THIS ISN'T THE SORT OF THING THAT HAPPENS TO SOMEONE LIKE YOU: Jon McGregor is book club guest author on Tues 16 April, 9-10pm

(134 Posts)

Our March Book of the Month is a short story collection that highlights the tremendous power and beauty of this form of fiction. THIS ISN'T THE SORT OF THING THAT HAPPENS TO SOMEONE LIKE YOU is set in a bleak, Fenland landscape where everyday lives are acted out in quiet communities. Every one of the thirty tales is completely different, with a unique voice. All the characters seem to be threatened in some way; some manage to find peace, some are thrust further into danger.

Twice nominated for the Man Booker Prize and winner of numerous awards, Jon McGregor is a particularly skillful and distinctive writer. His style is strange, mysterious, authentic, unusual and poetic. Reading the book is like holding a delicate yet devastating crystal ball, containing strange, shape-shifting visions of the lives of others. Linda Grant put it best, in her Financial Times review: McGregor is the contemporary master of lives lived in what the Irish call a small way, and the belief, which is literature's, that we are all poetic.'

You can find more details on our March book of the month page.

You can get your paperback or Kindle version of the book here.

And don't miss the insider knowledge on all Jon's work, his BBC Short Story Awards and who he considers to be a ground-breaking British writer at his excellent website or you can follow him on Twitter: @jon_mcgregor

We are thrilled that Jon will be answering questions about THIS ISN'T THE SORT OF THING THAT HAPPENS TO SOMEONE LIKE YOU, his previous books and his writing career on Tuesday 16 April, 9-10pm. So please feel free to discuss the book here throughout the month and then come and join in the author chat on Tues 16.

Looking forward to hearing what you think...

Hullygully Tue 16-Apr-13 21:07:20

Ooo I can join in! I loved the elephant and the bad baby, read (past tense) it to my kids all the time. Are you very young?

JonMcGregor Tue 16-Apr-13 21:07:45

HazelDormouse Sat 06-Apr-13 20:34:32
My questions are these:

1. Do you believe any other writers have influenced this particular collection, and if so, who?
2. How would you want the reader (ideally) to approach this collection? Do you think it matters that a reader just dips in and out of the work, not reading them in any particular order?

Hi Hazel, thanks for your questions.
1, Um, yes, plenty of writers have influenced this collection. And by influenced I do indeed in many cases mean that I've stolen their ideas. Who? George Saunders, Lydia Davis, Donald Barthelme, Richard Brautigan and Peter Hobbs would be a few of the key culprits.
2, Well, you could just dip in and out of the work without reading them in any particular order. But if you'd told me you were going to do that, I wouldn't have bothered spending weeks with them spread out all over the floor trying to put them into a sequence which made some kind of sense and which made the reader feel they were on some kind of over-arching narrative journey.
(To be honest, if you've paid for the book I really don't mind. One of the things I value about fiction is that the reader is in charge of their own experience. But for the record, yes, they are designed to be read in sequence.)

JonMcGregor Tue 16-Apr-13 21:08:18

Pinkbatrobi Wed 10-Apr-13 03:15:55
Hi there, first of all thanks very much for my copy, which arrived after I'd; it reminded me of the "exercises de style" by Raymond Queneau - I wonder if Jon has read it? To me the whole book has a certain taste if the surrealist....So I guess the first question is: which story did he have more fun writing? And which was the most troublesome for him? Was there one he had to go back to to polish and rewrite?

And also, on a completely different level: what is going on with the woman whose car is hit by the sugarbeet? Why is the older guy standing with his arms tensed? He really lost me there. This is a bit I found really difficult to understand. Which I guess means he's succeeded, right? But still... I want to know!! I would love for him to elaborate/explain.

Last question: which one is his favourite character? The one he feels he's painted best?

Hey, Pinkbatrobi, that's a lot of questions! But thanks...
(Deep breath...)
I haven't read Raymond Queneau, no, but I know a man who has. And conversations about his work, plus that of people like Lydia Davis did make me want to play with form in this book. Just as each short story is a blank page in terms of character and setting, so can it be a blank page in terms of form, typography, perspective, etc.

The most fun stories were probably 'Memorial Stone' (which I think I'll come back to in a later answer) and 'New York New York'. Although actually 'I'll Buy You A Shovel' was also a lot of fun, simply because I very quickly had a really vivid sense of who this pair of characters was, and how they related to each other.

The most troublesome was 'New York New York': in it's first version, it was constructed entirely of lyrics from songs about New York, and it was only at the copy-editing stage that I learnt how ruinously expensive it would be to publish in that form. So I had to find a way of reworking it - the story is effectively now a story about a film of a story that will never be published.

Polishing and rewriting? Yes. All of them. All of the time.

The woman with the sugarbeet. Well. I'm going to guess someone else will ask about that, so I'll save my answer for later. Spoiler: I'm not really going to answer the question properly.

Favourite character? Probably the pair from 'I'll Buy You A Shovel'.

JonMcGregor Tue 16-Apr-13 21:08:51

(Ha! Feel like I might be buying myself some breathing space by posting such long-winded answers. This might be an error...)

It is a very different experience reading one short story, and reading a collection. It made me think a lot about the position of each story, and its neighbours. And also how the overall tone can be kept, even when the style is so varied. Like listening to an album from start to finish rather than picking out tracks. (though maybe there is always a personal hit single, and mine might be Wires)

Jon, how do you decide the position of each story? And were you at any point considering whether the stories might coalesce into a novel?

(And Hully: I sniff book binding glue.)

JonMcGregor Tue 16-Apr-13 21:10:01

(Apologies - I've lost who asked this question. If it was you, thanks!)

I was wondering how you feel about actual books in comparison with electronic readers, in particular how would 'in winter the sky' feel to read electronically. Would it work and have the same effect ? On paper this opposite page 'thing' works really well.
Can you explain your thinking on the subheadings on each chapter ? my take on this was that these were the type of stone used for the burial headstones for the person who died in each story.

Can 'fleeting complexity' really be considered as a short story ?

'we wave and call'. This really affected me. I thought it was haunting. Do you have any personal experiences which you lean on to help write any of these stories. I truly hope not and that you just have a very vivid imagination.

Tilly, the sugarbeet story I just assumed there had been a random accident which the two men seized upon and pretended to help the woman before killing her opportunist crime style.

Can you explain why you added the final chapter 'Memorial Stone' ?
**

I don't read books on e-readers, yet. It doesn't appeal to me. I like to read one book at a time, not have 100 of them available to flit between. I don't have any great objection, and my guess is that if anything people who had fallen out of the reading habit have started reading a bit more as a result of using them. But one of my disappointments with the Kindle in particular is that by allowing the reader to choose the font and typesize, any design choices made by the publisher and/or writer go straight out of the window. I haven't checked (a shameful admission perhaps) but I imagine that 'In Winter the Sky' might be a right old mess on the Kindle if the reader changes the default size/font.

Wow. I should probably be keeping these answers shorter, right?

The sub-headings are the names of the places where each story is set.

I think 'Fleeing Complexity' is a story (narrative = something changes), but I don't mind if you don't.

Hasn't everyone swum out a little too far at sea, or felt the pull of the tide? I do have a vivid imagination, but it usually starts with something happening or almost happening in real life and then taking the 'what if..' a bit too far.

Sugarbeet... I'll get on to that.

Memorial Stone - there's an apocalyptic/flood undertone to the collection, which becomes heightened towards the end of the book, and the idea is that this is a list of places which would be lost to floods in the event of catastrophic sea-level rise. As my creative writing tutor always said: Make sure you send the punters home with a good joke!

JonMcGregor Tue 16-Apr-13 21:11:15

(Again, have lost this question's questioner. Apologies/thanks.)
*
Firstly something that maybe completely out of your control. On the cover of my book it talked about a boy setting fire to a barn. This put a slant on the relevant story that wasn't actually stated. Was this the background to the story but it didn't make it to the page, or was it just your publishers?

When does a short story stop being a short story?
***
Well, the story in question ('Fleeing Complexity') says that 'the fire spread quicker than the little bastard was expecting'; and a later story refers to 'a burning barn on the horizon'. So I suppose I was hoping some readers would put two and two together. It was always a burning barn in my mind.

My definition, and it's only mine, is that a short story is any piece of fiction which can be read in a single sitting. Of course, there's a huge flexibility in that - it depends on your reader's patience,

On the sugar beet story, and the ending or non-ending and just what's going on at all: it's complicated. I wrote a short essay about it a while ago, which you can find here - onlearningtoread.tumblr.com/post/11017277122/the-title-of-the-story-wires-is-taken-from-the

JonMcGregor Tue 16-Apr-13 21:12:11

gazzalw

East Anglia is quite an oppressive and claustrophobic environment in which to live. Did you choose it purposefully for this reason for these rather unsettling stories? Are you native-born or have you spent years living there?

Well.... some people might challenge your use of "oppressive and claustrophobic" as far as East Anglia's concerned.... but these stories are actually mostly set in Lincolnshire, and in places there is certainly something eerie or uncanny or claustrophobic+agoraphobic about that landscape. Which was what made me want to place these stories there, yes. And unsettling is a good word.
I grew up in Norfolk, but haven't lived there since I headed off to university. I've never lived in Lincolnshire.

JonMcGregor Tue 16-Apr-13 21:13:44

gailforce1

Hi Tilly, I'm here and looking forward to the chat later.
Thank you for the free copy of the book as I would not have gone out and bought a copy myself and I would have missed out on some very powerful writing.
Can I ask Jon which authors he reads and are there any books that he finds himself returning to?

It's a long list.... to start with books I return to:
John McGahern, "That They May Face The Rising Sun"
WG Sebald, "The Rings of Saturn"
Alice Oswald, "Dart"
George Saunders... pretty much all of it rewards rereading
Also, off the top of my head... Kevin Barry, Cynan Jones, Alice Munro, Maile Meloy, Sarah Hall, Don DeLillo, Lydia Davis, Donald Antrim, Donald Barthelme, Ali Smith, um... ask me again in a minute and I'll think of a few more... Evie Wyld, Chimamanda Adichie, Julian Gough

JonMcGregor Tue 16-Apr-13 21:14:27

Hullygully

with the boy setting fire to a barn, were you influenced by Stephen King's Firestarter?

No: by the Prodigy song of the same title.

JonMcGregor Tue 16-Apr-13 21:16:00

SunshinePanda

Hi Jon, I think I am still bewildered by some of your stories! I am impressed particularly by the way you make the bleakness of human relationships at times seem beautifully sad. I was so pleased that you revisited Catherine and Michael in Grantham as I loved Which Reminded Her Later. What made you decide to revisit these particular characters?

Honestly? That second story was originally supposed to be a part of the first; but it just didn't work. It overcomplicated the main story. But I couldn't bear to get rid of the scene, so I made a new story of it. I'd like to think that most people don't notice they're the same characters, but am also glad when some people do.

The titles feel like poem titles (Years of This, Now or We Wave and Call)– and your writing is as economical and precise as poetry.

Is the short story closer to poetry than to the novel? Are there particular poets that you admire and read often?

JonMcGregor Tue 16-Apr-13 21:17:54

GeraldineMumsnet

Frivolous comment <lowers tone>: the acronym for this book is TITSOTTHTSLY, which sounds a/ a bit rude and b/ a bit like a MN nickname.

What's your favourite book title? And how do you come up with your unusual titles? If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things is beautiful.

Come on. You have to try really hard to make that sound rude, don't you?
Titles: they usually come from somewhere in the text, and they usually end up being something which I hope carries a sense of what the overall book is about or is like or the mood it's trying to convey.

Calypso2 Tue 16-Apr-13 21:18:03

Hi Jon,thanks for such a thought provoking set of stories which I devoured over the course of the week when I received my free copy. Ive since bought 'If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things' which I LOVED - wow! what an amazing book - it stayed with me for a long time after I'd finished it. I'm amazed at how you manage to weave such great stories out of tiny details of everyday life. I wonder how you come about all these minute details - do you spend a lot of time watching people going about their every days lives?

JonMcGregor Tue 16-Apr-13 21:23:58

TillyBookClub

It is a very different experience reading one short story, and reading a collection. It made me think a lot about the position of each story, and its neighbours. And also how the overall tone can be kept, even when the style is so varied. Like listening to an album from start to finish rather than picking out tracks. (though maybe there is always a personal hit single, and mine might be Wires)

Jon, how do you decide the position of each story? And were you at any point considering whether the stories might coalesce into a novel?

(And Hully: I sniff book binding glue.)

The sequence of the stories is really important in a collection. Some collections can be built around making narrative connections between the stories (recurring characters; thematic links; etc) but I didn't want to or didn't feel able to do that here. But what I did want was some kind of sense of progression and coherence. So each of the sections are broadly themed (and right now I can't remember what those themes are, except that the middle section is stories about people who leave Lincolnshire and go elsewhere, and the later sections are generally about impending possible apocalypse), but I also attempted to create a rhythm and variety in the pace/length/style/mood of the stories.
What I was hoping, basically, was that people would read the book from beginning to end, not just dip in and out.
Not looking at anyone in particular at this point.

Mspontipine Tue 16-Apr-13 21:25:09

Sorry my post may sound very dull but can I just say I really loved 'If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things'. I haven't read this one yet but definitely will after reading the discussion on here - I'm from Lincolnshire so will be paying particular attention. grin

I love it that you were nervous about typing on here.

Thanks everso much for what you do. Keep up the good work smile

JonMcGregor Tue 16-Apr-13 21:27:33

TillyBookClub

The titles feel like poem titles (Years of This, Now or We Wave and Call)? and your writing is as economical and precise as poetry.

Is the short story closer to poetry than to the novel? Are there particular poets that you admire and read often?

No. I don't think so. I mean, some short stories can be poetic in style or effect; and some poems can be more narrative than some stories. But ultimately prose is doing a very different job to poetry.
People talk about economy and precision and compression as something that short stories do and novels don't; but I think novels should be using those same tools.
The key thing for me is that a short story can be read in a single sitting, which lends the reading (and writing) experience a density you can't get in a novel.

I have just read the essay on Wires, and now running to my Larkin collection to try and find the poem...

I felt her victimisation by all these men very strongly, but I couldn't work out if she'd already had her epiphany about Marcus and was therefore over the 'wire', and could prevent these men from harming her. Or if she was still uncertain and under their control.

Fascinating hearing about the starting point for these stories.

JonMcGregor Tue 16-Apr-13 21:31:25

Calypso2

Hi Jon,thanks for such a thought provoking set of stories which I devoured over the course of the week when I received my free copy. Ive since bought 'If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things' which I LOVED - wow! what an amazing book - it stayed with me for a long time after I'd finished it. I'm amazed at how you manage to weave such great stories out of tiny details of everyday life. I wonder how you come about all these minute details - do you spend a lot of time watching people going about their every days lives?

Hi Calypso2, and thanks. Really glad you enjoyed the book(s). As for details; it's not like I deliberately go around staring at people and making copious notes. I guess I'm just nosey, as lots of people are, and tend to remember things I've seen or heard. And in terms of writing, it's the details which can really anchor a character or scene for the reader - the frayed cuff or the restless hands or the quavering voice.

JonMcGregor Tue 16-Apr-13 21:33:35

Mspontipine

Sorry my post may sound very dull but can I just say I really loved 'If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things'. I haven't read this one yet but definitely will after reading the discussion on here - I'm from Lincolnshire so will be paying particular attention. grin

I love it that you were nervous about typing on here.

Thanks everso much for what you do. Keep up the good work smile

Hi Mspontipine (that's a Night Garden reference, right? And here I was thinking these were all your real names... unless that is your real name, in which case.... anyway... )
Nothing dull about your post - you like one of my books and you're going to read another, and that's basically enough for me. That's the whole point of doing what I do.
So, thanks!

JonMcGregor Tue 16-Apr-13 21:37:39

TillyBookClub

I have just read the essay on Wires, and now running to my Larkin collection to try and find the poem...

I felt her victimisation by all these men very strongly, but I couldn't work out if she'd already had her epiphany about Marcus and was therefore over the 'wire', and could prevent these men from harming her. Or if she was still uncertain and under their control.

Fascinating hearing about the starting point for these stories.

Well, for me that's the point, to leave the reader at that moment of absolute uncertainty. Whether or not anything terrible actually happens, this is the moment after which her defences will always be up and her trust in strangers be more wary. It's a moment I think most of us can point to at some time in our youth - for the lucky majority, the moment is nothing more than a cautionary tale.

Next up, a knock-knock joke...

JonMcGregor Tue 16-Apr-13 21:38:49

Knock knock.

Who's there?

Are you still there?

JonMcGregor Tue 16-Apr-13 21:44:36

TillyBookClub

Who's there?

Interrupting cow.

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