INTERVIEW: Jon McGregor on story cycles, show-don’t-tell and the ‘Reservoir’ novels

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Jon McGregor on the research process behind his novel Reservoir 13 (4th Estate, 2018) and its companion piece The Reservoir Tapes (4th Estate, 2018).

As someone who both writes and teaches writing, the adage ‘show don’t tell’ – the mantra of so many creative writing tutors – will be all-too-familiar. Yet it strikes me that the architectonic structure of Reservoir 13 lends itself to a whole lot of telling. While some sequences function as ‘scenes’, much of the novel’s story is delivered through reportage, reported speech and contracted anecdote. How do you feel about the ‘show don’t tell’ adage? Can a story be effectively ‘told’, rather than shown?

­I think the whole issue with the ‘show don’t tell’ adage is that firstly people take it too literally, and secondly they stick to it too adamantly. I think where it comes in handy is in nudging us to trust our readers to understand our stories. If I write, “The man had a baby, and the baby died,” I really, really don’t need to add, “and then the man was very sad.” Most of us understand, instinctively, that the reader will be able to infer “man is sad” from what comes before.

That’s my understanding of ‘show don’t tell.’ Give the reader a chance to figure things out for themselves. Give the reader a chance to participate in making the story work. A comedian doesn’t explain her punchline, because realising why we’re laughing is part of what’s making us laugh.

But when people take this adage too literally, and try to cut out any sense of actual narration, they can tie themselves up in terrible knots. We are storytellers, after all, not story-showers. The stories we tell each other in life are narrated, not shown, and a story on the page can often be told most economically in straightforwardly anecdotal form.

I don’t know. As soon as you think there’s a rule you should probably break it, is my rule.

The novel’s companion piece The Reservoir Tapes functions very differently from Reservoir 13, moving through standalone short stories that fit into the wider whole of both pieces. I’ve been speaking with a few novelists recently about whether that ‘composite novel’ structure, as reflected by The Reservoir Tapes, might be particularly suited to the themes and settings of rural fiction – the community, the gossip, seasonal change. Does that resonate at all? Did the composite nature of The Reservoir Tapes provide you with a different angle to explore the village’s story? And if so, how?

Hmm. I’m not sure… I think I’d be inclined, actually, to call Reservoir 13 a ‘composite novel’, and The Reservoir Tapes something else. I mean, literally, Reservoir 13 was written as a series of individual components (animals, birds, trees, weather, major characters, minor characters, work, water… it might not surprise you to learn that there were thirteen categories), and then assembled, collage-fashion, into the chronological framework. It was composited. Whereas The Reservoir Tapes was originally written for radio, and I knew that each piece had to stand alone as well as be part of the larger whole. In TV they’ve started calling this kind of thing an “anthology”, I think? Which would obviously be confusing in the book world. I’ve also heard it called “a novel-in-stories”, or “a story cycle.”

Anyway. A novel where you can maybe read some of it or all of it, or read different bits in different orders, or where in some way the parts are both complete in themselves and part of a greater whole? I’m into it. And I think it’s a structure that works well whenever you want to work on a larger scale or tell a story with multiple moving parts. That could be a story about neighbours in a street or building, or about different families across centuries in the same place, or… well, there could be all sorts of applications. What should we call this? I’m a big fan of Keith Ridgway’s approach to this question. I saw him being interviewed about A Shock, and when he was asked whether that was short stories, or a story cycle, or a novel-in-stories, he said: “It’s a novel. It’s a novel because I say it’s a novel. Next question.”

(He might not have literally said “next question,” but that was his tone.)

Last year I spoke with the writer Hannah Stevens about how missing persons are handled in fiction and by society as a whole. Her collection In Their Absence opens with a quote from the eight century Chinese poet Wang Wei: ‘When you are gone, there’ll be no answers to the questions…’, which I was reminded of when reading both Reservoir pieces. I want to ask about your decision as a storyteller to leave so many questions unanswered. When, for example, did you know that the central mystery of the story might never be solved? Did that feel like a risk?

Oh, I honestly didn’t give it a moment’s thought, at least initially. The story was about the girl’s disappearance, not about the girl’s finding. It seemed just immediately self-evident that the story would be about her not being found; what that does to people, and how things do or don’t carry on around that central fact. And once it started to dawn on me that some readers might object to that, I just immediately dug my heels in. Like, just absolutely: tough shit. If you want a puzzle to solve, go and buy a jigsaw. I’ve got nothing against detective stories, but that’s not what this story is. This story is about how awful it would be to never find out what happens to someone when they disappear.

Did it feel like a risk? I mean, everything about writing is kind of a risk, isn’t it? People might not like it. People might not get it. People might laugh at it. People might write shit about it online. People might talk shit about it behind your back. People might not pay you to do it anymore.

Circling back to genre, I think it would be fair to group both Reservoir pieces within what has sometimes been called the ‘Northern Noir’, among whom we might identify writers like Benjamin Wood, Ben Myers, Sarah Hall and others. Questions of the usefulness of genre-defining aside, I’ve asked several writers whether they feel the North of England is especially conducive, as a landscape, to feelings of being unsettled, insecure, vulnerable. I wonder to what extent choosing the Peak District was a conscious choice in heightening these feelings, or whether you had other reasons for situating your story there?

The Peak District was definitely a very specific choice; partly because I know it quite well, and partly (mostly) because I’m fascinated by the contrasts and tensions you can find there. It’s seen as picturesque and wild, but it’s actually a very industrialised landscape. The Industrial Revolution started there, and there’s a long history of mills, mines, and quarries – a history that continues today. So you get these awkward juxtapositions of heavy industry, agriculture, conservation, tourism, all jostling for space in a relatively small geographical area. And then alongside that there are all the usual tensions between ‘locals’ and ‘incomers’, the pressures on housing costs, the phenomenon of village residents commuting to the city to work while people who work in the village can only afford to live in the city…

It’s rich territory, is what I’m saying.

To close, I’d like to ask more formally about your practice of research. As a writer and an educator, what is your perspective on the role of research? Broadly, what does research mean in the context of imagining, constructing and delivering an effective story?

As a caveat to this, let me just say that I’m a terrible researcher. My plans for research are always bigger than the reality of my practice. But I do have some basic principles: I want to make up stories, while making sure that those stories are grounded in reality. I want to make sure that no-one who knows their stuff will read my work and think it’s bullshit. So with Reservoir 13, that translated to talking to people about their working practices, picking up some key details and especially some particular vocabulary. I followed a lot of farmers on Twitter, read a lot of blogs and watched a lot of YouTube videos. But I also relied on showing early drafts to a few key people and letting them underline the bullshit.

The conceptual question you’re asking comes down, I think, to this: as a writer of fiction, it’s not my job to become an expert in the field I’m writing about, but it is my job to get a taste for it. It’s more important to not get it wrong than to get it right. This usually comes down to vocabulary, sensory information, and a few key details that catch the light.

(One example, from my research for Even the Dogs: I was talking to a rehab worker, and she told me that she knows that she’s made a breakthrough with a client when they make a cup of tea in the morning before using or looking for any drugs. It was such a simple and lovely detail, and said so much about how intensely compulsive drug addiction can be – and how small the first steps away from it. I knew it was a detail I needed to include, much more than the exact symptoms of withdrawal, or the exact price of particular drugs, or a list of drug-taking paraphernalia.)

But also, you know: we’re storytellers. We’re just making things up.

Jon McGregor is a writer of novels and short stories, including Lean Fall Stand, Reservoir 13, and If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things. He won the Dublin Literature Prize in 2012, and the Costa Novel Award in 2017. He has previously served as a judge for the Folio Prize, the Goldsmith’s Prize, the BBC National Short Story Award, and the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. He is a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham, where he edits The Letters Page, a literary journal in letters. He lives in Nottingham, with his family, and looks forward to spending more time in the E.U.

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

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