Using humor to talk about the tough stuff in fiction

Subversive humor, unforgettable characters and a dark underlayer made Marina Lewycka’s «A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian» a best-seller. Tracking the fallout when narrator Nadia’s 84-year-old father falls for Valentina, a 36-year-old Ukrainian divorcee keen to settle in Britain, Lewycka takes her readers on a hilarious tour of human frailty. As well as «ferocious breasts bursting like twin warheads out of an under-wired, ribbon-strapped, lycra-paneled, lace-trimmed, green satin rocket-launcher of a bra,» Valentina exposes the fault lines in the family and incidentally helps trigger self-discovery. «Two Caravans,» dedicated to the immigrant cockle-pickers who perished in Morecambe Bay, follows a group of immigrants striving to forge a better future. There’s grim material here too, always leavened by humor. Kathimerini English Edition asked Lewycka about humor as a fictional approach and personal style. «Sometimes humor allows you to tackle subjects which would otherwise be so grim and unpleasant that people would not want to read about them,» she explained. «I can sympathize with this attitude, because I personally try to avoid violent films. Yet humor allows you to keep your reader’s sympathy for the characters, so they carry on reading. But I think the real reason I write in a humorous way is more to do with my personality. I tend to see the funny side of things, and in every grisly situation there is usually something to laugh at. In fact, that laughter in the face of horror is one of the things that keeps us going and reminds us that we are human.» Lewycka delights in word play and her multiculti cast of characters have their own idioms, from Ludmilla’s «DIY English» with words like handheldblendera and suspenderbeltu in the first book, to Emmanuel’s flawed but ornate and expressive letters in the second. Flexible English The author explained that she grew up speaking Ukrainian at home, but learnt English as soon as she went to school: «I was not taught English – I learnt by listening; and that habit of listening to how people speak is something I have carried with me to adult life. I love to eavesdrop on people’s conversations – they say the most crazy things! English is a wonderfully flexible and tolerant language – it is amazing how you can mangle it, and still be understood. That’s something I like to experiment with, and in the case of Emmanuel, I wanted to push it to its limit and write a kind of poetry out of bad English.» From one point of view in the first book to several in the second, how did Lewycka make her decisions about narrative voice? «When I started to write ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian,’ I knew I had a good story and I wanted to make the voice confessional, gossipy, and a bit bitchy – just the way I talk when I’m with my women friends. So that was easy. Finding the right voice for ‘Two Caravans’ was much more difficult. I thought at first of telling it through the voice of one all-seeing narrator, but that was quite deadly, and I realized that to bring the story to life, I had to go inside the characters. Although only Irina has a first-person voice, all the characters take turns at taking the narrative forward, and describing what they see through their own eyes. In fact, there is another first-person narrator – Dog. But instead of seeing the world through his eyes, we smell it through his nose.» There is a delight in the pastoral in both books, be it Ludmilla’s garden in «A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian,» or the few carefree moments of shared eating alfresco for the exhausted strawberry-pickers in «Two Caravans.» As well as creating a respite from and contrast to the daily struggle, it links the old country and the new. The author agreed that it expresses something of her own sensibility. «I love the countryside, and I like more than anything to be outdoors – not very good for a writer! But at least I can pretend I am gathering material when I walk in the hills or potter in my garden. I love the changing seasons and the changing skies, and it’s such a pleasure to try and recreate some of those images in words.» Great vehicles It is not just memorable characters that Lewycka brings to life, but great vehicles, from the tractors to the hapless Crap Car, the immobile but prestigious Roller, the mafia-type vehicle driven by the rapacious Vulk, and the eco-warrior’s ancient bus that runs on chip fat. Where does this apparent passion for motor vehicles come from? Vehicles, she explained, seem to epitomize both human endeavor and human failure. «I suppose it must come from my father, who had a long love affair with his motorbikes, and also talked passionately about tractors and lorries, as though they were human. I don’t have any great interest in modern cars, only old characterful ones, and of course I’ve had many ancient, unreliable but characterful vehicles myself. But none as spectacularly ancient and unreliable as the ones I saw in Ukraine. Once, we drove to visit a cousin in an old Zaporozhets – the same car that Andriy had [in ‘Two Caravans’] but it had no passenger seat, so the person who sat in front had to perch on a wooden stool. There was no road, so we cut straight across the fields, and the car bounced up and down like a frog. Then a storm broke – lashing rain and the sky split with lightning. The windscreen wipers didn’t work, but still the little car bounced on through the long wet grass, and at last we arrived at my cousin’s house. But I wouldn’t put that vehicle in a book – no one would believe it!» The past, variously interpreted, is a constant backdrop to the first book, while the characters in the second grapple with present problems, many of which flow directly from the vagaries of recent history. Will history have a role in her next book? «It’s always a challenge to bring together the personal past and the historical past, but I’m going to attempt that in my next book, which looks at both personal relationships and at the Arab-Israeli conflict. It’s a very ambitious idea, and it may change as I go along, so I don’t want to promise too much, in case I decide to change it all.» «I’m very concerned to situate my books in the present world that we live in, and for the contemporary world to be present in my books, but of course the present is the way it is because of what went before. As an author of fiction, you can write about these ancient and intractable problems without feeling compelled to find a solution to the political or moral dilemmas; all that you can do is to find the truth about human beings, and often those human truths remain constant throughout history.» Advice to aspiring writers? ‘Go on a course’ Marina Lewycka’s first book, «A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian,» was a runaway success, but it was not her first attempt at fiction. We asked what advice she would give to aspiring writers. «I think maybe I’m the wrong person to give advice; after all I’ve been writing since I was 4 years old, and it wasn’t until I was 58 that I got published. So I suppose the first piece of advice is not to give up – but even more important is to get started. Many people dream of becoming a writer but never actually get anything down on paper. It’s not until you start experimenting with writing that you realize just how hard it is – and how many problems there are to be solved even in quite a straightforward narrative. I always rewrite everything – sometimes 20 or 30 times, until I am satisfied. But you can’t rewrite something which isn’t written in the first place. So, get started, keep going and, my third piece of advice is: Go on a course. «My breakthrough came when I attended a course in creative writing at the university where I work – it was part of the staff development program. What I learnt was fairly useful, but the most useful things were the discipline of producing a certain number of words every week, and allowing myself to admit to being serious about writing. A course will also help you to get over the embarrassment of showing your writing to other people. If you don’t want to show it to people, it’s because you know, at some deep level, that there’s something embarrassing about it. For me, humor was the way of getting over that embarrassment. But the most valuable thing about my writing course is that it brought me to the attention of a literary agent, who was the external examiner on the course, and offered to take me on. Whereas I had submitted manuscripts to publishers without success, he had no trouble finding a publisher for me.» Marina Lewycka is visiting Greece at the invitation of the British Council. She will meet the public this evening at the British Council building in Kolonaki Square at 8 p.m., and at their Thessaloniki premises, 9 Ethnikis Amynis Street, tomorrow at 7.30 p.m. Admission is free and the discussion will be in English. The basics Born of Ukrainian parents in a refugee camp in Kiel, Germany, at the end of the Second World War, Marina Lewycka grew up in England. She lives in Sheffield and teaches media studies part-time at Sheffield Hallam University. «A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian,» published in 2005, was short-listed for the Orange Prize, long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction and the Saga Award for Wit. A Greek translation by Belika Koumbareli is published by Modern Times. «Two Caravans» was published in 2007.