Liz Rigbey has lived in America and Italy, but is now based in the UK with her husband and two children. Her novels include the critically acclaimed Summertime and Total Eclipse, which was shortlisted for WH Smith’s Thumping Good Read Award. Her latest novel is The Hunting Season.
Liz Rigbey speaks exclusively to us about her latest novel Summertime and its themes of death, memory, motherhood and the inescapable nature of the past.
A cot death in a crime novel? What’s it doing there?
Every time a baby dies for no apparent reason, its mother is under suspicion. And many mothers of cot death (otherwise known as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) babies actually do find a way to blame themselves for the tragedy. In fact, as mothers, we blame ourselves for most things. Why? In Summertime I wanted to tell the brutal truth without shrinking away from it - that although mothers may love their children to distraction, this love is complicated and it has its dark side. There are times when a mother can feel confounded by the love she feels, confounded because it can seem, on occasions, close to hatred. We’d all like to believe that motherhood is the way it’s presented in TV commercials etc but it just isn’t like that. Many a new mother has silently wished, in her worst moments, that her child never had been born. What if it then dies? Of course she’s going to feel as though she’s actually killed the baby and in some cases, she actually has.
So is this a book for mothers?
It took me six years to write Summertime. I rewrote it eight times. I couldn’t understand why it took me so long to get it right but now, looking back, it’s obvious: I had two babies in those six years as well as more than an average number of bereavements. All of these experiences were broken down into tiny pieces and filtered into Summertime in other guises, giving it, I believe, much greater depth. That’s what makes me so sure that it’s a book for everyone. Incidentally, although Lucy, the main protagonist is female, I’d like to think there are some very strong and interesting male characters in this book.
I can’t help noticing how high the body count is in Summertime - and that’s before the book actually opens.
When I was writing it I used to joke that it was like King Lear backwards, with all the bodies strewn around on the stage the moment the curtain goes up. It is a book about the past - the past of one particular family. Something happens in the present - the strange death of Lucy’s father - which more or less forces her into opening a door to the past which she’s kept slammed shut for years. She’s always managed to ignore all those deaths that happened years ago but now, if she wants to understand her father’s death, she has to re-examine them. From the crime writer’s point of view, it was a difficult book to construct because the body of evidence is all in the past, way back in Lucy’s childhood, in fact.
There seem to be quite a number of different versions of that past.
But isn’t that true of all of us? In order to cope with all those childhood experiences - even if your childhood was a happy one - don’t we all have to impose narratives? Sometimes we frame and reframe our pasts in the light of adult experiences too, so we end up with more than one narrative or one narrative which is constantly refined. The truth itself is probably something so complex, or even so unpalatable, that we can never really revisit it. What’s interesting for a crime writer in all this is the idea that someone’s childhood contains unexplained deaths. I wanted Lucy gradually, like someone on an archaeological dig, to uncover her own past, peeling back layer after layer of narrative and untruth, until she’s forced to face what she finds there. Towards the end of the book this idea becomes three-dimensional when she actually physically does dig up some evidence.
All those different people with different versions of what happened, was it a nightmare to construct?
Yes. For me, not writing is much more difficult than writing. What you really have to do is just sit down and think with a notebook in front of you. Nothing could be harder than doing this because you feel as though you’re doing nothing but actually you’re constructing the complicated scaffolding which makes a crime novel. That doesn’t come easily or naturally to me but I’m aware that for many readers unravelling that plot is the most important part of the book. For me, it’s the essential structure which will carry all those other things I hope the novel will deliver - really interesting characters and an emotional, involving experience for the reader. Because those other things are important for me, Summertime isn’t a fast-paced, shock-a-minute sort of a novel. But I hope it packs its punches all the same.
Why so many Russian characters?
I was lucky enough to live in Russia about ten years ago when all the old barriers were still lifting and few foreigners had experienced first-hand the everyday life of a Muscovite. It was a very exciting time and a life-changing experience for me and I wanted to pass something of that Russian-ness which I’ve come to love onto my readers. In Summertime, though, the Russians are family (which is how I feel about the group of Russian writers I worked with) and they are living in the USA. They reinforce one of the book’s themes - we create and recreate ourselves and our past - because they live in exile but are in no way American. Instead they have just made a little Moscow in their apartment block from which they attempt to rewrite their own histories. Of course, their past is inescapable, even thousands of miles away from where it all happened.
Any particular reason why there’s so much water, especially seawater, in this book?
Well I could go on and on about the layers of blue and depth, fathoms etc but, looking back, I think it may because I cried a lot of salty tears in those years when I was writing it.
The Space Race
My third novel, The Hunting Season, comes out in the UK and a lot of other places in May and there’s something missing from it. I only recently realized that there’s nothing Russian in this book. Not one small samovar in a corner somewhere, not one Russian character. I’ve written a book which features a lot of snow and, incredibly, none of it’s piled up on the streets of Moscow. The Hunting Season is wholly American and so are its characters and when I noticed this I felt as though the space race had been rescheduled somewhere deep in my consciousness and the Americans had won it all over again.
I spent much of my childhood in the western USA and a proportion of my adulthood. My children carry both nationalities. Probably there’s a lot of America in my bloodstream. If you believe, as I do, that your creative mould is cast in those childhood years then it’s obvious why I set my books in the western USA. Except that, in the early 1990s, when I was allegedly adult, I visited Russia and stayed there for the best part of five years and since then there have been little Russian submarines jostling for space in my arteries.
I worked with a group of Russian writers and actors in Moscow at a time for Russia of deprivation, change and hope. At first I commuted from the UK. My suitcase was full of French cheeses, cookies, pineapples, oranges.
“I saw one of those once when I was a kid,” said a writer, pointing at the pineapple with his flick-knife. On this occasion he used the knife to cut the pineapple but he sometimes got it out to sharpen it during our animated script conferences and on one occasion leapt on the table and waved it in the face of another writer who didn’t agree with him. Script conferences in Russia were so physical. The writers who didn’t have knives sometimes showed their fists and invited each other to step outside to settle differences over character development. I played the Russian woman and stood tearfully between them, begging no, beseeching, them to stop. Everyone shouted at once. People screamed, cried, banged on the table, lost their tempers, laughed until they cried and expressed openly their great love for one another and sometimes even for me. Our meetings in those days were in one of the few remaining historic areas of Moscow, the area made famous by Bulgakov in The Master and Margarita. Outside it was minus 30 and inside it was plus 40 because heating, like everything else, was determined centrally and the only control we exerted over our environment was to open and close a tiny window. When it was open, people walking by would be arrested by our noisy discussions and stop to listen. Then other people would see them and assume they were a queue. The rule in Moscow at that time was: always carry a plastic bag in your pocket and if you see a queue join it at once without even stopping to find out what you’re queuing for because you might get to the front before something rare and wonderful like a banana or toilet paper is all gone. So the crowds outside our window became large and soon they began to join in our meetings too.
“Of course the boy should marry Sasha!” they roared. “For God’s sake make him marry her.”
I’d hate to make the Moscow streets sound friendly. Russians have a public face (grim) and a private face (delightful) but all you get on the streets are public Russians who in those days were at best rude and at worst would kill you for a few roubles. It was important, if alone on those streets, not to give an indication that you were a foreigner (still regarded with suspicion and certainly rich by Russian standards) and this meant not looking cheerful or content with life, just hostile and miserable. I became a master at this, until I was even able to exchange complicit looks of loathing and disgust with “other” Russians one day when a party of jolly Italians got on the metro with their abhorrent smiles and their leather jackets. I lived with a Russian babushka whose mission in life was to feed me more than it was possible to eat and who told me about the old days: she was a member of the lost generation who had suffered under Stalin, got frozen in the cold war years and was finally reaping the miseries of the transition.
I believe that during this period I was perhaps uniquely exposed to both daily Russian life and the Russian soul. Uniquely, because it was hard for Russians, after years of being warned that we were corrupted and corrupting, to open their hearts and minds to a foreigner. For me, the experience was remarkable. I soon realized I was in Looking Glass Land. Nothing I had previously believed, politically, intellectually or morally, seemed to hold true in this extraordinary place. All my assumptions were challenged. I just had to take my feet off the bottom and let the culture immerse me. The last time that had happened to me, I was just a kid. Isn’t that the way childhood is? Kids just drift through an adult world, uncomprehending, trusting, unable to distinguish between the extraordinary and the everyday. As I sat in warm Moscow kitchens, helpful friends indicating that the KGB bug was and still might be in the heating grill, the poetry of the Russian language washed over me and I felt again like a small child listening to my mother and her huge number of siblings chattering over my head.
I was writing much of Total Eclipse, my first book, while I lived in Russia. Moving inside my mind to an observatory in northern California was no mean feat. There was just one Russian astronomer in that book, but he was oh so Russian. Then, after I had left Russia, I wrote Summertime, a book steeped in the motherland. The fact that the family is exiled and living in San Francisco and the Russia they knew no longer exists just intensifies their experience. When I wrote it I went back again in my mind to those cold, hostile Moscow streets and the intensity of the love which awaits you when you find the right door and open it.
And now there’s The Hunting Season, peopled by mostly affable and privileged Americans. I am proud of this book. A father and son each suspect one another of a long-ago murder and they face deprivation in the wilderness while they discover the truth. The Hunting Season’s crimes and punishments can be traced back through a clear Western psychological line. You can’t do that when you write about Russians. They come from a world where Western psychology, creeds and experiences are meaningless. They have no place in The Hunting Season and it’s no less a book for that. But I’ve promised myself that next time there’ll be Russians: passionate, noisy, violent and challenging.
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