Mary Lawson, on the Intricacies and Complexities of Family Life

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Born in Ontario, Canada, multi award-winning author Mary Lawson grew up on a farming community. Having gained a psychology degree from McGill University, she travelled to Britain where she took a job as an industrial psychologist, and eventually married British psychologist, Richard Lawson. Her debut novel, Crow Lake, won a number of awards and The Other Side of the Bridge was longlisted for the Booker Prize and selected for the Richard & Judy Book Club. Her latest novel, Road Ends, takes an intricate look at family life and the way we can face tragedy and, in time, hope to start again.

JG You are distantly related to LM Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables. What is the relationship? Are there any other writers in your family?

LM Montgomery was my grandfather’s first cousin. I’m not sure what that makes me… second cousin twice removed? Something like that. It is a distinct liability having an icon in the family, especially if you’re in the same line of work; I haven’t a hope of ever living up to her. My mother wrote wonderful letters but never tried to take it further. I have a nephew, though, who is an extremely good writer. Watch this space.

JG Who were your favourite writers/literary influences growing up?

LM My mother read to us all the time when we were young, generally one-to-one, but very occasionally all of us together. She started off with Peter Rabbit and Winnie the Pooh and kept going though Alice in Wonderland and Swallows and Amazons – classics become classics because they’re good! There were four of us, and a big spread of ages, so the all-together sessions were aimed at my elder brothers, with my little sister and I being permitted to sit in as long as we kept quiet. I remember her reading White Fang, by Jack London, to the four of us. She was a terrific reader and in the scary bits my hair practically stood on end. Beyond a  doubt I owe my love of reading – and hence of writing – to her.

JG You wrote your debut novel, Crow Lake, in your 50s, having trained first as a psychologist. Was there always a burning desire to write this novel or to tell a certain story?

LM I was good at English at school and my teachers urged me to study it at university but it was fiction I was interested in, and I Crow Lake[1]knew that writing fiction was not a career in the ordinary sense. I figured I’d end up teaching, and knew I’d be a terrible teacher. Psychology interested me, so I did that instead. It was the right choice for me. When I got my BA I came to the UK for a holiday and I’ve been here ever since.

I didn’t give writing a thought until after my children started school, and even then I just wrote short stories for women’s magazines as a means of earning some money. I don’t think you could describe it as a burning desire to write, back then. The passion didn’t kick in until I started writing the short story that eventually became Crow Lake. My previous stories had been set in the UK, that being what the magazine market demanded, but I felt this particular story belonged in Canada. It was the luckiest decision of my life. In the course of writing that story I not only ‘found my voice’ but also discovered that I had something to say. For the first time I was writing about something that mattered to me passionately. That was when I became a writer.

JG What would you say are the main themes running through your novels?

LM Families, in all their complexity; our expectations of those we love and the damage they can do; the desire to break away and the threads that pull us back; the everlasting nature/nurture debate…

JG Road Ends is once again set in the fictional town of Struan in Northern Ontario. Why have you decided to return here again?

LM To say I’ve ‘decided’ anything in my writing suggests a degree of conscious planning that, unhappily,  I seem to be incapable of. With hindsight I guess you could say that I set Crow Lake in Northern Ontario partly out of homesickness – it is the landscape of my childhood – partly because I saw that a sense of isolation would be important in the book ( you can’t get more isolated than the Canadian North), and partly because it seemed to me that that was where both the theme of the story and the characters belonged. All three of those reasons also apply to The Other Side of the Bridge and Road Ends.

JG Do you believe creative writing can be taught? Did you study creative writing at any stage?

LM The nuts and bolts of writing – plotting, setting the scene, character development – all of those things can be taught, and they are important. But talent, drive and determination can’t be taught and you’ll never be a good writer without them.

I attended a creative writing course for more than twenty years. I’d already had short stories published before I joined the course but I realized that if I wanted to develop as a writer I needed to learn more about the craft of writing.  I benefitted enormously from those classes, not just technically but in terms of enjoyment, companionship and the stimulation of hearing and discussing other people’s work. Perhaps most important, as far as my own career was concerned, was the support and encouragement of the class during the many years of failed attempts and rejection slips. I’m not sure I could have continued to send out Crow Lake without that support.

The Other Side of the BridgeJG What are you currently working on?

LM Ummm… I’m currently waiting for an idea. Ideas are by far my biggest problem. It was two full years after the publication of The Other Side of the Bridge before I got an idea for Road Ends.

JG Describe your writing schedule.

LM Once an idea strikes, I’m pretty disciplined. I work roughly from 8.30 to 3.30 five days a week, six or even seven days near the end because by then the publishers are breathing down my neck.

JG What are you most looking forward to in attending Listowel Writers’ Week?

LM Meeting readers and other writers, and generally being part of the buzz. It takes me years to write a book, and I never know if it’s going to work out or if it will ever be read, so to meet people who are interested in it makes the whole business seem worthwhile. The chance to meet other writers and listen to them talk about their work is great too. Those things hold true for most literary festivals, but in my opinion Listowel’s Writer’s Week is the most fun. (I’m not just saying this, it’s true. Ask my publishers.) It’s small, it’s extremely friendly, the atmosphere is terrific and it’s about books, as opposed to celebrity.

JG Do you have a gem of wisdom for our aspiring/emerging writers at Listowel Writers’ Week?

ML Examine your motives. If what attracts you is the so-called (and entirely fictitious) literary lifestyle, or the idea of being ‘a published writer’, you’re in for a tough time. No matter how good you are, the odds against getting a book published nowadays are enormous, and luck plays a major role. The only sensible reason to write is because you love writing. Everything else is out of your control. But if you really love it – if you HAVE to write – then go for it! And when it’s as good as you can possibly make it, send it out, and keep sending it out, and hope you get lucky!

Mary Lawson will be interviewed by award-winning author Louise Doughty on Saturday 31st May, 6.00pm at The Arms Hotel. For more information and/or to book, please click here