Jon McGregor: Life behind the lace curtains

Jon McGregor leads a new generation of writers putting Nottingham on the literary map. James Urquhart meets him to talk about the follow up to his hugely admired debut novel
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I've been to Jon McGregor's house once before, earlier this year, squeezing into the front room of his terrace one balmy spring evening alongside half a dozen other local writers for the inaugural moot of the Nottingham Writers' Workshop. Established figures such as Stephen Lowe (whose play about Brian Clough, Old Big 'ead, was enjoying a successful run at the Nottingham Playhouse) and young pretenders like Nicola Monaghan (whose punchy debut novel of lawless, drug-fuelled adolescence on an outlying estate, The Killing Jar, was beginning to attract high praise) were all scrutinising Jon's model constitution and trying to tease out some ground rules. The atmosphere was charged with a sense of purpose.

Now in high summer, light fills McGregor's pale front room, dissipating that febrile ambience, and revealing a simply furnished, uncluttered living area that allows his young daughter to steer her brick truck around at full throttle. He lives on one of the many neatly terraced red brick streets of Forest Fields that were built to service Nottingham's world-dominant lace industry in the 19th century. This whole neighbourhood is strikingly similar in physical presence and demography to the setting of If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, the unusual and highly acclaimed debut novel that propelled him into the public eye four years ago, when the Man Booker Prize judges called it in for consideration.

The book charted, over the course of one day, the minor encounters and small exchanges among the inhabitants of one street. Asian kids playing street cricket, old folk peering out of their windows, a sly affair getting up a head of steam in an attic, end of year students packing their belongings, a lad busying himself taking Polaroid pictures; these precisely observed vignettes alternated with the calm reflections of one woman, whose gradually revealed circumstances gave a narrative continuity and roundness to the work. The presiding impression was of a sympathetic exploration of relationships in close proximity, and the diverse hopes and regrets that jostle side by side in a city street.

I tell him that I picked up a distinct echo of Virginia Woolf's modernist desire for Mrs Dalloway to restore "the life of Monday or Tuesday" to the novel, giving due weight to the quotidian rather than pinning all excitement on the usual plot climax or charged moment. McGregor demurs: Woolf had no specific influence on him, but he doesn't deny the parallel; both writers produce charged prose from unremarkable raw material. "Here was an interesting set of characters," McGregor concludes, simply. "How they did or didn't relate to each other seemed worth writing about." Interesting, uninteresting - these are significant values in McGregor's measured prose, which courageously eschews any need to jack up the integrity of well-defined characters with racy plotting.

McGregor's latest novel, So Many Ways to Begin, defies critics who thought that the unusual form of If Nobody Speaks would be nearly impossible to follow, by applying the same ingrained habit of observation to a family saga. "It took a long time to coalesce, but the starting point was the character of David," McGregor establishes. "Around the time of If Nobody Speaks coming out I wrote a very, very short story about a young boy who was obsessed with museums, and who pursued this unusual, almost geeky interest to become a museum curator as an adult. That sparked off a lot of ideas about history and memory, and it didn't take much to tie that in to the idea of him having a gap in his own family background."

When he is a child, David Carter's family move to Coventry, where his old man is helping with post-war reconstruction. Scavenging for shrapnel, broken crockery, a smashed alarm clock or other treasures on bombed wastelands kindles a collecting mania in the boy. He meticulously cleans and labels each piece and looks for "something which would give these objects a story". Childhood visits to London museums with his feisty Aunt Julia kindle this "breathless excitement" into a fascination with odd artefacts: "It seemed perfectly natural to him, to be amazed by the physical presence of history." He makes his own museum in his bedroom and moves, with steady determination, towards a self-trained career as a curator, slowly climbing up through the ranks of Coventry's museum personnel to a middle age that is suddenly, sharply destabilised by a chance comment from Aunt Julia. How David re-evaluates his precious artefacts, and adjusts to the changing trajectory of his life, is the meat of this subtle, clever and affecting novel.

This may sound like a fairly comfortable, unchallenging, linear story. It is not: it is far more enthralling. So Many Ways to Begin is made up of over 60 short fragments, superficially similar to the snippets and pensées of If Nobody Speaks but each one recording a specific incident or memory in the lives of David and Eleanor, the lass he meets by chance pouring tea in Aberdeen's museum café (and whom he will rescue from her overbearing and violent mother with a sudden offer of marriage). Each numbered fragment is labelled with an evocative memento: "A wine cork", "Pill bottles, prescriptions", "A pair of cinema tickets, annotated", "Geologist's rock-hammer, in original case (unused wedding gift)", "Model fishing boat, handmade c1905". McGregor effectively uses these totemic items to curate his own literary exhibition of the progress of David's life.

"Right from the off I had the idea that you could make an art exhibit out of all these artefacts - that if you laid them out on a table they would tell a story in the same kind of way. That was my starting point," he enthuses. "I had a strong visual image of this man and his collection of letters and photos and objects, and that was how the story would be told - each chapter would become an artefact. I'm conscious of the fact that, in a way, David is a grown-up version of the boy taking polaroids in If Nobody Speaks."

This is not the only overlap between the two books. In one chapter, David is in Aberdeen at Eleanor's mother's funeral and wonders, for a moment, where their daughter Kate has sloped off to. This suddenly chimes with the unnamed narrator of If Nobody Speaks, who became pregnant after a swift assignation at an Aberdeen funeral, and then agonises about how this development will affect her unstable mother. McGregor confirms this, describing that momentary wondering as "almost in the nature of a private joke" bantered between the two novels, written late on when the connection between them was fairly subtle. "The narrator's relationship with her mother, who was always off-stage, was one of the ones that I most enjoyed writing in If Nobody Speaks," he recalls. "So Eleanor's character in So Many Ways to Begin very much comes from a sense of unfinished business."

I am familiar with McGregor's reluctance to leave his material alone, even after it has been published. "The First Punch" initially appeared as a short story in the Guardian, then I included it in Sunday Night and Monday Morning, a locally published collection of fiction by Nottinghamshire writers. And here it is again, slightly tweaked, slamming abruptly into the drift of David's life with shocking, unexpected violence.

"Actually, it started life as part of this novel, not the other way around," McGregor corrects me, slightly sheepishly. "It was going to be a much bigger core of the narrative. It was one of the other starting points of the book, because I got really fed up of people asking me what If Nobody Speaks was about. I really wanted to write a book that would very easily answer that question. So I thought: what if I write about a man who gets stabbed? Then I can just say - it's about a man who gets stabbed - and that would shut people up."

That's a third starting point, I observe, cagily, wondering if my questions fall into his "shut up" category of conversation.

"So many ways to begin," he shrugs, with a disarming smile.

Keeping others' voices at bay seems a priority for McGregor. He enjoys splitting the midweek care of their daughter with his partner, but carefully guards his remaining work time. The need for a private writing environment prompted his setting up of the Nottingham Writers' Workshop. At only 30, he already has an unruffled, calm presence, his salt and pepper hair and spectacles giving a slightly academic air to his quiet, pensive demeanour. ("Quiet, at least," he ripostes under his breath.) He gives the impression of one who keeps his own counsel, preferring withdrawn observation to self-prominence. "It is something I recognise in myself," he admits, hesitantly. "I do eavesdrop. I do people-watch, a lot."

This tendency makes his most recent project - writer in residence for the British Antarctic Survey, assisted by the British Council - an unusual choice for a character writer. He was meant to be writing from the base for five weeks but thick ice prevented him from ever getting off the transit ship, so his material is limited to a few haiku-like reflections. He has toyed with working these up as a book of postcards with the "almost Warholian" photos that he took each day of the same subtly altering panorama from the ship's prow. Or they might feed into a novel, but not the next one (which he is part way through writing and superstitiously refuses to discuss).

"It was an incredible experience, but one of the main emotions that I felt at the time, and when I look back on it, is disappointment," he confesses, "which is absurd given that I went much further south than paying tourists would go. If I'd known I was going to be confined to the ship, I'd have done a lot more work while I was stuck there."

Surely that thwarted ambition, that derailing of plans by uncontrollable other forces is the very paradigm of David Carter's frustration in So Many Ways to Begin? - I throw at him with some enthusiasm.

"Yeah," McGregor grunts, and then - after a hefty pause in which I sense him weighing up whether I really did just try to draw that parallel between his art and his life - he assents. "True."

To order a copy of Jon McGregor's 'So Many Ways to Begin' (Bloomsbury £14.99) for £13.50 (with free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897