Margot Livesey has published six novels: Homework, Criminals, The Missing World, Eva Moves the Furniture, Banishing Verona and The House on Fortune Street. Her seventh novel, is The Flight of Gemma Hardy.
Margot has taught at Boston University, Bowdoin College, Brandeis University, Carnegie Mellon, Cleveland State, Emerson College, the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Tufts University, the University of California at Irvine, the Warren Wilson College MFA program for writers, and Williams College. She has been the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the N.E.A., the Massachusetts Artists' Foundation and the Canada Council for the Arts. Margot is currently a distinguished writer in residence at Emerson College. She lives with her husband, a painter, in Cambridge, MA, and goes back to London and Scotland whenever she can.
Alice Sebold says, "Every novel of Margot Livesey's is, for her readers, a joyous discovery. Her work radiates with compassion and intelligence and always, deliciously, mystery."
I had the pleasure to talk with her on my Somerville Community Access TV show " Poet to Poet Writer to Writer."
Doug Holder: How did the idea come about for your novel The Flight of Gemma Hardy?
Margot Livesey: If six years ago you told me that I was going to write a re-imagining of Jane Eyre—I would have sent you on your way to McLean Hospital. It is hard enough to write a novel, much less in the shadow of a master. But I was part of a book club and we discussed Jane Eyre. It was a novel that I read when I was a mere 10 years old. I chose it because it had a girl’s name on the cover. And from the first pages I feel in love, and I also identified very much with Jane. She grew up in the Scottish moors, which seemed a lot like the Yorkshire moors where I grew up. I had a severe stepmother who seemed a bit like Jane’s cruel aunt. I also went to an all girl’s school—so I seemed to have a lot in common with Jane. Later I went on to teach the Jane Eyre. Then I found myself in this book club in Cambridge, Mass. And the room was filled with ardent readers who all loved Jane Eyre. I just started thinking about how amazing the book is. It reaches all kinds, all ages, and nationalities. I started to think what would it be like to tell the story in more modern times—about a girl who finds herself without parents, and who has to make her own way in the world. I thought about setting the novel in 2000 or 2005. But I wanted the novel to take place before that great wave of feminism. Even though a great deal of the novel takes place in the 60s—it doesn’t feel like the “Swinging Sixties.” It is a very old fashioned story.
DH: Are you an old fashioned novelist?
ML: I do love a good plot. I grew up reading those great Victorian novels. I love what plot can do for a novel. Readers still love a great story.
DH: You weaved in Icelandic sagas in this book—why?
ML: I thought it was very important that my main character Gemma was very different from Jane Eyre. So I decided to give her a very different family background. I tried to find a country near Scotland that had a strong connection to Scotland. I traveled to Iceland. Iceland has a remarkable landscape—the island is still full of active volcanoes. When you actually see a field of green—you gasp—because much of the island is black, volcanic rock. There is all this wild beauty there.
DH: Throughout this novel, the main character has a strong connection to birds. What is your relationship to birds?
ML: I think my relationship to birds is a very positive one. My father was 50 when I was born. He was an elderly 50—and one of the things we did together was bird watch. He taught me all about the Scottish birds, and I still recognize them instinctively. I never lost that interest with birds and that feeling that they are visitors from another world, as well as from this one, stay with me.
DH: Did your experience in a boarding school parallel that of Gemma’s?
ML: My father taught at a boy’s boarding school—my mother was the school nurse. The school my father taught at always seemed like a benign institution. Girls were forbidden there. I was sent to a girl’s school which I thought was anything but benign. I spent my years there praying that the school would close down, and eventually it did. And like my novel, there was that sense of class division and privilege among the girls there.
DH: The characters of George and Donaldson are both infirm old men, who Gemma has a sort of relationship with. Donaldson was lost in the haze of dementia, but came out of his haze to give Genna his keen insight. George, who was very ill and out of it, came through in the clinch as well.
ML: In the case of Mr. Donaldson and Alzheimer's, a family member of mine had Alzheimer's disease and for a number of years I visited her. And there were these wonderful moments when she was clearheaded and had these piercing insights. So—Donaldson was part of my experience. And of course we always get wonderful perceptions from the elderly.
DH: Sinclair was a worldly and much older man than Genna. It seemed she was an unlikely match for this gentleman.
ML: I wanted to be faithful to the plot of Jane Eyre. I had to come up with a plausible version of Mr. Rochester. I thought the real interesting question was why this man would be interested in this young woman, rather than a woman of his own class and intellect.
DH: You are a Writer-in-residence at Emerson College in Boston. How does that work for you?
ML: I like it and I find it a challenge. I try to help the students find their material and I help them shape it. It is hard, but at the end of the semester I have learned as much or more that they have.
DH: Your husband is an artist. Does your work inform his and does his work inform yours?
ML: I wish that I can say my novels were like his beautiful paintings. I learn from his dedication, his vision, and his motivation.
DH: Do you have another novel in the making?
ML: I am trying to write a novel set in contemporary New England. It is a challenge to write about these American characters, behaving badly. I can’t write about the academic community because I would wind up losing all my friends.