An Interview with Margot Livesey about Banishing Verona
Where did the idea for this novel come from?
In 1998 I read a story in the newspaper about a Scottish student who came to Miami for his summer holidays, was mugged and ended up trying to rob a bank. Something about the young man's bewilderment, his parents' dismay, crystallized two long held writerly ambitions: to depict someone who saw the world differently and to explore the difficulties of knowing another person. I sat down almost at once and wrote what became the first chapter. I then set it aside for almost two years while I worked on Eva Moves the Furniture. When I returned to my pages I realized at once that my character, Zeke, would never rob a bank and that I was also writing a love story.
The book's narration alternates effortlessly between the point of view of a young man with a personality disorder and the point of view of a female, pregnant radio show host. How did you cultivate these two very different voices and was it difficult to switch back and forth, writing from both perspectives?
Switching back and forth between Zeke and Verona was one of the great pleasures of writing the novel. I loved trying to understand the world from Zeke's particular angle. What do we actually see when we say someone looks surprised? What is it like to take the world literally? My research was very helpful but so was remembering my own rather solitary childhood when I often struggled to grasp the nuances of social interaction. As for Verona, I loved that she was so strong-willed and confident and yet in certain ways quite vulnerable. I won't comment on which characteristics I share with her.
Zeke and Verona are unusual characters and they have unusual names to match. Was this deliberate? How did you decide on these names?
I did want Zeke and Verona to have distinctive names and, at the same time, ones you could easily pronounce. Zeke is named after a distant acquaintance, a young man with peculiar hobbies; something about the mysterious consonants "z" and "k" seemed just right. Verona is named, I hope not too blatantly, after the Italian city where Romeo and Juliet lived. Again I liked the sound of the word.
Zeke suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. Do you have a particular interest in this disease? If so, why?
My interest in Asperger's began more than a decade ago when the son of a friend was diagnosed. Since then, over the years, I've watched him grapple with the gifts and liabilities of his condition. I was particularly interested in how he had to painstakingly learn things that most of us take for granted how to recognize a smile or a frown, for example and how he couldn't tell lies. I think part of why Asperger's is so fascinating is that certain aspects of the condition are simply a more intense version of what many of us experience. Hasn't everyone at times felt baffled by some conversation or interaction? Don't we all occasionally feel hopelessly inept and long to retreat from the complexities of the world? And, on the other hand, don't we all occasionally long to be utterly focused? People with Asperger's, by their very obliviousness, hold up a lens to our society and allow us to see it and ourselves in a new way.
At the same time, watching my friend's son, I came to the conclusion that a number of older men I know one collects bus tickets, another is a violinist with no time for non-musical matters probably have Asperger's but were born too early to be diagnosed.
What sort of research did you do to learn more about Asperger's, and for the novel in general?
I read books about Asperger's Syndrome and talked to people who have this condition, and to their families and friends. Several radio show hosts helped me to get a clearer sense of Verona's job and I consulted with a solicitor and various business people to make sure that I understood Henry's machinations. Happily I already knew quite a lot about painting and decorating from owning a ramshackle house in London for many years. And I'm something of an expert on transatlantic travel.
Zeke and Verona spend one night together, fall in love, and are separated almost immediately. It seems a bit far-fetched for each to develop such strong feelings in such a short amount of time, but you make their connection believable. How do you think you managed to pull this off?
Although we live in an age of skepticism, most people still believe in the idea of love at first sight, or at least they want to. Also, by beginning the novel in Zeke's head, I was able to show exactly how smitten he is with this mysterious woman. Only when we're already on his side, wanting things to work out, do we start to realize how unlikely this attachment is and how many obstacles there are.
Several of the secondary characters in Banishing Verona cause Zeke and Verona quite a bit of stress: Zeke's mother and father, Verona's brother and her best friend. Yet despite the problems they create, they are difficult to dislike. How were you able to make these often selfish and sometimes uncaring characters likeable?
I've long been impressed by how hard it is to dislike someone, in life or fiction, when they admit to their own bad behavior. My characters don't necessarily "confess" as such, but I do allow the reader to see that each of them, however self-centered, is operating out of his or her deepest longings and desires. I think this makes it hard to stand in judgment.
Are there certain books or writers that have been important influences on your work?
Too many to name. In Banishing Verona I owe a considerable debt to Rebecca West's brilliant novel The Fountain Overflows. And I think you can also see the influence of many years of reading and watching Shakespeare. I'm always struck by his fast moving plots, his commingling of good and evil, and his belief in second chances.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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