Photo credit: Jo Wheeler
Describe your latest book.
The Reservoir Tapes
is a collection of short stories which are all set in a village in Derbyshire, England, during the weeks and months leading up to the disappearance of a teenage visitor to the area. The first story is an interview with the girl’s mother in which only the voice of the interviewer is heard; the subsequent stories each take a single character and build a story from what they may have told this same interviewer. The stories were originally written for the radio, and so are more voice-driven than my previous work, and rely more than I’m used to on narrative hooks and suspense: there are guns left out on tables, and chases through the woods, and dying llamas.
The collection serves as a prequel to my novel, Reservoir 13
, which spans the 13 years after the teenager’s disappearance; although you don’t need to know this to read The Reservoir Tapes
and so maybe I shouldn’t have told you. Although if you were to go on and read the novel afterwards I would have no objection…
What was your favorite book as a child?
The entire Swallows and Amazons
series, if you’ll allow me twelve books instead of one. My local library had a beautifully illustrated set of hardbacks, and I had them out on near-permanent renewal; I’m not sure that anyone else in Norwich got a chance to read Arthur Ransome in the 1980s. I’ve reread them recently, and they’re a horror show of sexism, colonialism, and snobbery; but as a child I was captivated only by the complete immersion in this other world that I felt while I was reading.
When did you know you were a writer?
The first time I got paid… No, actually, that’s not true. It was the first time someone I didn’t know read my work, and got in touch with me to let me know how they’d experienced it. This was before I’d really shown anyone what I was doing. One friend had found a manuscript I’d accidentally-on-purpose left lying around, and she’d sent it to a friend of hers without me knowing, and he wrote me a letter about it. He was enthusiastic, but that almost wasn’t the point; the very act of having communicated with a complete stranger through writing was so exhilarating that I knew I was hooked from then on. I was 21. It took a few more years to get paid.
What does your writing workspace look like?
Like a coffee shop, usually. Or like a library reading room. Or like a train. I do have a desk at home — a long plywood board on trestles, with piles of notes and research books and neatly arranged stationery — but life is busy and complicated with family and a teaching job, and so most of my writing is done in short bursts whenever I can get myself to a flat surface. I used to be a bit obsessive about having peace and quiet and long stretches of uninterrupted time, but in fact now I enjoy the restriction of time limits, and people meandering in the background. It seems to help the concentration.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
That would be private.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
There is something inherently oxymoronic about this question, surely? There are plenty of things that I would be way too embarrassed to tell you here. But, well, let me play along: I am ashamed that in my mid-forties I have still not become anywhere near fluent in a second language; I am embarrassed about my limited reading of classic literature; I am disappointed by how quickly I am provoked to swearing at motorists while riding my bike. (To be clear: it is always deserved. But it never helps.)
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
I keep going back to Amy Leach’s Things That Are
, and am often alarmed by the fact that not everybody is doing the same. Her writing is full of so much love and detail and exuberant fun that it makes my heart hurt.
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
I seem to have accidentally started a poster collection: book festivals, gigs, exhibitions... basically anything with dates and tatty corners. I think we’re living in a golden age of print design, with some fine visual brains absorbing and reinterpreting a couple of centuries of print culture and making use of both traditional and digital techniques. And then these posters are just lying around for the taking! (If by "lying around," we include "not substantially fastened to a vertical surface" and "no one was looking.")
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
I’m not sure, but the saddest job I ever had involved me wearing a bear costume and handing out flyers to advertise the opening of a new Pound Shop (I assume you have the equivalent dollar stores in the U.S.?) in a depressed ex-mining town in Yorkshire. I hated doing it, the people in the town didn’t want my flyers or the shop, and a gang of kids followed me around trying to unzip the back of my costume. It was grim. The next day, however, I had a meeting at a London literary agent’s office and my bear costume days were over. More or less.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
This might not count, but I have regularly walked the territory of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn
with his dry, lugubrious tones ringing in my ears. I say it might not count, because it’s a part of the country I already know and love from childhood, so I would go there in any case; but one of the many pleasures of that book is that a territory I already know so well is made such vivid use of in Sebald’s writing.
What scares you the most as a writer?
Not knowing what I’m doing for at least the first half of any given project, and even after that having no real idea if I’m doing the right thing. Also: audience Q&A.
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Don’t Ask Me Anything: The Life and Work of Some Guy Who Didn’t Really Know What He Was Doing
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
There’s a line near the end of George Saunders’s
story, "Victory Lap" — “That’s right, Dad said. You shouted. Shouted like a champ.” — that wins no prizes for poetry or structure but which knocks me out every time, because of what it represents: Saunders has reached a point in the story where he’s caught between an obvious happy ending (child kidnapping and assault does not occur) and an obvious sad ending (child kidnapping and assault does not occur), and he pulls off a brilliant duck and swerve to find a third option (child kidnapping does not occur, but only because of the most unexpected intervention and scars are undoubtedly left but those scars will be healed and, wow, look at how complicated parenting is). This search for the third — always more complicated — option is, I think, the mark of a great writer.
Share a sentence of your own that you're particularly proud of.
My upbringing does not permit me to do this.
Describe a recurring nightmare.
Oh, it’s always trains. Being terribly, unavoidably late for trains, important trains, long-distance trains, trains which it would ruin my life to miss and yet somehow I’m always hours behind schedule and have no chance of getting to that train. I have no idea what this means, and neither does Dr. Freud.
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
On the one hand, people who use grammatical knowledge to bully those without; on the other hand, people who have no interest whatsoever in developing their own grammatical knowledge. This probably wasn’t what your question meant.
Do you have any phobias?
High places with inadequate railings, where "inadequate" is anything less than six feet of solid steel; frogs (so good at hiding in the long grass! So sudden of movement!); cars and their drivers; audience Q&A.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
YouTube videos of Russian kids doing handstands on cranes and derelict industrial chimneys. They make my palms sweat rivers, but I can’t stop watching.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
“Try some of this, it’s probably fine.”
Are you happy to take questions from the audience?
My Top Five Books With a Rural Focus:
That They May Face the Rising Sun
by John McGahern (published as By the Lake
in the U.S.)
A novel of rural life in midlands Ireland, told in careful and precise sentences that serve as a master class in restraint.
Things That Are
by Amy Leach
Short essays on the natural world and outer space, giddy with poetry and fun.
The Grouse County novels
by Tom Drury
So many characters so clearly and closely loved, and so much of the kind of laugh-out-loud humor that comes from knowing people well.
A book-length poem about the River Dart in Devon, which brilliantly weaves together heard voices, spoken voices, observations, and the voice of the river itself.
So He Takes the Dog
by Jonathan Buckley
A crime novel with very little crime and a lot of learning about people. My favorite example of the unexpected power of the passive voice: “Some weeping occurred.”
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of four novels and two story collections. He is the winner of the International Dublin Literary Award, the Costa Novel Award, the Betty Trask Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters E. M. Forster Award, and has been longlisted three times for the Man Booker Prize, most recently in 2017 for Reservoir 13
. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Nottingham, England, where he edits The Letters Page
, a literary journal in letters. The Reservoir Tapes
is his most recent book.