by Margot Livesey
Published by Henry Holt & Company
336 pages, 2004
If there were an easy way to tell a story, Margot Livesey wouldn't choose it. Her novels are often described as both readable and literary, but Livesey balks at these labels -- even as she thrives on the challenge of creating fiction that is simultaneously meaningful and compelling.
Livesey's luminous 2001 novel, Eva Moves the Furniture, can't have been easy. The book is a fictional biography of the author's mother, Eva McEwen, who died when Livesey was two-and-a-half. It took 12 years to write, but the novel is a triumph: alluring, subtle and unclassifiable.
Unable to dislodge the novel's characters from her mind, New York Times reviewer Valerie Martin puzzled over its enduring effect before concluding, "This is a novel that enters the reader's life .... It looks harmless enough, like a child's fantasy, inhabiting a fairytale in which powerful, otherworldly forces are at work, but reader beware. If you give Eva McEwen just a little space in your own imagination, she will start moving the furniture."
Livesey's most recent novel, Banishing Verona, works a similar magic on a different site: the human heart.
Ostensibly a love story, Banishing Verona is divided between two interior perspectives, making the most of Livesey's extraordinary ability to create captivating, fully human characters. Zeke is a London housepainter with the face of a Raphael angel and an oddly-wired brain. Unable to interpret human expression, Zeke cannot lie or joke or recognize his own mother when she comes to his door unexpectedly. He must continually sort his impressions of the world using the gifts and deficits of Asperger's syndrome, an autism-spectrum disorder.
Verona is Zeke's perfect complement. A chatty radio host, she is large, bold, impulsive, pregnant and unmarried. Bound by family loyalty to her lying scoundrel of a brother, Verona needs dear, honest Zeke the way dry land needs water. Zeke needs Verona in the same pure way. However, the demands of their families (Verona's brother, Zeke's parents) conspire to keep them apart.
New York Times reviewer Richard Eder wrote, "Both characters are distractingly human. Zeke, in fact, expands (as is fiction's mission) our notion of what being human can mean."
To what greater good could a novelist aspire?
Margot Livesey was born in Scotland and now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she is writer-in-residence at Emerson College. She is the author of five novels and a short story collection.
Valerie Compton: Weeks after having read Banishing Verona for the first time, I am still completely in awe of Zeke as a character. He seems really alive and that's amazing, particularly because he apprehends the world so differently from other people. How difficult was it for you to create Zeke?
Margot Livesey: A son of a friend was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome in the early 90s, and that was what first made me aware of this condition. In keeping her company, and in keeping him company, I began to learn about it intellectually, by reading about it -- and also to learn about it in a more internal way through his way of perceiving the world, and watching the things he was grappling with.
When I came to create Zeke, I certainly used the things I had learned intellectually, but more importantly, I just really tried to imagine myself going through the world from the point of view of someone who has Asperger's. And that meant thinking about all kinds of things that I normally do in writing, like all those shorthand phrases -- well, they're not shorthand -- but phrases like "she smiled." I thought, No, I have to think about that for a moment. Would he register all those things? I mean when most people say "she smiled," we actually summarize an enormous number of things to come up with that little phrase. And so it meant in some ways going very slowly through his parts of the novel to make sure that I wasn't rushing to oversimplify or rushing to summarize things that I thought he wouldn't. At the same time, it was also for me a balancing act, because I didn't want to keep belaboring this with the reader. You know, going through the novel, as the novel went on, I increasingly did use the conventional summary for facial expressions and for other aspects of social intercourse.
Was the revision process on the novel longer because of that than it might have been?
The revision process was, I think, more strenuous in some ways because of just really wanting to do justice to this character. And I didn't choose to write about Asperger's simply because of my familiarity with the condition. I chose to write about it because I thought it was just a wonderful metaphor for how most people at some time in their lives really struggle to read the world, struggle to understand the people around them, are baffled by other people's behavior, or baffled by their own behavior. I thought Asperger's offered a wonderful way to write and think about those things. So I was very anxious to do justice to the condition in its complexity and in its gifts as well as its drawbacks.
One of the pleasures of the novel for me was that I believed all of the accommodations that Zeke had to make in order to live the life that he does, with the condition that he has -- but at the same time, I wouldn't have given him a diagnosis if I hadn't seen it on the back of the book or in the acknowledgments or somewhere. When I heard you read from the novel, it took me a long time to understand that there was something unusual about the character ...
Well, I'm very glad you said that, and I have to confess that I initially really resisted putting in any diagnosis. And then I realized -- as I showed the manuscript to more and more readers -- I began to realize that for a certain number of readers it really became a distraction, thinking: What's the matter with Zeke? And they really needed to have a handle for this, even though what I absolutely wanted to do was in a way the opposite of give it a handle, was really to be very much inside his head. So I decided I would just put in one mention of this condition, so that people who had this burning question could just go with the character rather than worrying about the diagnosis.
You set yourself a lot of difficult challenges with your novels. Eva Moves the Furniture was a challenge because you were writing about your own mother, and because there were characters whose status on the planet we're not entirely sure about. And this one is a challenge. I'm wondering if you do that deliberately? And is it because it gives you something technical to work towards in the books, or is this just how things happen for you when you begin to think about a novel?
I suppose with Eva I entered into writing that book such a long time ago and so naively. Would I have spent 12 years trying to write the novel if I had known how difficult it was going to be? I honestly don't know. I hope so. But it's not what one would choose as a writer -- to spend that long struggling with a project and feeling so often that it was doomed to failure. In the case of Banishing Verona, I think that I felt very strongly that the challenges of the novel were ones that could help me to get to a deeper place in my writing and help me to do things that I hadn't done before. You know, writing in this very internal way about about Zeke was something I felt I hadn't done before, even though, in some sense you might say that he's not unlike Eva in Eva Moves the Furniture in that he too has a kind of condition that separates him from other people. But it felt like a very different project. And similarly, the challenges of the plot, how to write a quest novel in the 21st century, I felt, yielded certain riches in terms of the psychologies of the characters and in terms of helping me to get to a deeper level in understanding that psychology.
Are you working on something now that has a different sort of challenge, or a different sort of writerly goal?
Well, I only finished going through the galleys of Banishing Verona in July, and I have to confess that I haven't written much more than a book review and a postcard since then. I have some inchoate ideas for writing something new, and what I keep coming back to is writing a group of novellas that could be read separately, and yet together would form some larger whole.
That sounds like a wonderful project.
Whether, when I sit down at my desk, that will seem possible I don't know, but writing about Zeke I was very struck by how hard it is to try certain kinds of new things or certain kinds of experiments over several hundreds of pages, and it seemed like there could be something very appealing in working in a somewhat shorter form.
But you say novella, not story. You have written short stories before. Do they still interest you?
They interest me immensely. But when I begin a novel, I really give myself over to it and that's just been the trajectory of the last decade. So I've had very little time when I haven't been in the world of some novel or other.
How do you feel about the place of fiction in the culture at the moment? I'm thinking in particular of the National Endowment for the Arts study last year about the amount of reading that's going on in North America at the moment, and the recent controversy over the National Book Awards. Some of that could make a person feel sort of glum about fiction. Is any of that affecting you?
On the one hand, I was very pleased to see the National Book Award single out some books that were not obvious big books in terms of their subject matter or in terms of their authors. As a writer -- and as a reader -- I'm sometimes troubled by the idea that a big book is something like Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, which has all the hallmarks of a serious book. You know, it's taking on big subject matter, fascism in America, anti-Semitism in America. So I was very glad to see the National Book Award acknowledge that's not the only job of fiction, to take on such subject matter, and there can be wonderful books working in very different areas. I'm currently reading The Plot Against America and actually enjoying it a great deal, so ... [Laughs]
I do find it somewhat troubling, teaching in a very large MFA program, as I currently do, that more of my students are not avid readers. That for them reading and writing are not inextricably connected -- and that for some of them, in fact, they seem rather separate activities. I'm not saying for the majority, but there are always a few like that, [which] I find rather disconcerting. And it is, of course, deeply troubling to me as a fiction writer that people seem to have lost sight of what fiction can do, and of the important news that fiction can bring us, and how fiction can give us the sense of having a larger life beyond our own, and that people think that non-fiction is the way to learn about the world. Of course we can learn a lot from non-fiction, but we also learn very important things from fiction. But you can't go into bookshops now without being aware that there's a lot of attention or space devoted to non-fiction, or the kinds of fiction, like whodunits and romances that I don't really aspire to either read or write.
I wonder, when you finish a book and show it to friends and colleagues -- and when it comes out and you see the reviews -- whether that feedback affects the way you work on your next book, or the way you might choose a next project.
Well, I think that how it most affects my writing is perhaps in making me aware of certain patterns in my work that perhaps I hadn't previously been so sharply aware of. And of making me want to make sure that if I'm coming back to those patterns or configurations that I'm really doing it in a satisfying new way. And I think as a writer, almost all of us have sort of blueprints in our brains. Albert Camus said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that, like most great writers, he only had one or two subjects. And I think that's true for many writers. As one gets older as a writer, if one keeps going, one has to really look more assertively for one's subject matter, and really guard more fiercely against the wrong kinds of repetition. So I think that's the way the reviews are most influential for me -- given that I can't go back and change the book that the person is reviewing. For instance, at one of my readings recently, someone pointed out that in three of my last four novels, babies or imminent babies have played a significant role. And they were asking me about that. And someone else pointed out that I tend to write about things that are lost or missing. Those sorts of comments certainly shape my thinking about my future writing.
That must be interesting because it's almost as if there's a conversation going on. And usually the conversation happens in the reader's mind. But you're getting it coming back at you.
I wanted to ask how intuitive writing is for you. I once heard Richard Ford say that his characters did not take over his stories, that he was the author and he was in charge. But quite often authors say the opposite thing about the characters in the story. How was it for you with this book in particular, and Zeke in particular as a character?
Well, I had certain ideas for the novel before I began writing it. And when I plunged into the novel it became increasingly apparent to me that some of the things that I'd imagined Zeke doing were just not plausible for his character as he was appearing on the page. So I suppose for me there's a kind of ongoing negotiation between my characters and my plot. People sometimes comment that my books are plotted somewhat like thrillers and I understand -- I mean, I think thriller has become a sort of euphemism for "readable literary novel" in a way -- I understand what people mean when they say that. But for me the plot has to come out of the characters, out of their psychology. So as I learn about them, there's often a lot of back and forth between what I'd imagined working, that suddenly I find won't quite work. And in the case of Banishing Verona, one of the things that was truly suspenseful for me was not knowing how the book would end until I was writing the last chapter. I was at the McDowell colony, and I basically sat down and wrote most of the last chapter in a two-day period. I was working on it really very obsessively, but really not knowing until the last page what the last page would be.
Did you go through several endings, or was the ending that the book had the only one that it could have?
The ending that the book had was finally the only ending that I could sort of imagine. And once I'd written it, it seemed to me the ending I completely wanted. But I think it would have been a liability rather than an asset if I had discovered the ending sooner and known that that was where I was heading all along. There were some things about the ending I did know, but not the actual outcome.
I wanted to know more about Verona's baby. Whether it was a girl or a boy.
[Laughs] You know I always had a clear sense that the novel had to end before the baby was born!
You were talking about readability in terms of plot a minute ago, but when I think of your books in terms of readability, I think of the clarity of your sentences and the attention that you seem to pay to the reader. There's never any confusion for the reader in your books. I want to ask you a question about that in relation to something you said in the short essay you wrote to accompany the story "The Flowers in the Forest," which is in Peter Turchi and Andrea Barrett's recent anthology, The Story Behind the Story. You wrote at the end of that essay that you decided the story would work "if the prose was sufficiently lustrous and precise and atmospheric." And it seems to me that writing that way could in some way oppose writing very clear and readable sentences.
I think I understand what you're asking. As someone who, for almost a decade, got rejections that began "This is beautifully written, but..." I think I had a period as a young writer when I saw beautiful writing as a liability, but I was also confused as to what beautiful writing was. I think I was, like many young writers, infatuated with a certain kind of rather purplish prose, a rather obvious kind of beauty, and I think one of the ways in which I improved as a writer was when I realized that beauty in fiction, and beauty in prose, was more complicated than that. And the challenge was not really to write about a sunset as if it were beautiful, because that had a very obvious beauty. You know the challenge was to write about going to MacDonald's as if it was beautiful. If one's prose was going to be beautiful, then it had to manage to be beautiful about the less obvious as well as the more obvious. It's terribly important to me how my sentences are shaped, and how they sound, and where they carry the reader, even though part of my ambition is that readers will just be able to give themselves over to the flow of the narrative and to the characters and the plot. So I'm trying simultaneously to write prose that I think is beautiful and that can be read and reread with pleasure and that is also not too obtrusive.
My understanding of Asperger's Syndrome is that it's very difficult to understand metaphor.
I wonder how that worked for you, because it's difficult to avoid metaphor entirely in a novel. Did you have to think about that when you were writing from Zeke's point of view?
I did. And there are a couple of places in the novel where he explicitly thinks about metaphors. When, for instance, he talks about the pleasure he takes in maps, he talks about maps as the way he came to understand metaphor. That was a real challenge. It was a complicated part of the novel to me to be able to use figurative language and to still feel that I was being true to his character. And I'm sure if I went meticulously over all his chapters I would find that more metaphors have crept in than probably should have in the interests of conveying his experience.
Margot, is there anything that you would like to say about the book that I haven't asked you?
Well, I think what your questions reveal is something that I get from other readers and that I feel myself. It's that, although the book goes back and forth between Zeke and Verona, in some sense it is Zeke's book. For instance when I was thinking of possible titles, just using the characters names didn't seem to me quite appropriate, because it didn't really capture what I felt the novel was aspiring to. But I will say that Verona remains a very important character in the novel -- and that her efforts to understand her own world, and her efforts to come to terms with her brother and with the way that she is suddenly forced to accept that she is not an exception to his bad behavior and that the ways in which she's felt special to Henry are really in her own head rather than in his, were very important to me in writing the novel. And it was very important to me to figure out what was Zeke's appeal for her and what was her appeal for Zeke. His inability to lie was, given her history, particularly captivating, along with his physical beauty and his kindness. And for him, her boldness and her gift for listening were both very appealing characteristics -- along with the fact that there would be a baby. I think the idea of having a baby to whom he's not genetically connected but who might be a chance to experience. ... You know, he says at one point: Maybe I can learn again all the things I failed to learn the first time around.
I wrote Verona's part of the novel in a different way from the Zeke chapters, but her character for me was equally important in making the novel work.
It's almost, when you speak about it that way, it's almost as if they are two separate novels that have melded together.
Yes. I think that's a good way of putting it. And I think one of the things I wanted, having written about a woman who is virtually kept prisoner by her former boyfriend in The Missing World and having written about an extremely troubled woman in Criminals, and having written about the imaginary version of my mother, who finds herself very much in the grip of circumstances -- I was very much interested in writing about a bolder, more assertive kind of woman, who might make colossal mistakes, but who would still be out there making them and trying to get what she wants in the world. So there was something exciting for me about writing about a woman who wasn't going to throw herself under a train, whatever happened.
I keep wanting to say: And what's coming next? I was very sad when I finished Banishing Verona because I knew I would have to wait a long time again before there'd another book.
And I have to confess that I was very sad when I finished writing it because for two or three years I went around the world imagining Zeke and Verona and gathering material for them as it were, and thinking: Oh, that's just what Verona would do. That's just what Zeke would think. It's hard to give up on that. So I'm still waiting to see who shows up next, but I do think one of the persistent challenges for women -- well for all writers, but perhaps women writers feel it more acutely -- is to, in some way, follow in Doris Lessing's footsteps. You know, to try to suggest what's happening to women now, and to suggest how women's lives have been changed in some deep ways and not changed in others, as a result of all the various steps that have been taken towards greater equality.
Do you have to make changes in your world in order to get to the point where you can work on a novel like this? I'm thinking of the fact that you teach writing classes and wondering how you work those two things together?
Well, happily at the moment, I manage by just teaching half time. I teach two very full graduate fiction workshops in the autumn and then for the rest of the year I'm mostly able to be at my desk. For me that's a good combination. I have the pleasure of interacting with younger writers and feeling I'm doing something somewhat useful. But also knowing that I'm going to have quite a long stretch when I can just be solitary and selfish and think about my new work. But it does require a certain kind of discipline, just to -- I mean, I'm sure you find that too, Valerie -- it's quite hard for people to realize that one can't be interrupted at one's desk, and that one's not available to do all kinds of things.
Is there anything else?
I just was thinking a little bit as we were talking about the issue of readability and how, perhaps like quite a number of writers, I always have slightly mixed feelings about the word "literary." On the one hand when I'm told I write literary fiction it sounds like a compliment. You know, the sentences are working at a higher level. And on the other hand I worry that it makes it sound like the novel is less readable and less appetizing somehow -- more like hard work, more like doing one's homework. I'm really quite aware of how many demands there are on a reader's attention, and how many books there are competing for a reader's attention, and I do think quite hard about how to reward the reader's attention and how to keep it. And I think that comes partly out of my lifelong love affair with the great Victorian novels I grew up reading. You know, when I read things like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, I didn't think I was reading "good" books or "literary" books, I just thought I was reading fantastic stories about people I cared about, like friends or neighbors. And that still remains a great ambition of mine, to write that kind of fiction. | January 2005
Valerie Compton has reviewed fiction for more than 12 years. Her short stories have been published or are forthcoming in The Malahat Review, Grain, The Dalhousie Review, echolocation and The Antigonish Review. She lives on Prince Edward Island.