7th Mar 2012
For Books’ Sake Talks To: Marina Lewycka
Her latest book, Various Pets Alive and Dead was published by Fig Tree last week . It follows Marcus and Doro and their three grown-up children, who were all born and raised in Solidarity Hall, a Doncaster commune in the 1970s.
FBS: Various Pets Alive and Dead is set right at the beginning of the collapse of the financial market, and takes a hard look at the culture of risk, reward and greed in the City. With bankers’ bonuses being such a hot topic at the moment, do you think this will influence the way people read this book?
ML: The book is set in 2008, and while I was writing it I was afraid that when it was finally published it would seem very dated, but in fact most of the problems which emerged in 2008 have not receded, they have intensified.
The book takes a humorous look at values, not just of those who work in the financial sector, but of a wider social and political view that ‘risk takers’ were to be revered and rewarded in a way which now seems absurdly disproportionate.
I think at last we are beginning to question those values, and I hope this book will contribute to the discussion.
FBS: This book appears critical of capitalism in the way that it represents the selfish, greedy and hedonistic employees that Serge, the eldest son, has to work with in the financial sector.
But it also makes nods to the pitfalls of socialism, through the problems faced by the comrades at Solidarity Hall, and through Maroushka, Serge’s love interest, who idealises the City after growing up in the Ukraine.
The end result, in my opinion, is quite a balanced and honest look at society and its failings. Did you set out to present a balanced view or did you intend to write this book with political agenda?
ML: Alas, I wish I knew of an agenda that would solve the mess we find ourselves in. Fortunately it’s not the novelist’s job to come up with an answer to the political and economic questions that arise in the novel – only to show how they impact on the characters as they flounder around in search of their own answers.
Although I’m deeply critical of those who brought about the present crisis I think in a way we are all to blame, because we allowed ourselves to be seduced by the vision of infinite growth and infinite wealth, without questioning where that wealth was coming from.
FBS: We spoke to Lauren Groff only a few weeks ago about her new novel, Arcadia, which also follows characters who grew up in a commune. Do you think there is a reason people are so interested in this way of living at the moment?
ML: I do think we find ourselves in a crisis of values, and we are searching for alternative ways of organising society. It’s no coincidence that squatting and occupation, which were so big in the sixties and seventies, are making a comeback. Or maybe it’s just that the children of the communards have reached that novel-writing age.
FBS: There are quite a lot of flashbacks to Solidarity Hall, and we get a very clear image of what communal living was like for these characters, and the good and bad memories they took away from it. What research did you undertake to create such a comprehensive, authentic representation of a 1970s commune?
ML: Well, I had a head start, because I lived in a commune from about 1970 to 1976. But in fact Solidarity Hall is not like either of my communes, which were in London, and is based more on people I met and other communes I visited at the time.
The discussions about how we should live and how to organise our household, the domestic and sexual tussles, and the relentless bean and lentil diet (at that time, ‘macrobiotic’ was the big thing) are all deeply embedded in my consciousness.
FBS: Oolie Anna, the youngest sibling, is such a memorable character and provides a lot of the comedy in the book. Her Down’s Syndrome drives a lot of her storyline, but it certainly doesn’t define her as a character.
Do you think that characters with disabilities can often be one-dimensional in fiction? Did you set out to subvert this?
ML: Oolie Anna is based on somebody I knew, who had an enormous personality and who inspired astonishment and admiration for the way he (Oolie’s original was a young man) romped through life, refusing to be limited, defined by his disability, or indeed organized by his parents or social workers.
When I started to write this book, he transformed himself into a girl, barged his way in, and became Oolie Anna.
FBS: Dysfunctional families seem to be a common premise in your books. Sibling rivalry and eccentric parents are themes that also appear most memorably in A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. Why do you think this is such a successful device for you? Do you write from experience of your own family?
ML: I think all writers will admit that their own life experiences worm their way into their books. When you’re a child, you just accept your family the way it is. It never occurred to me that we were dysfunctional, I thought all families were a bit like us. Aren’t they?
FBS: You tend to weave Ukrainian characters and Ukrainian culture in to all of your stories, to a greater or lesser extent. How do you decide what elements of Ukrainian culture you want to bring in to a story?
ML: After my first two books, I decided to put all things Ukrainian behind me for a while, because I didn’t want to get pigeonholed as an ‘ethnic’ writer.
But while I was researching this book, two separate people told me of Ukrainian girls they knew who were beautiful, ambitious, ruthless, and worked in the City, and I was hooked. Maroushka is a bit like Valentina in A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, a ‘new’ post-Soviet woman who has grown up in a free-for-all society and has to make her way in the world by whatever means she can.
FBS: All of your books have been praised for their comedy, and Various Pets Alive and Dead in particular was noted for its ‘irony, farce and wit’. There were some scenes in this book that had me giggling out loud. Do you actively try to bring comedy in to a scene, or does it just naturally happen?
ML: Being labeled a ‘comic writer’ is a bit of a liability, because I’m actually a deeply serious person, and I think Various Pets Alive and Dead is in fact quite a sad book, if only because, as I said earlier, none of the big social issues are resolved.
But one of the advantages of getting older is that I don’t tend to take myself quite as seriously as when I was young. I think I have a sharp eye for the absurdities of life, and I’ve never been averse to partaking in a little absurdity myself.
FBS: When reviewing Various Pets Alive and Dead I found it impossible to compare it with any other writers’ style. Who would you say are your literary influences?
ML: I’m influenced by virtually everything I read, and I still feel I have so much to learn. But my roots are definitely in the past. I studied English at university, and through one of those weird quirks of the modular syllabus, I somehow avoided reading almost anything that was written after 1700.
Consequently the writers I most admire, and whom I’ve learned most from, are from that period, especially Chaucer, Shakespeare and John Donne. They manage to be witty, laugh-out-loud funny and profound at the same time. And they knew a thing or two about structure, too.
FBS: And finally, could you give us a hint as to what you’re working on now?
ML: If you’d asked me this a month ago, I would have said I’m trying to decide between two ideas. Now I’m trying to decide between three.