Saturday, 5 May 2012

Author Interview: Jon McGregor

 Pull up a chair and make yourselves a cup of tea. The wonderful Jon McGregor is here [author of If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, So Many Ways to Begin & Even the Dogs]. He's going to be talking about his fantastic short story collection 'This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You' - and a bloody good read it is, too.

Everyone who replies to this topic by 15th May [no matter where you are in the world] will have their names put into a hat. The name pulled out of that hat will win a copy of Jon's short story collection. 

Hi Jon! Last time you were here you were talking about ‘Even The Dogs’. What have you been up to since then?

Hi, hello. Nice to be back. You mean writing-wise, or just generally in the life? Writing-wise, it's been all about short stories for the last few years. But I see I'll be talking about that below. Erm, what else... I did a lot of readings for Even The Dogs. I was shortlisted - twice - for the BBC National Short Story Award, and came second, twice. Which was fun. And I discovered Twitter.

Hurrah for Twitter, and hurrah for being shortlisted! Tell us about ‘This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You.’

It's a collection of short stories. They're all set in Lincolnshire, and so are - hopefully - held together by a sense of place rather than any narrative links. I wanted the reader to have the sense of these stories happening to people who were within sight of each other, but out of reach. Connected but not connected. I figured all that out quite late on though; initially, I just kept finding ideas for stories in the unsettlingly exposed and isolated landscape of the fens.

How long did it take you to write the collection? Which story was the first to be written, and which was the last?

In terms of putting the book together, it was probably a couple of years. But some of the longer stories were written much longer ago: In Winter The Sky is a rewrite of something I originally wrote in 1999, and We Wave And Call was first written in, I think, 2003. And some of the other stories have been making their way on and off the desk for most of the last decade. But the majority of the stories were written in 2010 and 2011, once I'd got the notion of staying in the Lincolnshire fens.

The last one to be written? Probably New York, or at least the version of New York which is in the book and doesn't leave me at the mercy of copyright lawyers....

Do you have a particular favourite? [Mine are (because I couldn’t choose just one) ‘Which Reminded Her, Later’ and ‘The Chicken and The Egg’]

Not a favourite as such. I'm glad that Fleeing Complexity is in there, as it's nice to be able to quote a story in full when people ask about the book, and that story feels like it encapsulates something about the mood and setting and tone of the whole book.  I also enjoyed writing I'll Buy You A Shovel, and have started wondering whether I'm done with those two characters...

The second story, ‘In the Winter Sky’ uses both fiction and poetry. What made you decide to do that?

Long story. There was a story, one of four which I'd originally written in 1999-2000, which was published in Granta in 2002 and which I'd assumed I'd be including in this collection. But when I looked at it properly again, it didn't feel right - it felt like something I'd written when I was 23, not something which I would write now. It felt like I'd be including it just to pad out the pages. But it also tied in so nicely with the themes and landscape of the book that it seemed a shame to leave it out. And yet I wasn't at all sure I wanted to rewrite it; I've always felt that when something is published it should stay put, stay as it is.

And then a very smart friend of mine read the story, and made comments, and the comment she made at the point when the original version - which is told entirely from the man's perspective - describes the man deciding to marry the woman, was: "What did she think about it?"

And I realised that the woman was a silent character, and that a way of rewriting the story - the way I should maybe have written it in the first place - was to switch it round to the wife's perspective.

And so then, by way of incorporating the original text, and addressing its excesses and weaknesses - as well as by way of making parallel tracks of the man's and woman's perspectives - I used the device of the journal/poem, complete with strikethroughs and white spaces and changes of mind.

Does that make any  sense? It made sense at the time. There's alonger version of this explanation here

In the previous interview, you said [when talking about initial publication]: ‘...After that I wrote a collection of long stories (4 x 10,000 words) and sent it off to some agents. One of them took me on, but the book was never published.’ Do you think we will ever get to see this book?

 See above, in a way. The original version of In Winter The Sky was one of these, and has its problems. The other three have more problems. They're staying in the bottom drawer.

Who are your favourite short story writers?

At the moment? Donald Barthelme, George Saunders, Lydia Davis, Alice Munro, Maile Meloy.

I should also mention Lucy Woods, whose debut collection Diving Belles is really quite something. Worth buying for the House Spirits story alone.
(Disclosure: Yes, it's published by Bloomsbury, who also publish my books. But come on, it's not like I've got shares or anything..)

What are you currently reading? 

Stories in the Worst Way by Gary Lutz.

Can you tell us what you’re working on at the moment?

No. Sorry.



  1. Congratulations on the new book to Jon, I like the idea of the stories being linked by place and not simply telling the stories of a set of interlinked characters. Hope it does well & please put me into the draw.

  2. I am a Lover of short stories and this interview was very interesting and witty I will certainly catch up with my Jon Mcgregor !

    Thank you !

  3. Congrats on the new book! A new mental workout for we Bears of Very Little Brain, but your work is always worth the effort.

  4. Great interview, thanks both. It's funny how a change in POV can bring a story to life, or give you a a-ha moment. Please put me in the draw(er). Ta!

  5. Lincolnshire is an interesting place to write about, it features in my WIP too. Interesting interview, thanks.

  6. I played Jon's podcast of 'We Were Just Driving Around' to my first year fiction students a few weeks ago. They really enjoyed it. I'd like to read the collection - fingers crossed.

  7. Thank you for the great interview! This short story collection sounds like something I would want to read!

  8. Great interview! The new collection sounds very interesting - I've got a bit obsessed with short stories lately, and I love Jon McGregor's writing style, so very much looking forward to reading this!

  9. Great interview! The new collection sounds very interesting - I've got a bit obsessed with short stories lately, and I love Jon McGregor's writing style, so very much looking forward to reading this!

  10. This is an intriguing structure for a short story collection. It's also interesting to combine fiction and poetry. I just read a piece that combined nonfiction and fictional play, and I'm still not sure how well that worked, but I liked that the author was playing around, creatively.

  11. Great interview. I love the unusual way Jon writes - I'm forever recommending 'If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things' to people. Please put my name in the draw.

  12. This is a great interview! I love Jon's unusual style of writing - I'm always recommending 'If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things' to people. Please put my name in the draw. Thank you!

  13. I loved 'If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things', and I'm trying to get into reading more collections of short stories. This sounds like a perfect start!

  14. Carys, congratulations your name was pulled out of the hat, and you have won the copy of Jon's book. I've sent you an email.

    Everyone else - please check out Jon's collection to see if you'd like to buy a copy. It really is a fab book :)

    Thanks for entering! x