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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book cover

Banishing Verona
[Click the title
to buy this book]

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?

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Presented by

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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