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To See How It’s Made: An Interview with Margot Livesey, Author of The Hidden Machinery

This post is the seventh in a months-long series that explores the topic of craft: what it is, how it has evolved, who has historically had access to it, and the ways it is used in the classroom today, among other things. This week’s interview is with Margot Livesey, author of The Hidden Machinery.

Margot Livesey grew up in a boys’ private school in the Scottish Highlands where her father taught and her mother, Eva, was the school nurse. Her first book, a collection of stories called Learning By Heart, was published by Penguin Canada in 1986. Since then Margot has published seven novels: Homework, Criminals, The Missing World, Eva Moves the Furniture, Banishing Verona and The House on Fortune Street, and The Flight of Gemma Hardy. Her eighth novel, Mercury, was published in September 2016 by HarperCollins.

Ruth Joffre: The title of The Hidden Machinery reminds me of something Meryl Streep said in Theater of War, a 2008 documentary about, among other things, a production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children: “Process looks like bad acting…It’s like, Show me your new building, and we show you the plumbing and the sewer line.” This plumbing is the hidden machinery of the building, the performance, the book. Streep usually shies away from letting people see it, but in your book you put it on display. Why was it so important to you to bring that machinery to the forefront?

Margot Livesey: As a girl, and later at university, I read fervently.  I assumed this more than qualified me to write a novel—wasn’t this what Jane Austen and George Eliot had done?—but when I did sit down to write one, soon after my twenty-first birthday, it turned out that I understood almost nothing about how the novels I loved were made. I was no more qualified to write a novel than someone who watches Serena Williams play tennis is qualified for Wimbledon. Even the novels I’d carefully analyzed and written about at university remained mysterious. Many young writers, I think, make this same mistake.  Writing fiction is both an art and a craft. We need to learn how to do it, and then how to conceal our learning.

RJ: Many of the essays in The Hidden Machinery appeared in literary magazines and anthologies before being collected into this book. From my reading, the essays appear ordered more or less chronologically, beginning with your childhood reading habits in “The Hidden Machinery” and ending in the present, with a reminder of the novel you’re currently trying to write. Was this your organizing principle? If so, how did you decide on it?

ML: I think of the essays in The Hidden Machinery as a kind of autobiography of how I became a writer. I arranged them to reflect this journey. I also wanted the order to reflect the importance of reading at every stage of that journey, and of how we can, with patience and persistence, learn from reading. In my own case, I often have to re-read a story to begin to see how it’s made.

RJ: In the essay “Nothing But Himself,” you write, “If the reader helps to create the text, then the author also helps to create the reader.” I’m interested in this symbiotic work of literature, where both the author and the reader bring something of themselves to a book and leave it changed. As an author, what kind of readers do you hope to create, both with The Hidden Machineryand your fiction, and what do you hope your readers will bring to the table?

ML: What a wonderful and thought-provoking question. As someone who writes mostly about Britain but is mostly working in the States, I have many occasions to think about what my readers will know and what they will bring to my work. I hope that The Hidden Machinery will make readers aware of how every word matters and of how much they take for granted as readers, and writers. I assume that my readers share my love of books and my belief in reading as one of our great democratic activities.

RJ: In “Hush, Shut Up, Please Be Quiet,” you tackle the common workshop dictum “Show, don’t tell” as it relates to dialogue. You point to passages by Katherine Mansfield, William Trevor, and others to demonstrate that every story needs to find its own balance between dialogue and exposition (showing and telling). Are there other situations where you think “Show, don’t tell” isn’t necessarily appropriate? What other pieces of writing advice do you wish were more nuanced?

ML: I think “Show, don’t tell” is vastly over-rated advice. Almost all the stories and novels we love depend on narrative and that narrative can be just as vivid as any scene, sometimes more so. I’m currently re-reading Adichie’s Americanah, and it’s full of wonderful passages of narrative that bring the characters and the plot to life.

Exposition too is often treated as a poor relation. Readers almost always need some background information to understand the story, and giving them that information in the right way at the right time is crucial to the success of the narrative.

RJ: In “Neither a Borrower Nor a Lender Be,” you examine a number of homages that are political in nature. For instance, Jean Rhys’ retelling of Jane Eyre partly from the point of view of young Bertha Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea and Francis Bacon’s Study of Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, which critiques the power and the privilege behind the original. Most writers think of craft as apolitical, however, and downplay the craft inherent in political works. Where do you stand on politics in craft?

ML: I recently had the good fortune to hear Viet Thanh Nguyen, the author of The Sympathizer, speak. He argued that all writers should be activists and that writing always has a political dimension. I do think of craft as apolitical but the stories we choose to tell inevitably involve political choices, even if they are so instinctive that we are not aware of making them.

RJ: One thing I appreciated about The Hidden Machinery was its frankness about money and work. In your essays, you talk about waitressing as you wrote your first novel and note where writers like Fluabert, for instance, had family money to support them as they embarked on their literary careers. For the writers out there who don’t have financial support and need to work to support themselves, what advice would you give them and what resources would you point them to as they build their writing careers?

ML: Most young writers struggle, as I did, for time to write. I found it helpful to remember how much I could get done in just an hour if I really focused. And I learned not to think that I could e.g. only write in the morning. If the morning was interrupted, then I needed to write in the afternoon or the evening, or on the bus.

Often, writers find their homes distracting. One autumn I went to a friend’s apartment every morning when she went to work and wrote for three hours. I got much more done there than I did at home. Colonies are wonderful, but perhaps you can create your own art retreat at home or by borrowing the home of a friend.

We all need readers who aren’t family members. If you have a writing group or are starting one, make sure each member agrees on what she/he/they wants—support? encouragement? deadlines? constructive criticism?

Be sure that you’re not editing prematurely—fiddling around with sentences—when what you really need to do is push forward with the work.

RJ: In The Hidden Machinery, you write about classic novels by Jane Austen, E. M. Forster, Gustave Flaubert, Virginia Woolf, and others—novels that you’ve read five, ten, maybe even fifteen times as you reevaluated and unpacked them over the course of your career. Are there any other contemporary books and authors that you’re currently in the process of examining? Say, books you’ve only read twice but plan to come back to in order to study them further.

ML: James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Edward P. Jones’s stories and novels, the work of Gish Jen, Toni Morrison, ZZ Packer, and Zadie Smith. I always learn a lot from the work of Ian McEwan and Ishiguro. And of course I keep coming back to William Trevor and Alice Munro.

RJ: One thing that becomes abundantly clear when you examine the genre of craft books as a whole is that they are overwhelmingly white and male. This seems to me to be an extension of the bias that exists in both publishing and pedagogy, where women and writers of color still have to fight to be heard. As an educator who taught for many years at Emerson before joining the faculty at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, what strategies have you developed to ensure discussions of craft are inclusive of everyone?

ML: I recently gave a draft of the novel I’m working on to four readers: a fellow writer, a parent, a feminist, and a scientist. Each found a totally different problem with the draft.  Happily they weren’t in conflict. As I turned back to my pages, I was reminded that we all read (and write) out of our own lives, our own tastes and biases. I am fortunate at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to teach diverse workshops where there are a range of responses to the work in question. I try to make sure that we listen to each other’s opinions, and try to understand what lies behind them. The big question is always how can the author include more readers without compromising the central vision of the work?

RJ: What are you working on now? There was mention of another novel…

ML: I am working on a short novel called The Boy in The Field. It’s set near Oxford and will be published next year.