Like London’s streets, there are no straight lines in Livesey’s latest novel, The House on Fortune Street (reviewed Jan. 7).
How did you come up with the book’s fractured form, where Dara MacLeod comes into focus from others’ limited perspectives?
Hers was a story I wanted to tell, but no one character was in a position to tell it. And I wasn’t satisfied with having an omniscient storyteller do it. I wanted to try to imitate that feeling that one often has in life, where we think we know what the significant part of the story is and then other parts show up inadvertently, and sometimes much later, in the conversations of friends, in letters, in certain glimpsed moments.
You also use other authors and their works to introduce a whole other perspective.
That was one of those—I hope— felicitous accidents, in that I started writing from [Keats scholar] Sean’s perspective, and was very much embracing Keats and Keats’s letters in doing so. So when I had a draft of that section, I thought I had to choose whether to make Keats more anorexic or allow him to have his place, which led me to think that each of the four protagonists should have his or her own character or book that is the key to his or her situation, in a way that wouldn’t be obnoxious if you didn’t know those characters or the books.
Is there anything all the characters share?
When I was writing, I was thinking a lot about the role of chance, of luck, in life—luck and destiny. Also, the degree to which damage gets passed down in families, and what people do with that damage. Dara and Abigail are both people who have their worlds shattered at the age of 10: how do they go about putting their lives together? I was also thinking about secrets: people often say that secrets destroy their keepers, as well as doing damage to those around them. But the people who keep secrets in the novel tend to do rather well.
Is London, where much of your fiction is set, a secretive city?
It’s both a blatant and secretive city. I think of London as a wonderful testing ground. I also think of it as the city that belongs to Dickens. Abigail’s key text, Great Expectations, is an archetypal coming-of-age novel. That moment where Magwich tells Pip that he is his benefactor is one of the great moments in Victorian literature, showing a person confronting his own illusions. And there is in fact a street in London, in the banking district, called Fortune Street—I took the liberty of moving it to South London. Like New York, London is a city where people come to seek their fortunes.