Trust Craft More Than Inspiration

Q&A: Margot Livesey: Flow feels marvelous, but be wary.

Posted Sep 20, 2009

Losing track of time is one of the clearest hallmarks of creative flow. But don't let that fool you. Not everything you produce in such a fluid zone will please you once you're thinking "normally" again. So say many successful artists, including seven-time novelist Margot Livesey, whose most recent book, The House on Fortune Street, won the 2009 L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award and came out recently in paperback.

Raised in Scotland, educated in England, Livesey lives and writes in Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly, and her novels have met with critical success--and are fun to read.

I first interviewed Livesey 11 years ago, and recently she brought her thoughts up to date for this post. The first thing I asked her, in both interviews, was whether she loses track of time and enters flow when she's writing. Her answers:

Then: Sometimes. Sometimes the material makes the difference. Certain scenes, certain moments. Sometimes it's just external circumstances. It's much harder to lose track of time if time isn't going to lose track of you. If I have to be somewhere, it's less likely that I'm going to fall into the work, because I know I have to fall out of it.

Now: When it does happens, it's exhilarating. But I believe even more strongly that feeling good about something I'm writing does not necessarily mean that the reader will feel good about reading it. And as an older writer, I have to work hard not to be lured onto the rocks of repetition.

Over the last decade I've also become increasingly interested in what can be accomplished by craft. I get immense pleasure out of trying to make better sentences. That moment when two words fit together is like seeing a cardinal flashing by in my garden.


Livesey tries to write daily, preferably in the morning, and if she has her way, she would write six or seven hours. Not all of that time would be productive, she hastened to add. She might pace around, or read the dictionary or stare vacantly. Also, she has to work harder these days to protect her writing time.  Sometimes, she says, "this means that I end up writing in a Trollope-like fashion -- doing so many words a day. It doesn't feel romantic but it can be effective, especially on days when I have a long list of tasks."

I wondered how the writing of The House on Fortune Street compared to the writing of her previous novels, and she told me she knew that, this time, she wanted

the experience of reading the novel to mirror the way in which experiences come to us in life -- in fragments, over time, from different sources. I also wanted the novel to mirror the way in which we often change our mind about someone when we get new information, or see some aspect of their life from a different angle. It took a surprising amount of negotiation and revision to make the four sections of the novel fit together in what, I hope, is a felicitous fashion.

One of her characters has feelings "that have no place in the world," as she put it. I told her I thought she handled Cameron's difficult feelings with subtlety, restraint, and believability. She explained:

I wanted the reader to feel that Cameron's situation was a metaphor for a situation, hopefully not so extreme, that many people might experience. I was very concerned that the reader should not simply judge him, so I decided to write his section of the novel as a kind of confession, one in which he judges himself quite harshly. I also wanted to make clear that although he does cross certain lines, he doesn't cross others. I was not trying to rewrite Lolita.


We also discussed feedback, both the kind a writer has to provide for herself, and the kind that comes from outside. She said she simply tries to see "what is going on."

If a character is pruning a hedge or fixing a bicycle or sitting on a bus, I try to see that character both internally and externally as clearly as possible. When I write novels, for me everything is in the service of the novel. I might begin writing a scene with three dozen details about the bus journey, then decide that only two of them really further the novel, and furthering the novel is the crucial thing.

Another way Livesey provides feedback for herself these days, she added, is by reading other novels. As for feedback from others, she regularly exchanges work with her friend, award-winning novelist Andrea Barrett. Barrett, she said, is brilliant at helping her understand more fully what she's trying to get on the page.

It's not that she doesn't love to be praised, Livesey insisted, but saying something is wonderful is sometimes easier than offering constructive criticism.

Several years ago a couple of friends kindly read a novel I was working on and said it was great. But when I tried to get it published, I simply couldn't. I think there were bad reasons for this -- the state of the publishing industry in America -- but there were also good reasons; the novel was flawed. If people hadn't praised me, I would have realized this sooner and buckled down to fixing the problems. Now when I give people work I'm very clear about what I want. I'm not looking for them to say this is great. I'm asking how can this be better? Though of course in the long journey of a novel I do appreciate encouragement.

Talk of feedback led us into a discussion of her revision process. Livesey admitted that she "revises a ton of times." But she tries not to revise too early, something computers tend to encourage. While composing her first drafts she now works hard "not to keep tinkering with the beginning of a chapter -- where the computer always opens the file -- but to go immediately to where I left off writing."

The other critical step in revising, noted Livesey, is to read every sentence aloud. If she finds the sentence boring, or can't stand to read it, she changes it or cuts it. She doesn't allow herself to think that it's just because she wrote it or has read it before. "Because there are some passages I'm very happy to read again," she said. By the time something's published, it will have been read by her agent, her editor, half a dozen carefully selected friends, and by herself about 20 times.

And that helps explain why the finished books are so smooth and pleasurable to read.

  • Visit Livesey's site here for links to interviews and to hear her talking about and reading her work.

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