About The Author
Marina Lewycka was born of Ukrainian parents in a refugee camp in Kiel, Germany, at the end of the war, and grew up in England. She studied English and Philosophy at Keele University, followed by a BPhil in English at the University of York. She started a PhD, but the 1968 movement had seized her imagination and she abandoned her further studies to live in a squat, a period which finds its way into her latest novel. She teaches at Sheffield Hallam University, is married, with a grown-up daughter, and lives in Sheffield.
Although she had been writing virtually her whole life (including practical non-fiction relating to her work for Age Concern), Marina only came to public attention with the publication of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, which, among other awards, won the 2005 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic writing, was longlisted for the 2005 Man Booker Prize, shortlisted for the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction and translated into more than 25 languages. A tender and comic story of families, history and the trials and consolations of old age, it centres around the attempts of sisters Vera and Nadezhda to put aside a
lifetime of feuding in order to save their recently widowed father from a potentially disastrous marriage.Tractors was followed by Two Caravans, which was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize and features a group of foreign workers living in caravans while they pick strawberries in Kent. We are All Made of Glue is the story of an unlikely friendship between recently divorced writer Georgie Sinclair and Mrs Shapiro, an eccentric old Jewish émigré neighbour with an eye for a bargain and a fondness for matchmaking.
Marina's latest book, Various Pets Dead and Alive, is set in London and Doncaster at the time of the financial crisis and centres around a mismatched family of ex-hippies, a City high flyer, a primary school teacher and a girl with Down's syndrome who is desperate to spread her wings and flee the parental nest.
Below, Frances Gertler chatted with Marina to find out more about the legacy of 1968, achieving success in later life and her fascination with rabbits and other small furry creatures.
Hear Marina read from and talk about Various Pets.
Author photograph courtesy of Ben McMillan
Questions & Answers
Who or what was the starting point for this novel?
The starting point was two things coming together. I really wanted to write about the City and the financial crisis. It's fascinating, a huge moral story, as well as a story about our time. I wanted to find out more, not just to write about it but also to understand it better for myself. Separately from that, I also wanted to write about my hippy days. Then I realised that these two themes could come together in this book.
You've had to do some unusual research for earlier books, such as into the properties of glue, for which you enlisted the help of a scientist. How did you find out about the ins and outs of investment banking and life on the trading floor?
I got lots of help from people (who are listed in the acknowledgments). I was quite surprised by how many bankers were willing to talk, and I suppose it was because some of them were quite critical of what had gone on, and willing to admit off the record, that they were over-rewarded. They gave a very vivid picture of life on the trading floor and the risk-taking culture. I also read Robert Peston,the financial journalist on Who Runs Britain, and read John Lanchester's Whoops. They were my starting point, without which I wouldn't have known which questions to ask. Then the bankers I collared passed me on to other people, and it just went on from there.
It's unusual to see characters with disabilities in fiction who are just part of the story rather than the disability being the main subject. Is that apparent reticence a fear of offending? Are you nervous about people's reactions, especially given that a fair few of the comic episodes involve Oolie-Anna, who has Downs?
At first I was worried about offending but by the end of the book I loved Oolie-Anna so much, I was sure readers would as well. She is funny in such a vigorous and purposeful way. She is the subject not the object of her story and directs her own drama; she doesn't let people make decisions for her. As well as having worked for Age Concern, I've also done some work with Mencap and Oolie-Anna is in fact is based on one particular young man with Downs who was just as engaging and full of enthusiasm, with such a lovable lack of cynicism.
Politics form a strong theme in your novels, especially Tractors and Caravans. Do you think this is a legacy of having been a student in 1968?
Being part of the' 68 generation means you always see things through a particular prism, and although it can be quite distorting, it does also give you some interesting insights and makes you both curious and suspicious about the world of big money. Which was a good starting point for this novel - for writing about what Rolling Stone writer, Matt Taibbi (describing Goldman Sachs) called that 'great vampire squid, wrapped around the face of humanity...'
Several writers, such as John Lanchester and Justin Cartwright, have also taken on the crash. Do you think it's the 'come-uppance' element that's made it such an attractive subject for fiction, especially comic fiction?
It's the big story of our time, and it lends itself to so many interpretations, at the personal, social and moral levels. And yes, I think there's a real sense of outrage that the people who did so much damage to our social fabric are still getting away with it, so there's definitely a come-uppance element!
You yourself once lived in a squat; how much of that experience found its way into this book?
The squat I lived in was in a terraced house in London and not like the one in the book. But at that time there were always different people passing through and wonderful tales of what they were getting up to, and these have worked their way in to Various Pets.
You describe yourself on your website as an unsuccessful writer for about 50 years and a successful one for about 5. What happened to the book before Tractors? Now that you are successfully published do you ever feel like challenging those 36 rejections?
I do think the rejections were just. I'm glad the book wasn't published because Tractors is so much better - I've learned a lot since then. I'm sad that it wouldn't have taken much to knock it into shape and make it a better book, if only I'd known how, but I wouldn't want to see it published now - it was a book of its time (the 80s) and I want to write about the things around me now.
You wrote your first poem at the age of 4 about rabbits, who have quite a strong presence in this book... can we look forward to more small furry creatures in the future?!
I'm very interested in the relationship between humans and animals. Animals are sentient creatures like us, they just can't talk. They challenge the imagination to think: who are they really, what are they thinking, dreaming? Our responsibility to other sentient creatures is important. We must be aware of their feelings and question how we treat them. I suppose the leap of imagination you have to make into the mind of another completely different species is a very good starting point for fiction.
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