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Jon McGregor on His Latest Novel, Reservoir 13

15 October 17 interview: LP Mills
photos: Ash Bird

Jon McGregor is a novelist who describes himself as “Britain’s second-best short story writer.” He’s lived in Nottingham for over ten years, and in that time, he’s written four novels, one short-story collection, fifteen radio plays, and lived on a narrowboat. This month, we caught up with Jon for a chat over some falafel in a Moroccan restaurant...

First thing’s first, would you like to tell us a bit about your new book Reservoir 13?
Right, well the book came out in April and I’ve been working on it for about seven or eight years, altogether. It originally started life as a short story that centred around a young girl going missing from a Derbyshire village. I say that, but the story was really about the search party, and focusing on the characters and their backstories as they search for this girl. Then, as often happens, the ideas behind the short story ended up rattling around my brain and eventually filtered into the full novel.

The novel is the same sort of premise; focusing on the missing girl at the start of the book, but pulls away quite quickly and instead, focuses on the community. These sorts of stories usually end with a dead body and I wanted to avoid that. I was more interested in the village and what happens in the aftermath of something terrible like a missing child. In a sense, the disappearance of the girl is an excuse to talk about community. The girl’s family are not local, so there’s no real sort of personal grief on the part of the villagers.

The book takes place over thirteen lunar years, with each year having thirteen calendar months, so it becomes this very measured look at how these kinds of stories develop, while also allowing me to explore how time passes in the wake of tragedy. The village has no choice but to move on over the next thirteen years, but for the girl’s family, time essentially stands still.

The number thirteen is a recurring theme throughout the novel. How did that come about?
Honestly, there’s not a very solid reason for it. When I wrote the initial short story, the girl who goes missing was five, which has a very clear outcome; unfortunately, when a five-year-old goes missing, it’s because something terrible has happened. With the novel, I decided to make the girl thirteen, which opens up a realm of possibilities; as a teenager, it’s entirely possible that she chose to run away, or was spending time with her friends. It sort of spiralled from there, with the thirteen years of thirteen months forming the timeframe. More than anything, I found it useful to have a very clear-cut narrative framework that I could impose the story onto.

What inspired the decision to set the story in Derbyshire?
My interest in Derbyshire is of someone who walks and cycles there a lot, so my experience is very much that of an outsider. I was very conscious of that as I was writing, but I had some flexibility in that this story is a work of fiction, set in a fictional village with a fictional cast of characters. That gave me a lot of freedom when it came to writing the dynamics of the characters; making the girl’s family “outsiders” meant that the story could focus on the second-hand nature of the tragedy, something that’s still extraordinary and haunting, but impersonal.

Is community something you’re interested in exploring with your writing?
I don’t know why community keeps cropping up, but it does. There’s something quite attractive about it from a storytelling point of view; I’m intrigued by human relationships, especially the less obvious ones that tend not to be talked about. We’re all influenced by others in very subtle and unexplored ways, and I like to discuss that in my work.

My first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, was very much about that, with a group of characters all living on the same street and not really knowing one another, but still having a level of influence on each other’s lives. I think that’s a very real part of modern British life, but it definitely comes in different variations.

Reservoir 13 is kind of the opposite of that closed-off community relationship, looking instead at a group of villagers who are very much aware of one another; they know each other’s names, lifestyles and business, but the interesting stuff comes out of what they don’t know about each other. Despite being this very tight community, the villagers are still able to be surprised by one another. There’s this very claustrophobic sense of being watched in small communities and I really wanted to address that in the novel.

Your first book was written while you were living on a narrowboat on the Trent. Do you think your time on the boat affected your writing at all?
Probably not, to be honest. I had a fairly clear sense of what I wanted the novel to be before I started living on the boat, so it didn’t really play into the themes of my writing. Most of my first novel came from my time at university, where I was living this very isolated life in a much larger community. A lot of the ideas for characters and their interactions came from things I saw in this community, and the premise of people living disconnected lives despite being side-by-side just felt like something I was seeing in my day-to-day life.

I will say that living on the narrowboat helped my novel writing in that it was an incredibly cheap way to live for those few years. I was able to work a few evening shifts at a restaurant and still have enough time to write, which makes such a big difference when compared to working full-time and trying to write whenever the opportunity arises. I knew that I wanted to write a novel, and I knew that I wanted to just get it done, so my decision to work those evening shifts at a restaurant was a very deliberate one. If I’d worked in an office job or in any sort of role that involves extensive talking to people, it would have really eaten into my time and energy.

You recently won the Impact award, for which you received £100,000 as your prize; a far-cry from your days on the narrowboat. What was that like?
It was great; it felt like a real affirmation. It’s a really interesting award as the longlist is selected by libraries from all over the world, and then an international panel of judges decides on the winner. I thought it was a long shot for me to be selected for the shortlist, and the book that won the award, Even the Dogs, felt like one of those stories you either love or hate. Receiving the award was really exciting and affirming. Also, £100,000 is a shitload of money.

Are you working on any new projects?
I’ve just finished a series of stories for Radio 4 which will be aired around the beginning of October. There are fifteen short stories that will be released every Sunday for fifteen weeks, and they act as a sort of prequel to Reservoir 13. It’s a very different experience from novel writing; the narrative has to be much cleaner and self-contained, and I was working to a much tighter deadline than the seven years I spent on Reservoir 13.

Jon’s latest novel can be purchased from all major book retailers.


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