Lily King and Margot Livesey on Loss, Inspiration, and Ambition
The Authors of Mercury and Euphoria in Conversation
Lily King: What do you feel you are trying to get at in your writing? If you look at all your novels and stories, is there something you are often picking at, returning to, trying to understand or at least see from all angles?
Margot Livesey: The French writer Albert Camus said he only had two or three great themes and that he returned to them over and over. I know that I have a couple of themes that draw me back. I can’t—or won’t—spell out exactly what they are but I can say that my mother, Eva’s, death when I was two and a half, permanently shaped my world view.
LK: That is so very hard. I’m so sorry. I know these things are impossible to know, but do you feel that had some bearing on you becoming a writer? And do you like writing? Being a writer?
ML: I don’t know if her death turned me into a writer but it did turn me into a reader; I was so much alone with my elderly father and step-mother. Books became my companions.
I do like writing and I feel lucky that I have a passion that remains endlessly interesting and that, with luck, I can keep pursuing as I get older. As for being a writer, that’s more complicated. After years of hesitating to use the word about myself, I now do but still not with 100% confidence.
LK: What about the word still seems not to fit?
ML: Partly it’s the masculine history. And then it feels a little bit boastful, as if I’m claiming to be a member of a special species.
LK: Do you write with the concept of representation, of symbolism, of theme, in mind?
ML: No, but I do think that in good novels, we sense an underground river flowing through the pages, making the surface events meaningful. Unlike life, which can be scarily random, the world of fiction (usually) makes sense; things happen for a reason. It’s one of the pleasures of reading.
LK: When do you become aware of the river of meaning? Before, during, after? Do you think it is running subconsciously from the moment you start writing or is it something you are conscious of shaping from the beginning?
ML: For me, the deeper meaning of a novel often emerges slowly. I try to make the characters and the situations vivid and gradually, as they come into focus, I begin to understand what it is I’m moving towards, what lies at the heart of the novel.
LK: If you had the talent to do anything at all, any vocation, successfully, would you choose writing or something else?
ML: I came to writing slowly and doubtfully. For a long time, I wrote between waitressing at lunch and dinner, and as I pored over my stories, I kept thinking that it would be better to work for Oxfam or Amnesty, do something to make the world better. I still think that’s true but gradually I’ve made my peace with the fact that I spend most of my time inventing characters and situations.
LK: That is exactly how I spent my twenties and early thirties, until I made peace with it too, mostly. How do you handle doubt, despair, and the complete loss of faith in what you are working on?
ML: With great difficulty. Sometimes turning to nonfiction, a book review, an essay, can help me to recover my balance. Often reading something I love is the best antidote because it reminds me of how lucky I am to have a life in which books play such a central role. As writers, we don’t have the habit of practice, like musicians, but I think there is something comparable. Sometimes just practicing helps.
LK: My mother died six months ago and while I can complete tasks and chores and sit in meetings and give talks and readings, I have had a hard time being alone in a room to write without sobbing on the desk for a good part of the time. I feel envious of people whose work does not require them to be so open emotionally and forces them to be around other people. I’m wondering how you learned to deal with emotional upset, big and small. Do you take a break or write through?
ML: I can only imagine how hard it must be to lose your mother, and to lose her so suddenly. I’m so sorry. To me, it makes perfect sense that, even while you can perform your duties and tasks, writing remains very hard. Our fiction stems from such an intimate part of ourselves. No wonder we can’t do it when we’re under siege. In my own crises, I’ve usually tried to keep writing but often with little success. It was just that not writing, not trying to write, was too painful.
LK: Who do you read for inspiration? Which writers speak to you in that way?
ML: I’m always going back and forth between contemporary novels and the many gaps in my education. One of the things I love about teaching is that I get to re-read books. While my contemporaries are often inspiring, there is a wonderful freedom in returning to Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen and Jane Austen. I can learn from them without trespassing. I recently re-read James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and found it heartbreaking all over again.
LK: Who is your first reader? Do you write the whole thing first or give that person bits along the way?
ML: The fabulous writer Andrea Barrett reads my work at many different stages and offers what I need: encouragement, suggestions, piercing questions. And then my dear friend Susan Brison, a brilliant philosopher and writer, reads almost all my work when I have a complete draft. She is a great combination of very rigorous and very empathetic.
LK: Have you had the same publisher and/or editor for many books or have you moved around? What is your relationship and process with your editor like?
ML: I’ve been with Jennifer Barth, now at HarperCollins Publishers, for the last five novels. From my point of view, she’s the ideal editor. She asks the big, difficult questions about form and meaning and she asks the smaller questions about sentences and how a scene is moving the novel forwards, or deepening the suspense. I feel very lucky to have her in my life.
LK: Do you remember the moment of ignition for your new novel, Mercury? Was it a slow burn or a burst of flame?
ML: I think it was both, not unlike what you describe in how you came to write your wonderful novel, Euphoria. There was the moment of ignition; then other details kept the fuse burning. In the spring of 2009, I was a guest columnist for the Boston Globe. I wrote a column about gardening; one about taxes. Each drew a dozen emails. Then the Binghamton Massacre occurred. As I read the horrifying news, I wondered how the perpetrator, a Vietnamese immigrant, had gotten hold of a gun. After many years in America, I still had no clue how to go about getting one. I decided that my next column would be about buying a gun in Massachusetts. When it was published, I got well over a hundred emails and five sinister phone calls.
At the time, I was deep into writing another novel, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, but the experience of firing a gun and the outraged phone messages—you’re just a Scottish immigrant, one man said—stayed with me. Then a friend confided that he’d found a gun in the trunk of his car; it turned out to belong to his wife. They had met at an anti-war demonstration but in the last decade she had become increasingly conservative. “We don’t believe the same things anymore,” he said. His description of this different kind of infidelity made the fuse burst into flame.
LK: Fascinating. When did the characters show up? When did Mercury show up? Were they part of a parallel idea that fit with the gun fuse, or did they all come out of that? Did you know from the start it would be a novel about passion that veers towards obsession?
ML: As a girl, I spent several years in love with riding, my enthusiasm fueled by books about ponies and gymkhanas. I was always hoping that one of the half-broken Highland ponies I rode would turn into a champion. Nowadays, I don’t often ride, but I do remain fascinated by the world of horses and by the intense relationships people form with these large animals.
And that world, like the literary world, is full of ambitious people. I think ambition is such a slippery quality, especially for women. When we say “she’s very ambitious,” it’s seldom an unmixed compliment. And when we don’t value the object of the ambition, then we get even more negative and use the word “obsession.”
So I had a gun and I had a horse; now I needed some characters. Donald, my good optometrist, had been waiting patiently in a corner of my brain. I love novels about Americans coming to Europe and I thought it would be interesting to reverse the process: have a Scottish person come to New England. As soon as I started to write about Donald, I knew exactly what kind of woman he would marry. Someone brainy and ambitious; someone who loves her children but who wants a larger life.
LK: And it is so effective, having him be a Scotsman, because he looks upon her as the story progresses from a double remove. You are so right to parse the concepts of “ambition” and “obsession” in terms of both gender and perceived value. I need to pay attention to that. I’m curious how it felt to write about Americans and America. I think all the novels I’ve read of yours have been set in Scotland or England.
ML: That’s true. I did briefly send two characters to the States in Banishing Verona but otherwise my novels have all taken place in Britain. One of the pleasures of setting a novel in New England was being able to borrow—or do I mean steal?—from the people around me, and the landscapes.
LK: It would not be a stretch to say that Viv, Donald’s ambitious wife, embodies a great many American proclivities. Were you aware of that from the start?
ML: I did have the secret hope that she would embody that American longing to be exceptional which Henry James explores so movingly in The Portrait of a Lady. I also had in mind Emerson’s essay on self-reliance.
LK: What does Mercury, the horse at the center of your novel, represent to you?
ML: First and foremost, he’s an amazing horse, a very well-trained athlete. In choosing his name, I wanted to suggest his ambiguous role in Viv’s life. Is he a toxic metal? Or a shining planet? Or a messenger god? Or a thief?
LK: Mercury is a fascinating study of desire, which traditionally in literature is a male characteristic, sometimes a tragic flaw. Did you want to play with that?
ML: Yes, I did want to take back desire, as it were, to write about a woman who has large ambitions, large emotions, and who isn’t afraid to act on them.
LK: When I’m writing a novel, I think a lot about T. S. Eliot’s lines “Between the idea/And the reality/Between the motion/And the act/Falls the Shadow.” They haunt me, actually. Because you have your vision (which of course grows and shifts as you write your drafts) and then you have the bound book in your hand and there is that gap. At least for me. Do you feel like you came close to creating the book you initially wanted to create? Why and/or why not?
ML: Those lines are haunting, aren’t they? But of course I don’t think of them as applying to you and your brilliant work. There is no shadow in Euphoria.
LK: Thank you, but not true. All I see is the shadow most days.
ML: In my own case, I think I nearly always feel that I’ve fallen short of what I hoped. The only exception is Eva Moves the Furniture which I wrote, on and off, over 12 years.
LK: Did you have any enormous surprises along the way, writing Mercury?
ML: Yes, but to describe them would give away too much of my plot. Suffice it to say that I hope they’re good surprises for the reader.
LK: Do you have an idea that you’ve wanted to pursue for a long time but haven’t because you’ve felt you weren’t ready? I’m thinking of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, novels that were in a sort of chrysalis for ten or twenty years before taking their form.
ML: I do have a long-cherished idea for a book but unfortunately it is still tightly wound in its chrysalis and shows no signs of wanting to emerge.
LK: Does it get easier?
ML: Not for me. Or to be more precise, certain things have become easier but I almost have to fight against that facility, to make sure it isn’t carrying me to places I don’t want to go, or allowing me to slide over places I do need to go.
LK: Words of wisdom for those of us back in first-draft stage?
ML: What I tell myself is that I have to tolerate my own mediocrity to get words on the page. And then I have to believe in the optimism of revision.