An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Jon McGregor
The Reservoir Tapes (Catapult, 7 August 2018)
Jon McGregor’s first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (2002) was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize when he was just 26 years old, making him the youngest contenders to date. His second novel, So Many Ways to Begin (2006) was longlisted for the Man Booker in 2006, and in 2012, his third novel, Even the Dogs (2010), was awarded the International Dublin Literary Award. Suffice to say he’s no stranger to success.
His fourth novel, Reservoir 13, took seven years to publish and was the winner of the Costa Award, as well as being longlisted for the Man Booker in 2017 last year. George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo, describes it as, ‘A rare and dazzling feat of art’.
The story is set in a village in the Peak District and begins with the disappearance of a 13-year-old-girl on the moors in the middle of winter. However, it deliberately fails to resolve whatever accident or crime may have happened to her. Instead, Jon McGregor deflects to how such an event seeps into the collective memory of a small, close-knit community with prose moving in deliberate non-sequiturs, shifting from character to human to animal to ground to sky and back again.
Somewhat of a compendium to this, is the recently published, The Reservoir Tapes, a collection of short stories that prelude Reservoir 13. The whole community had been called upon to join the search and now an interviewer arrives, intent on capturing everyone’s fractured stories about life in the weeks before the missing girl, Becky Shaw had vanished.
“…he leaves behind all other writers of his generation”–Sarah Hall, author of The Wolf Border
AUTHORLINK: Mr McGregor, thank you for joining us here on Authorlink, to discuss your latest novel, The Reservoir Tapes which is kind of compendium to the lyrical and beguiling Reservoir 13, your fourth book and the winner of the Costa Novel Award that was also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize both in 2017. Congratulations!
We understand you were invited by BBC 4 to present some stand-alone short stories around the time you were editing Reservoir 13, and so pitched the background stories of the Reservoir 13 characters which you had at hand that ultimately became The Reservoir Tapes.
As in Reservoir 13, The Reservoir Tapes opens with a 13-year-old girl called Becky Shaw who has gone missing, but this time goes back to the weeks and months beforehand leading up to her disappearance. *SPOILER ALERT* You flesh out the characters of the surrounding village in deeper textures and tones, but again the reader doesn’t get any closer to solving the mystery.
Did you create any new material in the making of The Reservoir Tapes or was it a matter of mining the notes you already had about the villagers? What were the hardest things about writing Reservoir 13 and The Reservoir Tapes, and what was the easiest? What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating these two books?
With both books, the easiest thing was getting started and the hardest thing was admitting it was finished.
McGREGOR: The Reservoir Tapes is all new work; I was drawing on some unresolved questions and thoughts I had about some of the characters from Reservoir 13, but I was more or less starting from scratch with the stories. I’m not all that productive a writer, so when I finish a novel there’s not much left lying around to use again. It was a lot of fun actually; after close to a decade of thinking about Reservoir 13, the landscape and the community of characters were very present in my mind and it didn’t take much to get back into that world. It was a chance to discover new things about characters I knew, or to invent new characters altogether. It was also a chance to write in a different style; Reservoir 13 has a very distinct and dense style, written as a kind of collage, whereas because The Reservoir Tapes were initially written for radio they had to be much cleaner and sparser in their style, more direct. I also knew I had to hold the attention of an uncommitted radio listener, and so had to make use of drama and suspense in a way which I’m slightly ashamed to admit was new to me. With both books, the easiest thing was getting started and the hardest thing was admitting it was finished. Isn’t that always the way?
AUTHORLINK: That’s wonderful. Thank you for sharing that. In the opening passages of Reservoir 13, one could be forgiven for thinking it’s a classic crime thriller. The reader feels the suspense cranked up from the very first page until it becomes apparent, that in fact, without ever losing its momentum, the book is more of a collection of observations and a mirror of life than an offer of a resolution as to what happened to the missing girl.
Both books are an introspective peephole at the transient happenings of a small community within a larger story. The fact the girl remains missing is like seasonal dust that settles onto the villagers that never goes away.
You once said, “I know some people will feel cheated, that if something like that happens at the beginning you set up a contract with the reader to solve it for them. But I don’t buy that at all, I think that turns fiction into a kind of crossword puzzle. There are plenty of books that do that kind of thing, but this isn’t one of those.” (Interview with Mark Reynolds of Bookanista.)
How do you cope with constructive criticism (if any)? Do you take it on the chin, ignore it or take it to heart? Do you become more self-aware, less free in your writing?
…it always depends on who the criticism is coming from, and at what point in the process it’s coming.
McGREGOR: I think it always depends on who the criticism is coming from, and at what point in the process it’s coming. There have been readers who don’t like Reservoir 13 or The Reservoir Tapes simply because they were expecting to read a different kind of book; I tend to think that’s not really my problem, because I wasn’t planning on writing the book that reader wanted. But criticism from a reader who understands what I was trying to do, and can explain clearly why their reading experience fell short of what I was aiming for? That stuff is gold dust, and those readers should be sought out and treasured. Sometimes they will be reviewers, or book bloggers, or fellow writers; whoever they are, I love them.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, good point. Your books have a quietness about them (although not always sombre), and a measured pace, like a metronome that moves forward with no indulgent pauses on which to dwell or relish. In this way, your observations of life, family history, past hurts, choices people make, joys, love and loss are made relevant in the every day. You also give as much emotional weight to the natural world as to the human one, so everything ‘commonplace’ has an undertow of significance that explores the fragmented, unresolved questions between people. This creates such a knowing, sense of recognition in your readers.
It must need an enormous amount of concentration and focus on creating written work like this. Do you always carry a notebook with you to jot down thoughts as they come to you? How do you retain all these seemingly subtle details?
McGREGOR: No, I’m really not one of those “jotting down wry observations of the world as I come across them” type of writers. I’d lose the notebooks, for starters. I read about stuff, and I make stuff up, and sometimes I half make something up and then have to go and read about it to make it make more sense. A lot of the detail about the natural world in both The Reservoir Tapes and Reservoir 13 was researched fairly methodically – the monthly details of a blackbird’s life cycle, for example, or the routine steps involved in milking a herd of cattle – and then kept on hand for when I needed to tuck them into the text. I’m a big believer in detail and specificity, but usually, when I get to a bit that needs that detail and specificity I have to go and find it.
AUTHORLINK: How remarkable. There are similarities between Reservoir 13 and your first novel If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, such as the global-eye perspective of a community, and an acute sense of detail.
The point of view (POV) for both Reservoir 13 and The Reservoir Tapes has been an omniscient POV, a god’s-eye view that roams around the town and moves smoothly between the villagers and animals and natural space and follows them like a drone over the course of days, months and thirteen years. In this way, the narration is roving and objective, uncertain and hypnotic, charging the expectation of the reader until the very end.
While this particular POV gives writers a lot of flexibility, quite often in writing courses it’s frowned upon as it’s not usually easily done effectively. How do you manage to write this POV so well and what tips would you give to budding writers about it? What do you advise not doing?
How do you think your writing or your process, has evolved from when you were 26 years old when you were the youngest contender ever in the history of the Man Booker to be longlisted for a debut novel, and in what way does it please you? What advice would you give to your younger self in general?
McGREGOR: I would never advise anything about POV. I’m not entirely sure I understand all the ballyhoo about it. Why shouldn’t a story be narrated from the point of view of more than one character, or from the sky, or from someone passing on a train, or from a mix of all those voices? We’re not making movies here; we don’t have to worry about the camera angles. Of course, as with most technical issues dialogue, timeframes, setting) the key thing is to be consistent and to try and avoid too much confusion on the part of the reader; it doesn’t make much sense to be narrating in the first person and then have access to a different character’s internal monologue. But once you have consistency you can pretty much do what you fancy.
And: pretty much everything in my life has changed since I was 24 and writing my first novel. But the process isn’t a million miles away; I still use notebooks and I still fritter away a lot of time coming up with elaborate structures which will end up being invisible to the reader. I don’t think I have any advice for my younger self, other than: you might get away with it this once but you’ll have to try harder next time.
AUTHORLINK: Amazing, thank you. When it comes to structure, we understand you’re a ‘bit’ of a planner – especially for Reservoir 13. For each of the human characters, the animals, plants, the weather, work routines, the natural world etc., (there were 13 of these categories, with 13 examples in each category…), you wrote episodic storylines in 13 different ways and then laid that text out across a timeline of 13 years landing on the rhythm of the non-sequitur, where things are just happening one after.
Was there a feeling of tyranny adhering to this structure? Did you enjoy it?
Do you become anxious if you don’t complete the methodologies you decide upon at the beginning of the creation of a book? Do you have any rituals before you begin your days’ work?
McGREGOR: There was no tyranny in this structure, no. It was a huge help in getting the book written in the way I wanted to write it. For a start, it helped to embed the idea of ‘plentiful detail’ that I knew I wanted the book to contain: choosing a number such as 13 made sure that for each of the categories you’ve outlined above I included a big enough range. But the unexpected joy of this process was that it split the writing into two stages: in the first stage I only thought about sentences and could ignore structure and pace; in the second stage I had my sentences ready and only had to think about structure and pace. It was a technician’s dream. Also, it was pretty complicated and I nearly lost my mind.
By the way, your summary of this process is way more succinct than the version I keep telling people: good work.
I have no rituals apart from coffee.
By the way, your summary of this process is way more succinct than the version I keep telling people: good work.
AUTHORLINK: (Laughs) Thanks! You started writing when you were about 19 or 20 at university while trying to be a filmmaker studying for a degree in Media Technology and Production at Bradford University. In your final year, you wrote short stories that were ultimately published in an anthology entitled “Cinema 100”. 100 stories with 100 words – which helped you learn the discipline of editing.
Were you good at composition at school? Were you always detail orientated in your choice of work? Have you ever done any writing courses and if so, which ones and which would you recommend?
Most of what I’ve learnt about writing I’ve learnt from reading good books.
McGREGOR: Composition isn’t really taught formally in schools in the UK, or at least it wasn’t thirty years ago. We wrote stories and short non-fiction pieces, but there was no real discussion of the nuts and bolts of that writing. Most of what I’ve learnt about writing I’ve learnt from reading good books. I never took any writing courses, but I have learnt a lot from good readers giving good feedback.
AUTHORLINK: We understand that in your teenage years you were a great letter-writer and had several pen pals. I can relate to this, as I was a huge letter writer in my high school years too.
You edit a literary journal in letters, called The Letters Page published by the School of English at the University of Nottingham. It was inspired by the year you gave up email in 2013, early in the writing of Reservoir 13, when you were apparently panicking about being behind schedule and invited people to contact you by post.
What is it about receiving a hand-written letter on embossed stationery and pretty ink that feels like such a treat nowadays? Do you think the art of letter writing will become obsolete one day?
McGREGOR: Hand-written letters are different from emails, in the same way as reading a book is different from reading a screen. A letter has moved through time and space, and bears the marks of that movement; it’s a physical object that has been handled by the sender; a piece of their life. This is different from digital communication. (It’s not better; it’s different.) The fact that it’s become unusual to receive a hand-written letter makes them special, now, and almost a curiosity, but it’s interesting to me that people still instinctively understand how to write a letter. What’s interesting about the submissions we get for The Letters Page is that many of them come from people who wouldn’t necessarily call themselves writers, but who have written without self-consciousness and with great clarity because they’re writing in a form that doesn’t feel ‘literary’. (Similarly, we’re able to get submissions from some pretty high-profile writers who wouldn’t otherwise write for a small journal, simply because the format feels like a break from the day job. So hello George Saunders, Naomi Alderman, Kevin Barry, Claire-Louise Bennett…)
Letter-writing as a habit is already pretty much obsolete, I’d say, but that will only increase its value. The postal network isn’t going away, and people will value the personal touch of a hand-written object more and more. Can you imagine sending a condolence email?
AUTHORLINK: I’m sure it’s been done. Are your family big readers? What did your parents, your elder sister, brother and younger brother and children think about your books? Are any of them your first readers?
McGREGOR: My family like what I do.
AUTHORLINK: “Some 13-year-olds look a lot older,” say the men in the pub, nodding to each other.” —Reservoir 13
You once commented about the normalizing of bad male behavior about Reservoir 13. “Becky’s disappearance is marked, at the start of the novel, with a great deal of media attention; but there is rarely the same media attention for the women killed every week by partners and ex-partners. And there is very little discussion of the many forms of emotional abuse and controlling behavior which blight so many family relationships. I wanted to make these things apparent in the novel, and to make the tolerance of them visible, along with the conversations which men use to normalize these behaviors”. —New Statesman, 13 November 2017.
However, very few readers or reviewers have picked up on this aspect of the novel.
Why do you suppose that is? Is it because they’re preoccupied with where she’s gone missing?
McGREGOR: If I’m honest, it’s at least partly because I kept this aspect of the book pretty low-key, almost in the shadows. This was deliberate – the idea being to reflect how rarely men’s violence against women is discussed with any urgency in our public life – but it meant that people have been slow to notice it. It’s completely central to my understanding of the book. Maybe people will notice when they read it a second time…
AUTHORLINK: It’s fantastically done. How many drafts do you write before you finally send off a novel to your agent? How many proof-reads and edits does it go through once received? Then how many times does your publisher edit it? Do you always accept all their suggestions?
I do absolutely listen to everything my editor has to say. She is one smart cookie.
McGREGOR: I’ve never really been able to count drafts. There’s an ongoing process of revising and rearranging. I tend to write all over a typescript until I can’t see the type any more, then incorporate all those changes and print out a clean version. And repeat. And lose count. I do wait until I can’t work out what to fix before I send it to anyone, and I do send it to some good readers before my editor gets to see it. And I do absolutely listen to everything my editor has to say. She is one smart cookie.
AUTHORLINK: That’s good to know. Reservoir 13 and The Reservoir Tapes are like anti-whodunnits. Have you ever considered stringing a few of those open-ended clues together in these books and coming out with an ending to Becky’s demise? Or you could portray her as still alive after 13 years, traipsing out of the misty moors one twilight eve. Does this appeal to you?
What are you currently working now? Are you able to tell us a bit about it?
…the whole book is about what happens when there are no answers…
McGREGOR: Noooooooooo… the whole book is about what happens when there are no answers, and the only way I could write that clearly was by having no idea in my own mind what might have happened to Becky. It would seem like a cop-out to turn round and ‘solve’ the unresolved after all that.
At the moment I’m working on a novel set in Antarctica. And no, I can’t tell you anything about it, in case I fall through the ice.
AUTHORLINK: (Laughs) Understood. Just for fun, would you answer the following two questions (or all) in just a few lines…
- If you could invite any two people over for dinner, living or dead, who would they be and why?
McGREGOR: My late father and his old friend, Tony. There would be a lot of very good food, good music, and a ton of laughs. And it would be worth it to see the look on Tony’s face.
- 2. What are two favorite films and why?
McGREGOR: Slacker (Richard Linklater’s debut, 1990 or so), and Bugsy Malone (Alan Parker, 1985?)
- 3. If you could have been the original author of any two books, what would it have been and why?
McGREGOR: Hmm. I’ve got enough on my plate trying to write my own books.
- 4. Is there any question you would have liked to have been asked?
McGREGOR: No-one ever asks me about my favorite cheeses.
AUTHORLINK: Ha! Mr. McGregor, we’re so pleased to have had this opportunity to talk to you about The Reservoir Tapes and your work. We wish you all the very best for your future writing!
McGREGOR: Thank you! It’s been fun.
About the Author: Jon McGregor is the author of four novels and two story collections. He is the winner of the International Dublin Literary Award, the Costa Novel Award, the Betty Trask Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters E. M. Forster Award, and has been long-listed three times for the Man Booker Prize, most recently in 2017 for Reservoir 13. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Nottingham, England, where he edits The Letters Page, a literary journal in letters.
You can find out more about Jon McGregor on Twitter at @jon_mcgregor and https://books.catapult.co/products/the-reservoir-tapes-by-jon-mcgregor