Marina Lewycka, the daughter of two Ukrainians who were taken to Germany as forced laborers by the Nazis, was born in a British-run refugee camp in Kiel, Germany, in 1946. Her family settled in the UK shortly after. She studied at Keele University in Staffordshire, and has written a number of books of practical advice for carers of the elderly, published by Age Concern. Described as funny, open and energized, she is a longtime resident of Sheffield, England where she used to lecture in media studies at Sheffield Hallam University. She is still attached to the University, but on a part-time basis.
Her first novel, The Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (2005) was published when she was 58. It tells of the exploits of two feuding sisters trying to save their elderly father from a Ukrainian divorcee, Valentina. It won the 2005 Saga Award for Wit and the 2005 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize (Lewycka was the first female winner of the prize which is awarded at the Hay literary festival and includes having a pig named after the novel!); and was shortlisted for the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction.
Before Tractors, the only creative work she had had published was a poem in an Arts Council magazine about 30 years ago. Often she doubted her dream of becoming a published novelist, but she says, "writing was a compulsion. Lots of very good writers never get published, and that could easily have happened to me. People think that good writers will always come out in the end, but I don't believe that."
Tractors draws heavily on her own life, in fact initially she set out to write a memoir of her mother's life based on a tape of recollections she recorded in Ukrainian before she died, but Lewycka soon realized that she just didn't know enough, "so I was going to have to make stuff up, and in a way it was very liberating." The tape also gave her an excuse to travel to Ukraine where she met her mother's sister for the first time. Her aunt, some years younger than Lewycka's mother, had not heard from her sister in 62 years.
In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, she is asked how her family feel about becoming material for Tractors; to which she replies, "They have been very generous about it, really .... I feel bad about my sister. It must be awful for her, and I'd hate it if it happened to me. But you write about what you know. At least you start off by writing about what you know, and then the worst thing is that you invent stuff, and no one really knows what's real and what's invented, and in the end you don't even know yourself."
Lewycka found the key to unlocking her creative skills in the realization that she could express serious issues through humor. "You get funnier as you get older, but I hadn't connected with my sense of humour. I did for everyday purposes, but [before Tractors] I didn't have the confidence to do it with what I wrote. Tractors felt like a last fling really. I thought, 'What the hell? It doesn't matter what I write. I'll have a laugh and stick it on the internet.'"
After spending the best part of a decade writing Tractors, she took a creative writing course at Sheffield Hallam University to polish what she had written. At the end of the course she was approached by the external examiner, who was also an agent, to see whether she wanted him to represent her. She did!
Her second novel was published in the UK as Two Caravans in Spring 2007 and, later in the year, as Strawberry Fields in the USA and Canada. Lewycka's third novel, We Are All Made of Glue, was released in July 2009.
Marina Lewycka's website
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