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Marina Lewycka: Author of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian at the Buxton Festiva, Derbyshire

PUBLISHED: 13:32 29 April 2010 | UPDATED: 16:05 20 February 2013

Marina Lewycka

Marina Lewycka

Mike smith meets the best-selling author who will be introducing her new novel at this year's Buxton Festival.

Who would have thought that a book with the words 'tractors' and 'Ukrainian' in the title would prove to be a huge best-seller? Shortly after its publication in 2005, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian became a word-of-mouth hit, which has now sold over one million copies and has been translated into 32 languages. It was written by Marina Lewycka, a 58-year-old university lecturer who had never had a novel published before.

The book tells the story of a recently-widowed 84-year-old Ukrainian migr who is writing a short history of tractors and, more to the point, has fallen for a 36-year-old Russian divorcee. His daughters Vera and Nadezhda feel compelled to put aside a lifetime of feuding in order to save their father from this voluptuous gold-digger, who 'explodes into their lives like a fluffy pink grenade'.

Marina's novel fared remarkably well in some of the country's most prestigious literary competitions, with a long-list nomination for the Man Booker Prize and a place on the shortlist for the Orange Prize, but it received its highest accolades in competitions reserved for humorous novels, winning both the Bollinger Everyman Prize for Comic Fiction and the Saga Award for Wit.

Curious to know how a teacher of media studies at Hallam University had suddenly metamorphosed into a celebrated comic writer, I met the author at her Sheffield home and asked her to describe life before her emergence on the literary scene. She took me back to the end of the Second World War, when her Ukrainian parents, who had spent the war years in forced labour camps, were finally reunited in a British-run refugee camp in Kiel, where Marina was later born. I also learned that her father, who died last year at the age of 94, was a tractor engineer by profession.

Given her background, Marina must have had lots of material to draw on for her first novel, but how had she developed the skills to translate her family history into fiction and why it had taken her so long to do so? After giving my question careful consideration, she said: 'I can remember writing my first poem at the age of four. I think I always wanted to be a writer, but I ended up teaching, simply because I needed to earn a living.'

Before training to be a teacher, Marina read English and Philosophy at Keele University, which at that time gave all its students the option of taking a foundation year, when they could attend lectures on any subject of their choosing. Thanks to the knowledge she gained during that year, Marina now has the confidence to include some surprisingly specialist technical information in all her novels.

Her first teaching job was in a London school, where she was immediately allocated to pupils in the bottom stream. After enduring a year of daily struggles to control her class, she escaped into further and higher education, where she remained for the rest of her career, largely as a teacher of media studies and creative writing. Apart from one poem published by the Arts Council, her own published writing was confined to a 'reader' called Zorina Begum Thinks She is Pregnant, which resulted from her experience of teaching English to Asian women, and a series of books written for Age Concern to help carers of elderly and disabled people.

If truth be known, Marina wrote lots of fiction during all those years, but none of it was accepted for publication. In fact, one attempt at a novel received no fewer than 36 rejection slips. Asked why she continued to write despite the rebuffs, she jokingly attributed her persistence to 'a slight element of insanity', before giving me a serious answer. 'Fiction is the way that I explain the world to myself,' she said.

The change in her fortunes came when she decided to retire from her full-time teaching post at Hallam University, which offers its potential retirees various classes to help them to prepare for the more leisurely days ahead. Marina opted for a creative writing course, during which she completed A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. She had actually intended to write a biography of her mother based on a series of taped recollections, but turned to fiction when she realised that she had insufficient material for a straight biography.

Marina also acted on the sound advice of her tutor, Jane Rodgers, who suggested that she should learn to 'lighten up' as a writer and drop her pedagogical voice, which had been ingrained after all those years of teaching. Suitably liberated, she produced a comic novel that caused Bill Hamilton, the external examiner for the course, to offer his services as her agent. The rest, as they say, is history.

All writers of successful first novels are faced with the difficult task of proving that they are not one-hit wonders. For many, the production of the second novel is a daunting prospect, but Marina seems to have attacked the task with relish. As she explained, 'When you start your literary career at the age of 58, you need to make up for lost time.'

Known as Two Caravans in this country and Strawberry Fields in America, her second book was prompted by Nick Clark's study of Ukrainian workers in the UK. Written rather like the script for a fast-moving road movie, it follows the adventures of several East Europeans, two Chinese girls and one African as they move from one place of low-paid work to another. Although her follow-up book is similar to the first novel in having a cast of migrs, it is far from being a simple replica of a winning formula. In many respects, it marks a brave departure from her first book.

As well as introducing many more characters, including a dog that speaks to the reader, Marina experiments with frequent flips between the third and first person. Whereas important issues were slipped into her first novel almost without the reader noticing, they are dealt with much more overtly in the second book, which covers the exploitation of immigrant workers, the spread of AIDS in Africa, the care of the elderly, the trade in sex trafficking, the eco-protest on Stanton Moor and, most graphically of all, the horrors of chicken farming. But make no mistake: this is also a very funny book. And it even includes a tender love story.

Explaining why she has chosen to return to a more restricted cast of characters and a consistent first-person narrative for her third book, which is published this month, Marina said, 'I struggled to keep up with all those characters in Two Caravans.' Although there are a number of migrs in the new novel, East Europeans have been replaced on this occasion by an elderly Jewish lady, a Palestinian handyman and his two incompetent assistants, known throughout the book as the 'uselesses'. Although the book has a slight feel of Chic Lit, it has the serious purpose of asking why humans find it so difficult to live together.

As preparation for the book, Marina visited Palestine, where she was taken around the occupied territories by Raja Shehadeh, a Christian Arab lawyer. Recalling that she had returned his hospitality, Marina said, 'When Raja came to Britain, I took him for a walk in the Peak District, where I showed him the route of the Mass Trespassers who liberated the moorlands from the occupation of the landowners.'

Striking a clear parallel with the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust and their subsequent behaviour towards the Palestinians, the new book traces the aftermath of a marriage breakdown and explores why people who have been harmed have such a strong desire to inflict harm in return. Its title was concocted by Marina when she heard that the Nazis had manufactured glue from human bones. Called We Are All Made of Glue, the novel is almost certain to prove once again that an oddly-named book can sell in huge numbers if its author has the ability to tackle political and social issues through the clever use of roller-coaster plotting, vivid characterization and wonderful comedy.

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