Saturday, September 7, 2013

Interview with Margot Livesey our September featured author The Flight Of Gemma Hardy

Please welcome Margot Livesey as she gives us some thoughts on the novel, her writing and what's next for her.
Remember the discussion of Gemma starts Monday

Reading Schedule:
Week One September 9th - 15th Parts One and Two
Week Two September 16th - 22nd Part Three
Week Three September 23rd-29th Parts Four and Five

Sit back enjoy the interview then pick up the novel and be ready for our discussion on Monday

Margot welcome to The Reading Frenzy. I’m so excited about reading and discussing your novel in September.

What led you to telling Gemma’s story?
I loved Jane Eyre when I first read it at the age of nine and have continued to love it during my various re-readings but it never occurred to me I would attempt a re-imagining of a novel that has not been out of print since it was published in1847. It’s hard enough to write anyway without standing in the shadow of a giant. But a number of years ago I visited a book club in Boston to lead a discussion of Jane Eyre. I was struck by the degree to which readers, who outwardly have almost nothing in common with Jane, still passionately identify with her. As I drove home I found myself pondering what would happen to a ten year old girl nowadays who finds herself forced to make her way in the world. Was that a story that could be told? A few weeks later I hid my copy of Jane Eyre and sat down to write.

What do you like best about Gemma?
I like that Gemma is so fierce and fearless and loyal. And I like that she grows up and begins to understand adult complexity.

Why did you choose the era you did to tell Gemma’s story?
I had first thought of setting the story much closer to the present but as I pondered Gemma’s journey I realised that it had to be set in the sixties, before that great tidal wave of feminism broke over both the States and Europe. When I was growing up in rural Scotland there were still only four jobs open to middle class women. You could become a teacher, a nurse, a secretary or a wife and once you became a wife you typically gave up your other job. Gemma, like Jane Eyre, like Charlotte Bronte and her sisters, needs to earn her living and finds herself with very few choices.

Margot both you and Gemma spent time in Scotland.
Are there hints of you in Gemma?
Gemma and I share a number of crucial experiences. I grew up in the Scottish Highlands, in the grounds of a boys’ private school where my father taught. The school, which opened the same year Jane Eyre was published, had battlements and turrets and attics. In other words it looked very much like my imagining of Thornfield Hall. Through the windows of our house, Bell’s Cottage, I could see the Scottish moors, not so different from the Yorkshire moors on which Jane wanders after she flees Thornfield Hall. And inside Bell’s Cottage was my difficult step-mother who wasn’t nearly as severe as Jane’s aunt but whom I found tyrannical.

As if all this wasn’t enough, the year after I read Jane Eyre we moved south to the Borders of Scotland and I attended a private girls’ school. Many pupils at the school flourished but I did not. I preyed nightly that it would be swallowed by an earthquake or burn to the ground. Finally, after four long years, it did close. The head mistress claimed that it was for financial reasons.

Margot, were you someone who always longed to write, was it brought about by a certain catalyst in your life? Can you please share with us your personal journey to becoming an author?
I loved reading and writing as a child but never thought of being a writer. I wanted to be a nun because I read a book called The Nun’s Story, and then a vet because I read a book about a vet (I forget the title) and then I wanted to discover a new element because I read a book about Marie Curie. In other words I was slow to realize that what I wanted was to be the person behind the covers of a book, not between them. But the year after I graduated from university I went travelling for a year with my boyfriend who was writing a philosophy book. I started to imitate him and ended up writing a very bad novel. The badness made me want to get better and I spent most of my twenties waitressing and writing short stories between my lunch and dinner shifts. Eventually they began to get better; eventually they began to be published.

What’s your favorite part about writing?
Sitting at my desk, making or trying to make sentences. And going about my day and hearing or seeing something that I think would be perfect for my novel. 

Margot are you a reader?
Who and what are some of your favorites?
I am an ardent reader and never go anywhere without a book. 

I adore the work of my friend Andrea Barrett who just published a wonderful new collection of linked stories: Archangel. My reading time is pretty much divided between going back to the nineteenth and early twentieth century and keeping up with my contemporaries. So I finally read Willa Cather’s My Antonia earlier this year and re-read Portrait of A Lady. I am currently reading, or about to read The Virgins by Pamela Erens, Tumbledown by Robert Boswell, The Realm of Last Chances by Steve Yarbrough and Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel. And I have to recommend a terrific novel by a former student: The Might Have Been by Joseph Schuster.

Is there another novel in your near future?
Can you give us any hints about it?
I am working hard on a contemporary novel set in New England where I have lived on and off for the last three decades.

Margot, do you read the reviews of your novels?
Why or why not?
For the most part I try not to read reviews. Like many people I’m afraid, I don’t believe the good ones and remember every syllable of the bad ones. Perhaps most crucially I didn’t find that reading reviews was helping me to improve as a writer unlike talking to readers in book clubs and bookshops, which I often find very illuminating. 

Margot thank you so much for letting my readers get to know you a bit better before our read starts. I look forward to continuing conversations.

Here's my review of The Flight Of Gemma Hardy

The Flight of Gemma Hardy
Margot Livesey
Harper Collins
464 pages

Gemma Hardy was born in 1948 in a small Icelandic village, she lost her parents and the kindly uncle who took her in and brought her to Scotland, the land of her mother. She was sent away by a bitter aunt to be treated like a slave under the guise of scholarship, to be mistreated but to grow in spite of those who would keep her down. At seventeen she takes a job as an au pair to an orphan Nell on the outreaching Scottish Islands known as the Orkneys, here she will encounter a fork in her road of life, here her quest will take on new directions. Her journeys will take her far, they will teach her lessons about life, love and hope. She will be a teacher herself as well as a student, they will introduce her to people who will change her life, who will become another part of her as she continues searching for herself and to those whom she belongs. They will show her the right and the wrong ways of living, of loving, of caring. She will meet people on her journey that she will try to but never forget, who will be a catalyst and an anchor and perhaps the albatross of failure. She will make errors on this pilgrimage, errors that she wouldn’t forgive in others, errors that will further the lessons of who she is and who she will become. Gemma knows that she was not born Gemma,  and in her exploration to find who she was, will she also find who she is, will she be ever searching or will she finally find peace and most importantly the home she longs for.

Margot Livesey was a new author to me before I opened these pages and I’m so glad that I did. She brings to life a recent history of a girl who I couldn’t wait to find out more about, the timeline seems earlier than the turbulent 60’s here in the states, to a more bucolic existence in rural Scotland and eventually to Iceland where her imagery will come to life with her words and her story is epic as well as prosaic as she introduces us to Gemma and we fall in love with her spirit and her determination. Gemma is not the only character in the novel and Ms. Livesey gives each one their own history in a way that makes us know them well. Her dialogue is easy to read and yet it takes us to places most of us will never travel where we will see clearly through her words. This is a coming of age story, a love story, a tragedy, a comedy and a romance all in one neat package. Speaking of packaging it was the cover design and the title that drew me to this novel in the first place.
So if you’re looking for something you will not soon forget, a drama that will stay with you, a must read that will fill your personal library shelves for years to be pulled out again and again to revisit, look no farther. This must read will certainly be shelved among my favorites as well. Thank you Ms. Livesey for one heck of a trip, now where will you take me next.


  1. Wonderful review, and I love Jane Eyre and look forward to reading your retelling!

    1. Kim, thanks for the comment. I'm just now reimmersing myself in this rich novel

  2. Kim,thanks for writing. I don't think of Gemma as a re-telling of Jane Eyre so much as a re-imagining. I love Bronte's novel but I aspired to write a novel which could be read both by Bronte worshippers and by those who don't know Jane Eyre from Becky Sharpe.