Elena Bowes caught up with Scottish-born, Massachusetts-based writer Margot Livesey whose ninth novel, The Boy in the Field commences as one mystery and then evolves into another.
When the three Lang children find the boy in the field, it’s not just the boy’s life who is altered. Witnessing evil in their picturesque village outside of Oxford leads each of the Lang siblings to question who they are and who they want to be.
Who is the boy and who discovers him?
The boy is Karel Lustig. His father is a builder and he works as an orderly at the local hospital. Matthew, Zoe and Duncan Lang find him when they are walking home from school one afternoon. This takes place in the countryside near Oxford in 1999.
There’s a body and there’s a detective, but this is far from a typical whodunnit. Did you want to throw readers off by beginning with the conventional whodunnit trope? What kind of a mystery would you call The Boy in the Field?
I knew my opening would read like the opening of a whodunnit – perhaps one of the Inspector Morse mysteries which are set around Oxford? – but I also wanted to signal that this would not be a conventional mystery. Karel is not fatally wounded and finding his assailant, although important, is not the heart of the novel. That belongs to the three teenagers who each, after finding him, go on a separate quest. Nearly all good novels contain a mystery: Why is Mr. Darcey so aloof? Why doesn’t Pip guess that the convict is his benefactor?
“Everything that happened, they all three later agreed, was only possible because of those closed lids.” Please can you expand on that.
This was one of my signals to the reader: don’t expect a conventional mystery. I also wanted to suggest that, from those first moments, Matthew, Zoe and Duncan are imagining what Karel is like.
The theme of family and what constitutes one – the people you share DNA with or the people who care for you, love you? Can you explain your own journey in this area?
My mother died when I was two and a half, my father when I was 22. They were both only children and, after their deaths, I assumed I had no relatives. Happily, growing up in Perthshire, I was very close to a neighbouring family and they became my family. But a few years ago, a former student was doing research for me on Ancestry.com and an email came: “Do you know if Eva McEwan had a daughter?” It turned out I had many relatives who all happened to live in Australia. I flew to Brisbane hoping our shared DNA would ignite a feeling I hadn’t had in decades. I did catch a few sparks but mostly I felt only friendly curiosity towards my various cousins. I flew back thinking how lucky I am to have my non-DNA family.
Each of the Lang children heard the boy say a different thing – cowrie, cowslip, coward. What was the significance of that?
They hear the boy differently because they are different but it is the reader, not the children, who realises this. They each bring their own preoccupations to the boy.
It’s a short novel of 254 pages in which a lot happens– can you expand on your attraction to the short novel as an art form?
Some years ago I wrote a reimagining of Jane Eyre set in 1960s Scotland. Writing The Flight of Gemma Hardy, I very consciously followed a traditional form, guiding the reader on my heroine’s journey, step by step. With The Boy in the Field, I wanted to emulate the wonderful Penelope Fitzgerald, to write a short novel in which a lot happens, and a lot is left out. As a reader, I love being plunged into a scene and then, without too much explanation, jumping to the next scene.
You have a rule that you must know the ending before you start a novel – although the ending can change in the course of writing. What happened with The Boy In The Field? Did the ending hold?
It did. That said, how I accomplished the ending came as a pleasing surprise.
Character and setting play a significant role in your book. Can you explain how you decided on the unique personalities of Zoe, Matthew and Duncan Lang, as well the idyllic Cotswold village setting, a far cry from Boston where you live now, and Scotland where you grew up?
I’ve only written one novel set in the States and, so far, have no plans to write another. When I first conceived of The Boy, I thought of setting it in Scotland – any excuse to do research there – but my plot required the gentler, English countryside where towns and villages are closer together. I also needed a city like Oxford which attracts international visitors.
As I said above, I wanted each of the Langs to set out on a quest after finding the boy. Duncan, the youngest, who’s adopted, decides to search for his birth mother. It felt natural to make him a painter. (I’m lucky enough to live with a painter.) Zoe is interested in language and romance; her quest has to do with being recognised as herself rather than a daughter or a sister. Matthew, the oldest, wants the world to make sense again. He sets out to find Karel’s assailant while periodically consulting the real detective.
The Salon of Second Chances was a brilliant way to bring everyone together near the end. How did you think of that?
I love the possibilities of parties, in life and in fiction. As I got close to the end of the novel, I realised a village party would be the perfect excuse to bring everyone together but it had to be a particular kind of party, a party at which people revealed something about themselves.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
Those moments when a character reckons with their own failures, like the narrator in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. Or is defeated, and yet achieves a kind of victory.
What’s the last great book you read?
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. It’s set in Glasgow in the 1980s but such a different version of Scotland from the one I know. At the moment I’m very much enjoying Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet.