Loaded Questions is introducing a series of features on the best books to read this summer. Great Summer Reads will consist of recommendations from best selling authors, accomplished publishers, members of the blogosphere, and even me every now and then.
I thought I would kick off the recommendations by suggesting a title that I first discovered two summers ago. The book is a mouthful, The Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian and is written by the very humble and pleasant Marina Lewycka. Not long after finishing the book I wrote her to tell her how much I had enjoyed it. The story is of Nadezhada, the daughter of a Ukrainian immigrant who must face the woes of her elderly father which consist of mail order brides and a host of other troubles that come with advancing age. While there are very interesting characters in Nadezhada's father, her sister Vera and the sickly devious but slightly sympathetic Valentina, the purchased bride, the best part of the story is Nadezhada herself and the running dialog that she maintains with the reader. That the main character tells her story to the reader does not come across as a performance or a practiced monologue but feels true and sincere.
I interviewed Marina Lewycka a few years ago at the heighth of The Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian's popularity and was very happy to have the chance to chat with her. We emailed a year or two later when her new novel Strawberry Fields (Caravan or Two Caravans in the UK and abroad) and expressed a worry that Americans would not reach for the book. In Strawberry fields Lewycka writes about the strawberry fields found of Kent, England that find themselves populated by migrant workers from Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia in the summers. Whether the newest book did as well as her first does not matter, in her latest novel Lewycka once again presents the voice of immigrants with a stark and yet satirical style.
If you find yourself with time this summer and are looking for a good read I heartily recommend Marina Lewycka's The Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. Fans of the first book should seriously consider picking up Strawberry Fields for another dose of a unique and exciting new author.
I have posted the interview with Marina Lewycka below which which initially appeared on a different site.
Stay tuned for more summer reading suggestions from a host of guests!
Loaded Questions Interview: Author Marina Lewycka
Kelly Hewitt: The Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is your first published novel. How long was that process? Was it the first novel that you've completed?
Marina Lewycka: I have two complete unpublished novels in my drawer, along with a pile of rejection slips, and a number of false starts, so it feels as though I’ve been at it forever. In fact I’ve been writing poems, plays and stories for as long as I can remember – my first poem was written when I was four – so you could say I’m a very late developer. I started writing the Tractors book about ten years ago, just doing a bit now and then in the evening after work. It was the decision to go on an MA Creative Writing Course that galvanised me to finish. After that, I had it ready in about eighteen months.
Kelly: Valentina, the Ukrainian immigrant in "The Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian", used any means, including marrying a much older man, in order to remain in England. She is a character that one dislikes but can't help but feel sorry for. Where did you get the inspiration for Valentina? When the novel was all said and done what were your feelings towards her?
Marina: All the main characters in the book are Ukrainian immigrants, but Valentina presents the later post-Soviet generation. There is certainly a huge flood of women wanting to use marriage as a means of leaving a poor country to immigrate to a rich one – it isn’t just Ukraine and Eastern Europe, women also come from the Indian subcontinent, the Phillipines, the Far East, Africa. You only have to look on the internet. My email inbox is full of messages everyday from young Eastern European women offering to marry me. And of course young women marrying older men for money and security is also a story as old as history. At first I thought it was rather funny and a bit immoral, but when you see the sheer volume, you realise that it’s really quite tragic – countries whose main export is their beautiful young women. It seems a desperate choice for a woman to have to make. As I was writing about Valentina, I started to see this tragic side of it, and at the same time, like the old man in the book, I started to fall in love with her myself, her sheer voluptuous energy. Like all of us, Valentina is both good and bad, funny and tragic.
Kelly: One of the most interesting relationships in your novel takes place between Nadezhada and Vera, two sisters who struggle to put aside their differences in order to try and save their father. Do you have sisters? Did that relationship evolve the way you had imagined it would?
Marina: I do have an older sister, and we do have very different outlooks on the world, so I thought it would be fun to use those differences as a basis for the terrible arguments between the characters Vera and Nadezhda. But it was also a way of telling the story from different points of view., and showing that we can never be certain about the past, because it is always filtered through our own perceptions and prejudices. I think in fiction, you can tidy tings up and round them off in a way which is more difficult in real life.
Kelly: How much of the material for "The Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian" was aided by your family? Is your family Ukrainian?
Marina: My family is Ukrainian, and before my mother died, I spent some time talking to her about her life and her childhood, and I taped those conversations, thinking that one day I would like to write her story. Of course when I came to start writing there is much that I didn’t know, so the historical elements are a blend of what my mother told me and what I imagined might have happened.
Kelly: You also write texts that offer instructions on how to care for older relatives and those with diseases or disabilities. Is it coincidental that the main plot of "The Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian" is about children trying to save their elderly father?
Marina: Yes, I have written a number of short books for Age Concern, about caring for an elderly relative, and I have listened to many stories of well-meaning middle-aged ‘children’ tearing their hair out at the behaviour of their dotty senile parents trying to recapture their youth and adolescence. This reversal of roles in families is something that happens to all of us, and it surprised me that no one has written about it before.
Kelly: Do you have plans for writing another novel in the near future?
Marina: I would have been happy to write a sequel to the Tractors book, but everyone advised me against it, saying that sequels inevitably compare badly with the original. They said I should write something completely different but exactly the same – all tall order, but I hope I’ve pulled it off. My next novel is called Two Caravans, and it will be published in March 2007. It is also a tragi-comic story about immigration, falling in love, and bad behaviour, but in all other respects it is completely different. I don’t want to say any more, because I don’t want to give away the surprise.
Kelly: What is the one thing that your readers can expect to find at home on your shelves?
Marina: I really need some new bookshelves. At present, my shelves are double stacked with books piled up horizontally. The front row is almost all modern fiction, but the back row are the books I read when I studied English at university – mainly poetry from the fifteenth through to the nineteenth centuries. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Keats – they’re all there, and when I need a bit of comfort or inspiration I still reach for them. In fact I’ve been re-reading Chaucer a lot recently in connection with my new novel – as you’ll see.