Wednesday 7 November 2012

An interview with Livi Michael by Adèle Geras

Livi Michael and I share a birthday, though she's much younger than I am. She was born in Manchester in 1960 and her first novel, Under a Thin Moon, was published in 1992. Since then she's written for both adults and children. Her Frank the Hamster books are for younger readers but she's also published historical novels for older children (see the interview below.) She has a doctorate from the University of Leeds where her thesis was about Lewis Grassic Gibbons's A Scots Quair in the context of working class fiction. She's taught creative writing and English literature at Sheffield Hallam University and and is at present teaching these subjects at Manchester Metropolitan University. She lectures and gives workshops all over the country. She lives on the edge of the moors in Saddleworth.


When I read her latest book, MALKIN CHILD I was very impressed and as well as reviewing it (my review appears at the end of this interview) I wanted to ask Livi some questions the answers to which I thought would interest readers of this blog. I sent these questions by email and here reproduce them, and Livi's answers to them.

AG: You've written many different kinds of novel throughout your career, and you write for both adults and children. I love your historical novels in particular and you've brought into the light areas and periods not often written about in fiction, such as the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution (in THE WHISPERING ROAD.) Were you always interested in history? Or was there some other impulse which led you to write about the kinds of things you do write about?

LM: Yes, I've always been interested in history and historical fiction – I loved the novels of Rosemary Sutcliffe and Henry Treece as a child, and took a long time to decide whether I wanted to do English or History at university. These days I usually find that the best stories are often the ones I don’t make up – history is full of amazing stories and I just see myself as presenting or interpreting these in a particular way for the reader.

AG: You are very good at mixing the very real and gritty with an element of magic or the supernatural. Does this create particular problems? How do you overcome these?

LM: I have been known as a writer of ‘realist’ fiction but my idea of realism doesn’t exclude magic or the supernatural. For many people, including the ones who were persecuted for witchcraft, what we think of as ‘supernatural’ was just an accepted part of their lives.

AG: I think of you as very much a northern writer. Is this fair? How large does your own background/upbringing/education loom in what you've written?

LM: Yes, I think I’m a northern writer – haunted in a particular way by its landscapes and by certain voices. My grandmother, for instance, spoke a Lancashire dialect that no longer exists.

AG: The anniversary of the Pendle Witch trials has brought us your excellent new short novel MALKIN'S CHILD It's marketed as being for children and indeed would be a good introduction for them. But as an adult I found it particularly chilling and hard-hitting and this without any grotesque or detailed descriptions of violence. Is less is more a tenet of yours? How did you approach this harrowing story? Was writing it your idea or someone else's?

LM: I was commissioned to write the book by the Litfest organization which has set up the imprint Foxtail in order to publish a few books that commemorate aspects of Lancastrian history. MALKIN CHILD is the third of these books, and, like the others, is beautifully produced. I said yes to the commission straight away, because I was immediately interested in the story, but very quickly realised that there were difficulties. Firstly, it is a very dark story to tell for children, which is why it hasn’t been done for this age group before. No happy ending here. These people were actually sent to their deaths on the testimony of a nine-year-old girl. Secondly, it could have been a huge story. in order to get a clearer picture, you need to go back to the Reformation, and then consider the changes brought about by King James I, and other major factors, geographical and social. But I was asked to write quite a short book, of no more than 20,000 words! Thirdly, if you tell children you are writing a story about witches, in all probability they will expect something like Harry Potter and I didn’t want to disappoint them, but there is a real story here which is powerful and gripping in its own right. Less is more is a good one, Adele – I suppose I saw my job as allowing it to speak for itself. But I really knew I could tell the story when I first heard Jennet’s voice in my mind.

AG:Do you read historical fiction? If so, can you tell us what your favourites are? Would you say that there are writers who have influenced the way you write?

LM: I do read historical fiction and think that some of the best novels around on the contemporary scene are historical – Colm Toibin, Hilary Mantel, Rose Tremain, Sebastian Barry. I've also just read Andrew Miller’s PURE, which I thought was excellent. Also there are your own novels for young adults such as TROY which I loved.

AG: That's very kind of you, Livi. Have you any plans to write further historical novels? And if not, can you tell us what you will be doing next?

LM: I am writing historical fiction at the moment for adults and have just hopefully got an agent interested. Different period this time – 15th century!

I'm very grateful to Livi for answering my questions and now I'll add a brief review of her latest book, which I do urge everyone to read, especially if you've read THE DAYLIGHT GATE by Jeanette Winterson, which deals with the same subject matter in quite a different way.

MALKIN CHILD is a short, beautifully produced novel in which Michael does the seemingly impossible. She finds a way of telling a story of witchhunting and huge suffering and violence in such a way that children can read it both as a tale of the supernatural, and as an accurate depiction of impoverished life in Lancashire hundreds of years ago. She does this sublty, at no time revelling in horrors but because she has found the voice of a child with which to tell the tale, the events of that time are brought very close to us indeed. The great thing about this book is that all parts of it: the content, the manner of its writing, the brevity of it, come together to make a novella that punches above its weight. I can't recommend it enough and to give you a flavour of Michael's style and whet your appetite, I wll quote a passage very near the beginning of the book:

The walls were black with smoke because we had to keep Our Granny's old bones warm. That's her own bones, of course,and the ones she kept in a bag and shook from time to time to keep them lively.


Katherine Langrish said...

Sounds a fabulous book and one to put on my list! Thanks Adele and Livi!

Nicky said...

Will go and get it right away. Was going to write one on exactly the same subject - Agghhhhh!!! This one sounds perfect.

maryom said...

Must track this down. I just read At the Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson so it will be interesting to see how this compares. A very difficult subject to get 'just right' I think.

Essie Fox said...

Wonderful covers - and titles. This post has whetted my appetite.

Ruth said...

This book was a great introduction for me to the Pendle Witches and a good read for children. Our library at Thornton is having an event next Mon 12 Nov to discuss the book over a slice of Malkin Pie if anyone's interested in joining us. I've also just read At the Daylight Gate and enjoyed this too, but on a different level, it's far more gritty, not for the youngsters.

Leslie Wilson said...

Must read Malkin's Child!