I think it was quite clear here that I rated Jon McGregor's latest novel Even the Dogs very highly indeed so it is my pleasure to welcome Jon to the virtual armchair for dovegreyreader asks... and my thanks to him for taking the time to answer our usual questions
Jon, I wonder if you could talk us through Even The Dogs...where the book came from, why this subject and how the book evolved, in other words, could you tell us as much about it as possible
The book started in 2003. I'd got stuck in the early stages of writing what eventually became my 2nd novel (So Many Ways To Begin), and was struck by a story I heard about a man who'd been found dead in his flat. Knowing little about the man, I began to imagine how his death might have come about, how he might have come to be alone when he died, what happened next. "What happens next" being the key question in any story, of course. I wrote the first chapter of 'Even The Dogs' at that point, and then put it away for a long time. I realised that I would need to do a lot of research; I realised that the book would be about people living with drug addiction, people living on the streets, people living with all sorts of terrors and problems and ghosts; it just didn't seem like a book that I could or should be writing. So I left it.
But then I came back to it. The whole time I was working on my 2nd novel, 'Even The Dogs' was ticking away at the back of my mind, and I knew eventually that I would come back to it. The characters were too vivid in my mind, and the narrative perspective which I'd established in that first chapter seemed like a really interesting challenge; something I would really be able to get my teeth into.
As for 'why this subject': I don't really know. It started with the story of the dead man. And I know some people who work in community health, and drug rehab, and the homelessness sector, so I had a bit of background info to begin with. It was something I was interested in exploring - something I was interested in understanding a little more, and trying to capture something of the complexity and nuance of. Which all leads into the next question -
I have to ask about the research...
With the 'lifestyle' research, it was more a question of talking to people. I spoke to a couple of ex-drug users, mainly to get the details of the logistics of heroin-use (where do you buy it? how much does it cost? how much do you need? what does withdrawal feel like? what does using it feel like? do you ever share it? what's the vocabulary you use to describe all these things? etc etc), and the logistics of street life. I also spoke to drugs-workers, community nurses and GPs about the people they've worked with - again, to get some idea of the logistics/mechanics of living on the streets and using drugs. What I didn't do was ask much about people's own personal life-stories - I wanted to be clear that I was writing a work of fiction, and not simply harvesting other people's narratives. But at the same time, I wanted to get the detail right. It was important to me that the people who've lived like this, who really know about it, could read the book and recognise the world it describes, and not be able to pick holes in it. And in fact, the people who helped me with the research were the first people to read the early drafts of the book, for just that reason.
I tried not to do too much research - and I tried not to use all the research I did - but I wanted to make sure that anything I included was accurate. Or at least, accurate for someone. The vocabulary, in particular, is so time and location specific that few people would recognise all of the slang used in the book. But everyone will recognise some of it. (Often, I used slang words as much for their resonance as much as for their widespread use: "dark and light" for heroin and cocaine seems very specific to one town, for example, but as soon I'd heard it I couldn't resist using it.)
We are incredibly nosy here so we always love to hear about the workings of a writer's writing day. To know and and visualise the process that gives us the finished book somehow completes the reading circle, so can we know about any special desk, pen, ink and paper, old typewriter or PC, writing jumper, lashings of Balzacian coffee, room with a view or a blank wall, anything that helps us visualise you at work?
I've moved office now, to a studio building I share with some other artists and designers.
Basically; I write 9-5ish, I work in an office or room or somewhere fixed away from home where I can keep my notes and papers spread out on the desk. I don't have an internet connection where I work. I sometimes write longhand, sometimes on a typewriter, sometimes on a laptop. I try not to use the laptop until I'm typing up a draft to show someone - the process of going from longhand to typewriter to screen can be a useful part of the editing process. I have an Olivetti Lettera 32 portable typewriter which was made in Glasgow in the late 1950s and is a very lovely thing. I also have an Olivetti M3, which was made in very limited numbers in - as far as I can tell - 1941. It's a big black desktop typewriter which weighs a ton and makes every word sound like you really definitely do mean it. I like having things that I can turn upside down and figure out how to fix just by staring at them. I can't remember ever doing that with a computer.
My favourite pen is a muji 5mm.
My rules for a working environment are: no internet, no music, no view, being able to leave everything on the desk, easy access to tea and coffee, a little bit of company from time to time but not much, and having an idea before you sit down.
Who should we read as a matter of urgency, who should we read for pure pleasure and who is writing now who we mustn't overlook?
Pure pleasure? Tom Drury, "The End Of Vandalism". This is the funniest, warmest, loveliest novel I've read for a long time. Rural America, small lives, deadpan humour. Very very good indeed.
Overlooked? For quite some time now I feel like I've been overlooking Sarah Hall - I loved her first novel, with the possible exception of the last 12 pages, and she's written three since then which all sound great. So let's say her. Also I still think Jonathan Buckley's "So He Takes The Dog" is one of the great British novels of the last decade, and I still seem to be alone in that. So him also.