Writer Jonathan Taylor interviewed by Alexandros Plasatis
Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, critic and lecturer. His books include the memoir Take Me Home: Parkinson's, My Father, Myself (Granta Books, 2007), the novels Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012) and Melissa (Salt, 2015), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013). He is editor of the anthology Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud (Salt, 2012). He is Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester, and co-director of arts organisation and small publisher Crystal Clear Creators. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk and he tweets at @crystalclearjt.
AP. Why did you write Melissa?
JT. I didn't want to write a second novel. I'm one of those writers who always think the book they're writing will be their last - who think there may be a more sensible way of spending their time (such as electric trains, or breeding guinea pigs, or something like that). But one day, a few months after I'd finished the first novel, I was in the bath - which, as everyone knows, is where the best ideas happen - and the whole idea behind the novel, the whole central image, even most of the storyline came to me all at once. That's never happened before - I don't believe in inspiration, really - and I was really pissed off, I can tell you. I got out of the bath thinking, damn, that's the next few years gone. No guinea pigs. No electric trains. Instead, I'm going to have to write this novel, so it'll go away. Of course, having said all that, when it came to starting to write, it was the most pleasurable thing in the world, and I've never enjoyed writing a book more.
AP. How did it feel writing about Stoke-on-Trent, your hometown?
JT. I often write about Stoke. Oddly enough, there are a lot of novelists and poets from Stoke: though they usually have to leave (like Arnold Bennett did) before they write about it retrospectively. "No man (or woman, for that matter) is a prophet in his own land," and all that. For these writers, home becomes a kind of imagined place, a kind of Midlands, industrial (or post-industrial) Ithaca. I've always said that there are two types of writers - though I think now that it's a continuum, not a polarity - those who endlessly write about somewhere called home, and those who endlessly write about the unhomely. I'm definitely in the former category. Never thought I would be when I was growing up: then I hated Stoke, and couldn't wait to get away. But clearly, things change when you are away.
AP. You've published a few books now: a memoir (Take Me Home: Parkinson's, My Father, Myself), a novel (Entertaining Strangers), a poetry collection (Musicolepsy), a short story collection (Kontakte and Other Stories), and now you have this new novel coming out. Which one did you enjoy writing the most and which one do you think is your best work?
JT. I think it would be depressing for a writer not to think that the latest book is the best. I love "Melissa," my second novel, and it means more to me - at the moment - than anything else. The process of writing it was a joy, but also I just think I've learnt a lot by writing the other books which I've applied here. I think it's the closest I've come to telling a simple story, and it's also my most overtly emotional book.
AP. I've told you before how much I like your fiction, but I've never read your two non-fiction books, Mastery and Slavery in Victorian Writing and Science and Omniscience in Nineteenth-Century Literature. Are they any good?
JT. Well, I think they're for specific readerships: they're academic works of literary criticism. But in many ways they share the same concerns as some of my fiction and poetry: the relationship between music and literature, the abuses of power, cosmology and physics and so on. Incidentally, I'm currently writing a third academic book, this time on the role of laughter and dark comedy in nineteenth and twentieth-century literature. Again, this reflects my creative work, which is often grotesquely comic.
AP. You're married to a poet, Maria Taylor. Does this influence your writing in any way? And I had the chance to meet your notorious twin daughters. Have they influenced your writing somehow?
JT. Yes to both: the twins and Maria are the most major influences in my life, of course. Maria's always been my first (and probably main) intended reader. All writers need an honest, trusted first reader and critic - and Maria's criticism of the memoir, my poetry and the two novels shaped what these books eventually became. It's not just a matter of getting good feedback: it's a matter of trusting the judgement of the person giving you that feedback. As regards the twins, well, they've influenced every single thing I've done since they were born. I've even written about them on various occasions (e.g. in the poetry book). Even though they're only seven, they've also shaped - oddly enough - my two novels. The rhythms of daily routines with the twins have determined how the books were structured. Entertaining Strangers is all short chapters, because a lot of it was written in short bursts between feeds and nappies, when they were young. Melissa is more of a linear, sustained story - but is also quieter, I think - because I wrote it mainly at night, after they'd gone to bed.
AP. And a last one for Melissa: Has it changed you as person in any way?
JT. I think Melissa reflects a certain part of my life - my own childhood, and particularly the years from about 2011 to late 2014. Quite how, I'll leave people to guess.
At roughly 2pm on 9th June 1999, on a small street in Hanford, Stoke-on-Trent, a young girl dies of leukaemia; at almost the same moment, all her neighbours on the street experience the same musical hallucination. The novel is about this death and accompanying phenomenon – and about their after-effects, as the girl’s family gradually disintegrates in the wake of a terrible trauma.
|Jonathan's second novel, Melissa, is published by Salt
Alexandros Plasatis lives in Leicester and had short stories published in Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud (2012), Unthology 6 (2015), and Crystal Voices: Ten Years of Crystal Clear Creators (2015).