Ed Wood: Back in 2002, the Guardian described If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things as having an “avant-garde style”. Are we more accustomed nowadays to less straightforward prose styles in modern British novels?
Jon McGregor: I think it’s a mixed picture, to be honest, and I think many of the labels are rather confused. If you’re asking whether contemporary writers are still attempting to find new ways of telling their stories, and new forms for those stories to take – and whether readers still have an appetite for those new forms – then I’d say yes, absolutely. Tom McCarthy, David Mitchell and Lee Rourke are the first examples that come to mind, and there are many more. But I’d say the innovation has probably fallen back since the high modernist breakthroughs of Joyce and Beckett and, later, B.S. Johnson. If Johnson was still with us today, he’d be heartsick to see so many writers still engaging in linear narratives with believable characters and readable plots. The novel has always been about new forms – the clue’s in the name. But I also think there’s room for many different approaches to storytelling.
EW: Do you feel a pressure to keep innovating with your writing?
JM: Only from myself, and only because it’s the best way I know of getting the job done – to find a form that fits the story I want to tell, and to give myself a challenge, to develop a voice that rings true. It’s not mucking about for the sake of it, and it’s certainly not ‘experimental’.
EW: Which British novelists do you think are breaking new ground with their writing?
JM: Well this might be a slightly different question. ‘Breaking new ground’ doesn’t need to be cutting holes in pages, or typographical scattering, or metafictional narrators who break the fourth wall... breaking new ground can simply mean doing the job better than the people who came before, and in that case I think you could do a lot worse than to look out for work by people like Cynan Jones, Peter Hobbs, Sarah Hall, Helen Oyeyemi, Evie Wyld and, although he’s actually Irish, Kevin Barry. There’s a lot of great stuff around at the moment.
EW: Which book or books changed what you thought was possible in a novel?
JM: The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus. Not just what was possible in a novel, but what was possible in a sentence. This is as close as the novel can get to abstract impressionism while still remaining readable, and it still moves me more than a decade after I first read it. Although by ‘readable’ I don’t mean easily readable; I mean just about barely comprehensible, if you give it a chance…
EW: When it was announced that you had won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the judges described Even the Dogs as a “fearless experiment” – is that a fair representation of your work?
JM: I’m with Johnson on the word ‘experimental’; I always think it implies a certain roughness or incompleteness. As for ‘fearless’, it’s a rather grand word which I would probably shy away from. But when I started writing Even the Dogs I decided to ignore any concerns about readers who might not buy into what I was trying to do: to write the book as I wanted to write it, and wait to see what happened.
Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor is published by Bloomsbury.