Midwestern Gothic staffer Sydney Cohen talked with author Margot Livesey about her novel Mercury, different concepts of sight, a different type of infidelity, and more.
Sydney Cohen: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Margot Livesey: The first summer I visited the States I took a greyhound bus from New York to Chicago and immediately liked the city and the people I met there. All these friends of friends were immediately so kind and welcoming. Many years later I returned to teach at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. On my first morning in Iowa City, I think this was 1991, I stopped to buy petrol. Only after I had filled my car did I discover that I had no money. I offered to leave my watch and the petrol attendant said no, just come back when you can. That readiness to believe the best of people exemplified my first visit to Iowa City, and those that have happily followed in 2005 and now when I have a permanent position.
SC: Your new novel, Mercury, deals heavily with the thematic concept of sight, both with literal eyesight and figurative blindness. What interests you about the dynamics of sight, and how does sight work to enable or hinder the characters in the novel?
ML: I’ve long been interested in vision, both in a physiological and a metaphorical sense. We call eyes the windows of the soul and we attribute great significance to them. My interest initially stemmed from my many visits to optometrists as I struggled with contact lenses. Better or worse, the optometrists kept asking. Often I couldn’t say. I have also had the good fortune to know several very competent blind people; watching them navigate the world has been a privilege. When I had the idea for Mercury, it occurred to me almost at once that making my protagonist, Donald, an optometrist would give me a wonderful opportunity to explore how there’s more to seeing than seeing. No one’s vision is 20:20.
SC: As a native of Scotland who has lived, worked and taught around Europe and the United States, how did your geographic and personal background play a role in the inspiration for Mercury? How has the Midwest influenced your writing?
ML: It’s no accident that Donald, like me, grew up partly in Scotland and longs to spend more time there even while he appreciates many aspects of his American life. Meanwhile Viv, his wife, a wonderful equestrian, grew up in Ann Arbor, works in mutual funds in first New York and then Boston and now runs a stables outside Boston. Even Mercury, the horse that changes everything when he arrives at the stables, has also had a peripatetic life.
I find the land around Iowa City, with its gentle hills and small towns, particularly appealing but I would have to say that the Midwest has influenced me more through its people than its landscapes, but then the people are shaped by the landscape. I do think that a MFA program, like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, could only exist in the Midwest. In the heart of the heart of the country we are all somewhat protected from the forces of commerce. I like both the ease and the complications of living in a small town where writing is cherished. My association with the program has enabled me to grow as a writer, and to be both stubborn and patient.
SC: What were your inspirations for the dynamic and complex characters of Donald and Viv in Mercury – characters who operate through grief and ambition? Why did you make the characterization decisions you did when portraying the tumultuous intricacies of marriage?
ML: A great deal has been written about sexual infidelity in marriage but I am interested in another kind of infidelity: namely what happens in a long relationship when one partner changes and the other doesn’t. When they meet, Donald and Viv share certain beliefs and values. After Mercury arrives, Viv gradually abandons several of these beliefs in a way that is deeply complicated for Donald. They both find themselves in a situation for which life has in no way prepared them.
SC: You published your first book in 1986 and have written extensively since then. In what ways has your writing evolved since the publication of your first book to your newest? Have these changes largely been in one area, such as writing process or style, or a combination of many aspects?
ML: I have the good fortune to teach wonderful graduate students so I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about their fiction, trying to figure out what makes a story or a novel work. In my own work I keep trying new things in terms of plot, character, structure and language. As Virginia Woolf remarks, the world keeps changing and it’s the job of the novelist to reflect these changes. Mercury is my first novel set entirely in the States and that enabled me to explore themes that I couldn’t in a British setting. And of course I got to write American sentences.
SC: Mercury, as a novel that explores the selfish and corruptive aspects of marriage and human nature, can be described as dark, thrilling, and terrifying – much like gothic literature. What draws you to the genre of gothic fiction?
ML: I don’t think of myself as writing gothic fiction but I am interested in dark coincidences and characters who are just a little larger than life. I love, for instance, Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, novels in which the heroine finds herself completely misunderstanding a person, or a situation. And I do love a good story. The best gothic novels are like well made machines, everything working together to bring about the moment of revelation.
SC: Of the many books in your repertoire, which was your favorite to write, and for what reason?
ML: Eva Moves The Furniture. The novel is very loosely based on my mother’s life and was written with many false turns and much despair over twelve years. I lost my mother when I was very young and for a long time it seemed that the book I was trying to write about her was also lost. But when I finally wrote the ending, I knew I had reached the place I’d been trying to get to all along. I wrote the last chapter in a single sitting, blinking back tears.
SC: What’s next for you?
ML: I am working on a book of essays about the craft of fiction. It’s called The Hidden Machinery and will come out next summer from Tin House. And, of course, I’m trying to start another novel.
Margot Livesey was born and grew up on the edge of the Scottish Highlands. She has taught in numerous writing programs including Emerson College, Boston University, Bowdoin College and the Warren Wilson MFA program, and is the author of a collection of stories and seven novels, including Eva Moves the Furniture and The Flight Of Gemma Hardy. She lives in Cambridge, MA and is on the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her eighth novel, Mercury, will be published in September, 2016. In July, 2017, Tin House will publish her book about the craft of fiction: The Hidden Machinery.