By Catriona Ross for the Sunday Times:
Marina Lewycka tells Catriona Ross about sudden fame, the seriousness of comedy, and her new novel
When she appears on my Skype screen, Marina Lewycka is lying in bed. “Excuse my hair; I’ve just been for a swim,” she says with a sheepish look.
Lewycka (pronounced Lewiska) not only conducts interviews from her bed at home in Sheffield whenever possible, but writes her novels there too, on a laptop. “It’s comfy and cosy in bed, and you can shut yourself off. It’s much nicer to sit back and have cups of tea at your side and a hot water bottle under your knees than to sit at a desk. I could spend six hours a day in bed, but it does get a bit hard on the body,” confesses the writer, now in her mid-60s.
The tale of Lewycka’s late-in-life literary fame has become legend. “Until my mid-50s, I was really a housewife who stayed at home,” she says with self-deprecation. “But I’d always wanted to be a writer. I’d tried writing Mills and Boon, and had a go at thrillers. In fact, I’d written two complete novels, in longhand, and got very dispirited.”
A part-time lecturer at her local polytechnic, she was approaching retirement and was invited to take any course offered by the institution gratis. She chose a creative writing course, “and that,” she says, “led to my breakthrough”.
Among the external examiners was literary agent Bill Hamilton of AM Heath in London, who, after reading her manuscript, signed her up. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian was published in 2005 and sold over a million copies in the UK alone. The hit comedy about two sisters whose widowed father – a former engineer writing a history of tractors in Ukrainian – marries a much younger Ukrainian immigrant, was followed by Two Caravans in 2007, We Are All Made of Glue in 2009, and Various Pets Alive and Dead earlier this year.
Success flipped Lewycka’s life around. She describes not only the fulfilment in attaining her dream – of “having always really known I was supposed to be a writer, having worked for it terribly hard for so long, and then it all happened at once” – but the downside: “When something is no longer a dream, it becomes a day job. I’m 65 and I’ve never worked so hard in my life! My friends are retired, and I wish I could relax, like them.”
Lewycka’s first literary effort was a poem written at the age of four. Born in a German refugee camp, dark-haired Marina was a year old when she and her Ukrainian parents moved to England. Her father, who worked for International Harvester tractors in Doncaster, “considered himself a poet, and was actually quite good”, she recalls. “My mother was one of the great story-tellers. She’d tell me about life back home in Ukraine; what people did in the winter, the names of their pet animals.”
The author remembers a stimulating, multi-cultural household filled with her parents’ friends from France, Germany and elsewhere, partly thanks to a mother who liked to invite interesting people home and feed them cake. Lewycka, however, was uncomfortably conscious of her own foreignness throughout childhood. “I grew up in the habit of seeing myself on the outside of things. It’s not nice for a little kid, but for a writer it’s nice to be on the sidelines, watching.”
Early feelings of exclusion may explain her empathy for those marginalised by society – the immigrants, refugees and elderly figures who appear in all her novels. Always full-blooded, quirky and indomitable, these characters offer more than mere entertainment value by humanising the people one might unconsciously regard as “other”.
Their presence reflects too the years Lewycka spent writing handbooks for Age Concern, Britain’s support organisation for the aged, and Mencap, the charity for people with learning disabilities. “I’d interview families for the handbooks and write about them in the first person. I still had dreams of telling their stories in novels one day,” she says.
“When I started writing Various Pets Alive and Dead, a Down’s Syndrome boy I knew popped up in my mind. He was so enthusiastic, so full of life, and could do anything he wanted, such as go off to the Special Olympics.” This case study inspired the character of Oolie-Anna, a lusty, loud young woman with Down’s Syndrome who is desperate to live in her own flat, while her adoptive mother, ageing hippy Doro, struggles to let go.
The novel illustrates situations Lewycka encountered during her work with Mencap. Children with Down’s Syndrome live longer now than they used to, and, as Lewycka points out: “What happens to them when their parents grow old or die? One needs to plan for the possibility of their outliving their parents.” In Various Pets, a perky social worker finds Oolie-Anna a job and irritates Doro with such platitudes as, “But in the long term it’ll be better for everybody if Oolie-Anna can spread her wings and learn to fly.”
Various Pets Alive and Dead is a characteristic blend of farce, wit, pathos and social awareness. “I’m actually a very serious person, but I’m not good at writing serious things. They come out with a light touch,” explains the author, a fan of comedy classics like Fawlty Towers and Monty Python. “You think comedy isn’t serious, but with comedy you can say such a lot that serious can’t. Comedy can expose the depths of the soul; funny is what we are when we least intend to be.”
A wry exploration of modern values, the novel moves between three narrators: Doro; her son Serge, who’s pretending to finish his maths PhD at Cambridge while secretly raking in money as a City trader in London (a position that would horrify his anti-capitalist parents); and her daughter, Clara, a primary school teacher. “I’m a bossy sort, like Clara,” Lewycka laughs. “Actually, there’s a bit of me in all my characters.”
The storyline involves two present-day locations, flashbacks to Doro and Marcus’s lentil-infused commune in the ’60s, loads of backstory, plus various pets. “It was very complicated to write,” Lewycka admits. Yet she clearly thrives on complexity: Two Caravans featured nine interlinked narrative voices, including a dog.
Since retiring from teaching in December, Lewycka has more time for writing in bed. Her daughter and granddaughter live in New Zealand, and her partner, a historian, is based in London.
“He and I go between the two cities,” she says. “It’s nice to have gaps.” Her next novel will probably be set in Derbyshire, feature a child as its protagonist, and involve animals.
Though something of a celebrity in Sheffield, she remains resolutely down to earth. “The good thing about being an author is that, on the whole, you’re pretty invisible. That picture of me on the dust jacket of my new book was taken some time ago, so when I go out looking like a bag lady, as I so often do, I’m not recognised,” she says with satisfaction.
In her spare time Lewycka indulges in low-key, very English pursuits: gardening, swimming, baking cakes, taking a friend’s dog for walks in the surrounding Peak District.
It’s unlikely that Lewycka will ever be accused of taking herself too seriously.
As she wrote two years ago, “I’ve been a ‘successful’ writer for almost five years now, but I never forget that I was an unsuccessful writer for more than 50. It helps to keep things in perspective.”
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