Kirkus Reviews QR Code
THE HIDDEN MACHINERY by Margot Livesey Kirkus Star


Essays on Writing

by Margot Livesey

Pub Date: July 4th, 2017
ISBN: 978-1-941040-68-3
Publisher: Tin House

From the noted creative writing teacher and novelist, a smart, unpretentious guide to “writing the life, shaping the novel.”

The eponymous hidden machinery is twofold: the nuts and bolts of craft, which give a novel form and function, and “the secret psychic life of the author,” which shapes its emotional undercurrents. Livesey (Fiction/Iowa Writers’ Workshop; Mercury, 2016, etc.) concentrates initially on technique, beginning with the lessons she learned from Irish novelist Brian Moore when she was an aspiring writer waitressing in Toronto: “the actual words…make all the difference” and “every sentence matter[s].” Employing a winningly confidential first-person voice, Livesey uses her own struggles and examples ranging from Jane Austen to Jane Smiley to elucidate such basics as creating character and writing dialogue as well as more intangible elements like developing a clear aesthetic. A fascinating chapter on “How to Tell a True Story” categorizes literature on a continuum ranging from “fiction,” in which every element is carefully designed to create a coherent overall impact, and “antifiction,” which emulates the messy confusion of real life and seeks to make readers feel “that the events described really had occurred.” It’s characteristic of Livesey’s inclusive spirit that she does not privilege one over the other but explores each as a strategy that suits different kinds of materials and goals. “We are always seeking authority for our work,” she writes. “The question is what the source will be.” Admirers of the author’s fiction will enjoy glimpses of the autobiographical elements underpinning it: a mother who died young (Eva Moves the Furniture), a detested stepmother (the story “Learning by Heart”), a miserable four years in boarding school (The Flight of Gemma Hardy), and a difficult relationship with her father, as yet not resolved into art but the subject of the moving pages that close the book’s final chapter on “navigating the shoals of research.”

Would-be writers will find this both useful and inspiring, while general readers can simply enjoy Livesey’s keen insights and engaging prose.