Time Marches On: An Interview with Jon McGregor

Left: Jon McGregor. Right: George Saunders.

Jon McGregor is a fiercely intelligent, very deep well of an (English) human and writer. I’ve spent some of my most memorable moments in that country on stages with Jon, benefitting from the original and soulful way he thinks and talks about fiction. I’ve recently spent a similarly memorable and transcendent moment with him via his astonishing new novel, Reservoir 13—a strange, daring, and very moving book. For me, fiction is here to create a compressed, distorted scale model that helps us see the real world anew. Reservoir 13 does this, and in a truly original way—its scale and the way time works within it combine to mimic, with rare fidelity, the way things are in reality, and the way real life, lived, actually feels. And it is this fidelity that, paradoxically, allows us to see how very weird and impermanent and unreliable and unreal so-called reality is. The book is a rare and dazzling feat of art that also (in my reading of it) outs us, in a gentle way, for a certain gratuitous drama-seeking tendency we all tend to have as readers—a tendency that makes it harder to see the very real, consequential, beautiful, and human-scaled dramas occurring all around us in real life, in every moment (in nature, in human affairs).  

I spoke with Jon on a good, old-fashioned landline; I was calling from Corralitos, California, and I imagined him (in spite of the fact that he told me very clearly that he was in his office, in the university where he teaches, in Nottingham) sitting in a pub in an archetypal English village like the one described in the book—a village that is still haunting me, and which, because of the rich detail of the prose, I feel I’ve lived in before, and for which, on closing the book, I found myself homesick.

INTERVIEWER

Now, let me just say you did something really innovative to my reading in terms of suspense. There’s something that drives us through the book—I think it’s sometimes called a MacGuffin, you know, the thing we’re supposed to be concerned with. But in the meantime, real life is playing out in this village at just the scale and pace that life actually plays out. We fall in love with the town. We fall in love with the people. And although there are incidents, they’re human-scaled. Do you agree with me that this is really a radical subversion of the tyranny of plot? How did that idea work its way into the book?

MCGREGOR

The first thing people notice about this book is there’s a teenage girl who goes missing, and there’s a search, and the police come out, and there’s an investigation, and so on. The reader is expecting a resolution, waiting for those lines of inquiry to be resolved, but there’s very little progress in the investigation. And I knew right from the outset that that was what the story was. I was more interested in what happens when someone stays missing. That’s as much, if not more, of a tragedy than the other possible outcomes. But I was aware that there would be some readers who would be drumming their fingers on the table, saying, Okay, come on. And I wanted to push back against that and say, Look at all this other stuff that is going on.

INTERVIEWER

Right, right.

MCGREGOR

And then the second thing actually happened by accident, once I’d set up my structure for the story. I had it taking place over thirteen years, composed of thirteen fairly equal months, and so I had to keep to that measured passing of time. As a writer, any time something dramatic happens, your instinct is to spend a number of pages on that incident. But when I was writing, say, February, I kept finding, This couple is going to get married, this couple is going to split up, this boy has fallen off a rock, but I’ve only got two pages to tell those stories. I had to leave it, and wait a year, and see what they looked like a year later. And that became a really interesting way of looking at narrative. These things in our lives sometimes take years to play out, and I hadn’t really thought about that before. I tricked myself into seeing it.

INTERVIEWER

One thing that is so powerful about this book is the form in which you chose to tell it. I would characterize it as a kind of community voice, a god’s-eye view that is roaming around the town. It gives you so much flexibility. You can go into a character’s thoughts, come out, go and observe wildlife and the fields. Can you talk to me about this darting narrative eye?

MCGREGOR

The key thing, for me, was realizing that I wanted to tell not just the stories of the human characters but of all the wildlife and everything. People’s working routines, the water levels in the reservoirs, the weather. I wanted all of those elements to have the same prominence and equivalence. I wanted to give myself license to roam around and drop in and out of all those perspectives.

INTERVIEWER

I think this was one of the most beautiful portraits of a community, in the broadest sense, that I’ve ever read. To go back to the idea of nature—and this is sort of a writerly question—how did you come by that incredible knowledge of nature that you have? It kind of blew me away. Is that something you knew before you started this book? Are you a nature person?

MCGREGOR

No, I’m really not. You know, I’m someone who likes nature. I can go for a walk and say, Well, there’s a brown bird over there, there’s a tall tree over there, there are some black clouds, it might start raining … I like being out in the hills, but I don’t know anything about what I’m seeing. So this was all reading and research, googling, and lots of fact-checking afterward with people who do know this stuff properly.

And to be honest, it’s a lot of smoke and mirrors as well. There’s not a ton of detail about any one thing. There are a ton of things about which there is some detail. Take the blackbirds for example. When do they nest, when do they lay their eggs, what color are the eggs. There’s that small amount of detail about a lot of things. Then the picture becomes quite rich without ever, hopefully, leaving people feeling bogged down.

INTERVIEWER

Did you compile that information and then disseminate it throughout the book? And if so, did you have a master outline of this many-year-long period that you were dropping things into, or did it proceed more organically?

MCGREGOR

Well, I wrote everything out of sequence basically, and then put it together across the thirteen years of the novel. So for each of the human characters, I wrote these episodic storylines. For each of the animals, as well. The foxes have thirteen little episodes in their lifespan. I wrote a whole string of passages about a day in the life of a dairy farmer. And then a bunch of stuff that wasn’t time specific but was just thirteen different ways of describing rain or snow or floods.

INTERVIEWER

So these weren’t just notes on thirteen things that foxes can do but were instead written in the beautiful, high-level prose that appears in the book?

MCGREGOR

I wanted to get the sentences right first and worry about the pace and the rhythm and the structure later. So, yes, a lot of what I wrote in the first instance, completely out of sequence, survived into later drafts. There was obviously lots of tweaking later, but I was concentrating on that kind of sentence-level writing first of all.

INTERVIEWER

What did writing this book teach you—formally, stylistically, and also in terms of your understanding of our life here on earth? Does your fiction work that way? Do you come in one person and come out a different one at the end of a project?

MCGREGOR

Wow. That’s a really interesting question. I mean, certainly in terms of craft, I feel like I learned a lot while I was writing this book. It took a really long time. There were lots of interruptions.

INTERVIEWER

How long did it take you?

MCGREGOR

Probably seven or eight years from start to finish, but there were long periods during that time when I wasn’t working on it. And actually, that was great, to be able to come back to something after it’s been in the drawer for a year or two and look at it afresh. But it certainly taught me about allowing time to pass in a narrative the way it passes in real life, in this relentless way. You can’t stop and mull over what’s happening because you’ve got to get up the next day and get on with life. It taught me a love for the non sequitur—you don’t have to hold the reader by the hand and lead them from one scene to the next. You can just go, Dun, dun, dun, dun—this is happening, that’s happening, over there something else is happening, back over here this is still happening …

INTERVIEWER

Nabokov once said that in Tolstoy’s work you see the most accurate representation of time passing as it actually passes. And I had that feeling in your book for just the reason you described. There was no feeling of the author rigging the system to slow time down. Time just marched on. And that gave me a very beautiful sense of the way people actually decide things and the way love actually happens and the way  things that in retrospect look like fate are actually sometimes quite circumstantial.

MCGREGOR

I was trying to remember where the impulse for doing that came from. I don’t know. I think it was as basic as I’d written a whole bunch of these separate narrative lines, I stuck them all together to see what would happen, and I really liked the way that felt on the page. The one thing, then the other thing, then meanwhile this thing is still happening. It just felt good in a way I didn’t really understand.

INTERVIEWER

Finishing the book, I am feeling so hungry for these people, and I want to get back into that village and just stay there. I think the book is a masterpiece. But are there things we should talk about that I missed?

MCGREGOR

You didn’t ask me about semicolons.

INTERVIEWER

About who?

MCGREGOR

Semicolons.

INTERVIEWER

Oh, no. And I never will.

Jon McGregor will be reading and in conversation with Teju Cole at Books Are Magic in New York City on October 27.

George Saunders’s most recent book, Lincoln in the Bardo, won the Man Booker Prize. He is the author of nine books, including Tenth of December, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the inaugural Folio Prize and the Story Prize. He has received MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships, the PEN/Malamud Award for excellence in the short story, and was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He teaches creative writing at Syracuse University.

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