Margot Livesey Q-and-A Part IV:
Writing 'The Boy in the Field'

As well as being a fiction writer, Margot Livesey is an esteemed teacher of writing - she's a professor at the Iowa Writers' Workshop - and the author of many essays about writing, including the acclaimed The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing

So for our final segment of our interview - which is a mere precursor to our live online Writers in Conversation on this upcoming Monday 15 March, where you can ask questions, too -  of course I asked Margot about the writing itself. 

Be sure to join us Monday night. 

Carole Burns I was struck by how precisely and beautifully written it is. Do you write rough drafts and hone them, or do you craft each phrase very carefully from the very first draft? In other words, what form of self-torture do you practice as a writer?

Margot Livesey One of my aesthetic ambitions was to write a short novel in which a lot happens.  I knew I had to find ways of compressing the material that would make it more vivid, rather than less.  My husband paints large abstract oil paintings; he paints in many layers, waiting for each to dry. With The Boy in the Field, I thought of myself as painting in layers, trying to get a certain depth, a certain resonance.  There were many wrong turns in the plot but once the plot had stabilized, once I knew the arc, I found myself imitating Eric, going over and over certain things, searching for just the right detail to make a scene resonate.  I would begin with nine details and end with two.

Carole Burns Is that different from your usual process?

Margot Livesey Yes. In The Flight of Gemma Hardy and in Mercury, I was considerably more expansive.  In The Boy in the Field moving between the different points of view was a way of leaving out certain things and allowing the reader to intuit them. I was very purposefully trying not to be expansive.

Carole Burns Do you usually go back to scenes and add to them?

Margot Livesey    I always have to do a lot of revision. But one of the things that I've been interested in, in my reading, is how at the opening of a novel, the novelist sets the level of detail. As a reader, you learn to expect a certain rhythm. For instance, Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark is close to 400 pages, and from the very early chapters, Cather describes her heroine in lavish detail.  In her much shorter novel Lucy Gayheart, you can tell within a few pages that she’s going to skate lightly over her heroine's life. I wanted to see if I could set a level of detail that created a world and yet would allow the reader to move fairly swiftly.

Carole Burns What a challenge that must have been.

Margot Livesey Yes! But one of the things I think about with each novel I write is how I can set myself a new aesthetic challenge that has nothing to do with the plot or the characters, but has more to do with the way the story will be shaped and delivered on the page.

Carole Burns Interesting. And by the way, there's no sign in the book of any sort of plot difficulties. It unfolds naturally and elegantly.

Margot Livesey Thank you. But if you could capture my recycling, you would see evidence of many wrong turns, many scenes I wrote that proved completely hopeless, but that maybe, in a small way, contributed to other scenes that were not hopeless.

 You can purchase The Boy in the Field and The Hidden Machinery via IndieBound in USA or Blackwell's or via in the UK - and many other bookstores.  


Margot Livesey Q-and-A Part III: Engaging in and navigating the political in 'The Boy in the Field'

We left Margot as we began to talk about the youngest sibling in this novel, Duncan, who begins to search for his birth mother. - nine-time novelist, esteemed professor at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, beloved mentor to writers around the globe - about her most recent book, The Boy in the Field.  

Margot Livesey - nine-time novelist, esteemed professor at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, beloved mentor to writers around the globe - will be my guest online at Writers in Conversation on Monday March 15, the reading series I run at the University of Southampton's English department. You can click here to set a reminder to join us on Monday. Until then, I hope you feel enticed by these snippets of our conversation from a few weeks ago. 

Margot Livesey (Duncan is) devoted to his adopted family, but he is curious about the DNA thing.

 Carole Burns And of course, you gave him something else as well - his birth mother is Turkish. Those moments where he begins to notice he looks different from his own family, such as when he looks at his own hands and his adoptive mother’s hand, are very moving. How did you navigate what could have been right now a tricky subject matter for you?


Margot Livesey Of course there was a danger of cultural appropriation, but Duncan, in so far as he's modeled on anyone, is modeled on a number of mixed-race people I know in Britain who feel British or English or Scottish. That's never a defense in a novel, but I decided in Duncan's case that ethnicity was going to be a small part of the equation. The thing that race makes possible is the project of finding his mother. Back in the 80s, when Duncan was born, it was quite hard to find information about adoption. Her having a slightly unusual name was a big help in his seaerch for her. But that's a very pragmatic reason. More importantly I wanted him to be someone who looks like an outsider but from the point of view of himself, his siblings and his parents is totally part of the family.

Carole Burns Yes, their love and acceptance was indisputable. For me, what made him most distinctive is how, even as a child, he has the eye of an artist.

This novel seems to be more political than some of your other books – though maybe I'm just reading everything in that way right now. Do you feel your writing has been affected by the intense politics of our times?

Margot Livesey I began the novel in 2015, and I felt fortunate, as things shifted, to be writing about something that could easily be seen as irrelevant, that wasn't trying to deal with the mounting crises on either side of the Atlantic. I had a number of friends who were trying to write overtly political novels, and I thought of my novel as a more covert undertaking - you could see certain political concerns, but you didn't have to see them.  Setting the novel in 1999 allowed me to make a different kind of claim on the reader's attention.

You can purchase The Boy in the Field via IndieBound in USA or Blackwell's or via in the UK - and many other bookstores.