The cast of Marina Lewycka's latest novel, Various Pets Alive or Dead, are an unusual ensemble of bankers, hamsters and hippies.
The hippies are Marcus and Doro. They met on a protest march in the late 1960s and raised three children in a left-wing South Yorkshire commune. It is 2008 and they have finally decided to marry. Son Serge - who they think is completing his PhD in mathematics at Cambridge - is actually making megabucks as a banker in the City of London. Daughter Oolie Anna, who has Downs Syndrome, can't wait to leave home so she can watch porn.
The story skips between London just before the financial crisis, and memories of the family's time in the commune known as Solidarity Hall. Lewycka deftly contrasts Marcus and Doro's hopes and dreams with the world in which their children now make their way.
The tale is told with Lewycka's trademark humour and an eye for the absurd that will be familiar to fans of her popular debut novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.
Here, she talks about the importance of humour in the darkest of times, insider trading in the disabled loo and a newfound fascination with Karangahape Road.
Q: The book concerns various dubious dealings in the London financial sector on the eve of the financial crisis in 2008. How did you research this?
I was intrigued and infuriated by the financial meltdown that we were living through. I wanted to understand it, and I thought - if I feel like this, I'm sure there are lots of other people out there who want to know, too. I started by reading some books that were recommended to me, I got to grips with a few basic economic concepts, and I trawled through journals, newspaper articles and the internet. Finally, when I had enough information under my belt to be confident I wouldn't make an utter fool of myself, I went out and met bankers, financial researchers, and other knowledgeable people who answered my questions with great patience. My own bank manager talked me through some of the security scams.
Q: Was the "disabled loo" really as significant in the City as it seems in the novel?
Let's just say that a couple of chaps from a prominent City institution that shall remain nameless told me with a chuckle that in their place the disabled loo was a hub of many types of illicit activity. Naturally, being a novelist, I imagined the worst.
Q: The book looks at the difference in values between left-wing parents and their capitalist son. Do you think such inter-generational differences are particularly apparent in the current era?
I think this happens to some extent in every age, but maybe the pace of change has speeded up since the millennium. I'm struck by how many people of my generation don't quite understand, or approve of the careers of their children in the worlds of finance, hedge funds, private equity, even the music business, PR, media and all that. Of course they still love their children, but they're perplexed by them; and the children are sometimes just a bit patronizing towards their parents. A couple of years ago I met a charming young man in his thirties who told me that he had grown up in a commune - and that's why he now goes to work in a suit. He's the model for Serge.
Q: The book has a broad cast, yet in the acknowledgements you thank your editor and agent, who "killed off several minor characters and pruned out weedy subplots". Who else was originally part of this story?
Oh, I can't possibly reveal this. Well, OK - in brief - [Marcus and Doro's eldest daughter] Clara had a couple of lovers who were surgically removed, there were other traders in FATCA up to no good, and a surprise visitor to the commune.
Q: Which character did you most enjoy writing?
I really enjoy writing characters when they are going over the top and being impulsive or irrational, so all the characters brought me moments of sheer pleasure. Clara is possibly a bit too sensible, but I love it when she finally allows herself to relax a bit, and she has quite a dry sense of humour. I enjoyed the 'boys stuff' between Serge and Otto - being a woman, trying to imagine how male characters think and feel is great fun.
Q: The book is told with the humour and sense of the absurd in human nature for which your writing is well known. Is this also how you view the world?
I think humour is one of the qualities that distinguishes our species from other animals. Even in the darkest times, our capacity to see the absurd and to laugh at human foibles restores our sense of humanity. In fact, when you think about it, humour is a very serious matter.
Q: Name your favourite books
At present I'm greatly enjoying A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantell and Nicholas Nickel by by Charles Dickens.
Q: What's your next project?
If you'd asked me this a month ago, I'd have said I was trying to choose between two projects. Now I'm trying to choose between three. Whichever it is, there will be journeys, families, history, pets, something serious, and something unexpected. I've just returned from a month in Auckland, and was greatly taken with the vibe around the K' Road area, so perhaps that will be one of the departure points, or destinations.