inward journey as well. Encumbered by family responsibilities that complicate their attempts to reunite, Zeke and Verona must discover the limits of their familial loyalties and decide how far they are willing to go to be together.

As one of Livesey's former students, I was pleased to have the opportunity to turn the tables, to be the one asking questions about her work, about her process, about her characters. Banishing Verona is her fifth novel, and she has also written a short story collection, Learning by Heart. Originally from Scotland, she has lived in the Boston area on-and-off for nearly twenty years. She is currently a writer-in-residence at Emerson College.

I spoke to her by telephone on November 11 while she was in Chicago on a book tour.

Jessica Murphy


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Margot Livesey

 

My first contact with Banishing Verona was as a short story ("The Niece") in The New Yorker. Did you first conceive of it as a novel or as a short story?

Actually, I had always seen that story as the opening chapter of the novel. How it came to be in The New Yorker was that Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor, was at a reading I gave where I read my opening chapter. She said very casually to me, "I liked what you read. Why don't you send it to me?" Six months later, she phoned me with some suggestions, and we went back and forth and turned it into something more resembling a short story. Her big concern was that it was just a little too open-ended, so we gave it a bit more closure.

How was that process of working backwards, of turning what was initially conceived as a larger story into something a lot more concise?

I worried a little bit that I was undermining myself, or doing things that would make it harder to go forward with the novel, which was still in its infancy. I had maybe eight or nine chapters at the time I was working with Deborah. But she was very sympathetic to my concerns and was good at helping me to go deeper into the characters. That proved to be very useful and helped the novel move forward. I did, however, change some of the superficial events in the story when I published it as the opening chapter of the novel.

I do believe, as Aristotle says, that character is action. But sometimes events can just seem like clothing your characters put on. And you can change that clothing without changing your deeper intentions for the character, or your deeper intentions for the work. In The New Yorker story I felt that my characters were just dressed slightly differently, or were differently accessorized.

The characters' defining actions do stay the same. The final scene—in both the short story and the first chapter—is Verona's mysterious act of nailing her coveralls to the floor before she disappears. The mystery of this act speaks to the element of mystery and suspense in all of your novels. Why are you drawn to mystery and suspense in your storytelling?

I think it has a lot to do with my early reading—with reading adventure stories and those great rambunctious Victorian novels. As a child I read things like The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan and Rider Haggard's She, and a lot of what I suppose were actually boys' adventure stories, but I never stopped to think about that. At a very early age I fell in love with books in which a character is on some kind of journey or quest, and in which there's a real urgency about turning the pages and finding out what happens next. I remember years ago talking to Walter Mosley and him saying that in a sense every good novel was a mystery story. And I think there's something to that. Of course, I'm conceiving of this very broadly, so that something like The Portrait of a Lady would qualify as a mystery story. But I do aspire to write books which will make the reader feel some urgency to keep reading, to keep my characters company wherever they're going.

In a panel discussion you were a part of last year, I recall your saying that you challenged yourself to write a novel that your very busy sisters would stay awake at night to read. And in an interview you said that you make the reader's entertainment a priority. How do you go about doing that?

I do try both to entertain and—to educate sounds pompous—to give my work a deeper meaning beneath the entertainment, so that the reader will be satisfied in several ways at once. What I typically try to do is put my characters in a situation where they'll have to act, where they'll have to go forward. That situation could be suddenly discovering that your playmates are not visible to your closest relatives, as in Eva Moves the Furniture; or discovering that your ex-girlfriend has lost her memory and conveniently forgotten her break-up with you, as in The Missing World; or meeting somebody whom you're immensely attracted to and who abruptly disappears before you find out her name. I'm always trying to put my characters in a situation where there will be something that they want to find. If the characters want something, then very often the reader wants something as well.

Let's talk about Zeke, one of your protagonists in Banishing Verona. We see the world through his eyes. He counts things. He seeks out a hiding place in the homes that he works on, where he might stash water and biscuits. He's suffered a nervous breakdown. We later find out that Zeke has Asperger's syndrome. Could you tell us a little bit about Asperger's syndrome, and how you decided to make someone with that condition one of your point-of-view characters?

I first came to my knowledge of Asperger's syndrome when the son of a dear friend was diagnosed with it in the early nineties. In keeping him and his mother company, I began to find out about this condition, which was first diagnosed about fifty years ago. But it's only in the last decade that this diagnosis has become more common and that people have become more aware of it. As I began to learn more about it, I began to understand that it explained a number of the rather eccentric schoolmasters whom I knew growing up from the boys' school where my father taught.

Asperger's is a cluster of conditions: lack of empathy, difficulty with social interaction, obsessive behavior, lack of coordination, numerical or musical skills. There are six or seven conditions—"characteristics" is a better word—and if you have two or three of these you could be somewhere on the Asperger's spectrum. Part of what interested me was that many people with Asperger's function very well in the world in some areas, while still having considerable difficulty in others. And that seems to me a wonderful metaphor for all of us. The difficulty that people with Asperger's have in reading the world is just an extension of what many of us feel in social situations, in our romantic relationships, with our friends and family. Perhaps some of us are quicker to think we do understand things, but then quite often it turns out that we've actually got things wrong. So it seemed to me that this was a condition that almost everyone could identify with.

What are some of the challenges of seeing the world through the eyes of a character who has certain limitations?

Well, it did make me realize how many things we just summarize—as writers, and also simply in our going about the world. We look at a person and say she smiled. We think of that as a description, but it's actually a summary of a whole lot of small things that go together to make up what we've learned from our earliest years to describe as a smile. I realized how much of the way we apprehend other people was that kind of summary. The challenge was to show how Zeke doesn't see it as a smile—he only sees the separate elements that make up a smile—without belaboring that description, which would wear the reader down. So I really struggled to pick his moments of consciousness. I was struck even from the very beginning that he was the sort of character about whom I could easily write six hundred pages, all about a single day in his life. But I didn't want to subject the reader to that—or myself, actually!

This is your first novel where part of it is set in the United States. Both Zeke and Verona make wonderful observations about the Boston area, about Bostonians. Was it difficult for you to write about a new place?

It was more difficult than I expected. To write the chapters set in Boston and New York I had to go look at things again and try to see them as if for the first time, rather than through the happy lens of familiarity that I have developed with both those cities. It would've been great if I'd written those sections when I first came to Boston and New York twenty years ago. One thing I did was talk to some friends who were new to America and get them to walk me through their impressions of the cities and what really stood out for them. That was tremendously helpful. And again, picking and choosing what I was going to show was crucial. I actually had quite a lot more material set in both cities that I ended up cutting from the final version of the novel.

It was also a challenge to figure out how to write the American dialogue. There wasn't a great deal of it, but I was always conscious of wanting to make my characters sound American without making them sound like parodies of Americans.

The story is structured so that we alternate between Zeke's and Verona's points of view. How did you decide on this structure? And what are the advantages of this type of narration?

At first I thought of trying to write something more like the omniscient point of view, so that we would go back and forth between the two characters whenever they were together. But it rapidly became apparent that their respective ways of looking at the world were so radically different that it felt too jarring to try to combine their points of view in the same chapter. I began to see that dissonance as one of the strengths of the novel.

One of the things that kept me going was that old saying—I don't know where it comes from—that every exit is always an entrance, or perhaps it's every entrance is always an exit. I kept thinking that about these characters—whenever they're apart they still go on with their separate lives. And that's one of the things that propelled the novel forward. I also realized that the things that were going on in their separate lives were absolutely essential to the novel, and provided ways of delving deeper into my questions about whether we can ever know another person, whether we can ever know ourselves, whether we can ever trust our rather changeable emotions.

I read that you got the idea for The Missing World from an article in People magazine. Eva Moves the Furniture was heavily based on stories of your mother. Where did you find your characters for Banishing Verona? In general, where do you find your inspiration, your material for stories?

You've already cited a couple of my sources, which are popular magazines and local newspapers with their often farfetched stories about our neighbors. In the case of Banishing Verona, I think I had these intertwined ambitions: to write a quest novel and to write about someone who struggles to read the world, as Zeke does. A quest novel is a novel in which a character is very purposefully looking for something. Quest novels are one of our oldest literary forms, beginning with the Odyssey and moving unsteadily forward through The Pilgrim's Progress and Chaucer's tales and Beowulf. We have many such wonderful stories, and I really wanted to write something in this tradition.

When I started thinking about Zeke I realized that the challenge for him would be to find another person with whom he could connect emotionally—that would be his quest. The difficult thing for him would be to see if he could trust in his emotions. I also wanted to write about a strong female character. In Criminals and The Missing World women were very important to the plot, but they weren't as bold or impetuous as I would have liked. I wanted to write about a woman who, while not having her life totally under control, was strong-willed and impetuous and out and about in the world in a fairly forceful way.

Also, I've met a number of radio-show hosts in my years as a writer, and I've been struck by the way they're so good at entering into other people's lives—how they're so empathetic, and know a little about a great many things. (And perhaps a lot about some things. I don't mean to sound disparaging for a second.) I thought that would be a wonderful profession for Verona, one that highlighted her gift for listening, which is one of the first things that Zeke finds attractive about her.

Verona, for her part, likes that Zeke brings order to things—in his work, in the way he processes his thoughts. In contrast, her job is to ask questions that often complicate things. Zeke and Verona are very different in many ways, yet you can also see why each of them needs the other half, or at least why the other is so intriguing.

I'm glad you felt that. A significant part of Zeke's attraction is that he can't help telling the truth. And living as she does in a mendacious and calculating world, Verona finds that immensely appealing, immensely endearing. And Zeke finds it terribly appealing that Verona is seven months pregnant—that there could be a baby and the baby wouldn't be messed up by having his bad genes. In spite of all Zeke's uncertainty, I think you can glimpse that he might be a good, attentive father if he gets the chance.

Another thing about Zeke is that he's really good looking. But I intentionally keep that from the reader until later, because I'm always struck by the fact that people read more with the inner eye than with the outer eye. If a beautiful, lithe, blonde woman—some sort of stereotype of feminine beauty—walks down the street in a novel and doesn't give money to a homeless person, we're not going to be swayed by her beauty. We're going to think, Tut, tut, you're being so mean. I really wanted it to come as a surprise to the reader that Zeke is so good looking, because it isn't something that he pays much attention to himself, even if it's a formidable part of how other people see him. And I thought that was important to his character.

It took you about twelve years to finish Eva Moves the Furniture and, if I'm correct, you wrote a few novels in between. You wrote a draft of Criminals in three weeks. It sounds like your writing-and-revision process can vary drastically from novel to novel. How would you describe it?

Eva Moves the Furniture was a very particular case for me. I actually wrote three novels while I was working on it. More than anything else I've written so far, Eva grew out of very strong personal feelings. Those personal feelings were what kept me working on it for many years. But they were also a handicap, because I worried that my devotion to the characters and my devotion to the material would outweigh that of my readers. Part of the challenge was to make this material, which was so privately important, publicly interesting. Whereas a novel like Criminals was conceived at that intersection between my private and more public interests.

Banishing Verona had a slightly odd journey as well. As soon as I finished The Missing World, I had this idea for a quest novel, and I sat down and wrote the opening chapter about a man and a woman meeting in an empty house in London and being, as it were, struck by lightning. Then I finished the chapter, and I felt once again tormented by the many different drafts of Eva Moves Furniture that were piled up in my study. I thought, This is completely pointless in terms of my career. But I will just sit down and try to finish this novel once and for all to my own satisfaction, and photocopy it, and give it to a few friends, and try to make my peace with this huge failure. I sat down and I worked on the novel one more time without any thought of publication, and near the end of the final draft I spoke to my agent and confessed that this was what I'd been working on. Very happily for me, it went on to see the light of day.

From Atlantic Unbound:

"The Science of Stories" (January 30, 2002)
Andrea Barrett, the author of Servants of the Map, on how she combines her love of storytelling and her fascination with scientific inquiry

But it meant that almost eighteen months passed before I got back to Zeke and Verona, and I thought that was a very good test for the novel. I wasn't sure if I would still want to work on it. But when I went back to it I found that I was still delighted by the characters and still deeply intrigued by their situation, and that while I hadn't been paying attention a lot of ideas had come to me about the novel. Having begun the novel with Zeke, I found that when I went back to it I had a much stronger sense of Verona. Once I returned to it, I worked on it fairly steadily. There was, I have to say, a great deal of revising. At one point the novel had something like ten more chapters than it does in its final form, and there were many pages that went directly into the wastepaper basket. Much of this I had to write in order to find my way, but I really didn't need to inflict it on the reader, as I gradually discovered with the help of my editor, my agent, and my dear friend, Andrea Barrett.

In The Eleventh Draft, a collection of essays about writing edited by Frank Conroy, you advised aspiring writers to read in order to learn about fiction's "hidden machinery." You go on to say that this is the business of the apprenticeship. How long would you say your apprenticeship lasted before you understood the "hidden machinery"?

In some ways my apprenticeship is still going on. But I do think I have a much better sense of the form of a novel than I did when I started out. When you first start writing a novel all kinds of things seem possible. Gradually those possibilities get narrowed down to actualities, and all of a sudden you're writing one sort of novel and not another. I'd have to say that although I still like what I did in Homework, my first novel, it was probably the experience of writing Criminals that gave me a clearer sense of how to shape a novel, how to create tension and suspense on the one hand and depth on the other. Criminals began as an elaborately plotted novel. The key to making that work was to go back and give the characters depth and a real emotional life. That process got me thinking about what we look for in characters, what it is that makes readers identify with the great characters in literature, like Dorothea in Middlemarch or Mrs. Dalloway or whoever leaps to mind.

And I would also say that part of the challenge as a writer is to learn how to keep expanding your material and to not repeat yourself. I see the novelists I most admire—Andrea comes to mind, and Jim Shepard and Francine Prose and Gish Jen—actively looking for new material, and doing such interesting things with that material in each book they write.

I recently reread your introduction to the Ploughshares issue for which you were the guest fiction editor. You ask some very good questions in that introduction: "Why should [people] read my slender novel … when they could, on the one hand, be finding out more about human progress, or, on the other hand, grappling with human suffering? Isn't it hard enough to keep abreast with what's going on in the real world without also having to explore invented worlds? And in the face of so much turmoil, mightn't both writing and reading fiction seem like Nero fiddling while Rome burns—pure escapism?" How do you answer these questions?

I think those remain profound questions. I was in Toronto last weekend and I was appearing with three other writers, two of whom had written fate-of-the-earth types of books—about where the planet is headed, about what is happening to agriculture and our cities. And I was once again forced, implicitly, to make a case for the novel and for the kind of news that it brings us.

Over the last couple of years, the world has seemed increasingly troubled to most of us, and I think as a consequence we have become particularly dependent on the integrity of our private relationships. One of the things that people crave when they search for romantic love is that sense of being seen by another person, of being understood at a deep level, and I believe that is also one of the things that we crave as readers. When reading we often grow to understand the fictional characters at a much deeper level than we understand even people whom we've known for many years. When people first began writing and reading novels in the eighteenth century, one of the things traditionally said about the novel was that the invented characters gave the reader a chance to reinvent himself—that through the particularities of a character's life, you could reexamine your own life. I do think that's true. I think the more troubled the world around us becomes, the more we're aware that we're leading our own very singular and quite limited lives. I believe that novels give us—more profoundly than any nonfiction can—a sense of what it would be like to live another life. So I persist in thinking that novels have a very important place in our reading time.

You're a writer and you're also a teacher at an M.F.A. program. I wonder if you might speak a little bit about the value of teaching as a writer and perhaps what some of the challenges might be.

Having spent most of my twenties working in rather peculiar jobs before finally settling down as a waitress, I still feel enormously lucky to be in a classroom—rather than asking people how they'd like their steaks done or whether they prefer rice or baked potatoes. You know, the huge questions. Now I get to ask people whether they think Gurov shouldn't have made a pass at Anna in "Lady with a Lapdog," or if there was something King Lear could have done differently.

Teaching gives me a number of tremendous gifts. It presents me with the opportunity to revisit literary works I like. That's a huge gift, because normally people don't have an occasion to closely reread their favorite novels and stories every few years. And I get to do that. Also, I get to keep company, in a particularly intimate way, with people in their twenties and thirties. I find that a great privilege. Through my students' work I have a real window into how people that age see themselves and their lives and their relationships.

As a Scottish writer teaching American students, I have the advantage of not exactly sharing my students' subject matter. I sometimes think I would find it a little bit harder if I taught in Britain. I can't speak for my American colleagues who teach, and maybe they don't find that overlap to be a problem. But I definitely feel that an important part of what I can offer my students is the curiosity of a reader who is unfamiliar with much of their material. At the same time, I don't feel encroached upon by their material, as I sometimes think I might have if they too had gone to a Scottish girls' school.

In a recent profile in The New York Times Magazine, Alice Munro was quoted as saying that she writes stories she likes to read. How simple! And yet, how profoundly difficult to do. In your own experience, when you're working on a story, hammering out the sentences, revising, and making big decisions about a character, is this something you keep in mind?

I saw that wonderful interview, and I loved her for saying that. I do think that is one of the things that I've gotten somewhat better at as I've gotten older. The truth is, when I first started writing, I was writing things that I wouldn't really have wanted to read myself. I wrote things that were horribly interior, with lots and lots of consciousness and then very hurried action, as if all the characters had suddenly remembered that they had to do something. They would dash around for a few pages doing things and then sink back into their interior lives. The effect was just dreadful.

But I think as I've gotten older, I've become a more conscious reader. I still read passionately, and I give myself over to books passionately. But I think I'm also a little better at stepping back from my passionate reading to think about what is making a book work at a deeper level for me, and how I can try to make my own work operate at that level. What I'm looking for as a reader is a deep engagement with character and to some degree with plot, along with the excitement of language and of the world being reinvented on the page for me. I find all those things in the books I love and then I try to take them back to my own work.

Who are you reading these days?

Right now I'm reading a rather peculiar combination of things. I'm reading Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, which just won the Booker Prize in England. I would have been reading that anyway because I've been reading his work ever since The Swimming Pool Library came out years ago, which I thought was just brilliant. He has so many sentences that make me sigh with pleasure. I'm also reading Dickens's novel Little Dorrit, which ought in fact to be called Very Chubby Dorrit. It's about a thousand pages. Gish Jen, who's a friend, suggested we read it together.

You are, as we speak, in Chicago on a book tour. How would you describe the transition from being alone for months and months with these characters to suddenly sharing these people with a larger community, reading your work out loud, being in the public eye?

For the most part, I find it amazing and deeply pleasurable. A book tour is really the first moment when I believe that there is a book and that it has a life independent of me. That's quite an amazing thing. When people say to me things like, "I just wanted to understand a little better why Zeke hates working in his parents' shop," or they ask me questions about the characters as if the characters were real people, then I finally feel I achieved my purpose—that the characters can survive without me. After months and years of being tied to me by an umbilical cord, they're finally free to go out and have a life of their own. Sometimes people ask disconcerting questions or have a very different sense of my characters than I do, and I think there's something thrilling even about that, the fact that people can have such different opinions about my creations.

It's also just extremely nice to be reminded of the way in which reading unites people. It transcends all kinds of local differences, along with age, gender, and background. Reading cuts across all these things, and I realize that acutely traveling across a country as large as America.

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Jessica Murphy Moo

Jessica Murphy, a former Atlantic staff editor, is the 2006-2007 Milton Center writing fellow in Seattle, Washington. Her writing has appeared in Poets & Writers Magazine and her fiction is forthcoming in Memorious magazine.

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