Jon McGregor webchat
Booker-nominated author Jon McGregor joined us in April 2013 to discuss his short story collection, This Isn't The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You.
He answered questions on the challenges of short story writing, influences, and the sources of his inspiration.
Jon McGregor is author of the acclaimed If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, winner of the Betty Trask Prize and a Somerset Maugham Award.
Q. TillyBookClub: Which childhood book most inspired you? What would be the first piece of advice you would give anyone attempting to write fiction?
A. JonMcGregor: My favourite childhood books were The Elephant And The Bad Baby ("and they went rumpeter, rumpeter, rumpeter, all down the road") and Swallows and Amazons, the entire series. Numerous times. The first piece of advice to writers would be to read more. Read a lot more. Be influenced.
Q. HazelDormouse: Do you believe any other writers have influenced this particular collection? And 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?
A. JonMcGregor: Plenty of writers have influenced this collection. And by influenced I do indeed mean that in many cases 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.
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.
Q. gailforce1: Which authors do you read and are there any books that you find yourself returning to?
A. JonMcGregor: 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, Evie Wyld, Chimamanda Adichie, Julian Gough.
Q. Pinkbatrobi: The book reminded me of the Exercices de Style by Raymond Queneau - have you read it? To me the whole book has a certain taste of the surrealist...So I guess the first question is: which story did you have more fun writing? And which was the most troublesome? Was there one you had to go back to and polish and rewrite?
And also, on a completely different level: what is going on with the woman whose car is hit by the sugar beet? Why is the older guy standing with his arms tensed? I found that bit really difficult to understand, which I guess means you've succeeded, but still, I want to know!
Lastly: which one is your favourite character, the one you feel you've painted best?
A. JonMcGregor: I haven't read Raymond Queneau, 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 and New York New York. Although, 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 were, 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. 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 sugar beet, 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.
Q. Brendarenda: I'd read the story If It Keeps on Raining in another short story collection and it's stuck with me ever since. The thing that I found interesting in this collection is the way a darker reality seems to be lurking right on the edge of the 'everyday'.
Like the boy floating in the sea, you're balanced between two very different outcomes - and there's just a cigarette paper between them. How do you go about getting the balance right between what you put in the story and what you leave out. Do you write a 'bigger' story and then edit it back to its essence?
A. JonMcGregor: I like your image of there being just a cigarette paper between the different outcomes; that was very much the feeling I had about a lot of these stories while I was writing them, that they could go either way and that sometimes it might be best to leave them before it becomes clear which way they go.
Anyway, regarding a 'bigger story' - sometimes. But never deliberately. Sometimes when a story isn't working, I've stripped out particular characters or scenes (or the beginning and the end) and found the story works better as a result.
Sometimes I've done this for an arbitrary reason - in one case, because Radio 4 needed something to be exactly 15 minutes long. I cut that story in half to fit the time, and it improved a lot as a result. But other times, I've just stopped when I've realised I can't take the story any further. Fleeing Complexity is an example of this.
Q. TillyBookClub: How do you decide the position of each story? And were you at any point considering whether the stories might coalesce into a novel?
A. JonMcGregor: 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. What I did want was some kind of sense of progression and coherence, so each of the sections are broadly themed, and 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.
Q. SunshinePanda: 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?
A. JonMcGregor: 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. Still, 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.
Q. Calypso2: 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 daily lives?
A. JonMcGregor: 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. In terms of writing, it's the details that can really anchor a character or scene for the reader - the frayed cuff or the restless hands or the quavering voice.
Q. wordfactory: When I talk to my students about unusual novel structures, I always mention Even The Dogs. Could you tell me how you would describe that structure? I often call it 'fractured' or 'splintered', but that doesn't seem to do it justice. Also, could you comment on how you came to use that particular structure and if you had considered anything more traditional/usual?
A. JonMcGregor: Thanks for this - I really appreciate it. Not sure how I'd describe the structure of Even The Dogs, in part because each of the five chapters has a different structure anyway. But I guess the recurring style would be something like 'broken' - lots of sentences that trail out, lots of stories that don't tie together.
The style in each chapter is linked to the theme, eg the first chapter is about the body being discovered, so much of the narrative is revelatory (the layers peeling back, literally in the case of the wallpaper). The second chapter is about the body being carried across town, which mirrors Danny's journey to find his dealer, so the prose is very restless and rapid; the third chapter is the body in the morgue, and takes on the feel of a wake, and the stories are all characterised by waiting.
Q. 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?
A. JonMcGregor: 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.
Q. GeraldineMumsnet: What's your favourite book title? And how do you come up with your unusual titles?
A. JonMcGregor: 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.
Q. TractorKate: I'm a fan of If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things. I thought you captured the students packing up to leave their student home spot on - the memories of packing up and not having a clue where you were going. Do you have any other novels in the pipeline?
A. JonMcGregor: I can concede now, a decade or so later, that a lot of the student stuff in that book was pretty autobiographical - if not actually my own experience then the experience I was seeing around me. Other novels in the pipeline? Yep. Getting there. I can't tell you anything about it/them though. Official Secrets.
Q. pillowcase: I see you're hosting an event with George Saunders soon for writers and artists I think. What will that entail and have you done similar before?
A. JonMcGregor: I am so excited about this. George Saunders is a hero of mine. I'm hosting a reading with him in Nottingham and then one at the Southbank in London. I'll ask him some questions, and get him to read some of his stories. I'll try and get to the bottom of what makes his stories so great, and attempt to learn a bit more about how he goes about putting them together.
Q. HormonalHousewife: I was wondering how you feel about printed 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? Can you also explain your thinking on the subheadings on each chapter?
Finally, can Fleeting Complexity really be considered a short story? Do you have any personal experiences that you lean on to help write any of these stories? And can you explain why you added the final chapter, Memorial Stone?
A. JonMcGregor: 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.
One of my disappointments with the Kindle in particular is that by allowing the reader to choose the font and type-size, 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. The sub-headings in Memorial Stone are the names of the places where each story is set.
I think Fleeing Complexity is a short story, 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.
There's an apocalyptic/flood undertone to the collection, which becomes heightened towards the end of the book, and the idea in Memorial Stone is that this is a list of places that 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!
Q. Lilibet: Firstly, on the cover of my book it talks 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 publisher's interpretation? Second, when does a short story stop being a short story?
A. JonMcGregor: Well, Fleeing Complexity mentions 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 that can be read in a single sitting. Of course, there's a huge flexibility in that; it depends on your reader's patience. In 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.
Q. gazzalw: East Anglia is quite an oppressive and claustrophobic environment in which to live. Did you choose it purposefully for these rather unsettling stories? Are you native-born or have you spent years living there?
A. JonMcGregor: 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.
Q. Hullygully: Was the concept of the boy setting fire to a barn influenced by Stephen King's Firestarter?
A. JonMcGregor: No: by the Prodigy song of the same title.
Q. TillyBookClub: I have just read the essay on Wires, and I felt the character's victimisation by all these men very strongly, but I couldn't work out whether she'd already had her epiphany and was therefore over the 'wire', and could prevent these men from harming her or if she was still uncertain and under their control.
A. JonMcGregor: 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 she'll be more wary of strangers. It's a moment I think most of us can point to at some time in our youth: for the lucky majority, that moment is nothing more than a cautionary tale.