Jonathan Taylor is a novelist, memoirist, poet, editor, critic and lecturer. His books include the novels Entertaining Strangers (Salt Publishing, 2012) and Melissa (Salt, 2015), the memoir Take Me Home: Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself (Granta Books, 2007), the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring Press, 2013), and the short story collection Kontakte and Other Stories (Roman Books, 2013). Both novels have been shortlisted for the East Midlands Book Award. He is editor of the anthology Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud (Salt, 2012), winner of the Saboteur Award for Best Fiction Anthology, 2013. He is Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester in the UK, and co-director of arts organisation and small publisher Crystal Clear Creators.
What inspired you to start writing?
I think like a lot of people I grew up surrounded by people telling stories (teachers, family, friends) – some true, some fabrications. They didn’t necessarily know that they were storytellers – most storytelling is, in fact, unconscious. But I picked up this penchant for narrative. For many years, I wasn’t very academic at school – in a sense, the only thing I really understood was storytelling. From very early on, it was noticed that even when writing up science experiments, I’d retell them as stories; I could only understand simple times-tables in terms of made-up narratives and imagery. In a way, I’ve carried on like this: I still believe all forms of human knowledge, consciousness itself, bear traces of storytelling. This is how human beings understand the world – through narrative. Many people, of course, have said this – that ‘stories are everywhere.’ Stories form the skeletons of all our modes of knowing: music embodies kinds of narratives; science is a narrative; even visual art has its stories. Narrative is also the basis of all genres of writing: the distinction between ‘narrative poetry’ and ‘lyric poetry’ is totally false, really. All poetry is narrative.
What did you like to read when you were a boy?
I learnt to read quite late; but by the age of ten I loved reading. I was never a ‘collector’ kind of reader like my brother, who used to read everything in a series, or everything by a particular writer. I’ve always been an eclectic reader, and I still think that – although I have to plan what I read for work and for reviewing – there is no greater pleasure than picking something up randomly because you like the cover, or are attracted by the blurb, and reading it for reading’s sake. This was how I happened across some of my favourite books. I think some of my favourite books as a child were those which mingled fantasy and reality (and clearly I’m not alone in this). ‘Magic realism,’ it seems to me, was invented by children’s literature, and there’s nothing more magical than books like Tom’s Midnight Garden, and Stig of the Dump. Even now, the intensity of feeling I get just at the mention of the names of these books surpasses almost (only almost) everything I have read since. There are no loves like first reading loves.
What is the greatest challenge in writing a book?
Continuity: creating a thread from one sentence to the next sentence to the next. This is a stylistic challenge for the most part. The best stylists have a way of leading you by the hand from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph (even where there are gaps). This is particularly the case in non-fiction, where style often takes centre stage – where style, in fact, takes on the mantle of narrative. If you’re writing a memoir, you’re sewing together often disparate fragments and memories; the only way to create an on-going narrative thread is through the style itself – through linguistic and imagistic connections.
How much research do you do before writing the book?
I think when you start a book, it is already the outcome of all your previous living, reading, thinking. In fact, this applies just as much to non-fiction as it does to fiction. So there are two types of research for a book: firstly, the cumulative, retrospective kind – that is, in a sense, your whole life (including mental life) up to the point of starting it, of hitting on the subject; and secondly the research you then have to do into the subject to shape it, make it work, understand it all from within. One form of research is unconscious, or semi-conscious, and certainly not aimed towards a particular point (i.e. writing the book); whilst the second form of research is end-orientated and very conscious – it’s all about finding out all sorts of things that you need to know: facts, histories, people, voices, registers, memories, and so on.
What motivated you to write the book “Melissa”?
I’m fascinated by the complex relationship between fiction and non-fiction, and all my books – in different ways – deal with this relationship. Both of my novels use non-fictional images as starting-points for stories – just as a composer or jazz musician might take a pre-existing theme and improvise variations around it. So for a long time I’d envisaged a novel which used non-fictional techniques to recount a strange phenomenon. Models for this kind of thing include Joan Lindsay’s wonderful book, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and, in a very different sense, certain TV programmes I grew up with, such as Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World. I started thinking seriously about Melissa in 2011, after reading Musicophilia by the wonderful Oliver Sacks – another writer who uses non-fictional material to create wonderful narratives. The stories he tells of musical hallucinations and other neurological conditions chimed with other stories I’d heard, and certain experiences of my own, growing up in Stoke-on-Trent – and eventually, this personal material coalesced with the reading to produce the fundamental image of the novel.
Can you tell us more about your latest book “Melissa”?
Melissa is set at the turn of the millennium, 1999-2000. One day, on a small street in Stoke-on-Trent, a young girl, Melissa, dies of Leukaemia; at that moment, everyone on the street experiences the same musical hallucination. They all come out of their houses, just for an hour or so, and mingle and get on. The opening of the novel is about this peculiar collective hallucination – what becomes known as ‘The Spark Close Phenomenon’ – and is told through eye-witness (and ear-witness) accounts, newspaper articles and even a neurologist’s report. Gradually, though, the story centres on the family at the heart of the phenomenon – Melissa’s family – as they struggle to come to terms with their terrible loss. The story is about grief, and the failure of grief, and the novel is structured, in part, like a piece of music, precisely because grief, I think, often has a kind of musical structure.
How did you come up with the idea of writing fiction?
I’m interested in all genres, to be honest: I believe writers should be writers, not ‘poets’ or ‘novelists’ alone. The material itself should determine what form it takes, not the ‘author.’ So some kinds of material demand fictional treatment, some poetry, some non-fiction, some a weird mixture of genres. There are even some forms of material which work equally well in different genres: there’s a story in my collection Kontakte and Other Stories, which was originally a poem; and the Afterword of my first novel was originally a chapter (which was cut) in my memoir. This is why I write, no doubt, in so many different forms: I’ve written short stories, poetry, fiction, criticism and creative non-fiction over the years, and can never quite predict what will come next. It makes life more varied. A lot of the authors I enjoy the most similarly move between different genres and forms.
Who are your favourite authors?
Well, clearly there are lots – and no doubt if you asked me this question on a different day, I’d give you different answers. I most like writers who can express multiple emotions and voices at the same time – just as musicians, through techniques like polyphony, can weave together contrasting ideas. Sometimes, I think consistency can be a bit dull, and there’s too much monovocality, too much monotonal seriousness in contemporary writing: what I want from a writer is the willingness to mix together conflicting voices, emotions, genres, even comedy and horror. It’s risky, the opposite of carefulness, and inevitably sometimes writers who do these things fall on their faces. Even Charles Dickens who is obviously a master of this kind of counterpoint – and, as a lot of people know, my very favourite author – sometimes gets it wrong, and the tones clash too much. But it’s worth the risk – it’s more aesthetically ambitious than the kind of well-crafted, quiet, controlled prose to which we’ve become accustomed (as if Trollope, not Dickens, won the day). After all, life isn’t well-formed, emotionally monolithic – so Dickens is also more truthful than most other writers. Likewise, I’m currently reading as much Shirley Jackson as I can get my hands on. She’s my current writer-crush, my new discovery, a twentieth-century American writer, most well known as a writer of weird short stories (e.g. ‘The Lottery’) and ghost stories (e.g. The Haunting of Hill House). She’s also a wonderful memoirist. She is one of the greatest writers of dialogue I’ve ever come across – and I think the ability to write good dialogue is perhaps the most important thing for any prose writer: writing seems to me to be all about the ability to inhabit different voices, and stage clashes between conflicting voices. And I love the way Shirley Jackson stages such conflicting voices: indeed, it’s often the case that the characters’ voices are sharp, sassy, ironic, down-to-earth, even domestic, whilst what’s going on around them is terrible, sublime, horrific. There’s a real sense of American patter in novels like The Haunting of Hill House, whereby the heart-breaking and terrifying narrative is overlain with witty and cutting patter. She really is a genuine polyphonist, in all senses of that word, musical and Bakhtinian.
How much time do you dedicate to writing on a daily basis?
None. I would love to be able to say that I get up at 5 a.m. to write, or am so dedicated that everything else is brushed aside. But it’s not true. I have very little time to write, and each year it gets less. I have a full-time teaching job which pays the bills, and beautiful twins (with whom, of course, I’d rather be playing than writing – who wouldn’t?). So writing is something which gets squashed to the very corners of my life. Melissa was written at night, when the twins had finally gone to sleep. It was exhausting. What this means – on the positive side of things – is that when I do get time to write, I don’t waste it. I don’t have time for so-called ‘writer’s block,’ which seems to me a luxury. If I get an hour to write, I have to use it and produce something. I can’t afford just to stare at a blank piece of paper, waiting for inspiration to come – which, again, is probably another reason why I’m suspicious of concepts like ‘inspiration,’ ‘writer’s block,’ ‘the muse,’ and so on.
What words of wisdom would you like to give to aspiring writers?
Without sounding overly pseudo-Christian or selfless about it, do unto other writers what you’d like them to do unto you. That is: think of yourself as part of a community of writers, and be willing to help and support other writers; then other writers will help and support you too. This kind of generosity is reciprocal. Writing is not a competitive sport – in fact, I believe it is anti-competition. The British are stupid about competitions – they’ll turn anything, from painting to running to cupcake-baking into a competitive sport. But honestly, writing – and art in general – is the opposite of competition. It’s about mutual aid and support. That’s why I’m always suspicious of destructive reviews (for example): they don’t help anyone, and they’re often dishonest and egocentric. That’s not to say you shouldn’t help other writers by being honestly critical of their work, of course – support doesn’t merely consist of bland positivity. It means helping others develop whilst others help you, in honest and critical ways.
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