Jonathan, welcome… shall we start with an introduction?
Thank you for inviting me! I’m a novelist, memoirist, poet and lecturer. I’ve written in lots of different genres: two novels, Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012), and Melissa (Salt, 2015), a memoir, Take Me Home: Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself (Granta, 2007), a poetry collection, Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013), and a short story collection, Kontakte and Other Stories (Roman Books, 2013 and 2014). I’m editor of the anthology, Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud (Salt, 2012). I lecture in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. Born and raised in Stoke-on-Trent, I now live in Leicestershire with my wife, the poet Maria Taylor, and our twin daughters, Miranda and Rosalind. Melissa has been shortlisted for the East Midlands Book Award 2016.
I’ve recently read Melissa, and have so many swirling thoughts I don’t know where to start. So let’s try the beginning – although it’s over with fairly early in the novel, it was the phenomenon that occurred at the time of Melissa’s death that first attracted me to the book. Imagination, or based on fact?
Ah, that is the question. It’s inspired, shall we say, by various true stories – some of which are personal to me, when I was growing up in Stoke-on-Trent, some of which happened to people I know, and some of which are more well-known ‘true’ historical stories. By reading Oliver Sacks’s wonderful book, Musicophilia, a few years ago, I came to understand the neurological context for some of my own experiences, and also came across lots of other ‘true’ stories of musical hallucinations.
Such hallucinations definitely happen – in fact, in small ways, many people get them (in the form of tinnitus, or circular tunes which won’t go away – ‘earworms’ as they are called). It’s the pseudo-telepathic collectivism of the musical hallucination on Spark Close which is the strange part of it – the idea that a musical hallucination might be ‘caught’ by others. But again, there are lots of examples of this kind of thing happening throughout history: laughing plagues in Tanganyika and elsewhere; factories where workers have all experienced similar neurological illnesses; dancing plagues – such as one in Strasbourg in 1518 – where hundreds of people started dancing simultaneously, whilst (significantly for Melissa) claiming that they heard music in their heads.
I won’t talk too much about the immediate, personal context for the book – as I say, there were a couple of incidents when I was growing up which had similar outlines to the ‘Spark Close Phenomenon.’ More immediately, when my wife was pregnant with our twins in 2007-8, she became extremely ill. The twins were born tiny and premature, and were in intensive care. All three had life-threatening conditions. Just before all this happened, one night when Maria was pregnant but not yet ill, a children’s toy we had bought in advance suddenly started playing a tune in the darkness – even though it was switched off. I’m not saying it was a ‘sign’ (I’m not a mystical person at all); but it was terribly chilling at the time. Maria went into hospital the next day and then wasn’t well again for months.
The structure of the novel as a musical work was quite superb – and the way in which each variation had its own pace and focus. Would you like to tell me more about that?
The book is obviously about grief, and the ‘process’ (or rather processes) of mourning; and I think grief has a kind of musical structure. And vice versa – many pieces of music, such as Schubert’s F Minor Fantasia, which I talk about in the novel, themselves seem to be structured around the expression of grief. My first novel, Entertaining Strangers, is structured as a kind of opera or play – and that suits the subject matter, because it is more ‘operatic’ in its comedy, horror and hysteria. But Melissa is a ‘quieter’ and more personal book in some ways (not all), just as the music it revolves around is often on a smaller and more domestic scale (hence the many piano pieces in it).
As I was writing it, it seemed to me that Melissa’s structure was similar to certain sets of piano variations. Each chapter is both self-contained (like a short story) and, like a variation, connected to the on-going narrative; and each chapter reworks, in a different context, the underlying concerns of the ‘theme’ chapters. The structure of the novel is also very much informed by Elgar’s famous orchestral piece, the Enigma Variations, which underlies a lot of the novel; indeed, the Enigma Variations is one of the candidates for the musical hallucination at the start of the novel, and there are some strange (uncanny) connections between it and the novel’s story.
Ranging from the detail of acute lymphoid leukaemia through thermodynamics, your research – as the appendix attests – must have been vast. What came first – the research or the decision to include it?
Well, I suppose it’s both. All writers have a number of recurrent concerns, themes, subjects, images which keep turning up in their work. This is sometimes conscious, but often semi-conscious or unconscious. What it means is that a writer’s work as a whole – both within individual books and overall, between books – often forms a kind of overarching narrative, exploring from different perspectives a particular territory. You can see this with people like Hardy, Dickens, Eliot. So – almost without being aware of it – all my books share certain concerns. Each book represents something new, a new world, but also connects to the others. I suppose music, grief, cosmology, black humour, illness, neurology are among the things I keep coming back to, and which I’m always ‘researching’ in different ways.
No doubt these recurrent ‘research’ themes grow out of my own experience: for example, my interest in neurology goes back to my father’s illness, dementia and Parkinson’s disease which developed as I grew up. Whilst researching the memoir I wrote about it, Take Me Home, I came across Oliver Sacks’s work, which explained so much of what I’d experienced to me. So the answer to the question is that, yes, I had to do lots of research during the writing of Melissa – but this research, and the book itself, grew out of what I’ve been writing about and researching for previous books. All you can hope is that you know a bit more about the world the older you get. Or maybe you know more about what you don’t know, I’m not sure.
The detailed creation of Spark Close and its cast of individual characters struck me as a real labour of love – including Ralph the cat. How did you set about it?
Most of my characters in my novels are (tangentially) based on real people, or hybrids of a number of people. That’s why it was amusing when one of the characters in my first novel, a drunk who spouts nineteenth-century poetry in the local pub, was criticised by a couple of people for being ‘unrealistic.’ There was a snobbiness here – an idea that you don’t get people who ‘know poetry’ in local pubs. Well, that’s rubbish – as Melissa shows too, I believe that so-called ‘high’ culture (like nineteenth-century poetry or classical music) happens everywhere, belongs to everyone. The pub poet in my first novel was an actual person, who was a bit of a local celebrity for a while. I still see him around town, though I don’t think he has any idea he features in a novel (perhaps I should tell him).
The same goes for Melissa – the characters are all people I know, knew, or mixtures of various people. Whereas my first novel has quite a tight, small cast, I wanted to convey the hallucination in Melissa as a collective and social phenomenon – in a filmic way – and that meant having a much bigger cast of characters. I’ve never done this before, so it was a real challenge. Gradually, of course, the novel focusses in on the family at the centre of it all: but for the first part, I wanted to give a sense of shared, collective experience. Spark Close itself is based on a real little street, and is very close to where I grew up in Stoke-on-Trent.
As a portrait of grief, I found the book intensely moving – yet some of the humour had me laughing aloud. How difficult was it to attain that balance?
I’m happy to hear this! It’s something I’m always aiming at: I don’t believe that emotions are monolithic. The language we use to describe emotions is (‘love,’ ‘grief,’ ‘sadness,’ ‘happiness’), but not how we experience emotional states. The English language – like, sometimes, the English themselves, including myself – is a bit of a blunt instrument when it comes to emotions (incidentally, it’s very good on typology and categorising things – just not as good on feelings). Even compared to other languages, it can be simplistic in this respect (Greek has a number of different words for ‘love,’ while we really only have one). What story-telling can do is recapture the complexity, the ambiguity of emotional states, their ‘mixed-upness’ in ways which escapes the mere naming of them. You can see this in Shakespeare’s Othello, which brilliantly demonstrates Othello’s chaotic and contradictory emotions.
Music and literature can do this, in a way everyday language can’t: that is, show how contradictory emotions can co-exist at the same time in the same person. A lot of the writing I admire the most achieves this – writing by people like Shirley Jackson, who can convey horror and humour simultaneously; Blake Morrison, whose memoirs are funny and heartbreaking at the same time. This, to me, is just a matter of reality, where people laugh at funerals, and cry in parties. The élitist association of sustained ‘seriousness’ with profundity, which you often see in ‘high-brow’ circles, is totally wrong: reality, profundity can be silly, comic, ridiculous, banal as well as sad, horrific, sublime. Comedy – which I’m particularly interested in theoretically speaking – is impossible without pain, tragedy, or various kinds of violence. So I suppose, in Melissa, I’m expressing these ideas and, to be honest, just transcribing my experience of reality, which is emotionally complex, funny and sad and horrific at the same time.
Only five reviews so far on Amazon – which really rather surprised me. Is popular success something you’d like for Melissa? Who did you picture as your reader when you were writing?
What writer wouldn’t like popular success? Any who say no are fibbing, I think! But there are lots of different kinds of success, and I think, as a writer, you have to think of the writing first and everything else as secondary. Even the most ‘popular’ writers I know believe this: more than anything else, they want to be as good writers as they can, according to their own aesthetic standards, and within their own genres. So happiness as a writer is probably thinking what you’ve done is as good a thing you could have done at that particular time. You always look back on your work and see the flaws or faults – but the main aim is for every book to feel like it’s the best you could have done at that point.
As regards popularity, well, I write what I write, and find it very hard to write in any other way. I’m not a mystical person, as I say, but I don’t feel that I choose what I write – it chooses me. And hopefully some people enjoy what I write – it’s not the numbers that matter, but the quality of that enjoyment. There are lots of different kinds of enjoyment, all valid, when it comes to writing. But I’m probably not an ‘escapist’ writer in the usual sense of that word (although I can’t help thinking all fiction, at some level, is ‘escapist’); so readers looking for light escapism might not find it in my fiction and non-fiction.
There’s a certain responsibility in trying to be honest about reality – and just as you need ‘escapist’ writers, you also need writers who stare Gorgons in the face. As I say, though, there are lots of different kinds of enjoyment. A writer’s job, as even Wordsworth said, is always to give pleasure to the reader – but the definition of ‘pleasure’ should be much wider than it is in the mainstream literary world at the moment.
Tell me more about Salt Publishing and how you ended up working with them…
I’ve now published three books with Salt – two novels and an anthology of stories for reading aloud, which I edited. They’re a really strong independent publisher, and, as such, really care about their books and their authors. They’ve been incredibly supportive over the last few years. They publish what they love, and they have a daring which is sometimes lacking in the very big publishers. They produce beautiful books too – which, I think, is important, and a pleasure in itself. Lots of people are coming back to material books (as opposed to e-books) because of their materiality, because of the way they look. And Salt books look lovely. More than anything else, I can’t help thinking that publishers like Salt – if one were to be optimistic – should be the future, as opposed to the capitalist behemoths out there.
And what’s next for you? Are you working on something new?
I’m currently having a bit of a sabbatical from novel-writing. Melissa exhausted me, both emotionally and psychologically. I’ve always written in lots of different genres, and have gone back to writing non-fiction and poetry at the moment. So I’m writing a non-fiction (academic) book about laughter, comedy, and its relationship with violence, particularly as regards writers in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries – but also, more recently, in movies and sitcoms. I’m also gradually building up to a second poetry book, which revolves around the notion of ‘prophecy’ and ‘pseudo-prophecy’ (which is another way of saying ‘prophecy after the event’). This may sound quite abstract, but it kind of originates, as does everything, in my own experience: in a sense, it perhaps originates in my father’s propensity to say “I told you so” whenever I made a mistake – even if, in actual fact, he hadn’t.
Jonathan, long may you continue to stare Gorgons in the face… I’m absolutely delighted you joined me today. Melissa is available through Amazon as both a paperback and e-book, (as they say) from all good bookshops and also via the Salt Publishing website. Jonathan’s website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.