The Manchester Literature Festival Blog
Q&A: Jon McGregor
Jon McGregor is the author of the lyrical, inventive and acclaimed novels If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (winner of the Betty Trask Prize and Somerset Maugham Award), So Many Ways to Begin, and Even the Dogs and the short story collection This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You. He is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham where he also edits epistolary literary journal The Letters Page. His new book, Reservoir 13, was longlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize, and will be the focus of a special event Jon’s presenting at this year’s Festival. We spoke with him about trusting your readers, the satisfying work of building a world, and what he’s working on now.
As in your first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, Reservoir 13 focuses on a community and the ripples cast into it by a central event, related by an omniscient narrator. Can you talk about the relationship between the two works, and the rewards and challenges of this kind of storytelling?
The relationship only occurred to me quite late in the writing of Reservoir 13, but I think it’s true that I was working from a similar starting point – casting a community of people as the focus and keeping the angle wide, rather than narrowing in on any one or two characters. (Although, wait, I did sort of do the narrowing in with If Nobody Speaks..) With Reservoir 13, though, I was working with a much longer time frame, and a bigger cast of characters, and I thought much more carefully about how to structure and discipline the narrative rhythm. I guess the challenge with storytelling like this (and see also John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun, Tom Drury’s Grouse County novels, and the more linked collections of Alice Munro’s stories) is how to sustain the reader’s understanding and attention without constant explanation and signposting. My solution to this is: no explanation. Most readers are smarter than some writers think.
Nature and the procession of the seasons are everywhere in Reservoir 13 – it feels like a book that is organically rooted in a particular place, a particularly English and rural way of life. What drew you to this?
The novel is set in a landscape that I know quite well – the Derbyshire Peak District – but only as a visitor. I took what I’ve seen as a passer-through, and what I could gather from books and online, and I built myself a new world. It was a lot of fun. At first I was worried about accuracy – and to some extent I’ve been careful to describe things as they really are – but I also came to understand that I was *making things up*, and could build a world of my own. I’ve always written urban novels before this, and was interested in how rural life is more closely tied in to changes of season, weather, and outdoor work; and in how small communities are held together and driven apart by seemingly small events.
What can we expect from your event at this year’s Festival?
For no particularly good reason other than that I thought it would be fun, I’ve commissioned some new music from the composer Richard J Birkin to accompany my reading. And still for no particularly good reason, I’ll be using the audience members’ phones to play that music, with different layers of the music coming from different people’s phones to create a kind of surround sound symphonic thing. This is the theory anyway. So: a bit of me talking about the book, a lot of me reading from the book, music. No Q&A, because I don’t like Q&A and I can say that now.
A theme of this year’s Festival programme is dissent, political engagement and writers responding to current affairs in their work. How does writing – and reading – give us a place to confront society’s problems and advocate for change? And how does this play out in your own work?
I’ll be honest, there’s very little about this novel which could be said to constitute dissent, political engagement, or the confronting of society’s problems. I could argue a case that anything which brings a reader to a more engaged and empathetic view of their fellow humans (and non-humans) is political in a way; but that comes dangerously close to the medicinal Reading Is Good For You school of thought which I mostly try and avoid. There’s a big place in art – and certainly in writing – for engagement with politics and dissent and society. And lord knows there’s a bigger place than ever. This isn’t that book, but who knows what I’ll write next.
What writers and/or artists (old or new to you) have inspired you in this regard?
Well, either for their direct political engagement or for their insistence on opening up a space for unheard or marginalised voices (or for both, because hello the overlap between those two things): Roxane Gay, James Kelman, Elif Shafak, Anna Politkovskaya, Arundhati Roy…. I mean, once you start naming names there are a lot of names to name. Right now I’m thinking a lot about Ali Gharavi, a writer and technologist who is in a Turkish prison after running an I.T. training session for a group of Turkish Amnesty International staff. We have friends in common, and their pain is deep and ongoing.
What are you working on now?
I’m just putting the very last finishing touches to a series of fifteen short stories going out on Radio 4 in the autumn, The Reservoir Tapes. As the title suggests, these stories are connected to Reservoir 13, although I guess you’ll have to listen to them to find out in what way….
– Kate Feld
There are limited tickets remaining for Jon McGregor’s event at time of writing. It takes place on Saturday 7th October at 2pm at the Anthony Burgess Foundation (tickets £8/6). Book online here or by calling Quaytickets on 0843 208 0500.