The Beatrice Interview

Margot Livesey

"It began to seem more like a drug addiction than a reasonable writing project."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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Margot Livesey's fourth novel, Eva Moves the Furniture, is a marked contrast from her first three books. She's moved away from her usual settings in contemporary Britain to write about Scotland in the years between the two world wars...and to tell a ghost story. Eva, who is based on Livesey's own mother ("and I've made very little effort to disguise that fact," she notes; they share the same name and several biographical details, after all), grows up with the occasional accompaniment of two mysterious friends, a woman and a girl, that only she can see. How their lifelong presence shaped Eva's life is a story that took Livesey nearly fifteen years to complete. "One of the reasons Eva took me so long to write," she reflects, "was the realization that I did have a relationship with my mother," even though she died when Livesey was only two and a half years old. "We do have relationships with the dead, I've realized; they're perhaps less than what we hoped, but they're not nothing." Livesey's reflections on that relationship have resulted in a novel that combines her proven talent for psychological suspense with compelling poignance.

RH: Tell me about the 'friends' your mother had in real life.

ML: She was the school nurse at the school where my father taught, and the students who were in the sanitorium regularly complained that it was hard to get a good night's sleep because there was always the crash and bang of furniture moving around. In the morning, Eva would come into the ward and say, "Them again!" and put the furniture back in its place. She didn't use the word poltergeist, but other people did.

She also saw people who other people could sometimes, but not invariably, see as well. Again, she was extremely matter-of-fact about it, which was part of what captured my attention. It wasn't a scary or gothic supernatural, it was the supernatural as another dimension of daily life. I grew up with all sorts of stories like that. There was a village near us, really just a dozen houses and a church, and the rumor was that the village disappeared when nobody was around. And I wondered what happened to the villagers, and I was told they disappear, too. It seemed more plausible then than perhaps it does in modern American life.

RH: Have you ever had any experiences like Eva's?

ML: I have had a couple experiences I hesitantly describe as being in that realm. My guardian, Roger, has the sixth sense, as Eva did, and he's convinced that I have the gifts, too, but that my life is too busy and too urban for me to experience them more. Whether that's true, I still can't say.

RH: You keep the narrative tension as to whether Eva's friends are real going almost nearly to the end of the novel.

ML: I hope that finally the novel makes the question of whether Eva's friends are a psychological phenomenon or an actual manifestation irrelevant. The word 'real' just doesn't apply in the context of the novel.

RH: To many readers, Eva Moves the Furniture could seem like a sudden shift in direction for you, even though you've been grappling with it for years. What's your sense of the reaction to the novel?

ML: I think they are surprised a little. I tried to give the novel some of the qualities of my earlier novels, and one of the most important qualities for me is readability, the ability to make somebody want to keep turning the pages and go on with the story. I tried to give Eva that quality in a different way than I did in my earlier novels, but I hope it's there nonetheless.

RH: Character has always been a strong point for you, but the earlier novels have very much hinged on the plots. Here, the most gripping points are even more driven by interior realizations than they are by outside events.

ML: I'm glad to hear you say that, because I do work very hard to try to create charactes who work at a number of levels, who have a great capacity for revelation and surprise when they make us realize what they've been getting at all along. One of the difficulties of writing this novel was being able to imagine my mother. I knew so little about her that I had to be able to fill in a large number of gaps.

RH: I was thinking about this novel in connection to your earlier work, and it occurs to me that Eva's perceptions are...not necessarily "far off" from reality, but you've written about characters who have very definite ideas about the way the world is or should be, and will go to great lengths to make it that way, and Eva's like that to some extent.

ML: This novel seems superficially different to my earlier works, but I think they do have something in common, which is that she does have that very particular way of looking at the world, in variance with people around her. Perhaps the novel seems simpler than my earlier ones because it's in the first person, but as a writer it was actually more complicated for me to achieve that first-person voice that hovers over the narrative in a way that suggests a person remembering her life, picking and choosing what things to tell you. Choosing to tell the story from Eva's point of view was one of the things that made the novel particularly hard to write. [Explaining precisely why would mean revealing a good chunk of the ending! -- Ron] It wasn't my first choice, or even my fifth; it's the choice I came to after many other experiments.

RH: And that was one of the many reasons Eva took so long for you to write.

ML: When I moved house last year, I recycled eight different versions of this novel! I first began this book in 1986, and the four words of the title are probably the only thing that remains from those early efforts. I tried to write it for a while, couldn't make it work, set it aside and wrote Homework. I spent a couple more years on it, put it aside again and wrote Criminals, and so on... It began to seem more like a drug addiction than a reasonable writing project, but the truth is that I think I had to write other novels to learn how to write this one.

RH: This is your first non-contemporary story, but you've noted elsewhere that the Scotland you grew up in is very different from the Scotland of today, but not quite so different from that of your mother's childhood.

ML: I grew up in the late 1950s, and people were still living in the shadow of the Second World War. Rationing for quite a few essential things had only recently ended, and we, like most of our middle class neighbors, didn't have a phone or a television or a fridge until I was seven or eight. The texture of our lives was probably not that dissimilar to that of the previous generation: we listened to the radio, our house was heated by coal fires, washing was hung out on the line to dry.

It wasn't so hard to imagine that. What was hard was to imagine the effects of the war, what it was like for the generation born in the shadow of the first world war to find themselves heading into another war, one that lasted six years. It took a lot of thinking and reading to imagine for myself what that must have felt like.

RH: It will come as a surprise to many readers, perhaps, who are familiar with stories of the London blitz, to learn that the German bombing extended as far north as Scotland.

ML: It was a surprise to me, too, but Glasgow was a target because of the shipyards there. It wasn't subjected to the same intense blitz as London, but it was still a major target. And there were many naval bases around the Scottish coast.

RH: In your future work, do you plan to continue exploring other genres?

ML: I'm presently in the early stages of a novel I hope will be set partly in Britain and partly in America. It's contemporary, more or less. I've long wanted to write about America. For me, it's almost more of a challenge than writing about the past.

RH: What have you read lately that you like?

ML: I've recently read Elizabeth McCracken's latest, Niagara Falls All Over Again. My latest passionate discovery is Trollope, these huge Victorian novels I'd ignored for years and now embrace wholeheartedly. I just think he's fantastic. The novels are hard to get into, but once I'm in, I adore them. He writes about love and sex and politics and money, all the important things, and he has wonderful women characters. I take my hat off to him; I wish I could do a tenth as much.

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BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Val McDermid | Complete Interview Index | A. Manette Ansay

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