Margot Livesey is the author of the new novel The Boy in the Field. Her other books include The Flight of Gemma Hardy and Mercury. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Vogue, and she is a professor of fiction at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She grew up in Scotland and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Boy in the Field, and for your characters Matthew, Zoe, and Duncan?
A: The idea came to me as an image offered by someone who went to the boys’ half of the girls’ school I went to in Scotland. I hadn’t seen him in many years, and I was asking him about his life.
He described coming home from school and finding the body of a young woman at the bottom of the garden. He was probably in her presence less than 15 seconds, but that 15 seconds really changed his life.
At 16 or 17 many people’s lives change, but he felt it as a distinct moment when everything changed. That image stayed with me.
I didn’t want to start the book with the body of a young woman. I felt that was, unfortunately, overly familiar. I kept thinking…what if it could be a boy? What if the injuries were not fatal, but it still feels like a primal moment?
I realized I wanted more points of view, because of the complexity you get from seeing the world from different angles. That’s how I got the idea.
And writing The Flight of Gemma Hardy reminded me of the pleasures of writing about younger people, who often have a more direct sense of morality and ethics. That’s why we need Greta Thunberg.
Q: The novel takes place in 1999—why did you choose that time period?
A: For a very practical reason, and less practical ones. The novel needed to be set before mobile phones. They would have greatly changed the nature of what happened, and teenagers had more autonomy before mobile phones, more autonomy from their parents.
And I was interested in the feeling we had in 1999—we thought danger was coming, but we were looking in the wrong direction.
Q: In our previous interview, you said that your husband, an artist, “paints large abstract oil paintings and I spent a lot of time in his company thinking about color and seeing.” How did those experiences affect your creation of Duncan and his art?
A: Eric’s presence in my life had a huge impact on the creation of Duncan. It’s that way of looking at the world—he’ll see something, a crack in the wall, a rusty lamppost. Maybe he’ll stop and take a photo to remind himself. I’m aware that he’s thinking about the world in a very particular way. I wanted one of my three protagonists to have that way of thinking.
Q: In her New York Times review of the book, Jenny Rosenstrach says, “Livesey’s writing is quiet, observant and beautifully efficient — there’s not an extra word or scene in the entire book — and yet simultaneously so cinematic, you can hear the orchestral soundtrack as you tear through the pages.” What do you think of that description?
A: I was thrilled by that description. It did capture the fact that I intentionally set out to write a short novel in which quite a lot happens. [I admire] Penelope Fitzgerald’s work, or a novel like [James Baldwin’s] Giovanni’s Room, which are quite short. What could I get by embracing that esthetic?
For a certain writer, this could have ended up at 3-400 pages, but I wanted to keep it short. I was very pleased by the word “efficient”!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Once it was apparent in March that I was not going to be able to go back to Scotland any time in the near future, I started writing a novel set in Scotland as a way of going there every day. We shall see if it gains purchase.
It’s rooted in an old family story. I have to sabotage it a bit. I haven’t quite got to that point yet; I’m overly committed to historical fact.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: There are two things I alluded to but I wanted to say more explicitly. I’m very aware of the form of the detective novel, but very conscious that I was not writing a detective novel—though I do have a detective! My focus was on something else, though the detective novel is going on in the background.
Another thing is that writing about Matthew, Zoe, and Duncan at age 17, 16, and 13 was no different for me than writing about adult characters. It never occurred to me that this might be a young adult novel, although I’d be thrilled if young adults read it.
I’ve been teaching at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and my wonderfully talented students have made me think more about questions of form and subject matter as I watch my students’ writing. Most of them are closer to being a young person!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Margot Livesey.