Jonathan Coe visited Nottingham recently to introduce the film Dead of Night (1945) and to discuss his new book, Number 11. He kindly spared me a few minutes to talk to him before the show. This is a transcript of our conversation, which I recorded (the recording itself can be be listened to below). I’ve made some minor changes here and there for clarity.
No, it’s not inspired by a specific episode in the film. What I took from Dead of Night was the structure of Number 11, the idea of having five separate but connected, slightly macabre, slightly ghostly, slightly horrific stories and creating something out of those I hoped was bigger than the sum of its parts – right down to the idea of the fourth story (which in Dead of Night is this very silly story about two rival golfers who fall in love with the same woman) as complete comic relief and a complete change in tone from the rest of the book. I do like the Haunted Mirror episode very much. It has a very strong and peculiar intensity to it, which is quite surprising for a film of that period. But I like the whole film and what I most like is the shape of it. This is why the subtitle of the novel is Tales That Witness Madness – because this is also a British horror movie with four or five stories, from the early 1970s, but not as famous and not as good.
Your novels, including Number 11, are often very complex constructions. Do you take an initial idea – say, an image or a line of dialogue that has struck you – and attempt to build a scaffold for the book, so to speak, before you begin to write?
I think both of these things are running concurrently in different parts of my brain during the time when I’m writing the book. So part of my mind will be turning over, as you say, lines of dialogue, ideas for characters, little snapshots – vignettes – of everyday life that I’ve glimpsed in one place or another, thinking how those can be expanded; and another part of my brain will be thinking what would be an interesting form for a book, something I haven’t done before, something where the structure of it and the shape of it is pleasing, because as a reader I always respond to that very strongly. As a writer, it’s one of the most enjoyable parts of the process for me. And then there comes a point where, instead of running in parallel, those two parts of my brain draw together and interact and intercept, and that’s when the novel starts to take off.
Specifically, in the case of Number 11 – I’m trying to remember – the first story (and it’s a story that pre-dates the others by many years) was The Crystal Garden and the idea of someone obsessing over and searching for a magical childhood memory of a film which he’d seen when he was very young. I think I had a very strong sense of the atmosphere I wanted that to create for the reader. I then started trying to think of story ideas that would complement that in some way – all of them with something of the eerie and all of them stories where reality takes a turn for the worst and seems to be running slightly out of control in the way that the characters find horrific.
Number 11 is the kind of metafictional, intertextual work which you seem to find very congenial, at which you excel. I know about your interest in Hitchcock and it does remind me of him somewhat because I always think the more we study the predecessors and successors of a particular film of his, the more it casts light on that film. So they’re all commenting, they’re all talking together backwards and forwards. Is that the kind of thing you have in mind or have ambitions for in your own work?
Yes I do, but I try and do it so that the books work on different levels, as Hitchcock did so brilliantly. Obviously, you don’t need to have seen North by Northwest for Psycho to have the impact on you that it has. But Psycho starts to seem interesting when you realize that it was the film he made after North by Northwest and as a reaction in so many ways against the big-budget mainstream commercialism of that film. And I like intertextuality and metafiction when I see it in my favourite writers because I’m one of those readers who, when he’s passionate about a writer, I read everything by that person. I always thought that everybody read this way but it turns out they don’t.
I’m one of those readers who, when he’s passionate about a writer, I read everything by that person. I always thought that everybody read this way but it turns out they don’t.
That’s been quite a revelation to me, actually, in the last few years. I suppose as someone who lives and breathes books, I will make the time to cover the ground thoroughly for writers that I love, but a lot of people – even when they’re very enthusiastic about one particular novel – don’t always follow it through and enter other areas of people’s work. So I have to keep those people in mind really. I can’t just write for people who’ve read all the Jonathan Coe novels because there aren’t enough of them. I’m always losing readers and I’m always picking up new readers. Your readership is in a state of flux and you can’t rely on their prior knowledge of your work.
Anyone who reads your work will know you have a great passion for film and its relation to literature. In what ways do you or can you attempt to reproduce in writing the techniques and perhaps even the scenes you admire in film? Do you get that specific when you’re writing?
I always feel that the most powerful influences, the things that lodge most strongly in your creative mind, are the things you encounter as a teenager. I wasn’t a very bookish teenager. I didn’t come from a very bookish household. We had a complete set of Dickens because it had been handed down through the generations and it was there to fill out the shelf as much as anything else – nobody ever opened them. I read what my schoolteachers gave me to read and encouraged me to read, and I read probably no more than two or three novels a year, for recreation and so on. But I watched a lot of television and saw a lot of films, also on television.
I consider myself very blessed that I grew up in a decade when there was this wonderful, unfolding, fluctuating mobile library of cinema coming to you through television every day.
I consider myself very blessed that I grew up in a decade when there was this wonderful, unfolding, fluctuating mobile library of cinema coming to you through television every day: British comedy films in the afternoons during school holidays, when Terry-Thomas and Ian Carmichael – people like this – became incredibly familiar figures to you, and then at the other end of the scale, BBC 2 would be doing seasons of Fellini, Antonioni and the French New Wave and this kind of thing. So it was during that decade that the influence really set in.
Also, it was a very good decade for television – television drama and television comedy. I still maintain that I’ve never encountered anyone who writes seriocomic dialogue better than Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who wrote Porridge and The Likely Lads. If the dialogue in my books has a kind of authenticity and a natural kind of rhythm, which at its best is what I try to give it, then that’s where that comes from. It comes from writers like that. When Dick and Ian adapted The Rotters’ Club for television about ten years ago, I was a bit disappointed when I saw their scripts because I saw there wasn’t much new stuff – they hadn’t rewritten the dialogue, really. I said, ‘Oh, I thought you’d put your own stamp on it.’ They said, ‘Well, we normally do that when we’re adapting, but the thing about this dialogue is that we felt like we’d written it already ourselves.’ And I said, ‘Well that’s because it all comes from my love of your work in the first place!’ So there is a real kind of synchronicity there.
Novels as different as What a Carve Up! and The Rain Before It Falls, and now Number 11, share a common concern with memory: how and what we remember, but especially recovering or recuperating the past – be it an individual’s past, or a social or cultural past. This has sometimes been labelled nostalgia (wrongly, in my view). What is it about individual memory and collective memory that interests you so?
I think it’s one of the things that literature is for, as far as I’m concerned: it’s to make experience permanent and to protect it from the inevitable ravages of time. There’s a paradox here, I think, because in order to appeal to the widest possible number of readers you have to universalize it somehow, which also means that you fictionalize it. The writer who I’ll be talking about briefly tonight in the second half of the evening at the Broadway is B. S. Johnson, who disagreed with this violently and fundamentally. He said, ‘No! You should never fictionalize any experience. You should just write it down as it happened and anything other than autobiography is actually dishonest, hoodwinking the public.’ I think this is an incredibly narrow vision for what it is that literature can do.
So in The Rotters’ Club, for instance, one of the things I wanted to do was take my own school days and revisit them for my own – pleasure is the wrong word! – almost therapeutic process, to stop those experiences drifting away from me and becoming forgotten, to fix them, to nail them down on the page. But, at the same time, to make a novel out of them, I had to change them and to distort them, to exaggerate things, to underplay other things. So what I have finally is a novel which does not actually contain any of my authentic memories at all, but I think it was the right thing to do. So the instinct to preserve is very important and is one of the things that comes first – I think – in the impulse to write. But you quickly have to leave it behind, abandon it, in order to write something that stands a chance of being more universal.
The other thing I’ve detected in the three novels I have read so far is the idea of descent, where characters undergo a literal or metaphorical descent: a descent into the Underworld, as with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (or via a mirror as in Cocteau); [there’s also the quote from the Aeneid in Carve Up! as Michael Owen goes down into the Underground – into a kind of metaphorical hell;] and even the descent from the plum tree in Number 11. Could you elaborate on this and say why it interests you?
I’m trying to remember now, because it’s a quarter of a century since I started to write What a Carve Up! How did the character of Orpheus come in to What a Carve Up!? He comes in through Cocteau’s film, but why do I mention that? Because there’s an epigraph at the beginning from Cocteau and the song about Yuri Gagarin, so you have the binary opposition of going up into the stars and going down into the Underworld. I suppose Orpheus is the archetype and one of the strongest images of this part of the writing process – the poetic process – as you have to dig deep and to delve, whether it’s into your own memories or your own subconscious or, in the case of Number 11 with the basement excavations, it’s into the fabric of the society you’re analysing, and see what you can find there. So it all goes back to Orpheus, basically! But what would be helpful would be if I could remember why I decided to put him in What a Carve Up! If it comes to me within the next few days – as these things often do – if it pops into my mind I’ll let you know.
It’s terribly difficult to write a good novel that actively engages with politics, with what’s going on today in the nation without it sounding like a rant or so bland that it would be unobjectionable. How do you bring your moral indignation under artistic control?
It is difficult and that’s actually why I don’t do it very often! I did it in What a Carve Up! and I’ve done it again in Number 11. I did it a bit in The Closed Circle which you haven’t read and which is much less successful a novel than those two – all the kind of pitfalls you’re talking about, I didn’t skirt nearly so successfully in The Closed Circle. It comes down, I think, to basic, even rather banal things. Thinking about The Closed Circle is a good way of focusing my mind on this because these are the things I didn’t do enough of in The Closed Circle: that is, to find a good story, to find a strong story which obviously has relevance to the social things you’re talking about but is not driven by them or completely preoccupied with them – a story where those themes can touch somehow what it is you want to write about and, again, structural ideas, innovations, pleasing narrative shapes, things which don’t stop you obsessing about what is on the surface, which is the social comment you want to make. You have to keep them in proportion and you mustn’t let the social comment overwhelm the things a reader is entitled to ask for and which will give them pleasure when they read.
So it’s a balance as much as anything else, but when one of these books is working, which it felt to me Number 11 was working while I was writing it, you realize ‘Okay, so I don’t have to keep mentioning austerity, I don’t have to keep banging on about George Osborne’ because those things will pop up when the story allows them to and they’re there, they’re woven into the fabric of the book, you don’t have to think about them. What you should think about is storytelling and character. I don’t always get it right, but hopefully with Number 11 I’ve got it ‘righter’ than I have done on some occasions.
Reviewers, I’ve noticed, occasionally struggle to come to terms with your work. It seems they want to label it as something, they want to categorize it, and can’t, and thus find difficulty in reconciling what they see as disparate elements. How has that affected the reception of your work at home and abroad? I understand you sell a great deal in countries like France and Italy – rather more so than you do here.
Sometimes I think my books are too transparent and it’s too obvious what they’re doing. Reviewers think that in order to justify their existence, to justify what they write, they have to find something else, which isn’t necessarily there. I have noticed this happening. I don’t know if it happens with my French and Italian reviewers because I don’t read my French or Italian reviews – I don’t read Italian at all and my French isn’t really good enough to get a good handle on what a reviewer is saying. That’s very useful and liberating, actually, not to be able to understand what these people are saying. It’s actually the best scenario of all.
The reviews in English – you have to be pretty strong minded not to look at those occasionally. So I do look at them. I frequently find myself being taken to task for things I don’t think I’ve done and didn’t mean to do in the first place, and just as often praised for things I don’t really think are there – aspects of cleverness and thematic ingenuity that are in the critic’s head, not in the text. Praise is always nice, but the first thing a writer wants, I think, from any engagement with their work in print or online is just to be represented correctly and to recognize what you’ve written in what the reviewer is saying. That’s fine if they see it for what it is but they don’t like it, you can’t argue with that, it’s absolutely fine. If they don’t like it because it’s not what they want it to be or they think it’s something other than what you’ve written and they don’t like that, that’s kind of frustrating!
I want to say to them ‘Actually, no! This is not really Orwellian what I’ve written, it’s to do with Dead of Night or it’s to do with Dr Terror’s House of Horrors or all these other terrible things which I know far too much about!’
I think you’re right to bring up film references in my books because, as I said, when I was a teenager in the 1970s I watched a lot of films on television. I also read dozens and dozens of books about film and film reference books and so on. That whole world of – particularly the British – film subculture – not necessarily the most famous films but other genre things that were made in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s – that’s very much embedded in my consciousness. It always finds its way into my books, even The Rain Before It Falls with the backdrop of the filming of the Powell and Pressburger film [Gone to Earth]. Again, I always assumed that everybody was the same and everybody knew about these things, but it turns out they don’t. Most reviewers in this country – rightly, I suppose – know a lot more about books than they do about films, so they’re often trying to find literary antecedents and influences in my books that aren’t actually there. I want to say to them ‘Actually, no! This is not really Orwellian what I’ve written, it’s to do with Dead of Night or it’s to do with Dr Terror’s House of Horrors or all these other terrible things which I know far too much about!’
Here is the original recording of this interview – including background merriment from an increasingly noisy bar! My review of Jonathan Coe’s Number 11 can be read here.