Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Author Marina Lewycka on sudden fame, the seriousness of comedy, and her new novel, Various Pets Alive and Dead

This interview with the best-selling author of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian originally appeared in the Sunday Times Lifestyle section, 24 June 2012.

When she appears on my Skype screen, Marina Lewycka is lying in bed. ‘Excuse my hair; I’ve just been for a swim,’ she says with a sheepish look.
Lewycka (pronounced ‘Lewiska’) not only conducts interviews from her bed at home in Sheffield whenever possible, but writes her novels there too, on a laptop. ‘It’s comfy and cosy in bed, and you can shut yourself off. It’s much nicer to sit back and have cups of tea at your side and a hot water bottle under your knees than to sit at a desk. I could spend six hours a day in bed, but it does get a bit hard on the body,’ confesses the writer, now in her mid-sixties.
Dismantling the webcam, she takes my eyes on a quick tour of her bedroom, past an antique mirrored cupboard and a shelf stuffed with books to the window, where I peer down a few storeys of red-brick house to her spring garden, momentarily lit by a pale English sun.
The tale of Marina Lewycka’s late-in-life literary fame has become legend. ‘Until my mid-fifties, I was really a housewife who stayed at home,’ she says with self-deprecation. ‘But I’d always wanted to be a writer. I’d tried writing Mills and Boons, and had a go at thrillers. In fact, I’d written two complete novels, in longhand, and got very dispirited.’ A part-time lecturer at her local polytechnic, she was approaching retirement and was invited to take any course offered by the institution gratis. She chose a creative writing course, ‘and that,’ she says, ‘led to my breakthrough.’
Among the external examiners was literary agent Bill Hamilton of A.M. Heath in London, who, after reading her manuscript, signed her up. A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian was published in 2005 and sold over a million copies in the UK alone. The hit comedy about two sisters whose widowed father, a former engineer writing a history of tractors in Ukranian, marries a much younger Ukrainian immigrant, was followed by Two Caravans in 2007, We Are All Made of Glue in 2009, and Various Pets Alive and Dead last month.
Success flipped Lewycka’s life around. She describes not only the fulfilment in attaining her dream – of ‘having always really known I was supposed to be a writer, having worked for it terribly hard for so long, and then it all happened at once’ – but the downside: ‘When something is no longer a dream, it becomes a day job. I’m 65 and I’ve never worked so hard in my life! My friends are retired, and I wish I could relax, like them.’ But for the next few months, following the launch of her new novel, she’ll be giving talks and interviews, doing readings and book signings at the Scarborough Literary Festival, the London Book Fair and other events. ‘Then it will all calm down, and the story that’s at the back of my head will come out – I hope.’
Lewycka’s first literary effort was a poem written at the age of four. Born in a German refugee camp, dark-haired Marina was a year old when she and her Ukranian parents moved to England. Her father, who worked for International Harvester tractors in Doncaster, ‘considered himself a poet, and was actually quite good,’ she recalls. ‘My mother was one of the great story-tellers. She’d tell me about life back home in Ukraine – what people did in the winter, the names of their pet animals.’
The author remembers a stimulating, multi-cultural household filled with her parents’ friends from France, Germany and elsewhere, partly thanks to a warm, embracing mother who liked to invite interesting people home and feed them cake. Lewycka, however, was uncomfortably conscious of her own foreignness throughout childhood. ‘I grew up in the habit of seeing myself on the outside of things. It’s not nice for a little kid, but for a writer it’s nice to be on the sidelines, watching.’
Early feelings of exclusion may explain her empathy for those marginalized by society – the immigrants, refugees and elderly figures who appear in all her novels. Always full-blooded, quirky and indomitable, these characters offer more than mere entertainment value by humanising the people one might unconsciously regard as ‘other’.
Their presence reflects too the years Lewycka spent writing handbooks for Age Concern, Britain’s support organisation for the aged, and Mencap, the charity for people with learning disabilities. ‘I’d interview families for the handbooks and write about them in the first person. I still had dreams of telling their stories in novels one day,’ she says.
‘When I started writing Various Pets Alive and Dead, a Down’s Syndrome boy I knew popped up in my mind. He was so enthusiastic, so full of life, and could do anything he wanted, such as go off to the Special Olympics.’ This case study inspired the character of Oolie-Anna, a lusty, loud young woman with Down’s Syndrome who is desperate to leave home and live in her own flat, while her adoptive mother, ageing hippy Doro, struggles to let go.
The novel illustrates actual situations Lewycka encountered during her work with Mencap. Children with Down’s Syndrome live longer nowadays than they used to, and, as Lewycka points out, ‘What happens to them when their parents grow old or die? One needs to plan for the possibility of their outliving their parents.’ In Various Pets, a perky social worker finds Oolie-Anna a job and irritates Doro with such platitudes as, ‘But in the long term it’ll be better for everybody if Oolie-Anna can spread her wings and learn to fly’.
Various Pets Alive and Dead is a characteristic blend of farce, wit, pathos and social awareness. ‘I’m actually a very serious person, but I’m not good at writing serious things. They come out with a light touch,’ explains the author, a fan of British comedy classics including Fawlty Towers and Monty Python. ‘You think comedy isn’t serious but with comedy you can say such a lot that serious can’t. Comedy can expose the depths of the human soul; funny is what we are when we least intend to be.’
            A wry exploration of modern values, the new novel moves between three narrators: Doro; her son Serge, who’s pretending to finish his maths PhD at Cambridge while secretly raking in money as a City trader in London (a position that would horrify his anti-capitalist parents); and her daughter Clara, a primary school teacher. ‘I’m a bossy sort, like Clara,’ Lewycka laughs. ‘Actually, there’s a bit of me in all my characters.’
The storyline involves two present-day locations, flashbacks to Doro and Marcus’s lentil-infused commune in the 1960s, loads of backstory to inform the present-day plot, plus various pets. ‘It was very complicated to write,’ Lewycka admits, ‘as the backstory and real world had to dovetail together. If I changed one tiny thing, I had to go through the whole novel and change a whole lot of others.’ Yet she clearly thrives on complexity: Two Caravans featured nine interlinked narrative voices, including a dog.
Having taught media studies at Sheffield Hallam University for twelve years, Lewycka acknowledges the rewards of teaching but adds, ‘There are some really, really awful students and you wish you could flog them. There are departmental meetings, and days when you just don’t feel like doing the marking…’
Since retiring from teaching in December, Lewycka has more time for writing in bed. Her daughter and granddaughter live in New Zealand, and her partner, a historian, is based in London. ‘He and I go between the two cities,’ she says. ‘It’s nice to have gaps.’ Her next novel, the second of a two-book deal, will probably be set in Derbyshire, feature a child as its protagonist, and involve animals.
Though something of a celebrity in Sheffield, she remains resolutely down to earth. ‘The good thing about being an author is that, on the whole, you’re pretty invisible. That picture of me on the dust jacket of my new book was taken some time ago, so when I go out looking like a bag lady, as I so often do, I’m not recognised,’ she says with satisfaction. In her spare time Lewycka indulges in low-key, very English pursuits: gardening, swimming, baking cakes, taking a friend’s dog for walks in the surrounding Peak District.
It’s unlikely that Marina Lewycka will ever be accused of taking herself too seriously. As she wrote two years ago, ‘I’ve been a “successful” writer for almost five years now, but I never forget that I was an unsuccessful writer for more than fifty. It helps to keep things in perspective.’

(It's never too late to write a novel. Join The Peacock Project's online creative writing programme at http://www.peacockproject.net/, and get started today!)

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