Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at De Montfort University in Leicester.
He is also the author of books that include the memoir, Take Me Home: Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself (Granta, 2007) and the academic books, Science and Omniscience in Nineteenth-Century Literature (Sussex Academic Press, 2007); Mastery and Slavery in Victorian Writing (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2003); and, Figures of Heresy: Radical Theology in English and American Writing, 1800-2000 (Sussex Academic Press, 2005) (co-edited with Dr. Andrew Dix).
In this interview, Jonathan Taylor talks about his debut novel, Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012):
How long did it take you to write the novel?
It took me a while to write the novel: I started it in 2007, shortly after the publication of my memoir, Take Me Home: Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself (Granta Books, 2007), and finished it four or so years later.
In fact, its origins lie further back, in that the starting-point was an episode which was eventually cut from my memoir. In 2001, my father was in intensive care, and I was travelling backwards and forwards to Stoke from Leicestershire, where I was working at the time. One night, in Loughborough, I was approached by a homeless woman, who said she hadn’t eaten for days, and who asked if I had anything she could eat. I’d had a few too many drinks that night, and decided it was a good idea to invite her back to our house to (and I quote) “eat our freezer.” She came back with me, I fed her, and then she met my housemate of the time, who proceeded to talk to her for hours about his current obsession: ants. After that, she slept on our floor, and then, next morning, just before she left, gave us both a kiss on the cheek and told us that she now “believed in English gentlemen again.”
It was one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said to me. I never saw her again, but the novel is an attempt to imagine what her traumatic background was – what had brought her to that desperate point. In effect, she’s the novel’s narrator. The central character is a heavily fictionalised version of my ant-obsessed housemate (though he’s really a complex hybrid of my housemate, myself and other people I know).
Did you write everyday?
I wrote a great deal of the novel in 2008-9, when our twin girls were still babies. This meant that the writing process was squeezed between massive commitments – to my daughters (obviously), and also to my full-time job as a lecturer. So I’d sometimes have no more than an hour or two a week writing time. This meant that I had to maximise that time, and use it to its full advantage. Through sheer necessity, I’ve come to discipline myself to be able to write at will as and when I get the chance. I hardly believe in ‘inspiration’ any more – and I don’t have the kind of time available to wait for it to come. I’ve just trained myself to write as and when I get the odd hour free. In that sense, ‘writer’s block’ is something, I think, that is often the preserve of people with a lot of spare time.
In terms of how I proceeded with the novel, I actually wrote it in a linear way, from beginning to end. I’ve never done this before – the memoir was built up in a piecemeal fashion from fragments, and my second novel (which I’m completing now) is much less linear. But the story for Entertaining Strangers demanded this kind of treatment: it’s a very linear, step-by-step story, where each small chapter builds up towards the climax.
I wanted the story to move fast from episode to episode, and each chapter to move the story on one step.
I enjoyed the challenge of writing something so different in structure to everything else I’ve done. Of course, when I’d finished the first draft, I then went back and edited, redrafted, reshaped and expanded the novel – so, ultimately, the writing experience is never really linear. But it was in this case, at least for the first draft.
How would you describe the novel?
I’ve always described Entertaining Strangers as a ‘tragi-comedy.’ It’s a mixture of grotesque and dark comedy on the one hand, with horror and trauma on the other. The starting-point is the weird comedy: the tragedy is what lurks underneath the comedy (as it does with so much comic material).
Most of the novel is set in 1997, and centres on the mysterious narrator Jules, about whom little is known, and the manic-depressive Edwin Prince, who is obsessed with high culture and ants. Gradually, the narrator uncovers Edwin’s strange history and family background – and ultimately, in doing so, reveals another, darker and much more distant trauma which lies behind both Edwin’s family’s neuroses and psychoses and, indeed, the narrator’s own. Towards the end, the novel flashes back to 1922 and the Great Fire of Smyrna, which forms the traumatic backdrop to what happens in the novel.
Where and when was the novel published?
The novel was published in Autumn 2012 in the UK. By coincidence, Autumn 2012 is also the 90th anniversary of the Great Fire of Smyrna, which occurred in September 1922, and which, as I say, is the formative trauma lying behind everything which happens in the novel (the majority of which is actually set in 1997).
How did you find a publisher for the book? And, what advantages and/or disadvantages has this presented?
I had a lot of help and advice in terms of editing from a literary agent friend of mine, called Meg Davis. Ultimately, though, I approached Salt Publishing myself: although I know agents are important for most writers, all my books have been published without one. In part, it’s just happened that way; but it’s also because I like to establish a relationship with publisher’s editors myself.
Salt has been a great publisher: both Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery (the editors) have been incredibly supportive, and also – most importantly – seem to love the book. Salt’s books are beautifully designed, and Salt is also quite daring in what it publishes, in a way that the very biggest publishers often feel they can’t be any more. My novel is, no doubt, eccentric and individual – and, as such, suits an independent publisher like Salt, which is willing to take risks.
Which aspects of the work you put into the novel did you find most difficult?
I think the most challenging part of writing the novel was the large chapter – towards the end – which flashes back to the Great Fire of Smyrna in 1922. This was a terrible disaster, in which many people were killed, injured and made homeless. I had to find a style which somehow did justice to such an awful catastrophe. For that reason, the chapter on Smyrna is one of the most experimental and extreme pieces of writing I’ve ever attempted – and I hope it captures some of the horror, terror and grief of that event.
Another challenge, linked to this, was that of connecting the main plot, which is, at least in part, comic, with the tragedy of Smyrna, without the link between comedy and tragedy seeming bathetic. In the end, this wasn’t the problem I thought it would be, in that – as I’ve said – horror often lurks within comedy anyway, so the two plots had underlying connections. And, of course, bathos has its own horrors.
Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?
To be honest, I enjoyed writing the novel hugely: it was a break from the pressures around me at the time, and was also a break after writing the memoir. Suddenly, instead of having to stick to the truth, I was free to invent, exaggerate, embellish.
Of course, the memoir itself could never be strictly and absolutely true – but here, writing a novel, I was freed up from truth entirely, notwithstanding the novel’s origins in various ‘truthful’ images.
I enjoyed playing around with the characters, and I also enjoyed writing something which, on the surface at least, is primarily comic. For all its constraints, there is something playful and liberatory about the novel form.
What sets Entertaining Strangers apart from other things you've written? And, in the same vein, in what way is it similar to the others?
I’ll address the second question first: it overlaps with the memoir in various ways, but particularly, perhaps, in its use of dark humour. I believe that comedy and tragedy – as I’ve said – are always mingled, even in the most extreme of circumstances. The memoir, I hope, demonstrated that – and so does the novel. People laugh at funerals, cry at jokes, feel melancholy at joyful parties. Many writers have understood this, from John Keats to Jack Kerouac. That’s what I want to capture in my work: that emotions aren’t monolithic, that experiences are strange hybrids of different emotions. Whether I’m successful or not is, of course, up to the reader to decide.
The main way in which Entertaining Strangers is different, I think, from other things I’ve written is as regards its plot: in writing the novel, I soon realised the importance of plot, and I struggled with this at first. Memoirs don’t need a plot, and short stories only need one small ingredient. A novel, by contrast, needs a whole chain of causes and effects for the story to work – and it took me a long while to get that chain right, so that each cause linked to the next effect, and so on.
My other challenge, when writing Entertaining Strangers, came when I realised that a novel often demands to be more realistic than reality. This may sound rather strange – but I think readers will happily read material, such as memoirs, which is labelled as ‘non-fiction,’ and believe what’s going on, however crazy it is. Some of things that I talk about in my memoir – which did actually happen – are crazy, grotesque, bizarre. But as soon as you transfer those kinds of events and behaviour to a novel, somehow they seem less believable. However crazy reality actually is, you’re expected to tone it down for it to seem realistic in a novel. A novel is a more moderate version of reality, you might say. In the end, though, I wouldn’t and couldn’t really do that: I wanted to write a novel which captures the insanity of the world and the people in it, so if some people choose to think it’s a caricature, or satire, that’s fine. But to me it’s not.
What will your next book be about?
Well, I’ve got a couple of books coming out in the next few months – firstly, a poetry collection called Musicolepsy, which will be published by Shoestring Press in early 2013, and then a collection of short stories called Kontakte and Other Stories, which will be published by Roman Books in mid-2013. The material for these books is already written: I’ve been writing poems and stories for many years, so it’s a matter of selection, structuring, editing and ordering them at the moment. That’s what’s so wonderful about writing individual poems and stories – you can write them whilst you’re engaged on other, longer-term projects. Speaking of which, I’ve also just finished the second draft of a second novel, called Mellissa, which is very different to Entertaining Strangers. It’s more of a ‘concept-driven’ novel than Entertaining Strangers. It’s set in Stoke-on-Trent in the late 1990s, and is about ... well, actually, I don’t think I’ll reveal that yet.