Webchat with Jonathan Coe
Acclaimed author of The Rotters' Club and What a Carve Up!, Jonathan Coe joined Mumsnet Bookclub on Tuesday 1 July 2008 to discuss his latest novel The Rain Before It Falls. This is an edited transcript of the discussion.
Jonathan Coe: Hello everyone. What a weird experience this is. Have never done this before.
Characters in The Rain Before It Falls
lalaa: I found I liked Rosamund less and less as the book progressed. I found her to be very self-orientated and I began to feel quite angry with her. There were points in the narrative after Thea's return to her mother where I was thinking why would Rosamund want to tell Imogen this apart from to make herself feel better? My question to Jonathan is, did you intend to make the reader feel this way? (Or was it just me?!)
Jonathan Coe: Since it was published I've found that readers of the novel divide into two groups: those who like Rosamond, and those who don't. Personally, I'm in the first of these groups, but that doesn't make either of them 'right'. Certainly her motives are ambiguous. She says that she wants Imogen to know the truth, but, as you say, she is also telling this story in order to make herself feel better. My own view is that, at the end of her life, after the disappointments she's had, she's entitled to do that. Also I think there is ambiguity about whether she really expects Imogen to hear the tapes, and therefore who she is talking to - to Imogen, or to herself? So her position is unclear, and the status of the narrative is unclear. What I didn't want, though, was for her to be a straightforward "unreliable narrator", whose version of events has to be decoded or seen through. Sometimes she is reliable, sometimes she isn't.
TillyBookClub: Does Rosamund blame herself for Imogen's blindness?
Jonathan Coe: No, I don't think Rosamond blames herself for Imogen's blindness. Maybe she should, but she doesn't go in for self-blame much.
CristinaTheAstonishing: I really liked the writing. I could "hear" Rosamond speaking and it felt authentic to me. Amazing what good education you could find on the outskirts of Birmingham. Or maybe it was the many years in publishing that gave her such a good way with words. The bit at the end where everything gets tied up - Imogen's death, that blackbird falling on the car - I think the book didn't really need that. I was surprised to see them thrown in, too irrational compared to the writing style before it. Also the chase of the dogs, I don't think the book needed that either. I think Rosamond mentioned at some stage she had no interest in politics but I was still surprised to see no mention at all. Why did you go for such a predictable lifestyle for Rosamond? In publishing, partner an artist, living in Hampstead.
Jonathan Coe: Yes, you're not alone in feeling that about the ending. It feels absolutely right to me, but I know some readers find it too pat. Tastes differ, etc. The blackbird falling is another Rosamond Lehmann reference by the way - it's from her memoir The Swan in the Evening, when she describes how she found out about (or intuited) her own daughter's death on the other side of the world. I used her own exact words in the description.
The chase of the dogs is a story from my own family. It has personal significance for me, which was maybe why I dwelt on it so much. I just couldn't find room for any politics in this one. I wanted to keep it short. (Although there is a lot of family politics, of course.)
I didn't want Rosamond's career, or her main live-in relationship, to interest the reader at all. To me they're completely incidental to the main narrative of her life. So I decided to give her a fairly cliched "backstory" which would not distract the reader's attention at all. Oh, and I made Ruth a painter simply because I wanted one of the pictures described to be a painting.
TillyBookClub: Is Beatrix really the love of Rosamund's life?
Jonathan Coe: I see Rebecca as the love of her life, not Beatrix, but feel free to see otherwise!
mimizan: I found Rosamond a likeable character until the end of her relationship with Rebecca. After that she seemed very needy and self-absorbed. Her concern for Thea and Imogen seemed to be more about meeting her own needs. Was this intentional?
Jonathan Coe: Yes, I suppose so. At least, I'm sorry if you lose sympathy with her altogether from that point, but certainly her life from then on becomes overshadowed by this terrible sense of loss and it does make her self-absorbed and a bit self-pitying. She's been depressed for about forty years, really, by the time she starts narrating.
CristinaTheAstonishing: Can you have a long-term love & partnership with someone, like Rosamond and Ruth, while keeping big secrets from each other (Rebecca)?
Jonathan Coe: Well, it turns out in the last of Rosamond's chapters that Ruth has known all along that Rosamond had a greater love, which she has never spoken about, and that she (Ruth) was second best. She doesn't know the name, but she has sensed (and lived with) the existence of this other grand passion all along. So it has never really been a secret between them.
TillyBookclub: The pattern that Rosamund describes as the 'meaning behind everything' the cycle of abuse, or is she trying to make some sense of it all? Is she making things worse or better by trying to pass on all this information?
Jonathan Coe: I think she is (perhaps misguidedly) trying to make things better by passing on all this information - she's trying to find a pattern to her life's experience in the largest sense. But she's telling the story to help herself as much as she is to enlighten Imogen, I think.
billybass: Who was your favourite character in The Rain Before It Falls and why?
Jonathan Coe: My favourite character? Well, Rosamond is the one I lived with, and spoke through, for the 18 months or so that I spent writing it, so she is certainly the one I feel closest to - with all her faults. And I tend to fall in love with at least one of my female characters while I'm writing a book - in this case it was Rebecca. (Not named after Rebecca West by the way - nor is Ivy named after Ivy Compton-Burnett. Funny how the coincidences pile up.)
Inspiration behind The Rain Before It Falls
lalaa: What led you to choose the device of using photographs to map out the narrative?
Jonathan Coe: Two things. One was a general sense that there hadn't been enough (or even any) visual description in my earlier books - where the stories tend to be driven by dialogue - and this time I wanted to do something different. The other was the experience of looking through old family photograph albums with my own young daughters, telling them the stories behind each photograph, and realising that in this way it was possible to construct a whole family history from photographic sources. (Because I don't come from a family who use the written word very much, and there are hardly any letters or anything like that between my parents or grandparents.)
lemurtamer: What makes a male author want to write as a female narrator, especially a lesbian one? I don't mean that as a criticism, as I didn't wonder this while reading the book.
Jonathan Coe: I write novels in order to escape myself (I think most writers do that, to one degree or another) and so writing in the voice of a female character is a way of slipping out of my own gender for a few hours every day. A great relief sometimes, I can tell you! I made her a lesbian partly because of the undercurrent of that in some of Rosamond Lehmann's fiction (esp. Dusty Answer) but also for obvious plot reasons - I wanted her to be childless, to be situated outside the traditional nuclear family and yearningly looking in.
Novelists who inspire Jonathan Coe
snowleopard: I wonder which other novelists you admire and what you think of recent novels generally - as yours always seem so different and not influenced by trends or other leading novelists.
Jonathan Coe: I like Kazuo Ishiguro, Scarlett Thomas, Charlotte Mendelson, Joanne Briscoe, Haruki Murakami, Alasdair Gray, loads of others. I get sent a lot of novels by publishers and I must say enough good ones come through my letterbox each week to make me think the novel is in reasonably good shape. Catherine O'Flynn was one which came that way - she's great.
mimizan: I read Notes From an Exhibition by Patrick Gale just before your book, and I found there were quite a few similarities. Have you read it?
Jonathan Coe: No, but I want to. He's another contemporary author I always try to keep up with. I've heard there are similarities between the two books, because his and mine went head-to-head for a place on Richard and Judy. He won. Of course, I'd be bitter about it if he wasn't such a lovely man.
Previous novels by Jonathan Coe
squonk: There are a couple of us here tonight who have only read this one book of yours. We are going to rectify that situation forthwith, of course. What would you recommend that we start with?
Jonathan Coe: I don't know - if you liked this one, try The House of Sleep maybe. I've got a soft spot for The Rotters' Club because it's largely about my adolescence. What a Carve Up, as someone mentioned earlier, is quite a bleak and angry book by comparison, although it's got some jokes in. (It's not really one of my own favourites.) Depends what sort of thing you like...
Pruners: Were you inspired to write "The Accidental Woman" by anyone in real life, or was she a composite character?
Jonathan Coe: I wrote The Accidental Woman 24 years ago, I'm really not exaggerating when I say I find it hard to remember anything about the inspiration. But no, I'm pretty sure Maria wasn't based on anyone I knew. Nice to know someone remembers the book though.
TV adaptation of The Rotter's Club
TheOldestCat: What did you think of The Rotters' Club telly adaptation'?
Jonathan Coe: I liked the Rotters' Club TV adaptation very much. I knew it could hardly go wrong once Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais were on board to write it. It was just a shame that we had 4 hours of good footage and the BBC insisted on a 3-hour series: the last episode was rushed, as a result. I think they were also disappointed in the ratings which is why a Closed Circle adaptation has never been given the go-ahead. Pity. I'm pissed off that they've never put it out on a DVD though. I think a DVD of The Rotters' Club is held up by rights issues over all the music they used on the soundtrack (very expensive to clear) and a general sense that in ratings terms it was a bit of a flop. I have the sense that the BBC feel they "did the 1970s" much better and more successfully in Life on Mars.
Popularity in France
Marina: I'd like to ask Jonathan what he feels about his popularity in France. I found it curiously funny and touching to see a copy of Les Nains de la Mort in a bookshop in Lille, alongside his more recent and extensively promoted novels. Do you get involved with the translation of your novels into French? Why do you think it is that the French "get" you and appreciate your writing? Could it be that they savoured the bleak picture of modern Britain painted in What a Carve-Up? Interesting choice of title too, Testament a l'Anglaise...
Jonathan Coe: Yes, it's very strange. My popularity in France is a mystery to me as well. I also do very well in Italy and Greece, but I've sunk like a stone in Spain and Germany. Go figure ... But actually British writing is very popular in all of those places. The shameful thing is that we don't reciprocate - when was a modern Greek novel last translated into English? It's partly to do with the cultural clout of the English language, I suppose, and the head start that this gives to British and American writing. I know the French also value (maybe more than we do) that 20th century British tradition of satire and irony which includes Evelyn Waugh, David Lodge and Tom Sharpe - all of whom are well-loved over there - and when What a Carve Up came out they saw me as falling into that tradition. The Rain Before It Falls hasn't been published there yet, and I'm a little nervous, because it's not the kind of book they'll be expecting from me. (In Italy and Greece my most popular book is The House of Sleep, so this one wasn't seen as so much of a departure.)
I don't get involved with the translation at all. I'm friends with my translators, who are a very nice married couple from Paris, but I don't interfere with their work. My French is terrible anyway.
CristinaTheAstonishing: What are you reading to your daughters at the moment? (If they're still young enough to be read books.)
Jonathan Coe: No, they're both reading for themselves now. My seven year old has just finished Cliffhanger by Jacqueline Wilson (v funny), and my ten year old has just read a novel called The Breadwinner. Can't remember the author, but she said it was brilliant.
Pruners: Jonathan, your novels have been quite varied in terms of style and subject matter - what's next?
Jonathan Coe: After concentrating on mothers and daughters in this latest one, I'm trying to get started on a novel about a father-son relationship. But it looks like being back to the tone and scale of my earlier books - a big narrative, lots of characters, plenty of comic scenes, and so on. And a contemporary setting. Funnily enough he becomes addicted to an internet discussion group a bit like this one.
TillyBookClub: We should call it a day and let Jonathan get to bed (or at least go and pour himself a very large drink). Jonathan, thank you so much for talking to us all. It has been brilliant. Hope the experience has given you some valuable material for the next book.
Jonathan Coe: A large drink, what a great idea Tilly. Thanks to everyone for their questions. It wasn't quite the ordeal I was expecting. Goodnight everyone! Oh, and by the way, to the poster who asked me if I'm coming back to Bordeaux: yes, if the owners of that lovely cinema invite me again. (Which, so far, they haven't.)