The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing.
PUBLISHED IN: 2017.
THE AUTHOR: Margot Livesey.
THE EDITOR: Tony Perez.
THE PUBLISHER: Tin House Press. Tin House is a wonderful small press based in Portland, Oregon. They publish fiction, poetry and non-fiction. The press also runs an excellent summer writers’ conference.
SUMMARY: The Hidden Machinery explores the idea that the works of fiction we love are powered by a machinery which it is is the job of the writer to conceal and of the apprentice to apprehend. Each of the ten essays is about some aspect of craft – writing the first novel, dialogue, creating characters who walk off the page, research, discovering our aesthetic. In some, the craft issue – creating characters, writing better dialogue – is at the centre of the essay with examples coming from such writers as Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and Deborah Eisenberg. In others, craft is examined through the lens of a particular author: 16 lessons we can learn from Shakespeare, how Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse can illuminate what we’re writing against, and what we’re writing towards.
The Hidden Machinery takes seriously E.M. Forster’s idea that study is only a serious form of gossip. I am interested in how the life of the writer, personal and public, shapes the work and how, as writers, we can figure out what matters to us.
THE BACK STORY: The essays were written over the course of two decades. Most of them began as talks at writers’ conferences or the MFA program for writers at Warren Wilson College. Gradually I began to realise that they had a common theme. The book also charts my own life as an auto-didact whose first stories were written between waitressing shifts. I tried to write the book that would have helped me as a young writer and that would also keep me good company as an older writer. While writing my most recent novel, The Boy in The Field, I tried hard to follow my own advice about characters and dialogue.
WHY THIS TITLE?: Answered above.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? Having read many craft books that, despite being useful, left me feeling uninspired, I wanted to write one that took seriously the idea of the writer as a reader, and to treat craft at a deeper level. As James Baldwin said in an interview, “When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.” I hope that The Hidden Machinery helps writers to make that journey of unknowing and keeps them good company.
“Novice novelists, accomplished authors, and rabid readers can all learn something from Livesey’s intense yet intimate exploration of the art and craft of creating and appreciating the written word.”— Booklist.
“If good books allow us to choose the intellectual company we keep, there’s no better company – for a budding writer or an avid reader – than Livesey in these essays.” — The Christian Science Monitor.
AUTHOR PROFILE: I grew up in the unusual environment of a boys’ private school on the edge of the Scottish Highlands where my father taught mathematics. I studied literature and philosophy at the University of York and the year after I graduated wrote a novel of remarkable badness. I spent the rest of my twenties waitressing and teaching myself to write. Eventually my stories began to be published in small magazines. I have published a collection of stories and eight novels. I now teach at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. My ninth novel, The Boy in The Field, will be published in August, 2020.
AUTHOR COMMENTS: Reading and writing are the opposite of escapism. In these uncertain times we all need books that connect us with our deepest selves and with the larger world.
SAMPLE CHAPTER: See the Amazon page.
LOCAL OUTLETS: I mostly live in Cambridge, MA and am lucky to have many wonderful independent bookshops.
WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.