Harvard academic and former laywer Dr Ofrit Liviatan discusses her debut novel, Anything But Steady, which has direct relevance to the ongoing local political context
In Dr Liviatan’s debut, centenarian Northern Ireland is exasperated that peace hasn’t yet brought reconciliation, and asks American PhD student Ella Goldin to help set out her destiny. Wrestling with the smoke and mirrors of war and peace, Ella is anchored to Northern Ireland first by will, then by academic duress. All the while, Northern Ireland herself can’t keep mum when it comes to surprising revelations, emerging as a storyteller in her own right
A former lawyer, Dr Liviatan, who is a lecturer on law and politics at Harvard University’s Department of Government, credits that profession for galvanising her fascination with the power of storytelling.
Why was it important to set Anything But Steady in Northern Ireland?
Northern Ireland had been indispensable for my academic research. Getting to it as a post-conflict yet unresolved place, I found here a thirst to move on intertwined with frustration over stagnating circumstances. Setting the novel (well, to be precise, its lion’s share…) in Northern Ireland was perfect to achieve the book’s goal: a conversation-starter on the power of human agency to propel change. Anything But Steady reveals what Social Science knows, namely, the potential for growth even within seemingly constraining political structures. Experiencing the twists and cliff-hangers of a plot set in contemporary Northern Ireland, readers also consume the social theory around reconciliation but without having to read it as dense academic texts.
What is the story of Anything But Steady?
Present-day Northern Ireland meets Ella Goldin, a Jewish-American PhD student focusing on peacebuilding. Inexperienced with local complexities, Ella is nonetheless quite fascinated by Northern Ireland. Similarly, Northern Ireland, who isn’t oblivious to Ella’s limiting outsideness, decides that there’s no harm in letting an ambitious American contemplate her destiny. As Ella tries to make sense of the peace process, she unknowingly brings to the surface issues of concern and prompts Northern Ireland to react. Moreover, parallels are drawn to other divided societies. But it’s best to say no more and leave the surprises for the read itself.
The book’s cover features a dramatic angle of the Carrick-a-Rede Bridge. What’s behind that choice?
The cover and the title both speak to a central theme of the book pertaining to unsteadiness. Walking the spectacular Carrick-a-Rede Bridge, one feels at the very least slightly unsteady, uncertain. Ella herself goes through a great deal personally and professionally, and obviously uncertainty has been a feature of Northern Ireland ever-since her inception.
But unsteady circumstances aren’t just reflecting the characters’ stories, they also outline a principal exploration of the novel. In a state of unsteadiness, imagination is often at its best. One is forced to think on one’s feet, to urgently contemplate alternatives. Extraordinary turns ordinary, sometimes leading to choose the originally-unimaginable. This liberating dimension of unsteadiness is a central quest of my novel — thus responsible for the choice of title and cover.
What did you find most difficult about writing your novel?
In the course of my career, I have composed legal briefs and academic papers, but those pages never instigated the emotions, laughs or tears I experienced writing Anything But Steady. Given my entry point into Northern Ireland, the novel started with an academic as its narrator. After finding myself incessantly daydreaming on asking Northern Ireland how was she feeling about the two competing versions and visions inside her, the single-narrator evolved into two. Ghostwriting Northern Ireland was probably the toughest part of writing the novel, at the same time ushering the highest rewards: I met fascinating people, travelled a breath-taking island and earned life-long friends.
As an academic, does fiction come naturally, especially as you’re used to dealing with fact?
Anything But Steady is best described as faction — presenting facts and evidence through fiction. So, historical events and places in the book are real, but the characters are all a product of imagination.
Writing the novel taught me a different viewing angle on the human condition than the one I utilise as a social scientist. Aristotle distinguished between the historian and the poet as one communicating events that actually happened and the other relaying what might happen. The book was thus a new exercise in truth-telling, emancipating a thrilling flexibility inexistent in my academic writing.
Are you interested in the politics of Northern Ireland? What is it that prompts your interest so much?
“Interested?” I am hooked! Belfast Telegraph’s Daily Headlines is part of my morning read. My research focuses on the accommodation of diversity, so Northern Ireland’s impressive progress, outstanding challenges and continuously-discussed future fascinate me.
Hav e you plans for other novels set in or based on Northern Ireland?
As I explained, the book’s title defines my characters’ journey and encapsulate a pivotal theme of the novel, but I must admit that I have also found Anything But Steady a life’s motto. Thus, no immediate plans to base another novel on Northern Ireland doesn’t mean there won’t be one. With Northern Ireland it’s always Anything But Steady, even for me.
Did you learn anything about NI from your writing?
Clearly. As a student of conflict, post-conflict and social divisions, Northern Ireland hadn’t only been my best teacher in terms of my academic research on peacebuilding, but my inspiration to take the leap of faith towards a type of exposition I never entertained before.
Where could our readers find Anything But Steady?
The book in all formats is available to purchase on Amazon and equivalent online bookstores, and copies are available at No Alibis in Belfast.
As I have said, my aspiration for the novel is to concretise ideas about reconciliation and provide a habitat for reflection on the human factor in post-conflict headway. Thus, readers’ feedback on my book is especially welcome.
Please do convey to your audience my keen invitation to be in touch with their thoughts on Anything But Steady!
Anything But Steady is available from Amazon and online bookstores, priced £7.59