“A writer,” said Thomas Mann, “is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” Or alternatively, according to Douglas Adams, “writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank piece of paper until your forehead bleeds.”
That piece of paper – or empty screen – can seem all the more blank when you’re trying to fill it with the ultimate blankness: Antarctica. Jon McGregor, veteran of four previous novels and two collections of stories, certainly felt all at sea when he tried to write a novel set there.
The difficulty began in 2004: “I went to Antarctica on this writing residency, and came back with two significant problems, which I possibly should have anticipated. First, to attempt to turn a nonfiction experience into fiction just felt artificial and kind of unnecessary. That had me stumped for a long time. Then the other thing was, it’s just quite difficult to describe Antarctica! Physically, the landscape is so alien.”
Oh, and the other block that his visit to Antarctica put in the way was “I never actually made it to Antarctica at all.” The ship he was travelling on got stuck in the ice. Perhaps this should have been an omen.
Luckily, McGregor didn’t give up and 17 years and three novels after his visit to (near) Antarctica, we have Lean Fall Stand, which is indeed about Antarctica – sort of. It’s a book of three thirds, which opens with a tour de force of descriptive, vivid tension as three men at a scientific base become separated during a storm. “Something was wrong.”
After this first section of the story, which at times is real hold-your-breath, cross-your-fingers reading, things become a whole lot smaller and quieter, as the leader of the expedition, Robert aka “Doc”, slowly tries to recover from a stroke he suffers at the base. And the book is also about his wife Anna – who seemed to be getting on quite happily without Robert when he was on his regular Antarctica trips – having to become his carer. “I don’t know if I want him to come home,” she admits.
“I was very conscious of playing with the drama and sense of adventure,” says McGregor, “and then deliberately to change gears and take the reader away from that.” It’s a technique he has used before in his 2017 Costa Award-winning novel Reservoir 13, which framed itself as a murder mystery but focused instead on the everyday lives of those affected.
With Robert’s story becoming Anna’s, McGregor wanted “to ask other questions about heroism and commitment and responsibility and sacrifice, and look at those from a different perspective”. But it’s also a book about communication: at the start, the effects of the storm are disastrously exacerbated because the men’s radios fail; and when Robert is recovering back in Britain, he can only say a few words. But it’s amazing how much you can get into a vocabulary limited to phrases like, “Christ, yes! Obviously!”
Breakdown of language
“I went down a few blind alleys,” says McGregor, “in trying to represent that breakdown in language in a very literal way … and getting stuck in some fairly unreadable dead ends.” But the process of writing about communication unlocked, for him, new ways of communicating with the reader. We reach this point in our conversation via the unlikely figure of Martin Amis; unlikely because, in an interview a few years ago, McGregor had a swipe at “London novels by famous male writers of the 1980s” whose books “are difficult/troubling to read”.
“I must have been thinking of Amis,” he says now. What’s the problem? “When I started writing, in the early ’90s, what was shoved under your nose most often was those big ’80s male novelists. And a lot of it felt very remote from my own experience and from what I was interested in writing about. Amis in particular, from what I’ve read, the way he writes about women is pretty shabby.”
Would it surprise McGregor, then, that I think of him and Amis as similar – not in subject, for sure, but in approach? Both are the kind of writer who builds a book up from the sentence level, who sees style as intrinsic to the story rather than something that sits on top.
“That’s interesting,” he says, not sounding entirely convinced. “I’ve not thought of that. That is something I’m interested in, the sentence. And I think sometimes I’ve been overly interested in it, at the expense of other stuff. I hope my career has been a steady movement along that spectrum towards taking an interest in the story as a whole.”
It’s a journey that was given a shove at the start of his career, when the late Eileen Battersby in this paper gave McGregor’s debut novel If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things a right pasting, calling it “pretentious … self-dramatising … an exercise in style … irritatingly cryptic”. (It gets worse.) A few years ago McGregor acknowledged that he had taken Battersby’s criticisms on board. But the action writing at the start of Lean Fall Stand seems like a new weapon in his armoury. How did he make that break?
“It came from writing some stories [The Reservoir Tapes] for radio a few years ago. There’s an immediacy about fiction on the radio, you need to hold the attention of the listener [who] never gets a second look at the text. And I knew that the vast majority of people who heard the beginning of them wouldn’t have been planning to listen, so I had to give them something that would keep them listening. Don’t touch that dial, kind of thing!
“And when I came to write this book, I carried some of that with me.” He looked back at earlier drafts of the storm sequence at the start of Lean Fall Stand, and “there were versions I’d written from the point of view of Robert remembering it 20 years later, trying to write his memoirs. And I thought, this is absurd! You’ve got a dramatic story, why not write in the middle of it? And that all felt quite new.”
One theme that recurs in Lean Fall Stand is the limited amount of time therapists can give Robert to aid his recovery because of funding cuts. McGregor recalls talking to people in medical and social care professions when researching the novel: “This was something they kept referring to consistently: 10 years ago, I would have worked with someone for six months, now it’s three months. The resources have been continually cut for the last 10 years. And clearly that’s why [the UK] has handled the pandemic so badly. Everyone’s cut to the bone already. That’s because of the last 10 years of deliberate policy. Now literally hundreds of thousands of people have died as a direct result.” He pauses. “I’m on a rant now, aren’t I!”
Writing may be difficult, but if McGregor’s previous books are any guide, Lean Fall Stand will probably wind up on a few prize shortlists before the year’s out. (His novel Even the Dogs won the International Dublin Literary Award in 2012.) What does he think about prizes? “They mean a range of different things,” he says, then pauses for a long time, searching for diplomatic phrasing. “I think they’re both a useful way of bringing attention to hopefully interesting work, and a fairly shallow marketing trick, or both those things.”
McGregor has been involved in “quite a few judging panels”, including this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize, which was awarded last month to Carmen Maria Machado, beating Irish contenders Sara Baume and Doireann Ní Ghríofa. “I was really proud of that shortlist … any of the books could have won. And I’m really happy with the Carmen Maria Machado winning, but in a way I would like to have stopped at the shortlist stage.”
Generally, he thinks, “there is quite often an easy consensus around the shortlist. [A] shortlist is an interesting selection of books. Arriving at a winner from that shortlist is a lot more arbitrary and a lot more daft, in some ways.”
“On the other hand,” he adds, laughing, “I’ve done really well out of prizes! And being longlisted for the Booker with my first book turned what I was doing into a career.” I’m reminded, I say, of Kingsley Amis, who reportedly thought the Booker Prize was a farrago of nonsense right up until the moment he won it. “I kind of like prizes,” McGregor says in conclusion. “And sometimes they can be silly. I have complicated feelings!”
Jon McGregor will be reading with Keith Ridgway at the International Literature Festival Dublin on May 29th at 6pm. Booking from ilfdublin.com