Marina Lewycka

As I understand, when the Nazis invaded Ukraine, they took a lot of able-bodied people to labour camps. My parents were part of that. At the end of the war, they met through the Red Cross. I was the product of that union. -- Marina Lewycka

It had always been my dream to be a writer, and obviously having your dream come true is fantastic. But there is something a bit terrible about it as well, because once your dream has come true, what else is there? It was your dream and it becomes your job, and then it's not a dream any more. -- Marina Lewycka

Marina Lewycka (1946- ) was born in a refugee camp in Kiel shortly after World War II, the daughter of Ukrainian parents. Her family then moved to England. She was educated at Keele University and worked as a lecturer in media studies at Sheffield Hallam University. Thinking of her retirement, she was propelled into the limelight with her debut novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.

Marina Lewycka had always wished to be a writer, but prior to A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian all she had received was rejection slips. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian evolved out of researching her own family history. Whilst at Sheffield Hallam she undertook a Masters of Art in Creative Writing. One of her external examiners was a literary agent, and the rest as they say was history.

Her success in many ways mirrors that of Alexander McCall Smith and her writing is just as quirky.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is a tale of a voluptuous Ukrainian gold digger who comes to England on the make. In writing A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian Marina Lewycka drew on her experience as a child of Ukrainian parents who were imprisoned in a forced labour camp during the Second World War and emigrated to Britain conflicts with her sister, the loss of her beloved mother, an eccentric engineer father who married again to a much younger woman, and his daughters' schemes to oust the interloper. [see BCID 6024918]

The one country in which A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian has not gone down too well is Ukraine, where they do not like the way in which they are portrayed, but it did have a happy consequence, reuniting Marina Lewycka with a long lost part of her family.

It was whilst researching the background for A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian that Marina Lewycka stumbled across a Russian family web site. Her parents believed all their family had been killed during WWII. She posted a query, and to her surprise, got a reply, but assumed it to be a scam, that is until she received old photos of her parents and unknown aunts, uncles and grandparents, plus an invite to the Ukraine. An invite she accepted. Her cousin Yuri picked her up and took her on a tour of her family, which included a visit to the old family home where she met an elderly neighbour who remembered her family from the war.

Two Caravans, a black comedy, a satire, continues the Ukrainian theme. A group of Eastern European migrants working on a strawberry field in Kent. Our motley crew of strawberry pickers, a son of a Ukrainian miner, two Chinese girls, Poles and a black guy from Malawi looking for his sister, are joined by Irina, freshly arrived from the Ukraine, brought over by a Russian gun-toting mafia-type who promptly confiscates her passport and work documents for 'safe-keeping'. There is then the dog. [see BCID 6213188]

Although not to the extent that she did in her debut novel, Marina Lewycka still draws upon her own background, she and her mother worked as pea-pickers in Lincolnshire.

It was blissful. You were out in the fields in the fresh air and I was with my mum, and there was banter and camaraderie among the other pea-pickers. If someone had been looking in from the outside, they'd have said it was grossly exploitative, and no doubt it was, but it was still lovely, and I tried to get that across in Caravans.

Marina Lewycka also acknowledges that she drew upon Not on the Label by Felicity Lawrence (Penguin, 2004) and Gone West: Ukrainians at Work in the UK by Nick Clark (TUC, 2004). Their thorough research on the exploitation of migrant workers was her starting point. She was also inspired by The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Two Caravans is dedicated to the Chinese cockle-pickers who lost their lives in Morecambe Bay.

Two Caravans is published in the US as Strawberry Fields.

Her third novel, title unknown and not yet published, is about an old lady who lives in a house with seven cats, conflict in the Middle East and the end of the world, among other things.

Her debut novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, was short-listed for the 2005 Orange Prize and in the same year won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic writing at the Hay Literary Festival, the first female winner of the prize, and also the Saga Award for Wit. [see Debut novelist takes comic prize and Bubbly and share of pig for winner of Wodehouse prize]

Hay Festival director Peter Florence: "It's a comic masterpiece, a stunning novel of considerable humanity, created with captivating humour and compassion, it's a real pleasure to read."

Her second novel, Two Caravans, and was shortlisted for the 2008 Orwell Prize for political writing.

A second novel is often a grave disappointment when the first is highly acclaimed. How many people, for example, can recall the second novel of Monica Ali, author of Brick Lane?

Of the two, her second novel Two Caravans is the superior novel.

In addition to fiction, Marina Lewycka has written several books for Age Concern giving practical advice for carers of elderly people.

Marina Lewycka lives in Sheffield.

Copies of books by Marina Lewycka have been registered as BookCrossing books.

BookCrossing books are released into the wild and their progress tracked through the Internet via a unique Book Crossing ID (BCID).

(c) Keith Parkins 2008 -- July 2008 rev 1