The View From Here Interview - Part Two: Marina Lewycka
Part one of this interview can be found here.
Your latest book is just out this week, on July 2nd - We Are All Made of Glue - a mystery which moves from Highbury to wartime Europe to the Middle East. Can you tell us something about writing your third novel?
The new book is called We Are All Made of Glue, and it’s about bonding. (Though bondage comes into it too.) On one level it’s about an old lady who lives in a crumbling house in London with seven smelly cats, and a secret. As the narrator gets to know the old lady, she realizes that she is not who she says she is. But as we find out about the old lady’s past, we also discover things in the present which relate to her story.
One of the strands is also about the situation in the Middle East, and the dispute between Palestine and Israel. I wrote it partly because I was so troubled about the state of the world, I wanted to learn for myself what was happening over there – it seems to be one of the central problems of our time. I was trying to understand the current situation in the Middle East and find out whether there is a solution to the problems.
When I tell people my book is about the conflict in the Middle East, and it’s a comedy, they look at me as though I’ve gone mad.
It often seems publishers want more of the same after an author is initially successful, but authors and readers may need something new. How do you manage this?
When Tractors was published, I was all set to write a sequel. But my publishers said, don’t do that. Sequels are always compared unfavourably with the original. Why don’t you do something completely different? I thought that was good advice, so I started working on something completely different. But as Tractors became more and more successful, they started to get nervous – ‘well, actually, we’d like it to be the same’, they said. So there you are – Two Caravans, is the same but different.
After Tractors came out, Rose Tremain’s novel The Road Home also explored Eastern European immigration, working conditions and aging in the UK and after Two Caravans Patrick Ness featured a talking dog in The Knife of Never Letting Go. How difficult is it to be original and what do you think writers can do to be distinctive?
I think that may be more of a problem for readers than writers. I haven’t read either of those books yet, and I’m sure they haven’t read mine. But I do think there’s a Zeitgeist – ideas and themes which are current, and which grab everyone’s imagination.
The covers of your novels are distinctive. Were you involved in the artwork selection, and why the US / UK title difference for your second book?
They’re by a very talented designer called John Gray. Our only brief was that because the title was rather ‘male’ the cover should have feminine appeal – definitely no tractors on the cover, we said. But when his design came back, we just loved it. He gave the books a rather utilitarian look, to make them seem like authentic books from the former Soviet Union. There’s a name for that style – it’s called Ostalgia. It’s even done deliberately off-the-straight.
You know there’s a funny story - when I was in Holland I looked at the cover and noticed they had straightened up the edges But they said, “Well, we Dutch, we like things to be orderly.”
The Americans, however, couldn’t relate to that ‘Ostalgia’ style at all – it means nothing in their culture. They wanted something prettier. Actually, I think the US and Canadian covers are very attractive, but they don’t have the same whacky appeal as the John Gray covers.
(Two Caravans was published as Strawberry Field in America, as caravans didn't translate well.)
Do you favour a PC or longhand - what tools do you feel are must-haves for writers?
I work on a lap-top on a little bean-bag tray I bought in Oxfam – the sort of thing they used to have for TV dinners. My preferred place to write is in bed propped up with lots of cushions, and a nice pot of tea on a tray – but it can be hard on the back.
What’s your writing process? Do you write in order, or in parts?
I’m not a very orderly writer, I don’t plan nearly enough. But for Two Caravans, I used a different colour for each character, so I could follow through the individual threads, and make sure they all ran smoothly. The story is a bit like a game of rugby. Each has the story for a little bit, and runs with it, then passes it to someone else. (I’m married to a New Zealander, maybe that’s where that idea comes from).
Because there are nine characters, the voice of each character must be different. Only Irina has a first person voice. And Dog, of course. The others are in the third person, some in the present tense, some in the past.
I’m a huge fan of Chaucer, he has the most wonderful characters, and I drew on him a lot for Two Caravans.
Do you read other writers’ work for pleasure, for study of the competition or to improve your own writing?
I find it quite hard to read for pleasure now – being able to lose myself in another writer’s world is a thing of the past. I enjoy reading non-fiction nowadays – I feel that with so much out-put I need to keep on topping up my in-put. And I do study other fiction writers for ideas about technique and how to solve particular problems.
What's coming up for you now in terms of events with the launch this week?
The new book is just out and I’m sure there’ll be lots of trekking around to book festivals, though the only one I know for sure at this stage (at time of writing in March) is the Edinburgh Festival.
Assuming you were on Desert Island Discs, which book and which luxury object would you like to take with you and why?
The book would be The Culture of The Europeans by Donald Sassoon – it’s a big fat book with lots of fascinating information, but written in a very accessible and amusing style. It would keep me going for ages. My luxury object would be a solar-powered laptop. I’m afraid I’d need my glasses, too. Would that be allowed?
ABOUT MARINA LEWYCKA
Marina Lewycka is of Ukrainian origin and was born in a British-run refugee camp in northern Germany, after the end of World War II. She grew up in England and studied at Keele University. She has written a number of books of practical advice for carers of the elderly, published by Age Concern England . She lectures in the department of media studies (journalism & PR) at Sheffield Hallam University.
Her first novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (2005), tells of the exploits of two feuding sisters trying to save their elderly father from a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcee, Valentina. This book won the 2005 Saga Award for Wit, the 2005 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction. Her second novel Two Caravans was published in hardback in March 2007 by Fig Tree (Penguin Books) for the United Kingdom market, and was shortlisted for the 2008 Orwell Prize for political writing. In the United States and Canada it is published under the title Strawberry Fields.
To visit Marina's web site click here.