INTERVIEW: Jonathan Taylor on illness, Oliver Sacks and ‘Melissa’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Jonathan Taylor on the research process behind his novel Melissa (Salt, 2015).

Melissa is inspired by true events, and at least at the beginning frames itself as a kind of reportage. What kinds of ethical concerns did you consider when working with real-life material, and how did you decide where the intersections between history and imagination should fall?

In some ways, the ‘true events’ lying behind Melissa are a kind of vanishing horizon. There are two or three true stories on which it’s based; but they’re distanced, displaced, seen through an inverted telescope. Oddly enough, my first novel, Entertaining Strangers (2012), is even closer to non-fiction, even though it’s usually seen as crazily surrealist. Often, the closer to reality something is, the less believable – which is why the earlier chapters of Melissa, where the pseudo-non-fictional elements are foregrounded, are probably the least ‘realist’ in the conventional sense. ‘Realism,’ as most people know, is a subjective thing, informed by social class, ethnicity, gender, geography and so on. Realism is always a simulation in fiction – or, to put it another way, fiction dreams of reality.

I think the main ethical concerns I had with Melissa were to do with the portrayal of illness. I wanted to make sure I got the portrayal of Melissa’s Leukaemia right. Personally, I think it’s a responsibility of modern novelists to do justice to illness, to write about it in a sensitive and informed way. You’re talking about something that has serious, sometimes traumatic, real-world effects, so you owe it to the reader – who, after all, may be affected (for example) directly by cancer – to write about it in a direct and ‘truthful’ way. Gone are the days when, in Victorian novels, characters suffer from a mysterious undiagnosed illness for a few weeks at key moments in the narrative. In contemporary novels, authors should (I think) use the proper terminology, and understand treatments, aetiologies, pathologies, and so on. That’s how to be sensitive as an author – to research and understand fully the medical context you’re working in, not to use ‘trigger warnings’ (which I have very mixed feelings about). On the most basic level, the reader needs to trust that the writer knows what they’re talking about – and, if they do, you don’t need trigger warnings.

In the end, fiction is just fiction, and the novelist doesn’t have a god-given right to trample on other people’s gardens. You’re not special or important as a novelist or author. Despite what Wagner felt, the ‘artist’ isn’t exempt from usual kindness, sensitivity, courtesy. But authorial kindness, sensitivity, courtesy is sometimes just a matter of knowledge and understanding. 

You mentioned ‘doing justice to illness’, particularly in terms of handling medical vocabulary. I’d say that context comes through especially strongly in Chapter Three, and obviously in the bibliography provided at the end of the book which includes several medical texts. Could you tell me something of how you approached the medical aspects of your research, why you chose to utilise medical language, and how you set about transposing your research into your fiction?

I’ve written about illness and medical subject matter in almost all of my books. No doubt that’s because I grew up surrounded by illness. I wrote about my father’s Parkinson’s disease, dementia, and bizarre brain syndromes in my earlier memoir, Take Me Home: Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself (2007). When I was growing up, it felt like no-one talked about mental or neurological illness, either in person or in the books I read, and hence it felt almost isolated to my family. I don’t believe, really, in progress, but I do think things have improved in this regard – and no doubt my reading has also improved, too.

But back then, at the start of the 90s, I remember the shock of recognition when, at the age of seventeen, I first came across the description of Edwin’s father’s brain disorder in Arnold Bennett’s novel Clayhanger (I wrote about the experience in a short personal essay here). It was a shock because I’d never seen anything in a story before which was analogous to my own experience of living with an ill father. Seeing it in words in front of me was startling, cathartic.

And then, a few years later, I came across the work of neurologist Oliver Sacks, and instantly recognised the world and the neurological conditions he describes so brilliantly. Of course, illness has been written about since the beginning of time, but the precision, the diagnostic detail, the (crazy, surreal, counter-intuitive) ‘realism’ of Sacks’s work has influenced me, I think, as much as anything else. His book Musicophilia – about the relations between neuroscience, illness and music – lies behind the whole of Melissa. What he adds to literature, or brings to consciousness (because it was already latently there), is the attention to neurology: nineteenth-century realist writers like George Eliot and Trollope show themselves to be brilliant psychologists, in their understanding their characters’ motivations; but later-twentieth and twenty-first-century novelists are writing in the age not just of modern psychology, but also neuroscience. And that context is vitally important when it comes to fictional characterisation these days, I think. Novels are, in part, about consciousness, about the workings of the mind, so the novelist needs to be aware of what others are writing about these things, in the related fields of science and philosophy.

I’m intrigued by that relationship between music and the psychological world, as that is obviously one of the thematic threads that hold Melissa together. I wondered if you could share your perspective on listening to music as a form of research, as opposed to reading or writing about it. In particular, did you find that listening to orchestral music, despite it lacking any verbal language, helped to shape your ideas around the style and narrative of the novel?

Yes, absolutely – the novel as a whole is an experiment to see if it’s possible to meld novelistic form with musical forms, such as variations. I see Part 1 as a kind of prelude to Part 2, where each chapter is a kind of distant variation on the underlying loss and grieving process. Some of the chapters are directly linked to specific pieces, and some of them are structured around the pieces themselves. I believe very much in the narrative structure of music, and the musical structure of prose: prose can and should be musical, rhythmic, onomatopoeic, lyrical, dissonant, consonant, fugal, operatic, symphonic, and so on. Writers should love the sound of words above and beyond their ostensible meanings (poets, of course, know this).

The central image of the novel – its starting point – is, as you know, a musical hallucination which is shared, somehow, by everyone on the same street. At the moment Melissa, a young girl on the street, dies from Leukaemia, everyone on the street hears the same music in their heads – or, at least, seems to. The novel takes that musical image as its starting point, and extends it, develops it. The epigraph to the whole book is from the eighteenth-century philosopher Novalis: ‘Every disease is a musical problem. Every cure is a musical solution.’ Each chapter is a kind of meditation on that idea, weaving together the central strands – illness, music and grief.

And yes, I did listen to music while writing it (and played some of the pieces badly on the piano). It’s a bit like writing with incidental music – though I always think the term ‘incidental music’ is a bit of a misnomer. Music isn’t ‘incidental’ in many movies, but rather integral to their storytelling (see the works of Powell and Pressburger, for example, or try and imagine Brief Encounter without Rachmaninov, or Death in Venice without Mahler). Movies, or at least certain sequences in many powerful movies, often come close to opera or ballet. And something similar can happen in musical fiction too, where music is far from ‘incidental’ to the story, but woven into it, a fundamental part of it. Ideally, I’d like the reader to hear the musical pieces in their head (or imagine them, if they don’t know them) while they’re reading.

Absolutely. I wonder if there’s a link there between the way readers might imagine music and the way they ‘hear’ characters’ voices coming out from the text, what you might call the ‘aural dimension’ of the text. That was something that stood out for me when I was reading Melissa – the use of distinct dialogue styles, the highly differentiated modes of communication between various characters. I wondered if you based some of your characters’ voices on voices collected from the real world, and how you feel about the challenges of creating authentic-sounding dialogue on the page?

People often talk about how writers ‘find their voice,’ but I’ve always felt that this is a rather egocentric, even solipsistic view of writing. Personally, I think writers should go out and find others’ voices – listen to people, absorb the different voices out there (in pubs, clubs, cafés, on buses, trains, in schools, hospitals, parks, and so on). Keatsian negative capability applies to fiction as well as poetry: ideally, the author should try and efface his or her own voice, and listen to others – let him or herself be occupied by others’ voices. Being a novelist is a bit like the guy in Mark’s Gospel, who’s possessed by a legion of demons.

This also ties in with the idea that there’s a musical structure to fiction which, for me, often involves the interweaving of different voices, like a fugue. All writing aspires to the condition of music, and particularly to Bachian polyphony. I don’t want to sound too pretentious, because by ‘aspires,’ I mean, by and large, it tries and fails – doesn’t come close. Although there are moments in Dickens which aren’t far off.

Funnily enough, all this applies, I think, equally to non-fiction. You’d have thought memoir – for instance – is much more monovocal. But when I perform bits of my earlier memoir (which I still do, occasionally) to an audience, I notice how many different voices are involved – how the book is really a collage, a scrapbook of different people’s voices, ideas, stories. Stories are conversations, which is why no story is ever about just one person, one “I.” Even monologues always imply other characters: if you listen to Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, you’ll hear how the central voice is always shot through with others’ voices. Existential solipsism doesn’t necessarily make for good writing; and Trollope is at his most boring in the long chapters where the narrator eclipses the characters, talks over them. Perhaps it all goes back to the oral origins of storytelling as conversation, dialogue, improvisation, communality, where the audience’s voices were as important as the storyteller’s.

Talking of audiences, when I’ve given readings from the novel, some people have commented that Melissa captures teenage girls’ voices well – the main character of the second part, Serena, is an A-Level student, and has various conversations with her best friend. It’s certainly not for me to say whether this is true or not, but the comment always surprises me, because I didn’t think about it much while I was writing it. After all, if, as a writer, you can’t enter into another gender’s voice, what the hell are you doing? I know full well there are multitudinous examples of male writers writing women’s voices badly. But that’s pretty shoddy, to say the least, a failure to listen. I mean – the whole point of being a fiction writer is empathy, is that ability to leap into different perspectives, different voices. Of course, sometimes this works better than others, and of course there are some perspectives which people find harder than others – where the leap of empathy is much wider. It raises the whole issue of cultural appropriation too, which is a very complex and problematic area (and to which there are no simple answers). But ultimately, all I’m doing in Melissa is staging and replaying the kinds of voices I grew up with in Stoke – male and female. It’s just a matter of listening, surely. And, in that way, again it’s like music: your job as a writer is to listen.

To close our discussion I’d like to expand on a conversation we’ve had several times before. It seems as though for many writers the act of writing a novel is an act of research in and of itself. In that respect, what would you say is the key driving research question that Melissa explores, and did that question change in the process of researching and writing?

I sometimes think Creative Writing reverses usual academic practice, in that it’s often not till the end of the process (e.g. the end of drafting a novel) that you understand what questions you were exploring. Like psychoanalysis, Creative Writing brings the unconscious to consciousness (or tries to). So the questions I was asking myself in writing Melissa only really came into focus when I’d written it. Firstly, as I say, I was asking myself how far it was possible to push the idea of musical fiction – how far you could incorporate musicality into the very fabric of a novel. That was the ‘key driving research question’ in terms of form.

I realised what the ‘research question’ in terms of theme was only after I’d finished the novel. And it was a good job I only realised afterwards. Melissa was always intended to be an extended exploration of grief, the impossibility of mourning the loss of young girl – a daughter, a sister. But it was only when I finished it that I was able to recognise this as my grief. I’ve never had a daughter or sister die, and so the novel, in that respect, is (thankfully) fiction, an experiment in the far reaches of empathy. But when our twin daughters were born in 2008, they were premature, tiny, in intensive care and very, very sick. Even when they emerged from hospital, they were vulnerable, and we had our own personal ‘lockdown’ for some months. I realised in retrospect that Melissa grew out of that intense, near-death experience. It was me looking into the abyss of what could have happened. When I understood this, after I’d finished the novel, I felt a terrible sense of vertigo, and horror, as if I’d written something imagining the unimaginable. No doubt Gustav Mahler – also the father of two daughters – felt something similar when he wrote his famous song cycle, Kindertotenlieder (and one of his daughters did later die). In that respect, it was maybe a good thing I never realised what I was doing while I was doing it – I’d probably not have finished it. And, of course, it’s worth bearing in mind that all novels are displaced, dream-like versions of reality – all of them are vertiginous ‘What ifs?,’ extrapolating stories from the author’s and reader’s world, stretching and extending reality. All fiction, in that sense, is speculative fiction.

Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, lecturer and critic. His books include the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018), the novels Melissa (Salt, 2015) and Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012), and the memoir Take Me Home: Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself (Granta, 2007). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

One thought on “INTERVIEW: Jonathan Taylor on illness, Oliver Sacks and ‘Melissa’”

  1. Really beautiful interview. (As was the one with Heidi James.)
    It’s funny to think how Jonathan Taylor was writing Melissa with certain instincts akin to those that Maggie O’Farrell may have had when she approached Hamnet. Now I’m really looking forward to reading Melissa, so thank you!

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