The Legacy of Eden is your first novel - what was the inspiration behind it?
Nelle Davy's American Legacy
02/02/2012 by Felicity Wood
Starting amongst the cornfields of 1940s Iowa and moving to modern-day New York, The Legacy Of Eden follows the fate of the Hathaway family's farm
I loved Robert Graves‘ I Claudius when I first read it way back in 2006 on a train back to Warwick University, where I was studying at the time, and I could not stop thinking about it - as is the case with all good books. But more than that, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to transpose the notion of a family beset by its own fierce ambitions and brought down by hubris in a modern setting; particularly with the character of Livia. It was so natural the process of reinventing it in a modern setting, I could just see the characters and the family and the land, and I wrote the first sentence: 'to understand what it meant to be a Hathaway you’d first have to see our farm, Aurelia' on a piece of notepaper. Everything came from there.
You really bring the Hathaway's family's farm Aurelia to life- what came to your first, the characters or the setting?
Definitely the characters; characters interest me far more than plot, but this was a different writing experience because the characters were so tied into their setting. Without one the other could not exist and so it was this very strange symbiotic and ultimately parasitic relationship. But if a character doesn’t interest me I cannot write about them. My stories are always about people moreso than concepts.
The novel's four key female protagonists (Meredith, Lavina, Julia and Ava) all have their own sections- was it important for you to celebrate the female voice and make this a novel very much focused on women?
I think the female literary canon is a body of work to be celebrated and inspired by. I think that as female authors really started coming into their voice only in the last two centuries, as such modern female authors tend not to feel as hemmed down as their male counterparts by the weight of literature that has come before, but instead see their predecessors more as comrades in arms. At least that is how I feel. And I certainly think that this is a book about women and their choices and how their relegation to the background in the lives of their family, means that they turn on themselves far more than if they were given productive and proactive roles - Piper, who is the only character given that kind of status, stays completely out of the politics of her family.
Your novel moves from 1940s Iowa to present day New York, both a million miles away from London - what kind of research did you have do in order to create the world of the Hathaways?
I had to read a lot of books on farming practices, which if anyone knows me (I am a resolute city person whose idea of sensible shoes are ballet pumps) is a world away from my interests and home life. I also had to read a lot about Iowa and its culture and its landscape. Iowa is the agricultural heartland of America and as part of the Midwest has a very different way of life from New York, so I really had to get that balance right. But then male authors I feel always seem to have great wide exploratory and experimental novels and I thought why should I write about the minutiae or the domestic drama – why not try something outside of my comfort zone? I thought it would at least push me as a writer and test my imagination, and it did.
Who are your favourite authors and do you see them reflected in your own writing?
Jeffrey Eugenides, John Steinbeck, Jeanette Winterson, the Bronte sisters, Anne Tyler, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Harper Lee, Tennessee Williams – just endless, endless lists… No writer works in a vacuum, we are all moulded and inspired by those who have come before us. They work as guides to help you develop your own voice and the greatest moment when writing is when you come to a sentence and know in your heart no one could have written that but you.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a novel centered around the civil rights movement in Louisiana in 1963 and the friendship between a white child, who is the granddaughter of a segregationist judge and the black son of her family’s maid. It is so different from my first novel, which is set in this small microcosm, as this one is placed against a wide and varied socio-political backdrop. But again it is in America – I think for the sake of my poor nerves next time I am just going to make sure my third book doesn’t move outside of Camden.
The Legacy Of Eden is out on 3 February, published by Mira.