Writers & Company

Margot Livesey on The Boy in the Field and the presence of ghosts in her fiction — and in her life   

The Scottish-born author spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about how her latest novel explores the nature of truth and self-discovery.
Margot Livesey is a Scottish-born writer. (HarperCollins)

Bestselling novelist Margot Livesey is the author of Eva Moves the Furniture, The House on Fortune Street, The Flight of Gemma Hardy and Mercury, among other books. Her fiction is admired by critics and readers alike for its intelligence, compassion and finely wrought complexity. 

Livesey's latest work, The Boy in the Field, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and featured on many best of 2020 lists. Blending elements of mystery with a coming-of-age story, the novel revolves around three teenage siblings who come across an injured boy, unconscious in a field. Their intervention saves the boy's life and irrevocably alters their own — sending each character on a journey of self-discovery. 

Born in Central Scotland in 1953, Livesey lost her mother when she was two years old, leaving her to be raised by her father and stepmother. She was informally adopted by a neighbouring family. Her desire to know about her mother Eva's life — and her fabled connection to the supernatural — inspired Livesey's widely acclaimed novel, Eva Moves the Furniture

Livesey talked to Eleanor Wachtel from her home in Cambridge, Mass.

An unexpected journey

"I think of finding the boy as being what you might call a primal scene. It is a very traumatic scene, one that each of the siblings experiences in a very different way.

"There's something about being in the boy's presence, in the presence of what might be a mortal injury, that sends each of them off in a different direction.  

"I don't want to go into this too deeply, but at the age of 17, I met a man on the tube on the underground in London. Thanks to him, I ended up coming to Toronto and to North America in a way that neither I nor any of my friends who all remained in Scotland and Britain could have predicted. 

I think of finding the boy as being what you might call a primal scene.

"Perhaps, because of my own autobiography, I have a persistent interest in fault lines — in those moments when people's lives, as it were, jumped the tracks and they go in some completely unexpected direction."

The complexities of truth

"The three children in The Boy in the Field each embrace this idea of telling the truth — not with enthusiasm, but they understand the impulse and don't think it will be so hard. When they start trying to do it, it turns out to be amazingly hard. There turn out to be so many moments when they're under pressure to tell a white lie of some sort, either by omission or indirection. And finally, none of them can stand it.

"I myself was this child being sent to Sunday school, every Sunday. I had a Sunday school teacher, Mr. Chisholm, who would say that we must not tell a lie, and a lie is a terrible thing. In the children's books I read at that time, that was very much echoed — books like Anne of Green Gables or Heidi or Daddy-Long-Legs — and lying was always terrible. 

There turn out to be so many moments when they're under pressure to tell a white lie of some sort, either by omission or indirection.

"I very much had the idea that this should be a simple thing and I was dismayed. In fact, I'm still dismayed at how complicated it can sometimes be to tell the truth."

A supernatural manifestation

"I do not remember anything about my mother, sadly. I hoped that writing Eva Moves the Furniture would bring back some memories of my mother, but that never happened.

"It was because after she died, no one was encouraging me to remember her. No one was talking about her, or reminding me of her. People said, 'Oh, she's just gone away.'  There was no thought of trying to encourage me to hold on to the thousand days we spent together. 

"Through others, I learned that she was a terrible cook, that she was quite clumsy, that she was extremely generous. I found it intriguing that, when she was the school nurse at the boys' school where my father taught, the ward was visited by a poltergeist, who would move the furniture around in the night. Her patients would complain that although she was such a good nurse, it was very hard to get a good night's sleep.

I hoped that writing Eva Moves the Furniture would bring back some memories of my mother, but that never happened.

"I find this idea extremely fascinating. When I was old enough to take a more intellectual interest, my readings suggested that a poltergeist normally visited teenagers, particularly teenage girls, and were often a manifestation of anger."

A severe childhood

"Severe would be a good word for my home life. In fact, I would even go so far as Dickensian. The main mantra of my childhood was 'a good child should be seen and not heard.' Reading was encouraged, of course, but many other activities were not ideal because they involved noise or mess or confusion. 

"My stepmother, coming late to having a child, replicated her own childhood. Everything was very strict. I came to the table at a certain time. I had to eat everything. I had a long list of tasks to do. 

Severe would be a good word for my home life. In fact, I would even go so far as Dickensian.

"I had to think that I could survive my childhood, put it behind me, and reinvent myself as a grown-up. It had an impact on me in a number of ways. It probably made me a less confident person. It probably made me a more reticent person. 

"It probably turned me, in a funny way, toward writing."

Margot Livesey's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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