Ukraine/UK | 2006
Born in 1946 in a displaced persons camp in Germany, Marina Lewycka came to England with her parents and sister when she was a year old. She graduated from Keele University in 1968, graduating with joint honours in English and Philosophy. From 1968 to 1969 she attended the University of York, and was awarded a BPhil in English Literature. After graduation, she lived in London before moving to Yorkshire and worked at a range of jobs, from waitressing and teaching to public relations. Her novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, was published by Viking in March 2005, and will be published in twenty-seven countries. It has been shortlisted for the Orange Prize, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and awarded the Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman Prize for Comic Fiction, and the Saga Award for Wit. Marina Lewycka is now working on her second novel, entitled Two Caravans, which is set in England but has an international cast of characters. She lives in Sheffield.
Embarking on a second novel is never easy, and especially when the first novel has been such an unexpected success. I came to Santa Maddalena on June 6 th with A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian still in the top ten bestseller list after 12 weeks, an unsatisfactory draft of my second novel, Two Caravans, which I knew needed a huge amount of work on it, with reams of suggestions and corrections from my editor – and one unexpected last minute dilemma – I had just received a telephone call saying that my daughter had been injured in a road accident in Malawi. So maternal instincts were jangling against authorial instincts, Tractors were jangling against Caravans, and my editor’s suggestions were jangling up against my own ideas of where I wanted my new book to go.
The maternal dilemma was solved by my husband travelling to South Africa to be with our daughter while she was over there, but when she came back, I took a fortnight’s leave from my Santa Maddalena stay to go and be with her. So in effect, I only had three weeks to complete the task I had set myself. Oh, boy! Did that focus my mind!
One thing is certain – without the serene and supportive atmosphere at Santa Maddalena, I would never have finished in time. I was able to put in six to eight hours of quality time every day, without having to worry about domestic or family matters. I ploughed through the book, reshaping and rewriting, until I had something I was much more satisfied with. I put the last touches to it on the train back to Sheffield.
I am not one of those writers who thinks that the editor is always wrong. On the contrary, I think that if she has misunderstood what I was trying to do, it was because I had not made myself clear enough. So aspiring to that clarity was another of the tasks I set myself. In this respect, the presence and support of other writers was particularly important.
Having other writers to talk to, and the ‘writerly’ atmosphere of the place helped me to develop a sense of myself as a writer, rather than as a mother, wife, employee, teacher, colleague, friend, and all the other myriad roles my daily life constructs for me. We all face particular dilemmas as writers, and they are the sort of dilemmas which it is very difficult for non-writers to understand or take an interest in – how autobiographical can one be? What happens if friends or family members recognise themselves? Which voice should one use? To what extent should one go along with the editor’s suggestions? There was even some discussion about how explicit sex scenes could be written, and whether they are a good idea. As a relatively new writer, I found it useful to talk to others and share hints, experiences and ideas – but actually, it was particularly useful to realise that one isn’t mad, that these questions and problems are part of the creative process.
Since the bulk of Two Caravans was written when I came to Santa Maddalena, there isn’t any particular passage I can point to, and say ‘This is what I wrote.’ On the contrary, the greatest part of the work, and that which will be most important for the final quality of the book, was not writing but cutting – cutting out the dead wood, and then knitting together the threads of narrative over the cuts. To do this successfully, you have to be able to hold the whole book in your head, to remember which bits are related to which others, and to get a feel for the overall shape of the surgically-enhanced book. This is mainly what I did in my three weeks at Santa Maddalena, in my hours of unbroken concentration.
For example, the earlier draft had the African character preoccupied with fear of AIDS – this is mostly gone. One of the shootings has been turned into a comic car accident – and the serious car accident in the final chapter has disappeared. A set of coincidences around one character meeting up with his long-lost sister has been written out, and a new more plausible themes has been written in. Probably these changes are of interest to no one but me and my editor. But I would like to put on record that when the final version is presented to the reader, the leaner, tighter, less sentimental and funnier novel that you read will be due in large to the work I put in at Santa Maddalena.
I would just like to finish by saying thank you to the Foundation, to Beatrice Monti della Corte, to the other writers whose company I enjoyed.