Marina Lewycka is an inspiration and an example to an unsuccessful writer like me. She had to wait until the age of 58 before her first novel, A Short History of Tractors In Ukrainian was published in 2005 to great acclaim after being rejected 36 times. Her second novel, Two Caravans, even features a dog. What more of an example could I want? I asked her during the Q and A session that followed her short interview and reading in Scarborough Library as part of Scarborough Literary festival what it was that had kept her writing during a busy life and a successful academic career. She gave an interesting answer, given her background. It was the sense of control that she enjoyed. You can make things happen when you write in a way that you can’t always do in real life. She also said that it was important to be public about your writing and find chances to read your work. Also she reminded me what every unsuccessful writer knows, that if you stop trying then it really isn’t going to happen.
It’s very hard to avoid using the word journey when you think of Marina Lewycka’s life, however much of a cliche it may be. She was born in a refugee camp in Germany in 1946 and spent the first year of her life there before coming to Britain with her family. With a little support, and a lot of hard work and tenacity, they established themselves in West Yorkshire and she went on to university, motherhood, and a career as an academic. All the time she was writing, and finally, after more than fifty years people sat up and took notice. Her writer’s voice is perceptive, funny and engaging, just as she is herself, and she has now published her fourth novel, Various Pets Alive and Dead. It examines the generational divide between parents whose attitudes were formed in the hippy culture of the 1960’s and their children whose values are very different and the extracts which Marina read out were vivid and funny and made us laugh. She explained that she feels that people need to be reminded that things were different once. Humour is a great tool for doing this. When she talked about the dog in Two Caravans it was a lovely glimpse into her way of thinking. “The only thing which he is sure of is his own dogness.” No grammar or punctuation was used because “dogs don’t do that” and we see the world through his own, very different, senses.
It is rather wonderful that a writer who had an uncertain start in life, and grew up with parents who, understandably, wanted her to be protected from the sufferings of the previous generation, has been able to explore and examine this history through her writing. Better still she has done it with wit and humour. When her first novel was published it led to members of her Ukrainian family, who she didn’t know, contacting her and there is a nice circularity in that. She still has lots of ideas and it is when a character and a story coalesce that a novel will take off. The next one may well be based around a child who is working in what were effectively slave conditions in the 18th/19th century. We can all look forward to that.