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.