Margot Livesey’s latest novel is The House on Fortune Street, an absorbing, beautiful and sad story told from multiple perspectives. Richard Eder of the New York Times remarks, “Livesey’s writing is acutely observant; her psychological algebra is admirable and sometimes astonishing,” and Alice Sebold says, “her work radiates with a compassion and intelligence and always, deliciously, mystery.” Margot Livesey’s previous books include Eva Moves the Furniture and Banishing Verona.
The Millions: The House on Fortune Street is split into four interlocking narratives that overlap and echo one another. How did you decide on this structure, and what informed the ordering of these narratives?
Margot Livesey: I wrote the first part of the novel, Sean’s section, in the late nineties, hoping that it would be a novella. I sent it to Robert Boyers at Salmagundi magazine. He wrote back an immensely thoughtful rejection letter which made me realise how much I’d left out of Sean’s story. I knew, however, that I didn’t want to expand the novella in a conventional way, that that wasn’t what I was after, and I put it aside first to revise Eva Moves the Furniture and then to write Banishing Verona. But Sean remained on my desk and almost as soon as Banishing Verona was out in the world I found myself sitting down to write the second section of the novel, from Cameron’s point of view. So I can’t say exactly when I decided on the four sections, but once I did I knew where I was going and that I wanted to write a novel in which, as in life, the story came to you from different sources. I also loved the idea of replaying events from different angles, not in a Rashomon-like way but in a way that expanded or changed your opinions.
TM: At the end of the novel, Abigail says her grandfather always thought “everyone had a book, or a writer, that was the key to their life.” This is certainly the case for your characters: Sean refers to Keats, Cameron to Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), Abigail to Dickens, and Dara to Charlotte Bronte. For better or for worse, your characters look to the stories and/or biographies of their favorite artists to help them navigate through life. I wonder if this theme, which seems central to the story in many ways, helped in your conception of these characters. Did it shape their destinies on the page? Were there particular challenges to weaving this real life art into your fictional world?
ML: The idea of giving each of my characters what I think of as a literary godparent came to me when I was working on Sean’s section. As a graduate student of English he had to have an area of study and I decided that Keats – the poet of erotic love, early death and immortality – was the perfect choice. Then of course it got a little harder with my characters who weren’t doing Ph.Ds, but I still loved the idea of how a literary godparent could point to a character’s deepest concerns and enlarge the reader’s understanding. My rule for picking the godparents was that they had to be well known and nineteenth century and somehow I had strong instinctive feelings about who was right for who – Dickens, for instance, would never have been a good fit for Dara. The biggest challenge was working the necessary information into the plot in a natural way so that the reader could enjoy this aspect of the novel.
TM: It seems to me that The House on Fortune Street is very much interested in how our actions reverberate and affect other people, and how relationships, whether they be familial, platonic, or romantic, are limited by our own solipsism. How did you use the book’s central event – a character committing suicide – to express the relationships between these characters?
ML: One of the questions I was trying to explore in Fortune Street was how damage gets passed down in families, or not. Why do some people emerge from traumatic childhoods relatively unscathed while others are irrevocably marked? Dara’s suicide, an ultimately mysterious event, is the deepest expression of this question. The other characters don’t really see Dara, in part because she is an excellent listener, in part because they’re distracted by their own preoccupations, or, in her father’s case, by guilt.
I was also eager to examine a long friendship between two women and the complexities of that relationship. I hoped that readers would begin by condemning Abigail for her treatment of both Sean and Dara and end up having a much more complicated response.
TM: In one of these sections you portray a man attracted to little girls, and you do so with such compassion and depth that it’s hard not to sympathize with his shameful and secret desire. Your depiction of loneliness and isolation is really incredible, Margot. One of the differences between this narrative and the others is that it’s told in first person, whereas the other three are told in close third. Why is Cameron’s point of view different from the other characters’? How did you go about creating such a complicated character?
ML: What a generously phrased question. I was very concerned in writing about Cameron, a man who gazes longingly at young girls, that readers might simply condemn him out of hand. One way to make them more sympathetic – or at least more ready to suspend judgment – was to cast his narrative as a confessional. I think we tend to have a soft spot for someone who is telling us the worst about himself. Using a different point of view also fitted with Cameron being a member of a different generation than the other three characters. I decided to make his best friend gay as another way of commenting on his inappropriate desires. Lastly I tried to make it clear that Cameron judges himself quite harshly. He is confessing but not trying to excuse or mitigate his behaviour.
TM: You grew up in Scotland, went to college and worked in England, and, after teaching at an impressive number of universities all over the United States, you now spend much of the year in Massachusetts. How has living in so many places informed your writing – and perhaps more importantly, your narrative voice and style?
ML: I am not sure I know how to answer this question in a broader way. I do think that spending so much time in the States has given me a very particular way of looking at life in Britain. In many ways being here is like living in the future; things happen first in the US and then elsewhere. In the case of The House of Fortune Street I did try to replicate the rather fragmentary nature of my own life in the form of the novel.
TM: And because this is a book blog, I must ask you: What’s the last good book you read?