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Interview: Jon McGregor

1 November 06 interview: James Walker

"These things, the way they happen. These things, the way they begin"

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (2002) earned Jon McGregor numerous awards as well as a Booker Prize nomination, quite an achievement for a debut novelist. Through a poetic and absorbing prose the novel magically transforms the ordinary everyday lives of its characters into something quite beautiful. His recent novel, So Many Ways To Begin, examines what happens when our lives fail to take the turns we expect through the eyes of David, a museum curator, who finds out his whole life has been constructed around a lie. James Walker went in search of truth…

What brought you to Nottingham?
I was following a girl; she came here to do a post-grad diploma and I just tagged along. Obviously it was the right thing to do because we're married now.

…and how have you found the city?
There's not that moany old London thing of expecting life to be served up on a plate, which is refreshing. The pleasures are harder to find than in some cities, but if you look closer they're there; and I have to say LeftLion are doing a lot to bring some of the more underground stuff to the surface.

Are you still living on a boat and what attracted you to this particular abode? I myself once lived in a converted garage for three years...
No, the boat thing was short-term. I was only ever planning on passing through Nottingham but once it became clear we were staying put it seemed daft to live in what was essentially a very small and very wobbly caravan. What was the garage like?

Like a very small but static caravan… Your first novel was a tremendous success and certainly my book of the year. How did you find the added attention?
The attention was fun, and mercifully short-lived. You could win the Nobel Prize for literature and still not get recognised on the bus. Obviously it changed my life in that I was able to quit the day-job, write full-time, and develop a massively over-inflated sense of my abilities.

I found If nobody similar to Amélie. Both treat Princess Diana’s death as peripheral within the narrative and in doing so inverse societal norms by championing the ‘ordinary’ over celebrity. What are your feelings on this comparison?
Hey that's funny. I never really thought of that, but it's a neat (and flattering) comparison. I guess me and Jean-Pierre Jeunet had the same kind of idea; didn't any other sad stuff happen that day? That month? But yes, I love that film (and anyone who accuses it of being over-sentimental has a rusting tin can for a heart). Thinking about it actually, I probably found that intricate attention to detail - the following through of unforeseen consequences and coincidences, the tiny moments which turn a life round - quite an inspiration.

…and celebrity culture?
There's nothing much left to say is there? Other than that the rotting decadence of late-stage capitalism is laid bare every time some talentless nark steps out on a red carpet or grimaces for the camera.

Given the themes in your books, can human beings ever really fully connect?
Yes, but it's hard though don't you think? And sometimes it feels like people aren't trying so much to make those connections, or they can't imagine how much sweeter life might be if they did.

Both books, despite the events that go on, seem to foster hope. Would you describe yourself as a positive thirty-year-old?
I've always felt that when you're in one of those moments where life clicks into place - sunrise, first beer garden pint of the year, cycling downhill, Peter Crouch and his robot dance - then how can you be anything but positive about the world? Life can suck a lot, but there are always the bits in between. Mind you, when I'm not being such a sunny optimist I'm usually engulfed by fury and despair about the avoidable environmental catastrophe which everyone seems to be doing their best not to avoid...

‘If nobody…’ is set nowhere in particular whilst ‘So many...’ is set across numerous cities. Was this change of setting difficult to make?
It was difficult in that it forced me to make some fact/fiction decisions I'd not had to make before: just how true to life should a fictional location be? If I'm inventing characters who live in a real city, am I allowed to invent the name of the street they live on? It was tricky to know when to let the research stop and the creativity begin.

Two of the cities used in ‘So many…’ were Aberdeen and Coventry which through their industrial/ manufacturing roots are quite similar. Does this particular environment interest you?
I was definitely interested in their parallels (ship-building; car-building; oil). I think a British novel set in the mid to late twentieth century would find it hard to avoid at least an allusion to industry and manufacturing. Britain was built on industry and manufacturing - its urban culture developed as a result, and the painful social upheavals of the last thirty years have been a direct consequence of the collapse of the industrial economy. So yes, that kind of environment interests me.

Truth is very important to David. How important are your roots?
I left Bermuda at the heady age of five months. I did go back there once, when I was nineteen, and was surprised by the emotional reaction I felt; it might have just been projection though, it's kind of cool to go and find your roots somewhere, isn't it?

The use of artefacts was a novel way of introducing chapters, when did this idea come about?
Very early on. It seemed like a convenient way to structure the book, and obviously it fitted with the main character being a museum curator; it also gave me a direction for the story, that he was assembling this collection in order to take it to someone.

If you were to take an artefact to represent Nottingham , what would you choose and why?
Hey, good question. Actually, I went to meet my Japanese translator a couple of years ago, and since the Japanese are big on gifts I thought I should take him something to represent Nottingham; rather pathetically the best I could come up with was a lace placemat. Right now I think the best thing would be a copy of LeftLion.....

 

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