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Interview: JON MCGREGOR

First of all, a string of congratulations: your short story ‘If it Keeps on Raining’ was runner-up in the BBC Short Story Award, and your new novel Even the Dogs has had rave reviews and has been picked for the TV Book Club.

Even the Dogs starts with a breath-taking first chapter: a dead body is discovered in a flat and the hours after that discovery are told through the voice of ‘we’, seemingly disembodied voices who are and are not there. It’s a striking opening. Can you tell us a bit more about the story behind the beginning and about how you decided to use this narrative voice?


I'd heard a story about a man being found dead in his flat (in fact, it was someone my wife had been supporting through her work with an organisation which works with homeless people) and for some reason got stuck on thinking about what it might have been like to lie on the floor like that, waiting for someone to break down the door.  I got quite a long way into thinking about the room, the flat, the history of the building, the weather outside, the sense of time passing, the crowd of friends outside waiting for the police to arrive; I realised that the crowd of friends couldn't actually have been there, and starting writing it as their - well, I wasn't sure what it was, maybe a dream or a vision or a speculation or even a film treatment, but writing it as 'we see this, we see that'.  It was a strange and intriguing way of writing the scene, and it gave me a lot of leeway in terms of what I could describe and what stories I could tell within the single scene.  It was fun to write, basically, even when I was describing maggots.

Did you feel the narrative voice helped or hindered you in writing the novel? I imagine it had its challenges, as well as its advantages.

Its challenges were its advantages.  In a way, it freed me from a lot of the usual point-of-view constraints, in that I could show a lot of events and time periods more or less simultaneously; but at the same time I had to do a lot of technical thinking and clarifying around exactly how this voice could function - who is speaking? when? what can they see?  I also had to find a way of conveying to the reader who was speaking, and how, without losing too much of the ambiguity I'd experienced while writing the early drafts. I'm not sure that makes any sense.  But not-making-sense was a big part of what I wanted to do with this novel; I wanted that sense of chaos, and fragmentedness and anxiety and panic to come out through the form of the text as well as the content.

You seem to write about the people on the edges of society, people who are marginalised in one way or another. Is this a deliberate theme in your writing or something that you find yourself being drawn to without realising?

I don't know about deliberate.  It's something I'm very comfortable with once I realise I've done it.  I think I'm interested in the very notion of 'edges' and 'margins' and how much that says about the people who define where those edges are.  The characters in Even The Dogs are at the very centre of their own lives, not the margins.  In fact, for them its the rest of society which they choose to marginalise and which is notably absent from the book.  I think I'm interested in acknowledging that everyone is at the centre of their own life.

Do you approach the writing of a short story and the writing of a novel in very different ways? The economy and richness of your style works so well in both, but I imagine the planning and creation of each much vary. Can you tell us a little about how you sit down to each?

I don't know really.  There's very little pattern.  With a novel there is usually more planning around structure and shape and rhythm, although the plan often ends up being abandoned.  With my novels there has also always been some kind of device to get me through the book; the structure of a-day-in-a-life, or the catalogue of artefacts, or the process of a dead body being handled by the state.  Whereas with short stories there's more of a sense of plunging into the writing and seeing what happens - finding the voices of the characters, finding the meat of the story - and then going back later to work at the shape and the rhythm (which are just as important in a short story than in a novel, if not more so). It sounds obvious, but I usually find that a short story ends sooner than I was expecting.

Our favourite place to earwig for inspiration is on the top deck of buses. Where do you like to get inspiration?

I don't go around looking for inspiration, but I recognise it when I see it.  Overheard mobile phone conversations are an absolute joy (and not just in terms of stories, but for the range of voices and vocabularies you can hear, the way people express or fail to express themselves, the way people continue to forget they can be heard) - I'm not sure how writers managed before mobiles.  But also, yes, public transport, pubs and cafes, small shops where regulars get chatting to the shopkeeper.  Also the things people drop in the street. Also people who forget to shut their curtains at dusk, lighting their lives for all to see. But also and most importantly the things that I sit at a desk and invent from scratch.



If you find yourself with a moment, a morning or an afternoon, to yourself – your deadlines have been met, your next book is not yet started – how do you like to spend that moment?

I'm sorry; I'm a parent, I don't understand the question...

 

 

Which short stories have most inspired you? What would be your advice to someone starting out as a short story writer?

'Fat' by Raymond Carver
'Last Day of Summer' by Ian McEwan
'Civilwarland in Bad Decline' by George Saunders
'Everything is Green' by David Foster Wallace
just about everything by Alice Munro
absolutely everything by Lydia Davis

My advice?  Read more.  Always read more.  Read more deeply and widely and attentively.  The great thing about short stories is the way you can study them, as a writer, to see how they're achieving what they achieve.  Read and read and read, and after that the writing might come more a little more easily.  And then edit.

And finally, can you recommend a great book/author to our readers?

At the moment, I'm very excited about the collected stories of Lydia Davis.

Jon McGregor is the author of the critically acclaimed If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things and So Many Ways to Begin. He is the winner of the Betty Trask Prize and the Somerset Maugham Award, and has been twice longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He was born in Bermuda in 1976. He grew up in Norfolk and now lives in Nottingham. Even the Dogs, published by Bloomsbury in February 2010 and in paperback in February 2011, is his third novel. You can buy his story short 'If It Keeps on Raining' in an anthology with the other stories shortlisted for the BBC Short Story Award here. (Author photograph copyright Dan Sinclair.)

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