Livi Michael: Miracles of Manchester

Livi Michael, lauded as a novelist for adults and now children, gives a voice to the lost, lonely and outcast. She tells Katy Guest about storytelling as salvation
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The Independent Online

"There's a funny kind of map of publishing," says Livi Michael, fresh off the 6.30am train from Manchester to Puffin's offices in central London. "Someone I know wanted to set a detective novel in Chester and people said, 'You can't base it in Chester!' If you're writing a detective novel you've got the big city centres, basically. If it's a family saga it has to be set in Yorkshire. The north has all those regional romances. And I've been in danger of being placed into a category of adult writing that had 'regional, northern, grim' written all over it. When I started, they said, 'Well, aren't you going to move to London?' I did resent that a bit."

It's easy to see why lazy reviewers might reach for the "Grim Up North" tag. Michael's adult novels, like Inheritance and All the Dark Air, are mostly set among the council estates of grottiest urban Manchester where she grew up and still, stubbornly, lives. The Whispering Road (Puffin, £9.99), her latest book for children, follows a brother and sister, Joe and Annie, as they escape the 1830s workhouse only to find worse threats are waiting for them in the unforgiving world outside. Many of her books contain glossaries of useful Lancashire terms such as "scally", "mithered" and "hang yed like pown heaund" ("hang your head like a whipped dog"). And yet, at the end of each book, what the reader is left with is hope.

"I felt what I wanted was real hope, which I felt was only achieved after looking at the darker areas," she explains. "I think it goes back to the sense that the great narratives are about matters of life and death. I'm eating this chicken sandwich now but I have not killed that chicken. Possibly I wouldn't have killed that chicken; I wouldn't know what to do with it. But, driven by enough hunger, you would kill the chicken, and that is where the story is rooted."

To Michael, the "story" is all that matters. She first started writing children's books with the "Frank the Hamster" series, when her dyslexic son was reluctant to read the titles on the bookshelves. Now, she admits, she would find it hard to go back. "Frank was our hamster, and it was great fun to write," she grins. "I think if I went back to adult fiction now it would probably change my way of writing. I'd want to retain that element of adventure. I believe more and more in how involved you can make the reader. I love Sarah Waters: she takes you right out of your life, and, on another level, she's reintroducing ideas of history and narrative and who is allowed to speak."

On many levels, Michael's characters have much in common with those in Sarah Waters's books. These are the poor and the disenfranchised; they're children, or addicts, or freaks. "Joe is a character who is as dispossessed as you can get, really," she admits. "Born in a workhouse, he doesn't know his own age, has his name altered at various times, he can't remember his mother's face and has no idea about his father. These are all the usual ways we identify ourselves. In the end, all he has is an ability to invent himself through narrative."

It's a predicament that Michael identifies with. She grew up on the council estates she writes about, within sight of Saddleworth Moor, the site of the Moors Murders and a possible explanation for the ominous and nameless threat that looms over the children in The Whispering Road. Like many of her friends, she escaped the narrative that had been pre-written for her only when she passed the 11-plus.

"I felt a bit alienated from education," she says now. "Do you remember at primary school, you wrote a story every week? But then there just seemed to be less and less room for yourself in there." Nevertheless, she completed her first novel at the same time as finishing her A-levels, and was devastated when she realised it was "terrible". However, after leaving school in favour of a series of "extremely naff jobs", with a son to bring up and unemployment devouring the north of England, she returned to university to study for a degree and a PhD in working-class writing.

"I realised I'd taken a series of false steps earlier," she says, "which I don't think is unusual. I think it's ridiculous to expect people to know what they want to do at 18. But, at the time, I could still get a grant. There's absolutely no way I would have done it without one. I wouldn't have felt I ever would have been able to pay it back."

Still, Michael was determined. Her first novel took six years to write and was rejected by countless agents before being snatched from the slush pile by the first publisher who saw it. "I was lucky," she says now, adding: "But I think the difference between a writer and someone who wants to write is that the writer sits down and painfully, slowly, just does it."

Like many of her characters, Michael was also, essentially, motherless. "She died during the writing of Inheritance, actually," she explains. "But she had suffered all her life from various kinds of mental illness. I suppose, in a way, you're in that role where you either become the mother or just reject the mother. And... maybe there was that."

Now, with several acclaimed novels to her name, she is carving out a niche as a writer who speaks for the voiceless. "I'm interested in what the person does who has not been granted all the usual forms of identity or social place that other people have," she says. "It's very easy just to fall through the social net, I think. A lot of people, historically, have been lost."

When Michael was researching perhaps her grittiest book, All the Dark Air, she returned to the estates she grew up on to teach workshops with some of the residents. "People are so desperate to tell their stories and to have them heard," she recalls. "I remember this guy who told me the story that became Mick's story in the book. He sat there for hours; he just wanted to talk. I asked him what was the worst aspect of selling The Big Issue, and he said, 'It's the way that people don't look at you.' It makes you wonder: 'Do we exist if nobody sees or hears us?'"

These are grave stories, but Michael is unrepentant about telling them - and to children. "I think they can take more of that, anyway," she argues. "We come to it with our experience, so we're much more sensitive to it. People rewrite 'Little Red Riding Hood' - you know, where they don't get eaten at the end. But at one time there wouldn't have been a children's literature. There would have been a folk literature, and that all had its roots in life and death. A fairy tale or folk tale always has this danger in it."

Michael insists she isn't interested in writing about herself. But in The Whispering Road she has created a determined and ingenious storyteller who, whatever is thrown at him, never gives up. "Joe's a character who, whatever his deprivations, has a colourful imagination," she says, fondly. "After everything that happens to him, he becomes what he is at the end, which is a person who tells stories. In a way, that's what saves him."

Biography: Livi Michael

Livi Michael was born in Manchester in 1960. She grew up on a council estate in Ashton-Under-Lyne, which features heavily in her first novel, but felt her life changed direction when she passed the 11-plus exam and was "transplanted" into a different culture. After leaving school with good A-levels and a "terrible" novel under her belt, she worked in a laundry and as a shop assistant before realising that she had reached an impasse and returning to full-time education at 26. She wrote her first published novel, Under a Thin Moon (Secker & Warburg, 1992), while studying for a degree and a doctorate in working-class writing. It later won the Arthur Welton prize. Her next novel, Their Angel Reach (1994), won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial prize and a Society of Authors award. All the Dark Air (1997) also won a Society of Authors Award. Her first book for children, Frank and the Black Hamster of Narkiz (2002), written for her dyslexic son, was shortlisted for the Branford-Boase award. She now lives near Manchester with her two sons. The Whispering Road is published by Puffin this week.