The Manchester Literature Festival Blog
Q&A: Megan Bradbury
Megan Bradbury‘s novel Everyone Is Watching is something of a hybrid: it employs fiction to tell the stories of famous real people, and the story of New York. The writer’s attention latches on to key figures in the city’s creative history – writer Edmund White, poet Walt Whitman, city planner Robert Moses and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe – taking up their stories for a time and weaving them into the storylines of various attendant artists, photographers, fellow travelers and restless spirits, whose individual fragments unite to form a cohesive whole. It’s an arresting and beautifully written debut notable for its unusual form and the boldness of its endeavour; In her New Statesman review, Olivia Laing said: ‘dirty, dangerous and delicious, this is a novel that understands the cost of contact and bets on it anyway.‘
In advance of her event at this year’s Festival we spoke with Megan about writing the book, her relationship with the city and the authors and artists she loves.
As a debut writer, did you meet with any resistance to taking a non-traditional approach with your writing?
I didn’t meet any resistance while I was writing the book, but I suppose that’s the luxury of being a debut novelist – apart from friends and family, no one was paying attention to what I was doing and so there were no expectations to live up to, other than my own. It’s helpful to be anonymous; you’re free to experiment and try new approaches, and you have nothing to lose.
If I met any resistance at all, it was from myself. I had an idea about what a novel should look like, a traditional novel with a cast of characters, a plot and a set of turning points, and this was the novel I tried to write. But no matter how hard I tried this wasn’t the kind of writing or the kind of book that came out. Once I accepted that, the process was easier.
I experimented with different approaches. I wrote mini essays about the subjects I was interested in. I wrote off the leash in a stream of consciousness style and then edited those scenes down. After a while I found I had accumulated a mass of material that I could do something with, and that’s when the real work began. I realized that writing, for me at least, is all about editing. I wrote masses of material then edited it down, rearranged it, wrote some more, and edited again. I did this over and over. I chiseled and chipped. Eventually, a more interesting narrative appeared, one made of fragments. This made sense to me, given that the book was about a city and photography – I wanted the writing to reflect the subject. But I also think that this is my natural writing style.
I didn’t think too much about anyone else’s opinion while I was working on the book. I wanted to find a process that worked for me. I had spent so many years writing about subjects that didn’t interest me much, and in a way that I didn’t enjoy, so, once I discovered New York City as a subject, and once I had found a writing process that worked for me, I was prepared to throw everything at it, even if that meant that the book, when it was finished, was unusual. I was determined to find an effective way to write, and if this meant writing in a new way and in a new form, then so be it.
I’ve had a lot of encouragement from other writers, professors and mentors throughout the process, all of whom were excited by what I was doing. However, once I had finished the book, I was nervous about how it would be received by agents and publishers, and then, later, by readers. But I’ve been overwhelmed (and relieved) that the response has been so positive.
When and how did you fall in love with New York?
I first visited New York in 2008 when my husband and I stayed there for a few months. I hadn’t planned to write about the city then, and I didn’t write about it during our visit. We’d gone there because it was a place we’d always been interested in. We didn’t do anything out of the ordinary there. We walked around the different neighbourhoods, we wrote, we read in parks, we went to the movies, we bought groceries, we rode the Staten Island Ferry. But, over time, the city began to open up my imagination. It made me think and write in a new way. I saw choice. I saw layers. I saw diversity. As I walked down a street, I saw multiple histories at once, and all the references I had learnt through books, films and music were there too. It made me realize that you could write about reality and fiction at the same time. New York is a mythical city, made up of stories. This is what draws people there. I had never experienced such stimulation before. It felt like the city was a library that contained all of life, art and history, and all I had to do to choose a subject was to walk around its streets for a while. This is a great discovery for a writer, particularly one who doesn’t know what subjects she is interested in. After we had returned to the UK, I found that I couldn’t get New York out of my head – all the sensory detail of the place, but also the art and history contained there was all I could think about. That’s when I decided to write about it. Writing was a way to channel my longing for the place. I realized that longing is a great fuel for writing.
How does your writing day generally work?
A perfect writing day for me looks like this: get up early and go for a run, follow with a leisurely breakfast with reading material, then get to work. I don’t always write – it depends what I need to do – sometimes I will plan or read, or make notes, or edit. Whatever it is I will do that for a few hours, have lunch, then work for a few more hours. If there’s time I like to go for a short walk in the early evening, just to clear my head, and I pick up groceries then too. Then I come home, cook, eat, then read or watch a movie with my husband. It’s all very ordinary and civilized.
What books have influenced you as a writer – and what have you enjoyed reading recently?
Oh, but there are so many! I’ve been influenced most strongly by books that challenge traditional narrative forms, and the ones that stand out for me are: The Waves by Virginia Woolf, Underworld by Don DeLillo, Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth, Light in August by William Faulkner, Collected Stories by Lydia Davis, Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, U.S.A. by John Dos Passos, The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, 2666 by Roberto Bolano, L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy, How to Be Both by Ali Smith, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride.
Most recently I have read masterpiece after masterpiece. Fiction-wise, this has included The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (I managed to get my hands on a proof – haha!), Martin John by Anakana Schofield and They Are Trying to Break Your Heart by David Savill – all of which employ narrative in a new and exciting way. And, in non-fiction, I have been equally dazzled by Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, which is about loneliness and art in New York, and Bird Cloud by Annie Proulx, which describes the author’s experience of building a house in the wilds of Wyoming.
But there are many, many others.
What are you working on now? And are there any more distant projects starting to take shape?
I am working on a novel about the American wilderness, feminism, music, and the American Wild West. It’s still early days, but the pace is picking up.
Megan Bradbury will read from and discuss Everyone Is Watching alongside The Muse and The Miniaturist author Jessie Burton on Thursday 13th October at 6:30pm at the Portico Library. Tickets £7/5, book here.