Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Where tragedy, tractors and comedy meet. Marina Lewycka in interview.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian has been chosen for the BBC’s new literary discussion programme Page Turners. How important is the page turning factor for an author like Lewycka? “This ties in with the question about my age, and about the difficulty of getting a first novel published. You know, I have been writing for years – more than 50 years. I knew that this was my last chance: if this one didn't get published, I'd have given up. So I gave it everything. And I knew that I really had just the first page to hook the publisher/agent/reader – and that if the reader put it down, I knew they might not pick it up again. That's one answer to the question, but the other answer is that I wanted to write something that people would enjoy reading – we all love being gripped by a book.”

Lewycka is an enthusiastic reader as well, though regrettably she finds less and less time to devote to fiction. Amongst her long list of favourite authors are names as diverse as Jonathan Coe, James Joyce, Anita Desai, Margaret Atwood and Zoe Heller. Her day job, until now, has been to lecture about PR at Sheffield Hallam University. It may seem an incongruous background for the author, but not so she contends: “actually, PR and fiction have much in common. PR is about making stories in which the 'client' features in some heroic role, often overcoming difficulties like Cinderella, beating the bad guy like Roy Rogers, facing up to powerful competition like David to Goliath, or being a 'good fairy' and waving a magic chequebook to bring joy to little children … etc etc etc. Increasingly, I want not to teach PR but to teach ABOUT PR – but I have to compromise. I want to teach about what is done to us, but my students want to learn how to do it. We live in a world which is saturated with promotional messages, the most effective of which are disguised as stories.”

Just as we’re bombarded by promotional messages disguised as stories, so, often, they can be political messages. One of the themes of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is immigration – both that of Nikolai and his family in post WWII Europe, and that of Valentina from post-communism Ukraine. Immigration is a subject that provokes all sorts of extreme reactions, and is often prone to scare mongering. Throughout the novel I was constantly expecting an episode that would change the perception of Valentina from that of a cruel, gold-digging dominatrix into something more human, but, contrary to formula, Lewycka doesn’t really try to give us greater insight into her motives. There is a certain hesitant sympathy that builds in Nadia, the narrator, but in general terms Valentina remains an unredeemed character. This gave the novel an uneasy edge (not necessarily a bad thing), for me, in terms of the constant debate on immigration. It's something you pick up on in the novel (Nadia questioning herself “What has happened to me? I used to be a feminist. Now I seem to be turning into Mrs Daily Mail”). Did Lewycka worry about being politically correct when writing Valentina, or is the world of fiction exempt from such worries? “I did worry about this a lot, – she admits, – but I wanted to be truthful. And the truth is that immigrants are like any other people – some are awful, and some are heroes, and most are somewhere in between. Valentina is awful to her husband, but she does it for the sake of her child. She breaks every law going, but no one could accuse her of being lazy or a scrounger – on the contrary, she is exploited herself. The episode where Dubov talks about the introduction of 'gangster capitalism' into Ukraine and the 'export of beautiful women' is the chapter where I try to frame this discussion in a wider context – but I don't want to hammer home a point. At the end of the day, the story speaks for itself, and there are Valentinas in every culture. I didn't mean her to be unredeemed – she is redeemed by her beautiful and innocent baby, and by the love and forgiveness of her husband. But that happens off-stage, maybe in the back of the Rolls Royce in some faraway lay-by between Krakow and Przemysl.”

The Orange Prize for Fiction 2005

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