Emerson Distinguished Writer-in-Residence Margot Livesey grew up in the Scottish Highlands loving books.
“I was a passionate, passionate reader as a child,” she says. “Books were my refuge, my escape, my weapon against the world.”
But she never thought about writing books herself until after she graduated from college and spent time with a boyfriend who was writing a philosophy book. She decided to try her hand at writing, and produced what she says was “a remarkably bad novel,” but was hooked. She spent most of her twenties working in shops and restaurants while she developed her writing skills.
Now an accomplished novelist, Livesey has published eight books, and has been the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, and the Canada Council for the Arts. Her latest book, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, released earlier this month, is both an homage to and a reimagined modern variation on the classic novel Jane Eyre, one of the first chapter books Livesey ever read and a book she says has been a “constant companion” to her throughout her life.
“I very much aspired to write a novel that could be read both by people who had read Jane Eyre, but also by people who had never read it and perhaps had never even heard of it,” she says. “It was very important to me that the novel wasn’t a sort of 19th-century literature test and could be enjoyed by all kinds of people.”
Set in Livesey’s own Scotland and in Iceland during the early 1960s, the book tells the story of Gemma Hardy, an orphan who spends most of her childhood lonely and in search of a place she can call home. At the age of 10, Gemma is neglected by a bitter and cruel aunt, and sent to a boarding school where she is both a servant and a student. She overcomes these challenges and becomes an independent young woman with dreams of attending college. She accepts a position as an au pair on the remote and beautiful Orkney Islands, where her real journey begins.
“I wanted to shape the book as a journey with very distinct and rather different settings, which is, of course, also what Bronte does in Jane Eyre,” she says. “I think of Scotland as a very atmospheric place in which people are willing to suspend their disbelief, so it made sense for the setting. I also wanted to set the novel just before the great tide of feminism and equal rights broke in both Scotland and other parts of the world.”
The book also incorporates some of Livesey’s own experiences growing up in Scotland. “Like most novelists there are always things I am drawing on from my own life for my books,” she says, “but in this novel I wrote my life into the story more [than with my previous books.] I turned my very difficult stepmother into the aunt. And I used four of the worst years of my life at boarding school into Claypoole [the boarding school Gemma attends].”
Since the book’s release, it has received numerous rave reviews. The Wall Street Journal’s Sam Sack, for example, wrote “Livesey's treks through the novel's pleasing natural landscapes—gusty, beech-topped hillsides and rocky coastlines—are almost as engaging as her navigation of Gemma's restless psyche.” Additionally Oprah’s O Magazine named Gemma a “book to watch for” February, and The Denver Post’s Robin Vidimos said the book ” is a work that transcends its time. Society has changed; the core of behavior and ethics have not.”
When she’s not writing her own novels, Livesey teaches graduate fiction workshops in the Writing Literature and Publishing program. “The students are very much young writers working on developing their craft and committed to having writing at the center of their life in some way,” she says. “One of the great pleasures with my students is reading their work. It can be quite taxing entering into the world of a young writer, but it is never, never boring and never the same twice.”