Before the shrewder of my compatriots rush out to write A Short History of Tractors as Gaeilge (indeed Ireland’s Harry Ferguson gets a namecheck in the book for his contribution to the development of the tractor), take note. It’s not as easy as it seems. Review after review, the vast majority praiseworthy, all point out the “craft” behind the novel. It’s funny and moving, but also well written. Indeed it’s funny and moving precisely because it’s well written. Lewycka, who has written novels for over fifty years without being published, with her nomination for the Orange Prize will have single handedly doubled applications to creative writing courses throughout the UK, having herself earned an M.A. in creative writing. Can you be taught how to write a novel? Not necessarily. Lewycka is happy to admit the help she received (for example, her tutor reading an early draft of the novel pointed out that the subplot of the Ukrainian tractor book came into the story too late – ” she was right – I was just being lazy and I thought I could get away with it. So I went right back to the beginning, and threaded the other stories in – the tractors, as well”), but, as she reasonably points out, “apart from that, and especially at the level of language, the craft is something I taught myself”.
Where a creative writing course does come into its own is in putting new writers in contact with the publishing industry. “I think it's very hard for a first time novelist to break through. I now realise that the point of writing courses is not so much that they teach you to write,- she says, – but that they put your writing in a space where it can be visible to editors and agents.”
Dare we mention it again? A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian has been shortlisted for the Orange Prize, a prize set up for women authors. The importance of a shortlisting is in no doubt. It helps shine a spotlight on a book, and, aside from conferring merit, boosts sales. To what extent does Lewycka think a prize set for women authors is valid? Is it really harder for women to get published? To get the attention of the reading public? Her answer is instructive: “I don't think it's more difficult for women writers to get published, in fact it obviously isn't. But maybe it's more difficult to get taken seriously. But then I'm not sure I want to be taken seriously. In my earlier novels – the ones that weren't published – I set out to change the world. In this one, I set out to delight and entertain; there are some serious ideas, but I tried to sneak them in al
most so you wouldn't notice.” In terms of the actual prize, for the first time in the interview (conducted by email) she becomes demure: “I think people should view literary prizes as more like pulling a raffle ticket out of a hat, and less like beating everyone else in a race or a competition. Of course it's nice to be selected for a list, because it means people have enjoyed your book, which is what it's all about. But winning is neither here nor there.”
Just as she’s candid in her novel about the realities of age, she’s also surprisingly up front about the fact that she’s not a wünderkid new author. Writing in the Guardian about being a first-time author she said “‘Kazuo Ishiguro worries about reaching 50 and you’ve [Lewycka] just started!”. Traditionally one associates age, in terms of writers, with wisdom, and hence publishability, but that’s for established (usually male) writers like the Philip Roths of this world. It’s a very different matter for someone over fifty publishing their first novel: “It would be nice if age didn't matter, but of course it does. I feel I have so many fewer writing years left. Less time to experiment and make mistakes. On the other hand you know much more when you're older. And maybe you take yourself less seriously.” It’s not just a self-conscious difference though, it’s an imposed difference coming from the publishing world. “well, – she says confidentially, – my advance wasn't very fantastic, and when I asked for more my agent said that to get the six figure advances, you have to be young and beautiful. But they gave me a little more anyway. It pays to be cheeky!”