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Green Light in the City

Talent, Talks and Tapes at Five Leaves McGregor Launch

14 February 18 words: Chloe Campbell

Not content to take it easy, author, storyteller, and long-time friend of the mag Jon McGregor has just released his new collection The Reservoir Tapes, hot off the heels of their initial airing on BBC Radio 4. Last Tuesday he made an appearance at Five Leaves Bookshop to launch the collection, so we thought we'd send our Chloe Campbell down to see what he had to say for himself. 

“It's a book about a missing girl. It’s not a book out a girl being found,” explains author Jon McGregor of his multi-award winning Reservoir 13, at last Tuesday evening’s event at Five Leaves bookshop. Admittedly reluctant to have a launch-type event for The Reservoir Tapes in 2018, due to a year of promoting both the related novel and short story collection, the youngest ever contender for the Booker Prize didn’t want to spend time ‘mouthing off’ about his astounding—and well deserved— success. Despite this, much to the delight of the audience, he was happy to be at Five Leaves, noting how supported he felt by the Nottingham community and readership.

Reflecting on the audience’s positivity, McGregor articulated, “when you sit down to write a book, ideally, you want to make a connection with readers. So, for the book to go out into the world and for readers to respond, its what you want as a writer… That's me saying thank you to those who have bought and read the book.”

It’s evident, from both the speaker himself and from the respectfully reactive audience, that the heart of the two narratives is married to the community where a girl remains missing, rather than focusing on the details of a girl who has been found violated or murdered—a distinction McGregor wishes some reviewers on Amazon would understand and appreciate. In that subtle nuance lies the story, first established in Reservoir 13 and enhanced further in the BBC Radio 4 series which has now been published as The Reservoir Tapes. On the subject of Amazon reviews McGregor takes the opportunity to return to favourite comment, where a reader was disappointed that the book was “not novel-like, but lifelike”. For the author, and the amused readers present at the event, this was of course the intention, and where the story’s brilliance is most apparent.

During the evening, various audience members volunteer sincere praise, clearly impressed by the ‘second hand’ nature of the authors research, which was admittedly done mostly online and through conversations with his various connections. McGregor commented on the “voyeuristic” nature of writing, alluding “fiction is a second-hand process, where the details create the illusion for the reader.” Over the course of the event, it’s clear that to this author, it’s all about the tiny details, “they’re the important ones.”

After being approached by BBC Radio 4, the novelist crafted 15 original short stories, which are interconnected but stand on their own—much like Reservoir 13 and The Reservoir Tapes. On this matter, McGregor simply says the two books inform each other, playfully adding, “though you should definitely buy both.”

McGregor elaborated on the adjustments and considerations which are necessary when a novelist writes for the radio, detailing the confines of a shorter timescale and a strict word count (1,960 words for 13 and 1/2 minutes of radio, to be exact). The author went on to explain that the style and form must take into consideration that “the first sentence has to keep [the listener’s attention], as does the second, and the third, and so on”. McGregor discloses he imagined the kind of opening sentences which would captivate a potential listener, and, importantly “what would stop someone turning off the radio and going into the other room?”

The evening’s reading of ‘Martin’, from The Reservoir Tapes, was a testament to the author’s knack for writing attention-grabbing opening sentences. The short tale tells of a last minute, almost clandestine quest to find a dog for the narrator’s wife, which is as hilarious and tragic as it is murky and unpredictable. The unexpected series of events serve as a narrative veil which obscures a friend’s revelation of a probable cancer diagnosis. In true form, the story’s truth and emotion lies in the tiny, well-crafted and deliberate details. The stories in The Reservoir Tapes act as a kind of prequel, occurring in the landscape of a community which will shortly experience the tragedy of a visiting girl who goes missing in the area. Across the two books, radio series and podcast, readers and listeners can indulge in a maelstrom of narratives that whirl around this eerie, central event.

The Q&A session which followed elicited as much praise as it did questions from the captive and forthcoming audience. Many of those present at the event audibly congratulated McGregor on leaving the mystery of the missing girl open ended. The author himself admitted that in order to remain an unbiased narrator, he did not decide the fate of the girl for himself. Though, he alluded that a girl who is 13 years old is afforded more agency in her disappearance, without the much more fatal connotations of, say, a missing five year old. The lack of resolution on this front may be off putting to readers who seek and prefer resolution and calculated solutions in their reading matter, but it’s alarmingly clear from the event’s enraptured audience that the various Reservoir narratives rely on realism for their magic—and as McGregor observes and succinctly articulates “there is not always closure in life.”

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