Marina Lewycka

Marina Lewycka

This first appeared in the Sunday Independent on April 22, 2007.

Meeting Marina Lewycka is like having an audience with someone’s favourite auntie. She gives a twinkly smile, pours the tea, and somehow within the first few minutes weaves a cosy little web of family around the conversation. You feel you could tell her anything.

But though she’s so bashful you wouldn’t guess it, we’re actually here to talk about her. Her first novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian was one of the most talked about books of the last few years and her hotly anticipated second effort, Two Caravans – which she has dedicated to the Morecambe Bay Cockle pickers – has just come out to some glowing reviews. Her works seem especially timely capturing as they do the flavour of Eastern European life and the efforts of the region’s immigrants to integrate into western society. The first book’s success she tells me was ‘quite scary really’ as it came after she had filed away veritable stack of rejection letters. ‘I had years and years not getting published and then all of a sudden when it all comes at once, it’s overwhelming. I hadn’t expected the tractors book to get published at all. I thought if anything we might get a small publishing house to take it up and maybe sell it on the internet and then it became, well, you know, a bestseller – it’s really quite embarrassing to say it, but that’s what it was.’

This stuttering modesty seems very English but as her name and her literary output suggests, Marina has an Eastern European heritage. Her parents fled the Ukraine with their infant daughter at the end of the Second World War and after a spell in a refugee camp in Germany settled in England. Her father found work as an agricultural labourer and her mother was employed as domestic servant by the mother of English television personage Malcolm Muggeridge. ‘Mrs Dobson was her name and we lived in her house. People expect me to have a Ukrainian or Yorkshire accent, as I spent part of my childhood there but the rather posh accent you’re listening to I learned from that sweet old lady.’

Growing up, she tells me, she had a sense of ‘life seen from below, life on the outside. People were mostly kind to us, but sometimes in a slightly misguided way. I can remember my mother weeping once because people gave us a lot of second hand socks and they hadn’t actually washed them first.’ She is careful to add that her parents never saw themselves as victims. ‘I remember once a kid in school coming up to me and going (in mocking tones) ‘your mummy cleans the toilets at the school’ and there was nothing I could say back; it was true. But really things like that were exceptional. They didn’t see themselves as downtrodden and I never saw them that way. ’

Determined that their daughter would have a better life Marina’s parents encouraged her to work hard at school. ‘Oh I was a terrible swot’ she laughs. ‘And I was hated for it. But I would have been hated anyway. I looked peculiar with my long plaits and white socks. I got picked on a lot.’ In her teens she rebelled against her goody two shoes image. I joined CMD and went to London and lived in a crusty squat’ she remembers, somewhat wistfully. ‘That was what you did in those years.’

She met her future husband, a New Zealander and fellow squat dweller on the upper deck of double decker bus in London. When she took him home to her parents he was able to put to them all of the questions that Marina had never trusted herself to ask. My mother had always told me these beautiful lyrical stories about her childhood in the Ukraine but really I knew nothing about the refugee camp or the war. I had sort of sensed that I shouldn’t go there. I knew there was something there and yet I didn’t know what it was.’ Her husband she tells me ‘didn’t have these sensitivities. He just asked outright and they told him all sorts of stuff they never told me.

The results of her parents’ recollections formed the basis for much of her first book, which she wrote while a lecturer in Public Relations at Sheffield Hallam University. ‘I wrote it over 6 to 8 years, doing about 2 hours most evenings when I had woken up from my nap,’ she tells me. ‘I was doing an MA in creative writing at the same time and the tutor gave me great encouragement and made some really useful suggestions.’

The success of her novels has enabled her to more or less give up the day job. ‘They still have me on their books but I don’t have a timetable or anything. I most appreciate having a foot in the door because I get to talk to young people and also if I’m honest it gives me access to the guys who fix the computers and they are so important to me. It’s quite naughty of me to say that but if you’ve lost two chapters what do you do? You can sit there and cry but they can find it somehow.’

She is charmingly frank about her late success. ‘It is almost like becoming a virgin again I suppose’ she laughs. ‘I sometimes regret that I don’t have more writing It would have been nice if it had come earlier but maybe if I’d done this well when I was young it would have been all downhill thereafter.’

She sees her life as a journey from the margins of society to a ‘this professional class existence’ but her books cast a backward glance to those margins. ‘I suppose it is quite strange to go from picking peas in Lincolnshire as a young girl to sitting behind a computer writing novels, but you know I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It was a privilege for me to have seen that life.’

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~ by Donal Lynch on January 21, 2008.