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
RH: Tell me about the 'friends' your mother had in real
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
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
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
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
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
RH: In your future work, do you plan to continue exploring
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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