Jon McGregor
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Jon McGregor: I wanted to show how we normalise male violence

The author of Goldsmiths Prize-nominated Reservoir 13 on domestic abuse, following farmers on Twitter and building a novel with ring-binders and Sellotape.

This is the sixth in a series of interviews with the writers shortlisted for the 2017 Goldsmiths Prize, run in association with the New Statesman.

Jon McGregor was born in Bermuda in 1976, and grew up in London and Norfolk. His first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things – following several characters over the course of a single day in a suburban street – was published in 2002: at 26, McGregor became the youngest author longlisted for the Man Booker in the history of the prize.

His fourth novel, Reservoir 13, is also a group narrative: set in a village in the Peak District, it begins with the disappearance of a girl and, in 13 chapters each starting with the turning of the year, uses the ripples of that event to build up a portrait of a community and its environment. Though in some ways a “quiet” book, the structure is remarkably original: McGregor’s prose moves in deliberate non-sequiturs, shifting from character to character, human to animal, ground to sky, without the signposting of paragraph breaks or thematically linked transitions. Reservoir 13 is a compelling, moving novel that finds both grief and wonder in the steady turning of the years and shows how the land and its inhabitants are not separate but part of a continuum of life. Here, Jon McGregor tells me about the book’s composition and his inspirations.

The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovative” approach offer the reader (and writer) that a more conventional novel might not?

I know that when I'm reading one of the first things I look for is a sign that the writer cares about the reader's experience; and that often this care is demonstrated by an attention to form. “Innovation” should be implicit in the act of writing, or at least in the process of rewriting; the writer should have something they want to share with the reader, in a way that feels fresh or new or special. This doesn't have to mean typographical hi-jinx or broken syntax (although those things can often be fun). The innovation can be as simple as a new way of describing a blade of grass.

The narrative of Reservoir 13 flits not only from character to character but from to human to animal and land to sky. What came first: the desire to experiment with this multi-focal technique or the narrative spark of the missing girl? And how did you go about structuring your material?

The narrative spark came first. And it was only once I realised that I'd landed myself with a rural novel that I understood how fully I wanted to immerse the reader in the landscape and the multiplicity of lives lived there. I imagine it's similar when an artist makes a drawing of a landscape – it's only once you start hatching in the detail that you realise how many rocks and trees and grasses and birds there actually are.

The structuring came after the writing, mostly. I wrote a series of texts for each character, animal, plant, weather condition, work routine, village tradition, location, etc (statisticians might care to know that there were 13 of these categories, with 13 examples in each category...) and once I was done I laid that text out across my timeline of 13 years. There were a lot of ring-binders involved, and scissors and Sellotape. It was rather chaotic, but I quite quickly landed on the rhythm I was looking for – the rhythm of the non-sequitur, where things are just happening one after the other and in fact one and the other at the same time, without having to gently guide the reader between events and observations. Readers are a lot smarter than writers sometimes think.

Are there any books you admire that have a similar approach or did you feel you were sailing in not-very-well-charted waters?

In terms of the reader not having their hand held – and in terms of a lot of other things – John McGahern's novel That They May Face the Rising Sun was instrumental for me in showing the way. And I think Alice Oswald's book-length poem, Dart, showed me the power of a good non-sequitur. But I did partly feel that I'd stumbled on something that was new to me, and that was part of the pleasure/anxiety of the process.

As well as the individual characters you give the village a communal voice, often expressed in the passive form: “It was noticed that Martin was often away from the house”, for example. Is that reflecting something you’ve noticed about this type of community?

I don't know much about small village life, in all honesty. But enough people from small villages have said that this chimes with them to make me feel it was a gamble I got away with. It just seemed apparent to me that any small community functions by gossip and hearsay, and that the English version of gossip and hearsay often involves a disavowal of that gossip. So it would never be "I saw Martin at the pub again," but "people have been saying Martin's down at the pub a lot".

The novel is precise on the behaviour of animals and the business of farming, among other things. Are you already steeped in these things or did you have to do some focused research?

Research. And probably a lot less research than people might think. It's mostly smoke and mirrors – there's a small amount of detail about a lot of things, rather than the other way round. I know the Peak District as an area to walk and cycle in, and I like to think I know my wild garlic from my snowdrops, but other than that it was all reading and Googling and following farmers on Twitter. There are a lot of farmers on Twitter. I also took a lot of corrections from people who know their stuff; shout out to Melissa Harrison here, just for starters.

It’s striking how the outside world and its events and politics barely intrude on the village, apart from odd moments such as images of an earthquake on television or a dance held in aid of Amnesty. Did that come from your allergy to making points or tackling “issues” in your fiction?

I do kind of wish I'd never said that; not least because people keep pointing out the issues that have in fact surfaced in my fiction. Anyway: I did make a conscious decision to date this novel after the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001, because it would have dominated the narrative. And I'm glad that it closes before the Brexit referendum, for the same reason. Other news events were kept to the margins because once you start featuring them it becomes difficult to draw boundaries. And also because most of the time, most people talk about the news a lot less than some people think. This was a novel about one village, not about the world.

Paul Kingsnorth has written that we should reclaim the word “parochialism” – it’s an important state of knowing where you are, and needn’t imply narrow-mindedness. What do you think?

Well, I've always found that school of living on and writing about the land to be appealing; Wendell Berry and Roger Deakin are the examples I know, although I'm sure there are more. That idea that you stay in one place, and get to know it deeply, makes a lot of sense. It's one obvious way of cultivating a sense of place, and a sense of community. You have to stay put to get to know your neighbours, and you have to stay put to harvest the asparagus. But on the other hand, there may be a thin line between “reclaiming” the idea of parochialism, and privileging it. A lot of people don't get to stay put, and a lot of people don't find their community in one place. And, you know, historically speaking, the rates of consanguinity fell dramatically when bikes were invented. Mobility is also a good thing.

Though it’s often latent, there’s a theme of male violence – physical or emotional abuse – running through the novel. Did that take you by surprise?

No more than it would have taken me by surprise if I’d written a scene with bears defecating in the woods, no. Becky’s disappearance is marked, at the start of the novel, with a great deal of media attention; but there is rarely the same media attention for the women killed every week by partners and ex-partners. And there is very little discussion of the many forms of emotional abuse and controlling behaviour which blight so many family relationships. I wanted to make these things apparent in the novel, and to make the tolerance of them visible, along with the conversations which men use to normalise these behaviours. “Some 13-year-olds look a lot older,” say the men in the pub, nodding to each other. Maybe I overdid the tolerance and the normalisation though, because very few readers or reviewers have picked up on this aspect of the novel. Is violence really that invisible?

What continuities do you see between Reservoir 13 and your first novel If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things?

Well, yes, I guess there are similarities in the depiction of a community, in the kind of roving-eye perspective, in the sense of detail. But one of them was written 16 years ago, so I hope you'll forgive me for thinking that the newer book is, well... better.

Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you in the writing of this book.

Tom Drury's Grouse County novels. The Sandra Salvas photo I've used on the epigraph page. Diamond Mine by Jon Hopkins and King Creosote. Parks and Recreation.

With longform television, podcasts and social media, people get their narrative from all sorts of sources now. Why does the novel still matter?

Well, it does a little depend what you mean by “matter”. I can agree with Will Self on this; that the novel no longer has the cultural centrality it was once perceived as having. But people still read fiction, and they read it because the physical and psychological experience is essentially different from other narrative forms – the way the brain engages with written narrative, with the reader doing so much of their own imaginative work, is just different. People value that, and will continue to value that. I think the growth of other narrative forms, and in particular the return of complexity and nuance to other narrative forms, is a very welcome thing.

What past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize? Why?

The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien? How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman? Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry by Leanne Shapton? And OK that last one isn't British or Irish. But can we talk about what you mean by “deserves”, anyway?

“Reservoir 13” is published by Fourth Estate

Read the New Statesman's reviews of all six novels on the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist here

Sara Baume Q&A: “The only right way of writing is to follow your interests with conviction”

Nicola Barker Q&A: “I’m a niche writer and see no harm in it. I like niches”

Listen to The Back Half podcast’s special episode on the Goldsmiths Prize nominees, on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.


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Smart and politically alert, Black Panther will inspire a generation of film students

Plus, Wakanda has a border control system to make Theresa May swoon. 

Before I went to see Black Panther, I had no idea whether or not it would be any good. That might sound strange, given the positive buzz around it, but I did have a nagging suspicion that “being nice about the first black-led Marvel film” might have got mixed up with “parading my anti-racist credentials on social media”.

Well, that suspicion was an unworthy one. Black Panther is not just smart and politically aware for a superhero film – it’s smart and politically aware, full stop. Its central conflict springs from its alternate-reality vision of Africa: specifically, a country called Wakanda, home of the world’s only reserves of “vibranium”. This has allowed Wakanda to become more technologically advanced than the West – “it’s as easy as riding a hoverbike”, the country’s chief scientist says to a bemused American at one point – and it has not only never been colonised, but never been mapped. It hides its lush plains and skyscrapers inside a holographic mountain.

A rare, mystical natural resource might be a staple of fantasy films (think of Avatar’s Ronsealishly named unobtainium), but putting it in the middle of Africa gives the film both a historical resonance – untold misery was caused by the 19th century efforts of European powers to secure the continent’s mineral wealth – and a contemporary one. It’s impossible to make a smartphone without rare earth metals, and some of the places where these are found, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, suffer from what economists call a “resource curse”. Without strong governments and infrastructure, the vast wealth obtainable by mining creates opportunities for corruption, and funds militias and civil wars.

Rare resources also attract vultures: which is exactly what Wakanda’s rulers fear. If they share the source of their power,  and give away their only advantage over the West, how will they be treated? A glance at their continental neighbours would be anything but reassuring.

That question – could you honestly advise Wakanda to share its vibranium with the world? – is interesting enough. But the film’s politics go even deeper, into uncomfortable questions about culture and immigration. All Wakandans have a tattoo on their inner lips, which grants them access to the kingdom: it’s a border control system that would make Theresa May swoon.

Early in the film, King T’Challa (whose alter ego is the superhero Black Panther) discusses with one of his closest advisers whether or not they have a duty to their fellow Africans, particularly refugees. W’Kabi (played by 28-year-old British actor Daniel Kaluuya) offers an argument we are more used to hearing from Trump voters in those worthy American newspaper profiles of flyover states: won’t mass migration mean the end of our unique culture? Putting that sentiment in the mouth of someone from an uncolonised African country is deeply provocative, helping audiences scale what the anthropologist Arlie Russell Hoschchild calls an “empathy wall”. The film ultimately rejects W’Kabi’s position, but it does give it space to be heard.

There’s another layer of sophistication to the political allegory here. The film’s true villain is not the white South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (although the parents who gave him that name really only have themselves to blame that he turned to crime and prosthetic augmentation). It’s the deeply conflicted figure of Killmonger, King T’Challa’s first cousin.

 Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) fights T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). Photo: Marvel.

The king’s father killed his own brother back in 1992 after discovering that he had arranged the theft of a cache of vibranium. The plan was to distribute it to black people around the world, so they could rise up against their (white) oppressors. “I think the best villains are ones that have a point of view that’s relatable and that you can empathise with,” screenwriter Joe Robert Cole said in a recent interview. “Sometimes it’s how far you take things that makes you a villain, and not necessarily the perspective.”

Again, the film gives Killmonger’s argument space to breathe. Raised by a single mother in America, when his dead father asks him in a vision why he has no tears for him, he says that life is cheap here, meaning: black life. The Wakandans are not pacifists – Black Panther can, and will, kill people with his claws – but Killmonger experiences violence as chaotic, meaningless and random. He has been brutalised by the reality of life as a black man in America, and later as a soldier in America’s foreign wars. How radical is that: a $200m Hollywood film where the villain is a personification of America’s domestic and foreign policy?

There is so much more richness in the movie that (I hope) it will inspire a generation of film students. How should we react to a king and his subjects making monkey noises at someone in an ethnic minority, trying to intimidate him into silence? (In this case Martin Freeman’s white CIA agent.) How do black Africans feel about the film’s essentially American perspective, implying a commonality between black citizens in countries with such huge disparities in average income? How do the kind of internet writers who worry about “cultural appropriation” feel about a cast which includes black British, West Indian, Zimbabwean-American and German actors doing Xhosa accents? (“The implicit statement in both the film’s themes and its casting is that there is a connection, however vexed, tenuous, and complicated, among the continent’s scattered descendants,” noted Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker.)

As a white British viewer, the most uncomfortable moment for me was when Killmonger promises that the “sun will never set” on the new Wakandan empire. It reminded me of the developed world’s anxious hope for the future: that the rising nations of the world will treat us better in their pomp than we treated them in ours.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia