What was the philosophy of hippie communes in the 1960s? The spiritual communities pursued non-violent beliefs, vegetarianism with plenty of lentils, left-wing politics and often free love. However, remembering this era and its actual purpose was one of the most difficult aspects for the author Marina Lewycka, whose latest book Various Pets Alive and Dead is partially set on a commune and partially in London's ferocious financial trading centre.
"In a funny way, the bits that were unfamiliar - the banking bits - were easier to write than the familiar bits - the bits about the commune and hippies," Lewycka told The National when she was in the capital last week, hosting a writing workshop at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, where she also took part in a panel discussion and gave a presentation.
"When I sat back to reflect on it [the hippie era], I found it very hard to make any sense of it. Whereas the stuff in the city does have a very ferocious internal logic of its own … it was very hard to figure out what the internal logic was of our time in the commune," she said of her newly released novel.
Various Pets Alive and Dead follows Marcus and Doro, who were part of a left-wing commune from the late 1960s to the early 1990s. Their children Clara (schoolteacher), Serge (stockmarket trader) and Oolie Anna (still living at home) have grown up in a vastly different world; where a yearning for order, clean bathrooms and financial gains from city trading take precedence.
Writing it during the 2008 global financial crisis, the novelist saw the effects of the crash on the people around her.
"What was happening, was happening to the children of the parents who'd been around in the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s … people were a bit more idealistic about what kind of society they wanted to live in and they weren't necessarily so motivated by money," she said.
"It's happened that quite a few of my friends have got children who've grown up with completely different aspirations to theirs … children have become hedge-fund managers or work in private finance. The parents love them because they're their children, but they don't understand them."
The humorous title actually refers to a scene in the book itself. Serge - one of the main characters - is compared to a hamster because he feels like he's working on a treadmill in the city; while Clara's classroom hamsters die.
Lewycka's work has always cleverly entwined humour with serious subject matter, focusing on the fate and future of European immigrants to the UK. Her first novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (2005) quickly became a bestseller and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Her debut bestseller was followed closely by Two Caravans (2007), which was shortlisted for the 2008 Orwell Prize for political writing and We Are All Made of Glue (2009).
The British writer was born in a refugee camp in Kiel, Germany, shortly after the Second World War; she moved to England with her Ukrainian family soon after.
Although she had always worked as a writer, Lewycka didn't have her debut novel published until she was 59 years old.
Her previous work includes several care guides for the elderly, which she was commissioned to write for the UK charity Age Concern. In some ways, she said, the research was similar.
"Writing these care guides was one of the steps along the way, when I found I was getting nowhere with my fiction. I went out and interviewed both the old people themselves and the people who were caring for them; it was fascinating, absolutely fascinating," she said.
"And, in fact, those elderly people crop up in my books from time-to-time … heavily disguised, of course."
• Lewycka is currently on a promotional tour for her fourth novel Various Pets Alive and Dead, which was published by Penguin last month. She admits to not having decided which of three ideas she's had that she'll be transforming into her next bestseller
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