A little more than 10 years ago I was an MFA student finishing my thesis, a collection of short stories that I had no intention of publishing. I wanted to be a novelist; the stories, I figured, were teaching me how I might do that. After I graduated, I started a book. Between SAT tutoring jobs, bookstore and cheese store shifts, and teaching my own workshops, I would sit down to write — and also panic. I thought, I have no idea what I’m doing! It was true, I didn’t; as anyone who’s written both knows, novels and short stories are very different beasts. At these moments, I would hear the voice of my former thesis advisor Margot Livesey in my head. In her sweet Scottish lilt, she’d urge me forward. She was (and is) an author I admire, and I wanted to make her proud. In this way, I put one sentence down, then another and another.
Livesey isn’t a preachy teacher. She doesn’t have little slogans or rules; she isn’t the type to ban certain points of view from her classes, or tell you that dead grandmothers are a tired trope. Her treatment of fiction and writing is open-minded and deep, and she considers and critiques a manuscript both on its own terms and against a long tradition of fiction. She is encouraging, and yet her expectations are high. As with the best teachers, she invited me to be the writer I wanted to be, while also pushing me to be better than that.
She is also one of the most talented novelists working today. Her gift, in particular, for writing complicated characters is what inspires me most. Through her fiction, she continues to be my teacher. Livesey’s new novel, Mercury, is a kind of morality tale, but without an easy sense of right and wrong. It’s also a literary thriller, about a husband and wife and the secrets they keep from one another, and the ways in which they fail to see each other truthfully. It’s got an eye doctor, a beautiful and powerful horse, an African Grey parrot named Nabokov, and a gun, which does, of course, go off.
Livesey was kind enough to answer some questions via email about teaching, reading, and writing her excellent books.
The Millions: You spend the fall in Iowa City, teaching graduate writing students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In the spring you’re in Boston. Can you talk about how writing (and perhaps reading) changes for you, depending on whether or not you’re teaching? How has teaching influenced you as a writer, and, conversely, how has your writing influenced you as a teacher?
Margot Livesey: Teaching every autumn, I find myself plunged into the varied worlds that my students are creating, and at the same time rereading the stories and novels I’ve assigned for my classes. Both I think, I hope, influence my work. I do reread quite often but rereading with a class in mind, trying to figure out an author’s decisions, forces me to think more deeply, and more critically, about works I already admire and that’s nearly always fruitful. Maybe I can imitate how Jhumpa Lahiri manages her shifts in point of view in The Namesake. Or steal something from William Maxwell’s use of journalistic techniques in So Long, See You Tomorrow.
Meanwhile my students offer me maps of the contemporary world, constantly under revision as we debate voice, character, and motivation. In our workshops I get to study those maps in detail and to see how very good readers are responding to fiction. I cherish their voices in my head when I’m teaching and they remain, perched on my shoulder as it were, when I’m not — avoid that cliche, think about the setting, do you need to mention politics, is the animal too symbolical, is the dialogue going deep enough, can the mother have a more interesting job?
My own writing has made me very aware that there are some things I need to write to advance a novel or a story which the reader absolutely does not need to read. I tell my students a good first chapter is a chapter that helps the author to write the rest of the novel. Of course, later, the first chapter also needs to be a good ambassador but being too critical, too early, can sometimes distract the writer from what she really needs to do.
TM: Are there any themes or styles that are popular with your students right now? Which writers are inspiring and influencing them?
ML: A number of my students are dealing with material that engages with race, class, and gender in interesting ways. They cherish the work of such writers as Junot Díaz , Edward P. Jones, Toni Morrison, and Zadie Smith. Others are interested in the work of Jonathan Franzen, the sweeping panorama of social concerns, or in grittier voices like Bonnie Jo Campbell and of course Raymond Carver. Still others are working on historical material or using texts within texts. Rather than a single popular theme or style I would say there’s a wonderful range of themes, forms, and subject matters being explored.
TM: Your husband is a painter. Can you talk about how his work with a visual artist informs your process? Do you talk to each other about your work?
ML: Eric paints large abstract oil paintings. He works in layers on seven or eight paintings at once and many of his paintings take well over a year to complete. I don’t know if he’d agree but I think of his work as having a novelistic quality; the colors and composition gradually come into focus. We do spend a lot of time talking about our processes although I am often not very forthcoming when I’m in the midst of a new novel. Happily when I have nothing to say we can fall back on talking about our reading, a passion we share.
TM: At a recent event you told the audience that you write on a computer without the Internet, and said this was essential to your process. Can you talk more about this? I also can’t stop thinking about how you said that sometimes you read the dictionary during your writing time. I hope this is true! If so, what dictionary are you reading, and what recent gems have you come upon?
MG: Research is often a crucial part of my novel writing but it can also be very distracting. And then of course I can so easily fall into checking email. For a while I did try to be disciplined, but more recently I’ve solved the problem by having two computers, one on which I write fiction and essays, and a second one, a laptop, on which I do my correspondence and go online. Sometimes I go back and forth between the two 20 times in a few hours but I still think that this is better for my concentration and my efficiency.
I used to read poems or stories when I was stuck, but too often I was fatally seduced. Now I have a shorter Oxford English Dictionary in which I browse, sometimes purposefully, sometimes randomly, as I try to think what to write next. I often treat it as a kind of I Ching, simply opening it at random. I love knowing where words come from — disaster — ruin of the stars — and seeing the examples of usage: “Disaster always brought out the best in Churchill.”
TM: So much of your work is about morality and Mercury in particular is about life’s murky gray areas, when it’s not always quite clear what is right and what is wrong. Can you talk a little bit about how morality and making-hard-choices informs the characters you write, and the stories you tell. Your Iowa colleague, and another former teacher of mine, Ethan Canin, used to say in class that fiction writers are “moral philosophers.” Would you agree, and why or why not?
ML: I do agree with Ethan, but I would also paraphrase John Updike’s comment: The novel is our greatest psychological experiment. I am very interested in what people will do given certain possibilities. And I am very interested in how we are often quite confident in analyzing other people, but surprisingly reluctant to analyze ourselves. I think the best characters in novels combine that confidence with a sense of appropriate mystery and I think it is the job of plot, or conflict, to let us look more deeply into that mystery.
I am still a little surprised by how deeply interested I am in moral choices. Clearly I was paying more attention in my Scottish Sunday school than I realized. I remain deeply puzzled — I’d have to say indignant — that as adults we can find ourselves in situations where there is no obvious right thing to do.
TM: A few friends of mine, all of them women, have taken up or returned to horseback riding lately, and with your book and Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare, it seems that horses are…trending! What drew you to write about horses in Mercury?
ML: I think horses, and our relationships with them, are fascinating. I knew when I started Mercury that I wanted to write about an ambitious woman and I knew that I wanted the object of that ambition to be something that many people, but by no means everyone, would value. A horse seemed perfect: large, complicated, fragile. I haven’t ridden much as an adult, but I did as a teenager and I felt I knew what it was like to inhabit that passion. Riding around Boston turned out to be very different from riding the Scottish Highland ponies of my youth. I loved visiting the stables and observing various horses and riders. And I loved reading books about horses including Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet and more recently Jane Smiley’s Horse Heaven.
TM: And, because this is The Millions, I must ask you: what are you reading?
ML: I am currently reading Peter Ho Davies’s The Fortunes. The novel opens with an account of Ah Ling who hopes to strike gold and ends up working on the railway. Part II follows the life of Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s first Chinese film star. Part III explores the racially motivated killing of Vincent Chin in Detroit in 1982. In part IV we learn how these three are connected as an American couple struggle to adopt a Chinese baby. Davies writes beautiful and dangerous sentences, and I love his timely exploration of issues of race and racism.