Interview with... Jonathan Trigell
Sally Trivett interviews author of award-winning and critically aclaimed 'Boy A' about his writing... and how to get started down that long road...
How did you 'break in' to writing when you were younger?
I think I always wanted to write really, it has certainly been where my only real talent led me. I wrote a story when I was seven or eight which won a local prize.
Then when I was at secondary school my English teacher once told the whole class that I was going to be the next Jeffrey Archer. Which of course makes me shudder now, from both literary and moral standpoints, but I believe was intended as a compliment back then.
The idea for Boy A, my first novel, came to me in a late night chat with some friends and it just felt like something important that needed writing. This idea of someone appearing in the world as an adult, but with absolute innocence of the fundamental things of life and having to live in fear of their past catching up. I wanted to ask a lot of the reader, to see if they can examine their own moral certitudes sufficiently to feel for someone who has apparently done something so terrible.
The majority of it was written as my thesis for a Creative Writing MA at Manchester University. I had written the start and some other parts of it several years before hand, but wasn’t really spending enough time on it and figured that doing the MA would be a good way of knuckling down to it and at least coming out of the end of the process with some letters to my name, if the book didn’t get published.
Having finished Boy A, I was taken on by the first agent I approached, which makes you think you’re pretty much there, but it was still a long process after that. There was talk about auction situations and big advances, but in the event, the manuscript was turned down by a lot of editors, maybe even double figures, before the relatively small independent publisher Serpent’s Tail picked it up.
Do you have any tips for young writers?
Plan the plot as rigidly as you can.
With Boy A every chapter began with a letter, like a child's book. The first line is: “A is for Apple, a Bad Apple.” And it continues like that through to Z. This fitted in really well with the overall theme of three lost childhoods, but was also great for planning, since from the beginning I knew there had to be exactly 26 chapters; obviously in some ways restrictive, but simultaneously extremely liberating. I guess this is part of the reason people often write poetry to deliberately circumscribed forms, like sonnets, because working within strict limits frees you in other ways. So if you know you have exactly 26 chapters and you know you have certain events that you want to put in, then it becomes much simpler to plot and to see yourself making progress and you know roughly how long each chapter must be. If you write more in one it buys you leeway to write a shorter chapter later.
I suspect that a lot of writers probably work this way, even it isn't visible to the reader. I was once talking to Jon MacGregor (who recently won the massive Impac Prize) after a reading we did together, and he said that in his first novel - If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things - he decided he would have precisely 18 chapters, from the first person perspective, because the book is tied up with twins and that is the combined gestation period of a set of twins. But he never expected or even particularly wanted anyone to notice that, just thought it was a useful device to focus himself.
In my second novel, Cham, I used 20 chapters in the present, which is the approximate length of a ski season in weeks, but that was really quite an arbitrary decision just to help with structure.
Similarly, in my latest novel Genus I started with 23 Chapters, because it is all about genetics and that is the number of pairs of chromosomes that a human has (although I think I ended up with quite a few more chapters than that in the event, it was still a useful place to begin).
A lot of books that don’t look like much happens are actually the most carefully plotted. Having a plot doesn’t mean that people have to be kidnapped and cars blown up, but the reader needs to know what’s at stake. The more subtle the plot the more important it is. Otherwise you just have some beautiful sentences and no story, which is unsustainable over the length of a novel.
What are your solutions to problems, such as writer's block?
I start most writing sessions with editing some previous chapters. I find that helps to remind me of the style and aims of what I’m doing, as well as constantly smoothing and improving things. It also means you get straight back into work mode, instead of staring at an empty screen.
Also, I try and end each day at a point where I know what is going to happen next and ideally have a few notes and rough sentences down, because I find that really useful in getting going. It is much better for me to write a little bit less than I perhaps could have one session in order to get right into it the next. Although it is very satisfying to finish for the day with the last full stop of a chapter, I find I then set myself up for an unsuccessful next day. Because the hardest thing for me is to overcome that looming blank-page. Once I’m flowing it comes more naturally.
I always compare it mentally to the description in Jack London's Call of the Wild, where the dogs have to pull the sled that has frozen to the spot overnight, and as soon as they have broken the ice and moved it an inch they pull it almost effortlessly, but to overcome that initial inertia, requires every ounce of strength they possess.
Has your education been a good preparation for life as a writer?
My tutors at Manchester University, particularly Anna Davis, who is a novelist herself and now runs a course at Curtis Brown Creative (http://curtisbrowncreative.co.uk/ ), were really supportive and that helped tremendously.
Also the sense of solidarity with the rest of the group and the fact that you have kind of thrown your hat into the arena, so you have to make a go of it; rather than just tinkering away on your own, which is a very personal and almost secretive activity. I don’t think you need to do a university course for that though. Writer’s groups and circles probably fulfil that role equally well.
Are there any inspirational books, people, or teachers, which have impacted on you later on?
Anna Davis, as above. And I had this English teacher – Mr Johnson – he helped in a more abstract way, just because he was so passionate about books and literature. The first time he ever taught me, he kind of flew into the room and he had this string of spittle stuck between his lips and he didn’t even notice because he was so excited telling us about Macbeth, but even the spittle was weirdly beautiful because I was watching someone who cared so much about communicating their subject.
Finally, are there any points of interest about your personal works, your genre, success and awards you'd like to share?
Well, I’m not really a genre. I like to think I’m at the accessible end of literary. Although my latest novel, Genus is technically Sci Fi, I guess. It is set in a near future London, where those who can afford to can genetically select and enhance their children and have been able to for a few generations, until it has become quite normal and commonplace. But the result of this is that life chances come on a sliding scale according to wealth and an underclass, who cannot afford any improvements, has evolved. In a large part though it was a way of looking at the Britain of today: some of the issues of opportunity and immigration, through a different lens.
Regarding awards (This is cut and pasted from my publisher’s site):
Cham was shortlisted for the Boardman Tasker Prize.
Boy A won the Waverton Award for best first novel of 2004; the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, for best book in the Commonwealth by an author under 35; and the inaugural World Book Day Prize, for the most discussion worthy novel by a living writer. Boy A was turned into a film by The Weinstein Co. and Film 4; directed by John Crowley and starring Andrew Garfield and Peter Mullan. It won a total of four Bafta Awards in 2008; the Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival and the Jury and Public Prizes at the Dinard Film Festival.