Novelist Marina Lewycha in conversation at Sidmouth
‘Tractors’ author kicks off Readers and Writers season at Sidmouth’s Kennaway House
BORN of Ukranian parents in a British-run refugee camp in Germany in 1946, Marina Lewycha’s first published novel sold more than a million copies in the UK alone.
Last Thursday she kicked off this year’s Readers and Writers season to a sell-out audience in the Cellar Bar, Kennaway House, Sidmouth, with readings from her latest book.
In an exclusive interview with Sidmouth Herald news editor Di Bowerman, Marina talks about her starting a new career as a successful author in her 50s.
Q: Your books have quite quirky titles. Your first, the best-selling A Short History of Tractors in the Ukranian, and your latest book is called We Are All Made of Glue. What inspired these titles, does it have anything to do with your love of poetry from a young age?
A: A Short History of Tractors in the Ukranian was going to originally just be the title of one of the chapters in the book, but I really liked it and so I found a way of making it the title of the whole book.
Originally the book didn’t have so many tractors, so I had to beef up the tractors to justify the title. Although it was wrongly catalogued - under agricultural history.
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Q: You say it was your ambition to publish a book, so why did it take you so long? You were 57.
A: I had written two complete books, lots of short stories and poems and the previous one got 36 rejections. It was called Heroes of the Paper Mountain, also a quirky title. It was quite a topical subject, about the aftermath of inner city riots.
Q: So will you try to get it published?
A: Well, when I looked at it recently I realised it actually isn’t very good! They were right not to publish it.
Q: How much do you think your work with elderly people has influenced the characters in your books?
A: I think it has a lot. I’ve realised how very interesting old people are and it makes me fearful of old age because I can see they have a very hard time, but in a way I’ve got lots of good role models on how to grow old disgracefully.
Q: Who did you like most of all in Tractors as a character?
A: The funny thing is that Valentino, who starts off being an unsympathetic character, is, in a way, the character that makes the book and without her it is much more lightweight, literally, she is quite a big lady.
And in the end I think that, like the old man, the narrator, I the author, fell in love with her too. Sometimes a good villain is more loveable than too nice a hero.
Q: You say the book is not biographical but is it based on a lot of family events?
A: The history part is based on a very long case history I did with my mother before she died and I always knew I wanted to turn it into a novel at some point.
Q: But the mother figure doesn’t feature much.
A: She features in an absent sort of way. Although she doesn’t feature as a person, she features in historical bits and features because her absence hangs over the book, especially the old man who is very much influenced by her when she’s not there.
Q: Was the old man character based on your father?
A: He was quite like my father, but once I started writing he took on a life of his own. My father did write a short history of tractors in Ukranian, I still have it, and in fact it’s been published by the Institute of Engineering and Technology. They did a whole piece on engineers in fiction and they published some big chunks of it. I so wish he’d been alive to see it, it would have meant a lot to him.
Q: Do you find it easier to develop male or female characters?
A: I think I struggle a bit with male characters, but I do find it more challenging for that reason. Female characters usually have quite a bit of me inside them.
Q: Have you written much poetry?
A: I started when I was a child, and I’ve had one published, two actually. I’d really like to have some published in the future, I’ve written some brilliant children’s poems. I can’t understand why no-one’s wanted to publish them. I think they really quite funny. Maybe someday someone will pick them up.
Q: You started a new career at 57 when many think about retiring. How are you finding it?
A: Scary. But it can be done. It is scary but totally invigorating. It is scary because I spend time with people much younger than me and I live a life flogging around and living out of suitcases, which is usually what younger people do.
On the other hand it is a huge privilege to have another chapter in your life.
Q: Do you regret that your writing career didn’t take off when you were in your 30s or 40s?
A: In a way I do regret it because I would have loved to have done more writing and I never had the time, teaching, and I think I realise now I will never have the time to write all the books I would like to have written.
Q: Are the ideas for novels queuing up in your mind?
A: Well after my latest book is finished I have two or three possibilities, but I haven’t got a definite one. I think it’s true that had I been published earlier I would have been a different kind of writer; not a comic writer, I would have been much more serious. I think comedy came with middle age.
Q: Have you been to Sidmouth before?
A: When I was at Keele university in 1965 I went out with a young man who lived in Lympstone so we did come down here and that was the last time I visited Sidmouth, but it doesn’t seem to have changed very much!
Q: You taught journalism. Didn’t you feel like taking it up as a career?
A: I did do bits of journalism, but actually I wrote the Age Concern books. I certainly wanted to make a living writing and be in the world of words and if I could get published I did whatever I could to get there as soon as possible.
Q: What is your next book is about and when will it be published?
A: I think it is coming out next spring and the working title is Various Pets Alive and Dead and it’s an inter-generational drama between the older generation who lived in a hippy commune and had a very free life and style and their children who rebelled against that; one became a teacher and one a banker, and it is set in 2008 at the time of the financial crisis.
It starts off with him not daring to tell his parents what he is doing, then getting caught out, out of his depth in a number of slightly illegal activities.
Q: You always had an ambition to be a published author. Now you have done it, how does it feel?
A: Now it has become the day job. I work far harder now than I ever worked all my life, not even when I was teaching full time was I working as hard as this.
But on the other hand I can’t complain, it is hugely enjoyable, but I haven’t really had a holiday since the tractor book was published. It’s tough on family life.
My daughter Sonia is my sternest critic. All my ambitions now are about writing better books.
I set my own goals now when I write. I am very tough with myself, I choose difficult subjects and I want to do my best.
In a way, when I die, I’ll die happy.
*Those who left it to the last minute to get tickets for Marina’s talk were disappointed after being turned away, but there are three more Readers and Writers sessions at Kennaway House this autumn to choose from.
On Friday, September 23, Rachel Billington will talk about her latest book The Missing Boy, while on Friday, October 7, biographer Michael Holroyd will talk about his work.
Julian Fellowes will round off the season at a date yet to be confirmed. Tickets are �8 for each event, available from Kennaway House (01395) 515551.