January - Jonathan Taylor
Jonathan Taylor is author of the memoir Take Me Home: Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself (Granta Books, 2007). His novel, Entertaining Strangers, will be published by Salt in June 2012, and his poetry collection, provisionally entitled Musicolepsy, by Shoestring in early 2013. He is also editing an anthology of short stories for reading aloud, which will be published by Salt in November 2012. He is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at De Montfort University, and co-director of arts organisation and small publisher Crystal Clear Creators. His poetry, fiction, non-fiction and reviews have featured in newspapers and magazines including Times 2, Times Literary Supplement, Times Higher, Guardian Family, Guardian Education, Granta, Stand, Staple, Poetry Scotland, Acumen, Iota, Coffee House, Envoi, and many others. He is General Editor of Hearing Voices Magazine. Academically speaking, he is author of the books Mastery and Slavery in Victorian Writing (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2003) and Science and Omniscience in Nineteenth-Century Literature (Sussex Academic, 2007). He is married to the poet Maria Taylor, and they have three-year-old twin girls.
‘Entertaining Strangers’ by Jonathan Taylor Due to be published by Salt in September 2012
Set mainly in 1997, Entertaining Strangers is a tragi-comedy focussing on the relationship between the eccentric Edwin Prince, and the mysterious narrator, Jules. Edwin is an depressive intellectual, who is obsessed with ants and high culture; Jules is homeless, sexless, and may or may not be an angel from Edwin’s family’s past. Forgetful of his or her own past, Jules gradually unravels Edwin’s history and background, whilst continually experiencing strange glimpses of his or her own traumatic memories. The novel explores Edwin’s impossible relationships with his neurotic mother, schizophrenic brother, domineering ex-wife, dead grandfather and, above all, his ant-farm, whilst suggesting that these relationships are all shaped by a moment, seventy-five years before, which his family shares with Jules. Eventually, the novel flashes back to this moment, in 1922 and the Great Fire of Smyrna – the traumatic and repressed pre-history for everything which followed.
For an exclusive chance to read the opening chapter of Entertaining Strangers, please see here.
WRITING EAST MIDLANDS CAUGHT UP WITH JONATHAN AND CHATTED ABOUT HIS WRITING
You’re the co-founder and co-director of Crystal Clear Creators, can you tell us about the organisation?
I set up Crystal Clear Creators in 2003 as a not-for-profit arts organisation with a friend of mine, Robin Webber-Jones, after we’d produced a radio drama together. We found that, at least at grassroots level, there seemed to be a real gap between, on the one hand, writers and, on the other, the increasing possibilities of radio and sound technology. We went on to record and produce a huge amount of spoken word material, broadcasting it both through local and national radio stations and, later, through our own community stations. At the same time, we started running competitions, live events and creative writing dayschools in the East Midlands region (and sometimes beyond) – and eventually, because of demand from our members, into publishing. We’ve so far published three anthologies of work, four issues of our literary magazine, Hearing Voices, and, next year, we’ll publish a series of six individually-authored pamphlets. Because we’re a not-for-profit and members-led organisation (there are now over 100 members), we’re never quite sure what will happen next, so any ideas for future work are always appreciated.
I understand that you’ve recently run a mentoring scheme for new writers and soon you’ll be publishing pamphlets by the mentees. How have the writers responded to the process and are you hoping to run something similar in the future?
I’d love to run something similar in the future – it’s been one of the most enjoyable and successful projects Crystal Clear Creators has run. The aim of the project was to find six talented, up-and-coming writers who would benefit from mentoring by an experienced writing professional. The latter would guide the writers through the process of developing a first major publication of their work, in pamphlet form. The writers involved have, I think, responded really well to the mentoring process – as someone who’s overseen the project, but not been involved directly in the mentoring, I’ve been able to see how the writers’ work has evolved from the initial competition entries to the final pamphlets. Sometimes, this has been a matter of refining and editing, sometimes more radical changes like cutting sections and reshaping, sometimes working on more advanced techniques, such as stretching metaphors. I’ve also encouraged the writers to think about where they might go next, in terms of publishing and promoting their work. The importance of the mentoring process can’t be overstated: at some stage, all writers need a critical reader, whose judgement they trust, and who can provide an honest and detailed critical perspective on the work. I was lucky: I had an excellent editor for my memoir; but that kind of editing and mentoring is becoming increasingly rare in the world of commercial publishing, so there is often a gap between up-and-coming writers and a first major publication. I think the writers involved in the project have valued the process for that reason. One of the writers has blogged about his experience of mentoring here.
How can writers get involved with Crystal Clear Creators?
Easy: firstly, visit our website www.crystalclearcreators.org.uk and see if it’s the kind of organisation which suits you. Then you can take out a year’s membership (which is £5) by sending a cheque made payable to ‘Crystal Clear Creators’ to me: Jonathan Taylor, Crystal Clear Creators, c/o Faculty of Art, Design and Humanities, De Montfort University, Leicester, LE1 9BH. Email me as well if you like for further information, at firstname.lastname@example.org. As I say, Crystal Clear Creators is a members-led organisation, so we’re always keen for new members to join and become involved. One of the best ways at the moment to sample our work is to come to one of our ‘Shindigs,’ the bi-monthly open-mic poetry evening we run with Nine Arches Press in Leicester. The next one is on Monday 23 January, from 7.30pm in The Western Pub, Leicester.
Take Me Home: Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself is a memoir about your experiences of caring for your father. Can you tell us about the memoir and your motivations for writing it, and what effects such a personal experience has had on your writing?
My memoir is about my father’s Parkinson’s disease, associated form of dementia and brain syndromes, including one where he would often misrecognise me for someone else. It is also about my own experience of growing up as he grew ill, and what it was like being a part-time carer for him. I wanted to be honest about care: the media generally portrays carers as patient, selfless saints – portrayals which impose a burden of guilt on carers who don’t live up to the impossible ideals. Instead, I wanted to show what being a carer is like in a more realistic way, with its horrors, its inadvertent comedies, its frustrations, joys and furies.
I started writing a few things down about my father and his illnesses in the late 1990s, at the time when certain hidden aspects of my father’s history came to light – including a long-lost first family. By that point, my father’s dementia was fairly advanced, and no doubt some of the motivation for my writing and ‘research’ was about salvaging aspects of the past from the wreckage. After my father died in 2001, and I started writing in earnest, I came to realise – very gradually – that this is, in a wide sense, the purpose of the memoir form in general: the memoir form is all about salvaging stories and histories from oblivion. To put this another way: I’m often asked if I wrote the memoir as a kind of therapy. My first reaction to that question is that, if I were looking for therapy, there were surely more obvious forms available than writing a memoir over nearly ten years. But my second, more considered reaction is that, well, yes, in a complex and ambivalent way, of course there is an element of therapy involved in memoir-writing – a kind of narrative therapy. In researching and writing the memoir, I was salvaging a set of narratives from the past, and, perhaps more to the point, also retrospectively imposing my own narrative order on that past – a past which at the time was experienced as chaos. Whilst my father’s illness was happening, we lived day to day, coping with the symptoms, the ups and downs, on a moment-to-moment basis; only in retrospect was it possible to connect up the moments into some kind of meaningful narrative, and try and understand my father’s life and illnesses as a story or stories. Narrative is always in retrospect (as many people have said), and this is what differentiates, for example, memoir-writing from journalism: one is a form of retrospective narrative, one is an attempt to capture the now.
Your latest novel, Entertaining Strangers, will be published by Salt in June 2012. What is the novel about and where did you draw your inspiration?
I think of the novel as a kind of grotesque tragi-comedy, which is about the relationship between the eccentric main character, Edwin Prince, who is obsessed with ants and high culture, and the mysterious narrator, Jules, who may or may not be a kind of angel, visiting from Edwin’s family’s traumatic past. The novel is mainly set in 1997, but eventually flashes back seventy-five years to the Great Fire of Smyrna in 1922 – a story from which forms the traumatic unconscious of everything that happens afterwards. As with the memoir, the aim was always to write something in which comedy, tragedy and horror intermingle. I don’t believe that, in real life, comedy, tragedy and horror are separate – so why should they be in fiction?
Speaking of ‘real life,’ the starting-point for the novel was actually incidents which featured in the first draft of the memoir, but were then cut out. I won’t say too much about this here, but the novel was inspired in various ways by the interweaving of two or three real-life stories and real people. So I started with memoir-based pieces, and gradually moved away from them into novelistic fiction – which makes it all the stranger that, in response to early drafts of the novel, some editors commented that it was ‘unrealistic.’ In a sense, I know what they mean: in the process of moving from memoir-writing to novel-writing, I realised you can get away with more absurdity, bizarreness, grotesqueness when something is labelled explicitly ‘real life,’ as is a memoir. Fiction is often reality made less strange – or, to put it another way, fiction has to be more ‘real’ than real life.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m mainly focussed on a poetry collection at the moment, which is forthcoming from Shoestring Press in early 2013. The collection is provisionally entitled Musicolepsy and, as the title suggests, includes a large number of poems concerning music – as well as interlinked poems about memory, cosmology, neurology and so on. I’m also editing an anthology of short stories for reading aloud, which will be published by Salt in November 2012. One of the greatest joys of being a writer, I think, is performing work to an audience – and prose can be just as effective in performance as poetry. Finally, I’ve also been writing a second novel called Mellissa – but I won’t talk about it yet, for fear of jinxing it.
You’re Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at De Montfort University in Leicester; does the act of teaching writing assist you with your own writing process?
I think in a general sense, teaching Creative Writing has had a profound effect on my own writing. On a day-to-day basis – and often on the spot – you have to be able to provide a detailed and convincing critique of people’s work. You have to be able to pinpoint what is effective, what isn’t and why in massive amounts of written material by large numbers of students writing in different forms, styles and voices. It forces you, therefore, to develop a critical eye and – more importantly – a self-consciousness about your own criteria, likes, dislikes, predispositions, prejudices, strengths and weaknesses. You not only have to be able to see if something works, but you have to be able to justify your own criteria to yourself and others. The whole process of writing, therefore, becomes much more self-conscious than it might otherwise have been (which can, of course, also be a problem as well as an advantage). Of course, your own criteria is partly subjective (which is no bad thing), but you’re also discussing, negotiating and modifying that criteria all the time with students and other tutors – and particularly when confronted with what is startlingly new and original. As I say, all of this has meant that I’m much more self-conscious and – indeed – self-interrogatory about my writing practice. It’s also pushed me towards forms and genres on which I might not otherwise have focussed: poetry is the obvious example in this regard. In having to read and critique so much poetry from students over the last few years, I developed a personal sense of my own poetic criteria, which then translated into a flurry of poetry-writing which I myself had never expected – and hence the forthcoming poetry collection.
Who, if anyone, has had the biggest influence on your writing and why?
A lot of my influences actually come from music and musicians: Mahler, Shostakovich, Schnittke, Silvestrov. I probably think – structurally speaking – in musical, rather than literary, terms.
If I had to name just one writer, as opposed to musician, it would have to be Dickens. In fact, he ties in well with the idea that fiction is often expected to be more real than reality: he’s often criticised for unreality, grotesqueness, hyperbole, and yet I find him the most realistic of all writers. There is nothing exaggerated about Dickens’s world or characters as far as I’m concerned – but perhaps that says something about the world in which I’ve lived. Along with Dickens, I’d also have to mention his contemporary Thomas Carlyle, whose style (as opposed to his avowed opinions, which were often dreadful) has had a profound effect on me: I love the irony, the pounding rhetoric and also the visionary beauty of some of his writing. Sartor Resartus is one of the greatest, yet most neglected, of nineteenth-century novels.
There are a number of other writers and, indeed, editors I could mention (and perhaps should mention) as influencing me. I’m very drawn to the work of Oliver Sacks, as is obvious from the memoir. It wasn’t till I read Sacks’ work that I understood some of the more troubling aspects of my father’s condition. I’m also very indebted to the wonderful Blake Morrison, who helped both me and my writing a great deal: his ground-breaking non-fiction, including And When Did You Last See Your Father? and As If, showed me how to structure memoir-writing, and taught me a lot about the crucial importance of style above almost everything else. You can write about anything – however world-shattering or apparently banal – as long as you do it well.
As regards poetry, there are numerous influences. Larkin is one of those towering figures who you’re either with or against as a contemporary poet – and I’m certainly in the ‘with’ camp. And perhaps more than anyone else, I’ve learnt huge amounts from my wife Maria’s poetry over the years – even though our styles and subject matter are so different.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to get their work published?
Well, it’s difficult to answer that question in just a few words, but there are some fairly basic things to say. Firstly, I’d say that writing is a strange art in that it is an unstable compound of individualistic and communitarian activities: clearly, you spend a lot of time on your own writing; but you also have to be willing to be part of a community of writers. Often, this is a local community, and means attending workshops, readings and open-mic events. For poets particularly, establishing yourself within a community of writers is absolutely essential: you need to attend live events and readings, and read your own work aloud to an audience. There are other forms of community as well, one of which is small press publication. Reading small press magazines, and eventually getting poems or stories published in them is, again, fundamental to a writing life. Starting on this scale – writing flash fiction or short poems for small press magazines, and for performance at open-mic events – is a way of developing your craft. And every single performance and publication matters to a writer, however supposedly ‘small scale.’
Clearly, to be part of a community in these senses of publication and performance does mean reading or listening to other people’s work. You can’t expect anyone to be interested in your own work if you don’t engage with theirs. In this sense, writers at all different stages of their careers can and do help one another – or, at least, I hope they do. If writers can’t help one another, no one else is going to.
To view Jonathan Taylor’s Writer’s Profile on the Writing East Midlands Writer’s Database, please see here.