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- 87 Margot Livesey d He Liked Custard I drive along the track, past the lake with its many swans, and park at the foot of Mount Helgafell. A narrow sheep path zigzags up the hillside through the long grass. Despite its name, Mount Helgafell is only a little over three hundred meters high, but it is famous as the home of Gudrun, a heroine of the Sagas. I climb slowly, taking in the ever-expanding view, occasionally startling a small, grubby sheep. Then, quite suddenly, there is nothing but broken rocks on all sides, and I am in the full blast of the wind that blows continuously over the many volcanoes, extinct and otherwise, of Iceland. Near the summit, I see the ruins of a small hut which my guidebooks variously describe as having belonged to a shepherd, a hermit, or some early Christian saint. I stand in its shelter to take photographs of the village of Stykkishólmur a few kilometers away, and the bay beyond. No one knows I am here, save the sheep and the ravens that circle overhead. I picture my heroine, Gemma Hardy, standing in just this place, hearing in the cry of the ravens the voice of her lost fiancé. As a young writer, I was slow to realize that doing research is one of the deep pleasures of writing fiction. My early stories suffered from a surfeit of imagination and a paucity of accurate detail. To my youthful ears the very word research suggested dusty books, indexes, and crabbed notes. If I’d wanted to spend my days in the stacks of a library, I’d have stayed at university rather than becoming a waitress. Writing short stories , where often all that was needed was a glimpse of a combustion engine or one brief fact about breeding Pekingese dogs, allowed me to maintain my prejudices. I’d heard, too often, the old admonition: write what you know. I was slow to understand that research could allow me to know more. Slower still to understand that research has its own dangerous siren song. But, after some years of working on stories and writing a novel set in contemporary Edinburgh, I decided to write a pair of novels based margot livesey - 88 on the lives of my dead parents. The book about my mother, Eva Barbara Malcolm McEwen, who died when I was two and a half, would be largely imagined. I knew almost nothing about her, but I was fasci­ nated by the stories people told me about her relationship with the supernatural . Former patients complained that the hospital wards where she worked as a nurse were regularly visited by poltergeists; she saw “people” who were not visible to most other people. The book about my father, John Kenneth Livesey, who died when I was twenty-two, was an even more inchoate undertaking. He was fifty when I was born, and his early life was, like my mother’s, shrouded in mystery. Still, I had read a number of wonderful biographies about people who had been dead for much longer than him. Someone knew what Sartre was wearing when he visited Delphi; someone knew what Katherine Mansfield said to Virginia Woolf at tea. Surely I could find out about my father’s boyhood and young adulthood, and surely something in the stories I discovered would suggest a novel? My father had been dead for fifteen years when I decided to write about him, and for ten years before that we had not been on good terms. He was disappointed in me. That is the word I remember from the letters he wrote to me, letters which he carried into the room where I did my homework and set down on the table. I wish I had kept them— there were only three or four—but I read them hastily, at arm’s length, and tore them up. I never mentioned them; neither did he. I stayed up late doing my homework, desperate to leave home, to study, to travel. I never outwardly disobeyed my parents, but my father felt—how could he not?—that I was bitterly at odds with my stepmother. He had long ago chosen her over me, and he continued to do so at every turn. Night after night when the three of us sat down to supper in our remote farmhouse, I ate as quickly as possible and spoke little. My father during these difficult years, and for as long...


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