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
Sunday 17 July 2011
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."
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