Margot Livesey on the Importance of Rhythm

First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.

In this episode, Mitzi talks to Margot Livesey about her new novel, The Road from Belhaven.

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From the episode:

Mitzi Rapkin: You’ve written so many novels—when you finished this one, did you learn anything new about writing?

Margot Livesey: I think I really learned the importance of writing better sentences and the importance of a kind of rhythm to one’s prose. Virginia Woolf talks about when she’s writing To the Lighthouse, she has this diary entry describing how she’s walking around Bloomsbury square. And she says, the most important thing in writing is rhythm, and once you find the rhythm, then you can write anything. I mean, I think that’s a little bit optimistic. But there is something about the rhythm of the prose and how that can carry the reader along that is that is so crucial. And I think, also that sense of how important it is to have a kind of dark river running beneath the surface events, this sense that there is something that really matters, and that’s really at stake is very important to the reader.

Mitzi Rapkin: Is that difficult to include on the sub textual level? Do you find that a challenging part of craft?

Margot Livesey: I find it a very challenging part of craft because I think the nature of our work is that we work very close up, we’re peering at our sentences and our semicolons and to understand the rhythm of what you’ve written, you have to be able to step back and read it page after page in the way are you hope a reader will.  And that stepping back, that looking at the work with fresh eyes is quite a complicated thing to do. And I think like most writers, I rely on help from my friends to do that.


Margot Livesey has published ten novels: Homework, Criminals, The Missing World, Eva Moves the Furniture, Banishing Verona, The House on Fortune Street, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, Mercury, and The Boy in the Field, and The Road from Belhaven. The Hidden Machinery, a collection of essays on writing, was published by Tin House Books in 2017. Livesey is currently teaching at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She lives with her husband, a painter, in Cambridge, MA, and goes back to London and Scotland whenever she can.

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