I caught up with the charming Scottish-born, Massachusetts-based writer Margot Livesey whose 9th novel, The Boy in the Field, grabs your attention with its first sentence:
Here is what happened one Monday in the month of September, in the last year of the last century.
What starts as a whodunnit in the bucolic countryside outside of Oxford, England morphs into something altogether more interesting, a psychological mystery involving all the main characters of the novel.
One day walking home from school, the three Lang children, Mathew, Zoe and Duncan Lang, discover a boy, bloody and unconscious, lying in a field amongst circular bales of hay and ‘the most magnificent oak tree.” Witnessing evil in their picturesque village leads each of the Lang siblings to question who they are and who they want to be.
The NY Times describes Livesey’s novel as
quiet, observant and beautifully efficient — there’s not an extra word or scene in the entire book — and yet simultaneously so cinematic, you can hear the orchestral soundtrack as you tear through the pages.
Below is my interview with Livesey.
The origins of your book came from a reunion with an old high school friend. He told you about discovering the body of a young woman at the bottom of his garden in a small Scottish village and how that discovery changed him forever. How do you think the firsthand discovery of evil changes one?
I reached my twenties having encountered only minor bad behaviour. One summer I applied for a job working at the cafe of the Young Vic Theatre. I was interviewed by a woman a little older than myself, and didn’t get the job. A few weeks later her photograph was on page one of the Evening Standard. She’d been murdered coming home late one night after closing the cafe. Her death didn’t change my life, like that of my school acquaintance, but I walked around the world a little differently; I no longer assumed the best of everyone.
There’s a lot of randomness in this novel. Do you believe that a lot of what happens in life is by chance, that there is no divine destiny?
In The Boy in the Field, Livesey explains, I wanted to explore the idea of fault lines in people’s lives, an event that turns your life in a new and unexpected direction. In my own case an impulsive conversation on the tube in London when I was about Matthew’s (Lang) age led to my spending many years in the States.
The last ten months, when I haven’t been able to spend time in London or Scotland, have made me feel that my life is very much at the mercy of chance. If divine destiny is operating, it is doing so in obscure and painful ways.
I read that when you’re considering ideas for a novel, you’re always looking for that place where your private interests intersect with public ones- Can you explain?
In the 1990s I spent many years working on Eva Moves the Furniture, a novel based on my mother’s relationship with the supernatural. It took five or six drafts before I understood that Eva was interesting to me because she was my mother, but readers had their own mothers; why should they be interested in mine? Then I remembered that Eva had been a nurse during the Second World War. At once I had a much more gripping story.
What books are you excited to read?
Luster by Raven Leilani and The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld
I’m presently working on what I call my Covid novel, another short novel, this time set in Scotland in the 1880s. I hope to have a draft by the time the vaccine becomes widely available.
You can read the rest of my interview with Livesey here in 26’s December newsletter. See you next year, in what undoubtedly will be a better year – low bar! 🤓🙏🙏🙏