This week we're talking to author and editor Jonathan Taylor about the importance of having variety in what you write, and how your writing routine can affect the form your writing takes.
When and why did you first start writing?
It wasn’t till a few years back that I realised in retrospect that the moment I decided I wanted to be a ‘writer’ coincided with the moment my father started getting ill – about 1983, when I was ten. I was a very slow learner (still am, really), and only started reading and writing when I was about eight years old, which made it all the more precious. I find it hard to understand why the moment I decided to be a writer coincided with my father’s early retirement and nervous breakdown. I hardly noticed the latter as a ten-year-old: it kind of passed me by, which seems bizarre to me now. But perhaps I absorbed the sense of loss in another way, by starting to tell stories. As many people have said, all stories are, in a sense, about loss, about the passing of time, about things changing; and perhaps I started understanding that when my own childhood started changing from the monolith it seemed prior to 1983. After all, there’s not much you can say about happiness – even the happiest of stories bear traces, ghosts of loss. That’s not to say my childhood was monolithically happy – I was a very emotional child in lots of ways – but it seemed fairly static, routine and even until about 1983. Having said all that, it could just be entirely coincidence that my desire to be a writer emerged at the same time as my father’s illness. But a coincidence doesn’t make such a good story.
Who is most supportive about your writing?
There have been quite a number of people who have helped over the years. I don’t think it’s possible to get on in writing (or, for that matter, in any field) without generous and supportive people. My supervisor and mentor, John Schad, who’s also an amazing teacher, experimental writer, memoirist and theorist, took the time during my Ph.D to teach me how to write a sentence – which, obvious as it sounds, is a very rare thing. I learnt a huge amount from the wonderful Blake Morrison – one of the best and most important of all contemporary writers, I think – about how to structure memoir material, how poetry can deal with political issues, how to stretch images, how to mingle the funny with the sad, and so on. He and my editor at Granta, Ian Jack, helped me hugely in the early days of my memoir, Take Me Home. Jen and Chris Hamilton-Emery at Salt, and John Lucas at Shoestring Press, are fantastic editors. I think this is something special you get with independent publishers, which many of the big publishers don’t provide much anymore. They also care more about the words on the page than simple commercialism. Both Salt and (in a different form) Shoestring are eclectic and innovative publishers, which suits me, given that what I write is often, well, a bit individualistic, idiosyncratic, even uncomfortable. Finally, Maria, my wife, is always the person I go to first with anything I’ve written. We swap work all the time, and she is both critically honest and supportive, which is what every writer needs. No writer can do it just on their own – there is no writing which is not a collaborative effort.
What do you enjoy writing, and what do you find yourself writing about most often?
I write in lots of different forms – creative non-fiction (memoir), fiction (novels and short stories), poetry, academic, reviews, even (occasionally) radio drama – and I enjoy them all. In fact, what I particularly enjoy about writing is the challenge of change – of changing from one form to another. If all I wrote was, say, poetry, I think I’d go round the bend. It’s meant that I’m probably a Jack of all trades (to be rude about myself), and it’s taken me longer to establish myself in the individual fields because of that. But some of my favourite contemporary writers (e.g. Blake Morrison, Louis De Bernieres) write, to a lesser or greater extent, in lots of different forms. And I think it’s good for a writer to do so, to be honest: if all you write is poetry, for example, you can end up just speaking to poets, just writing poetry about poetry, not seeing beyond the horizon of your form, losing a sense of audience and the potentialities of subject matter. I use the example of poetry, I think, because it’s always in danger (at least in Britain) of becoming an enclosed world. In the end what matters is reaching your readership: it doesn’t matter how small or large the readership is (that’s neither here nor there); what matters is that you communicate with them – and don’t (for example) just write poetry for other poets, or competition judges, or poetry editors.
In terms of what I write about most often, well, I suppose everyone has certain recurring themes, which grow out of their experiences. Mine include illness and particularly neurological illness; music and particularly classical music; science and particularly cosmology. This may sound like a bit of a miscellaneous list, and probably is, but there are connections between these themes, which I’ve explored in all my books. I’m often identified as writing a kind of dark comedy – mixing very serious (often horrific) subjects with laughter. This isn’t always conscious: sometimes, the comedy comes without my thinking about it. Someone recently said of my poems that she found herself laughing, even when the subject matter was very sad. She apologised for it, but I didn’t take it as an insult at all.
Where do you write? Do you have a writing space or a particular process/routine?
I have got a ‘writing shed’ at the bottom of our garden, which I love and use when I have whole days to write. But, to be honest, this is very rare: I’ve got a full-time university job and twins, so whole writing days are a luxury. For most of the year, I have no writing routine at all, and write in the cracks of days – a few minutes in the evening, Saturday mornings before washing up, twenty minutes before the next lesson, covertly during some boring committee. Often the latter produces the best writing: writing when you’re not supposed to. Because of this lack of routine or, for that matter, time, I tend to write on the sofa, surrounded by twins, Lego, with My Little Pony on the TV. The good thing about this is that it means I have no preciousness about writing, never suffer from writer’s block (which is a luxury, in part, available to those with spare time), and can do it anywhere.
What’s your favourite word?
I like ‘mellifluous’ and ‘pell-mell.’ I’ve never found a context to use the latter word, though, which is a shame. I’ll keep looking. I did find a place for another lovely hyphenated word, ‘higgledy-piggledy,’ in my memoir. Gosh, as a writer, you have to love the music of words (their mellifluousness) as well as thinking about them mechanically in terms of meaning.
What do you find the most difficult or challenging about writing?
Getting time to do it. As I said, I have very limited time to write. This has had an effect on my writing: it makes it harder to write longer, more sustained pieces – so I’m currently writing an academic book on the relationship between laughter and violence, and it’s taken me quite a few years, simply because of the sustained nature of the project. The fragmentariness of my writing time has meant that I’ve written a lot of shorter pieces (especially poems) over the last few years; and it’s also had an effect on the structure of my books: my first novel, Entertaining Strangers, for example, was written whilst our twins were tiny (premature, then never slept for months). I had an hour a week to write, in which I’d force myself to draft (very roughly) one chapter. So almost all the chapters in the novel are very short. The way you write has a direct effect on the form, I think.
Tell me about the piece of work that you are most proud of writing, or about the writing accomplishment you are most proud of.
I’m always most proud (if that’s the word) of the most recent big piece of work (i.e. book). If I wasn’t, I’d be worried I was going downhill, not improving. I want every major piece of writing to be better than the last. So for the last couple of years, I’ve been most proud of Melissa, my second novel, which came out from Salt in 2015. It’s my most emotional work, I think, and I know it’s “original,”’ at least in the sense of form and strangeness. Having said that, as soon something is finished, you’re aware of the flaws, and want to do something different or better next time. Everything has flaws, and for the writer they’re magnified a hundred times over. Not only that, but there’s something which isn’t often talked about, which is the “finished book” syndrome: that once something is done, finished and published, there’s a mixture of elation and desolation. For really big works (like my two novels and memoir), this feeling was particularly acute: all you’re left with after a book is finished is scorched earth, a reconstruction from nothing, and (to mix metaphors) a feeling that the published book (as one poet put it) is a stone you’ve thrown in a well and you’re waiting for some kind of plop at the bottom.
What are your writing plans, goals or dreams for the future?
Plans and dreams are no doubt very different things: my dream is probably to make so much money from my next book (which is a poetry book, so it’s unlikely) that I can retire and devote myself to something like electric trains instead. My plans, well, I’m currently in the process of finishing a second poetry collection, provisionally entitled Cassandra Complex, which is, in part, about the relationship between prophecy, failed prophecy and poetry. I’m also working on an academic book about laughter and violence, and co-editing (with the wonderful Karen Stevens) an anthology of short stories called Drinking Stories. The anthology, which will hopefully be out late next year, is a collection of stories by some wonderful writers, about the pleasures, pains and horrors of alcohol. I think the launch will be fun, for obvious reasons.
Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, lecturer and critic. His books include the novels Melissa (Salt, 2015) and Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012), the memoir Take Me Home: Parkinson's, My Father, Myself (Granta, 2007), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013). He is director of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. He lives in Leicestershire with his wife, the poet Maria Taylor, and their twin daughters, Miranda and Rosalind. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.
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