The Books Interview: Jon McGregor

How did you research heroin addiction for your new novel, Even the Dogs?
I knew the novel would require a lot of research, which put me off writing it for a while. For the representation of death and dead bodies, mortuaries and post-mortem examinations I looked at medical textbooks, spoke with a pathologist and a coroner, sat in on some inquests and visited the coroner's court. For the lifestyle of heroin addiction, alcoholism and living on the streets I spoke with some ex-heroin addicts about the logistics of buying heroin, injecting it, what withdrawal feels like, what hostels and day centres are like and so on. I also spoke to various professionals - from GPs and nurses to rehab workers - and sent early drafts to the people I'd spoken with for feedback. I wanted the novel to feel realistic to people who have experienced homelessness or drug-use without explaining things too much to people who haven't. David Simon's book Homicide: A Year of Killing on the Streets showed me that you don't have to spell everything out for the reader.

What made you connect homelessness with the war in Afghanistan?
The section of the novel that deals with the war in Afghanistan actually feels more relevant now and more of a news priority than when I wrote it in late 2007. But really, it was less that I wanted to make a broader political critique and more the case that if you're going to write about a group of homeless characters, at least one of them needs to be ex-military because there are a lot of ex-military people on the streets - that's just how it is. The connection between heroin and Afghanistan seemed like an obvious as well as an interesting image to work with. But I leave the reader to their own conclusions.

Does the anonymity of modern urban living bother you?
The idea that people can live next door and not know each other's names did bother me, and still does. It was something I was thinking about a lot when I was writing If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (2002). Having said that, I didn't want to write an inner city novel about drugs and poverty and crime because it seemed like too restrictive a focus and plenty of young British writers were preoccupied with it at the time. When I was writing my second novel, So Many Ways to Begin in 2005, I was interested in the processes of constructing self-identity involved in any migration - whether national or transnational. But talking about the "sense of community" is like talking about "the sense of national identity" - as soon as people start to talk about Britishness they refer to ludicrous ideas like "fair play" which is nonsense. What does it mean? Do Germans, therefore, or Indians not have "fair play"? Or what about the lack of "fair play" committed by the empire - it seems laughable.

How do you feel about the "state of the nation" novel?
It amuses me that the definition of a "state of the nation" novel seems to be people sitting around a dinner table talking about the nation, about politics, and then you have a couple of scenes in a strike picket and a couple of scenes in a factory and that's the state of the nation. That's Politics (with a capital "P"), Westminster politics. Using a novel as a vehicle for your own commentary doesn't seem very interesting to me. My definition of good writing would be not allowing cliché or generic stock types to take over a character, but to always represent characters as unique, with their own story. But people's politics and their personal lives - they're usually intertwined aren't they?

Is there a place for politics in fiction?
From a creative point of view it's very dangerous to set out with a political agenda because you almost inevitably bend the characters to your own perspective, rather than letting the story take priority. Which doesn't mean I think fiction should be a politics-free zone. In Even the Dogs I wanted to put the story first and let the politics emerge naturally - there's plenty in the book for the reader to think "that sucks, that's not right..."

What is it about failed lives that interest you?
I'm interested in the difference between romance and real life, the disjunction between everybody's storytelling and what really pans out. Accompanied by this is the idea that heroism lies in making the most of what ends up being actually the case - people's acceptance of second best, of life not going the way you thought it was going to but you adapt all the same.

Your father was a vicar. Would you describe yourself as religious?
I've started describing myself as a "secular Christian." I suddenly realised a few years ago that it's perfectly normal for people to describe themselves as a secular Jew or a secular Muslim as a way of claiming these heritages whilst being very clear about their atheism. Although I no longer have spiritual faith, I'm still very fond of the imagery and values in the Biblical storytelling tradition. For me, the Gospels remain a useful model for twenty-first-century living.

"Even the Dogs" is published by Bloomsbury (£12.99)