Jonathan Trigell: 'This is a book I was born to write'

Jonathan Trigell talks to James Kidd about the gene-manipulating technologies in his dystopian new novel – and about his own genetic inheritence

Are novelists genetically predetermined to become novelists? Is talent more important than environment in this respect? Is suffering crucial to artistic expression?

These are a few of the questions posed by Jonathan Trigell when we meet in London. The reason is Genus, Trigell's third novel after his bestselling debut, Boy A, and the follow-up, Cham. Genus, a hybrid of thriller and speculative fiction, presents a dystopian vision of London, divided into "The Generich" – wealthy citizens who can afford genetic enhancements to both looks and health – and "The Unimproved" – the rest of humanity who live in ghettoised poverty but as nature intended .

Trigell answers the age-old question, "Why do you write?", by saying: "I have just always wanted to. Even in primary school, writing stories was the only bit that I enjoyed."

Where this drive originated is less clear. Born in Hertfordshire in 1974, he was raised by his French-teaching mother and management consultant father. Rewind a generation, however, and some clues to his artistic inheritance can be found. "My maternal grandfather painted very beautiful paintings ... for a bus conductor. He had an artistic drive, and it had nothing to do with any commercial intention."

Nevertheless, Trigell believes that he would not have become a published novelist without nurturing. His first significant encouragement came from the requisite English teacher. Although this support did include a comparison to Jeffrey Archer ("It was considered a compliment"), it made a writing career seem dimly possible. "Maybe I have some innate talent, but being so publicly praised for that one thing, when I wasn't praised for anything else, channelled me in that direction."

Trigell studied English at Manchester University, before signing up to its MA in creative writing. His dissertation piece told the story of a child murderer, known only as "Jack", who re-enters society after a lengthy prison sentence. Published as Boy A in 2004, it won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the inaugural World Book Day award. In 2007, it was successfully adapted into a film starring the soon-to-be Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield.

Talent and environment only got him so far, Trigell says – he also needed a great slice of luck. "Boy A came perilously close to not being published. I think it was turned down by 10 or 11 publishers." Its eventual success has proved both a blessing and curse. On the one hand, it gave him the confidence, and the money, to write full time: now resident in a small village near Chamonix, in south-eastern France, he had supported his fledgling artistic ambitions by working in ski resorts across Europe. The downside was an increased weight of expectation, although he admits it was a nice weight to bear.

The germ of Genus predates even Boy A: he had been interested in genetics ever since he read his sister's copy of The Selfish Gene in his late teens. "I found it fascinating that everything was so interrelated. That we share 50 per cent of our genes with a banana, for example."

It was the moral dilemmas posed by genetic engineering that captured his imagination. "If you could give your child immunity to cancer or liver disease, you would do that. If the clinic that performed those operations then said, we can also make him an incredible athlete, good-looking and with a mind like a steel trap, then you can't be condemned for being tempted. It's only the equivalent of sending your child to private school."

This final sentence expresses the fears explored in Trigell's Genus: the widespread use of such technology is inevitable, but it will be available only to those who can afford it. Trigell's nightmare scenario is a nation divided into the beautiful and the damned. "The people who use it will be the super-rich," he argues. "If a James Murdoch or David Cameron has the mind of Stephen Hawking and the looks of Brad Pitt, that doesn't mean they're going to be automatically evil, but they will be far more detached from society than they already are."

The final, and rather unlikely, part of Genus's jigsaw was the complicated personal life of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, which provided a model for Trigell's protagonist, Holman. Both were born into very wealthy families; both suffered from rare genetic disorders that weakened their bones and stunted their growth; both became artists and also outsiders.

"I wanted this perfect world, and a character who came from a perfect family, but who was disfigured in some way. Toulouse-Lautrec was tortured by his dwarfism, which was a result of his family's inbreeding. But by virtue of that same family, he had an allowance which enabled him to make art. Had he been born into a different social class, he might not have become an artist, but he might have been happier ultimately."

Trigell doesn't pretend to have any easy answers, only further and more complicated questions. Is genetic perfection a welcome goal? Are humans meant to be free from pain, illness and suffering? Who and what, exactly, defines a disability?

"How many great figures of the past suffered from mental illnesses?" Trigell asks. "It is quite possible that an element of mental instability allows artists to make creative leaps that other people cannot. It may be why evolution has allowed us to preserve it."

Despite his own jovial persona, Trigell admits to being prey to the more melancholy aspects of life: he alludes to bleak episodes, but prefers not to dwell on them. What he does say is that his creativity has provided respite from this darkness. Writing has offered a form of salvation.

"Freud believed you can escape the manifestations of unhappiness through art. Maybe I am cheerful because I am getting rid of it all in the books."

Genus, By Jonathan Trigell, Constable and Robinson £17.99

"Is it fair, this new world order, that he should live this life of luxury, that he should be able to have Tabby? Hardly, but then life never was fair. Intelligence, athleticism, health and attractiveness were never distributed equitably, not even in the eras of the communist regimes, which probably failed for that very reason....The best prosper and leave ever-fitter offspring, it was always thus, only the speed has improved."

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot