Tuesday, August 8, 2000

Q&A Margot Livesey: Second Chances

Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review
(2000: Date Approximate)

Margot Livesey grew up in Scotland and teaches in Boston. Her previous books are "Homework" (1990) and "Criminals" (1995), both novels, and "Learning By Heart" (1986), a collection of short stories. Hazel, the main character of her new novel, "The Missing World" (2000), has lost her memory after being hit by a car.

The truth was . . . he found the seizures more fascinating than distressing. After ten days at home Hazel was still having at least one, sometimes several, a day. A few were so minor as to be barely perceptible: she would put down her cup, blink, and continue with what she had been saying or doing. Others, like this afternoon's, were a force of nature. And it was during these, while she foamed and thrashed, that she made her odd pronouncements. Much of what she said was gibberish, but Jonathan sensed an ancient power seeking a conduit. He understood why, in other times and places, epileptics were regarded as prophets.
   "The Missing World"
HB: There's a lot of neurology in "The Missing World". There's the boy with Tourette's syndrome and there's Hazel with some brain damage.

ML: Part of the interest for me in this novel was researching various conditions and talking to people who suffered memory losses or seizures or other uncomfortable experiences.

HB: You like doing research.

ML: It absolutely is a pleasure. "The Missing World" also involved research into things like roofing: how do you fix a slate roof? And keeping bees: how do you keep bees in London in the 1990s? I have come to realize how immensely useful the specific sensual details can be to unlocking the imagination, even though not a great deal actually gets transferred onto the page.

HB: What are you currently researching?

ML: I'm presently researching the amateur bank robbery. As opposed to the professional bank robbery.

HB: What led you to the idea for "The Missing World"?

ML: The original impulse for the plot of the novel came from a story in People Magazine I read in some doctor or dentist's waiting room -- why else would I read it? -- in which a couple were getting married after their second engagement. The first engagement had been broken off when the woman had an accident and lost all memory. The man says -- and I thought this was quite touching -- that he realized it wasn't enough to just announce, I am your fiance, we are to get married. He had to court her again, and make her fall in love again.

I found that wildly interesting, and found it even more so when something comparable happened to some acquaintances. I thought, what an interesting metaphor for some of the large questions of American and British life at the moment.

HB: How so?

ML: Well, I think "The Missing World" is a very American novel because it's about second chances, and America is the land of second chances, or is perceived as such. One of the reasons America is the land of second chances is that people move so much. In Britain, most people still live within twenty miles of their parents, and so, even if you forget who you are, no one else is going to forget. But in America you can move 2,000 miles from your parents and invent yourself all over again, and you can do it quite a number of times. So one of the things that was interesting to me about the novel was thinking about how many Americans, within America, are so very dependent on their own memories.

HB: Of course, Freddie, the one American in "The Missing World", is inventing or forgetting himself in England.

ML: I've transposed the whole situation to Britain. It's a direction in which Britain is moving, as British people, too, become more mobile.

HB: Some reviewers of "The Missing World" describe Freddie as a couch potato, but don't seem to have a clue about why.

ML: I noticed that myself. Maybe because the revelations about why he's a couch potato come late in the book, reviewers didn't see it. Freddie's life is meant to have this tremendous fault line, his accident in California, and he has never recovered since then. He makes tremendous efforts to suppress this memory.

HB: So he's running in the opposite direction form Hazel, who wants her memory back.

ML: Yes. The characters in "The Missing World" negotiate memory in different ways. Everybody is meant to be a foil to everybody else in their relationship to memory. Cumulatively, they're meant to mirror larger concerns with memory -- questions about the degree to which memory informs identity, the degree to which memory has to be something cognizant and spoken, or whether it can be something buried in the body or buried in land.

One of the reasons I wanted to write "The Missing World" was because of the rising interest in memory in our culture. On the national level, there's the insistence that we remember such terrible events as the Holocaust. On a personal level, there are struggles about repressed memory and concerns about Alzheimer's. One of the questions for me was: to what degree is the self bound up in memory? Do we have to remember to be a full person?

HB: As Hazel tries to get her memory back, Charlotte wonders if that's such a great idea. She says: "We repeat what we remember. Only forgetfulness sets us free." So the question the novel poses is, does freedom come from remembering or from forgetting? You, the author, suspend judgment.

ML: Exactly. And at the end of the novel both Charlotte and Freddie do remember. They articulate the things they've been trying to forget. They break through their willed amnesia, though it's unclear to what degree this will change them. Freud found it frustrating that his patients didn't get better the moment he unlocked their secret pasts.

Hazel argues for a different kind of memory. She says, I may not remember facts but I remember feelings. I can live my life without the facts as long as I listen to the feelings I have. Many people who have suffered memory loss do remember the feelings; they have the appropriate reaction towards people and events.

HB: Memory palaces play a role in "The Missing World." You might be surprised know they also play a role in Thomas Harris's "Hannibal".

ML: I had no idea.

HB: It turns out that Hannibal Lecter, in his spare time, which he has a lot of when locked up, perfects memory palaces.

ML: I looked into memory palaces while doing research for "The Missing World" -- they're fascinating. Memory palaces first came into being in the second century A.D. in a text for orators attributed to Cicero but actually by someone else. The memory palace flourished up to the sixteenth-century when obviously it was to some extent displaced by the printing press. Memory palaces were elaborate structures. If you didn't have already know a building that was appropriate as a memory palace you had to go out and find one, so there are wonderful descriptions of young men pacing the Forum, memorizing it so they could then put it to use in memory.

HB: In your novels there's always someone who is right at the edge of disintegration. In "The Missing World" it wasn't so much Hazel, despite her amnesia. It was Charlotte you feared for.

ML: It's one of fascinating questions about middle class life: what happens if you just slip a little bit? What is like to try to live on almost no money in a big modern city and still keep up the signs of respectability? What's it like to be cadging perpetually? There is a feeling of fragility about Charlotte, that she might just fall through the cracks, that she might just go down too far to come up again.

It interested me to write about a society that doesn't have the safety net of the family. That's one of the novel's American aspects. Many people here live a long way from their families. Their networks consist of friends, colleagues and acquaintances, people who may not prove quite reliable in a crisis.

HB: Some reviewers of "The Missing World" sympathize with Jonathan. My reading of him was that he was something of a monster, imprisoning Hazel.

ML: I certainly wanted you, not necessarily to side with him, but to empathize with him, to and understand how he might seize on Hazel's amnesia as an ultimate second chance for their love affair. He thinks he really can have his life over again.

HB: Through Freddie's eyes, Jonathan looks like a psychopath -- the hinged jaws, the tight narrow eyes.

ML: Freddie finds him very threatening but on the other hand Charlotte finds him quite sexy and attractive. There are different ways of reading.

HB: At the very end Jonathan suddenly seems to recognize what he's done. You don't completely write him off. Maybe he really will have a second chance.

ML: That's how I feel about the ending, too. There's something appropriate about his resolution -- talk to Hazel -- but perhaps the other part of that resolution should be -- listen to Hazel. And whether he's made that resolution we're less certain. It could be hopeful if he actually took into account what another person wanted.

HB: Although Freddie has rescued Hazel from Jonathan, the indications are that things between him and Hazel are not going to be smooth.

ML: Freddie is a victim of his Lourdes complex. Helping people is the way he makes his way in the world, the way that he feels like himself. He is drawn by Hazel's seeming helplessness. But she's really nothing like how he thought she was.

HB: As her memory comes back, she'll no longer be a promising absence.

ML: She'll be a definite, sometimes difficult presence.

HB: Freddie leaks affection in all directions -- towards Charlotte, Felicity, the dog, the dog's pups, ultimately Hazel.

ML: If he could, he'd go around the world loving everyone. But love, of course, has consequences and obligations that make that a somewhat impossible position.

HB: Do you see Freddie as very American that way?

ML: I'm not sure. Do you?

HB: Compared to the Brits around him, who seem much more locked into their roles, yes.

ML: Freddie doesn't care about the normal things. He doesn't care about career or money or status or possessions. He has an odd relationship with the rest of the planet.

HB: And he's deeply intuitive, isn't he? He walks into his house, senses something's different, and decides that, "it was presence he was sensing, not absence." He proceeds to discover that his dog has had puppies.

ML: These characters are broken in some ways and gifted in others. They can be perceived as both, I suppose because I hope I can be perceived as both.

HB: It's not infrequent in your books that there is a child who is seen as demonic, possibly a bad seed. In "Criminals" Molly suddenly sees Olivia, the baby, as demonic.

ML: Yes, as metamorphosing. I've always been fascinated by the way in which children are outside the social contract and can get away with things that older people can't. Some children are quite canny about recognizing their powers.

HB: In "Homework" it's never clear if Celia is being paranoid or if Jenny truly is a bad seed.

ML: I wanted the reader to be on the edge. I did think of the child Jenny as being extremely ruthless in trying to get what she wanted.

HB: Though Celia can't convince anyone else, she's convinced that Jenny has tried to incinerate her .

ML: One of the things that, again, came out of research, was discovering the degree to which arson is a crime that people often don't feel morally culpable for. Most mass murderers are not serial killers; they're arsonists, they're people who just light a match in the right place. The equivalent in "Criminals" was insider trading, a crime people commit without fully taking on board what they're doing.

HB: Jenny doesn't get a lot of what American kids get, coochy-coo playfulness. She's treated as a young adult.

ML: She's an only child who bears an enormous weight of scrutiny, and the temptation is for a precocious only child surely always to pretend to be a small adult. Certainly, that's what I did. I got lots of rewards at the age of eight or nine for pretending to be adult as best I could, and not many rewards for being childish.

HB: Celia has a conception of the world that no one shares, as if she were the target of a conspiracy.

ML: There's something very crazy-making about that. But I would argue that both Celia and Molly in "Criminals" are crazy in one area but function quite well in other areas. I'm quite anxious to avoid having something you can categorize or diagnose. The question that comes up over and over again in criminal cases is: is the person insane? If they're insane that's meant to be an extenuation for doing the extreme. And so I resist having my characters cross that boundary into a country where you could say, oh, we don't need to take their behavior seriously -- they have Condition X.

HB: There's also the interesting circumstance in "Criminals" of Molly splitting up with her husband because he's a writer and she's absolutely disgusted to find he's writing about her.

ML: At a certain point in "Criminals" I realized I was calling everyone a criminal. The title was hanging like a question mark over almost all the characters, so I thought it was only reasonable to include the crime that I commit most often, which is writing about people I know. It is a questionable activity. Several people have written about me, so I know the liability of having writer friends. It's an eerie experience.

HB: And reading itself is a theme you come back to in your novels. In "Criminals", you write: "At school once he'd [Kenneth] had to find 'melancholy' in the dictionary and been appalled by how many words there were, hundreds of them, thousands . . . The experience had made the world seem even larger and more confusing. He never wanted to see a dictionary again."

ML: I am a voracious reader but I realized quite early as a writer that I couldn't make all my characters ardent readers; reading is not a very stimulating activity to read about, someone sitting in a chair reading.

HB: In your short stories, you use a lot of different kinds of styles ranging from realistic to fantastic and surreal.

ML: When I first started writing I think I was much more playful a writer. Living in Britain in the early '70s, I read all these wonderful American experimental writers -- Sorrentino and Barth and Barthelme and Pynchon. Of course, this had an influence on my work. But I think for the most part I've begun to follow the creed of William Trevor, who said in an interview: "I think of myself as an experimental writer but all the experiments are hidden." In my more glamorous moods I like to think that is what I'm aspiring to.

HB: I thought there was a different tone in "The Missing World" than in your previous books -- more humor. A lot of the dialogue is playful.

ML: Well, I like to think of myself as being funny, but I'm never sure if other people get my jokes. Certainly, I hoped that, among other things, the novel would be an entertainment, in the Alice Munroe, Graham Greene sense, as well as being something deeper and darker.

HB: Is it the case, as it seems to be from reading about you, that you always knew you were going to be writer?

ML: It was much murkier than that. I went traveling the year after I graduated from university where I'd studied English and philosophy and didn't write a world of fiction. The person I went traveling with was a philosopher. He wrote a book. And I thought, oh, he's writing a book, I'll write one too. Not having anything to write about I wrote a novel. But this novel I'd written was so bad I got interested. I thought: "Why is this so different from the books I read? I'm reading 'Howard's End' but I've written something miserably unlike 'Howard's End'." From that point on, I began to write.

HB: Do you feel any affinity with the work of gothic novelists, Patrick McGrath, for instance, and in this country some of the work of Joyce Carol Oates?

ML: I feel leery of the label like "gothic" and "thriller." I feel more like E.M. Forster to the effect that every novel should contain a mystery, though not necessarily in the sense of Poe. On the other hand, the word literary is a kiss of death for the novel, and those other words -- "gothic" and "thriller" -- suggest a novel is readable, you'll want to turn the pages to see what happens next. And I aspire to write readable novels. My sisters in Scotland are both ardent readers. When I write, one ambition is to keep their attention.

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