Good Reading : June 2007
16 goodreading ı JUNE 2007 author profile really like or really dislike Dog,’ said Marina.We discussed one review that called Dog ‘a mystical dog’. ‘He’s not mystical at all, he’s the most sensual – really, the point about him is that he lives through his senses,’ she said. ‘He’s based on a real dog, a dog I’ve been walking with a lot. And you know, when you’ve spent time with an animal you begin to wonder, how do they see the world?’ And she pointed out that, as the bits about tractors in Tractors were in italics, easy to skip, so Dog’s thoughts are printed in capital letters, also for ease of skipping. One of the most delightful things about Marina Lewycka’s thoroughly enjoyable books is her ear for dialogue – in particular, the skewed English of people whose first language is another tongue. One man assures his wife (in front of his mistress) that what he’d just been up to was ‘just a bit of slap and tickle’.Yola, the Polish mistress, is very indignant. ‘Slapping ticker!’ she exclaims. ‘What is slapping ticker? Eh?’ And Vulk, a particularly charmless gangmaster with bad breath and a greasy pony-tail calls the Ukrainian girl he meets off the boat at Dover ‘little flovver’. I cannot now look at a flower without thinking of it as a flovver. Marina Lewycka is such an easy writer to read that it’s hard to believe these are her first two books. Ah, but, as ever, they are simply her first two published books (not counting six non- fiction books she has written for Age Concern about looking after an elderly parent). ‘I wrote my first poem when I was four,’ she explained. ‘And I had lots of false starts with novels, and two completed ones, one of them with 36 rejection slips.You know, I’m kind of sixty now – not ‘kind of ’ sixty, actually sixty! – and when I was about fifty-seven and I knew I was going to retire I went on a writing course run by my university [Marina is still a part-time lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University]. It was great. It meant that I actually finished Tractors, which I probably wouldn’t have done otherwise. And the most fantastic thing was that the external examiner on the course was an agent, so I didn’t have to go through the whole business of rejection. He phoned me! It was nice!’ One of the bonuses of researching Tractors was that in the course of it she discovered her mother’s Ukrainian family on the internet, and went over to visit them with her daughter Sonia. ‘I slotted right in,’ she said with delight. ‘They’ve got these photos of my mother at my daughter’s age, and they look so alike that when I first saw them I thought, how did they get hold of these pictures of Sonia? As soon as Sonia materialised they all kind of grabbed her and started shouting “Our blood! Our blood!” Poor little Sonia didn’t speak a word of Ukrainian – she speaks English with a Yorkshire accent – and she was a bit taken aback!’ Sonia, who is now adult and lives and works in Malawi, has a triple heritage: born and raised in Yorkshire, with Ukrainian grandparents and a father from New Zealand. Marina and her husband plan, in ‘retirement’, to spend several months each year in Wanganui. And the third book? ‘I can tell you confidently hat it’s about an elderly lady with eight cats who ves in London in a semi-derelict house, and some eople are trying to get her out of the house to onvert it into flats,’ said Marina. ‘She’s hanging in ere for dear life.The narrator comes across her by ance and befriends her and ends up trying to help r to solve her problems, but the old lady also has mystery, and the house has a mystery. So part of story is also the discovery of the mystery. And the tery is partly to do with the old lady’s Jewish past. Ukrainians. No dogs. Eight cats. But in a funny sort of way, it is also about displaced people really, although it’s not about migration in quite the same way [as Two Caravans], but it is about people ending up in places other than where they started.That’s as much as I can say.’ This most unaffected of successful writers worries about her success.We met in the Sofitel hotel in Sydney, where she was staying. (‘I’ve been a right liability!’ she lamented, apolo- gising to her publicist. ‘I locked myself out of my room twice yesterday, I lost my mobile phone, and I got stuck in a lift twice and in a stairwell once.’) Her life has changed dramatically since her books became so popular. ‘I travel all the time, and stay in places like this!’ she marvelled. ‘You can see the sort of person I am and the sort of books I write: I mean really, instinctively, I’m an Oxfam shopper not a Sofitel dweller. And what I’m really frightened of is losing touch with that part of me, the person who writes those books, and becoming a kind of bland, international …’ No chance, Marina. No chance. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is published by Viking Penguin, rrp $24.95, and Two Caravans is published by Fig Tree, an imprint of Penguin Books, rrp $32.95 One of the bonuses of researching Tractors was that in the course of it she discovered her mother’s Ukrainian family on the internet, and went over to visit them with her daughter Sonia. ‘I slotted right in,’ she said with delight.