Ahead of her appearance at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature this month, Marina Lewycka talks about the pressure of following up her hit debut novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.
Interview with author Marina Lewycka
It's strikingly apt that the first of the best-selling novelist Marina Lewycka's three events at this year's Emirates Airline Festival of Literature should be under the Festival Book Club banner. For her debut novel, 2005's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian was - and remains - something of a book-club staple.
It was the many levels to Lewycka's debut that encouraged voracious readers in the libraries, coffee shops and living rooms of the world to pick it apart. She adeptly blended family drama - an elderly widower gets engaged to a gold-digging Ukrainian bombshell, much to his daughters' disgust - with the bloody history of the Eastern European country. Translated into 29 languages and selling millions in the process, it also proved that it's never too late to become a best-selling novelist: Lewycka was 58 at the time and had undergone the indignity of having previous work rejected by 36 different publishers.
"Absolutely, the rise in popularity of the book club was brilliant for me," she agrees. "But not just for me, for any author who has managed to make it on to that circuit. All of a sudden, you have an audience. And people want to talk to you about what you've written, which makes the writing process a dialogue, in a way. When you know that the stuff you're plugging away at on your laptop will be discussed and questioned by people, that's great. It keeps you on your mettle - you worry constantly about whether it's too difficult, too boring, too obscure..."
She tails off, as if she's still genuinely grateful that she now has a "readership" to entertain. And Lewycka's story is cheeringly remarkable: the lecturer in journalism and PR at Sheffield Hallam University had always dreamed of being a novelist, but A Short History was something of a last throw of the dice after that constant rejection. And it was only when Lewycka stopped the pretence of writing a memoir - she is also the daughter of two Ukrainians whose father remarried a much younger woman - that the book started to come together. The result was a debut that was Booker longlisted and Orange shortlisted (she lost out in the Orange Prize to Lionel Shriver, who also appears at the Book Club event).
"I wrote what I knew," Lewycka says. "And then I reached a point in my family history where not only did I not know what had happened, but I had no way of finding out, either. And that was wonderfully liberating, actually, being able to give myself permission to make things up."
But the success of the book wasn't completely freeing. All of a sudden, Lewycka's dreams had come true, but that brought with it the burden of expectation. Pressure. Fans.
"Obviously it was fantastic," she says. "But it's terribly difficult to know how to follow something so successful. So I set myself a challenge and wrote a book with nine different voices. In a way, I love Two Caravans the most, looking back, because it's the one where I taught myself how to write."
So it's no surprise that Lewycka is also holding a masterclass on "narrative voice, character and point of view" at the festival. Two Caravans juggled the stories of Poles, Malawians, Chinese and, in one rather odd section, a dog. And, with the possible exception of the dog, it has a real sense of authenticity both in its dialogue and setting - a field full of horribly exploited strawberry pickers in England.
"You know, narrative voice is probably the one reason why it took me 40 years to get published," she laughs. "It was a constant struggle, and getting it right is both a joy and a challenge. My books are, in some ways, about harnessing my fascination with the 'ordinary'. We overlook the stuff that appears minor - which are actually the driving forces for the big events in life."
That fascination is apparent right from the very start of her incredibly likeable latest novel We Are All Made of Glue, in which a domestic argument about a toothbrush holder somehow snowballs into a marriage-ending row between two ostensibly well-adjusted people.
It's a necessary - but depressingly believable - narrative device, so that Lewycka's suddenly lonely protagonist, Georgie, has the inclination to spend time with an odd, similarly single old Jewish émigré who lives nearby. Their strange relationship is wonderfully portrayed - particularly when a Palestinian repairman turns up - and reflects Lewycka's other passion: what happens when different cultures are forced to live together?
"Yes, that's right," she says. "I think it's a result of being an immigrant myself. Even 10 years ago if I went shopping on Sheffield market everybody 'talked Yorkshire', so to speak. And now when I go, the Yorkshire people are really quite thin on the ground. When I first started overhearing people talking in Russian and Ukrainian and Polish when I was out shopping I realised that something really quite interesting and extreme was going on.
"And what really fascinates me is that as people travel, they take their stories with them. Although they're in a new situation, part of them is still in their home country, still following the politics there, still infused with the actions of their previous generations. Ukraine is terrible for that, they're still reliving things that took place in the 16th century, having major clashes about the interpretation of events 400 years ago. All of that baggage people carry around is so interesting."
And yet, far from highlighting how such cultural differences can be divisive, Lewycka is a great believer that throwing people together in her books and in life gives people a chance to work out what they have in common as human beings. Her writing reflects her outlook; serious themes such as war, loss and family conflict are always shot through with black comedy. Oddly, though, while the jackets of her books excitably pronounce the novels as "hilarious," "engaging" and "funny", she's never thought of them as being particularly comic.
She's certainly never set out to write anything jokey.
"I just thought that was life," she says. "But black comedy is an Eastern European trait - and I think quite Yorkshire too. It rises out of situations so awful that the only way you can cope is to joke about them. My parents were like that when they talked about home, about Russia and communism. You have to laugh at the world because if you really confronted it, it would be terrible."
So be aware: if you hear guffaws outside the Intercontinental Hotel next month, Marina Lewycka is probably talking about some pretty grim stuff.
- Festival Book Club: Face-to-Face, March 10, Al Ras 2, InterContinental Hotel, 3pm.
- Marina Lewycka masterclass, March 12, Al Majlis, InterContinental Hotel, 12.30pm.
- Louise Doughty And Marina Lewycka, March 12, Al Barhara 2, InterContinental Hotel, 6.30pm.