Jon McGregor, BSc Media Technology and Production 1998
Novelist and short story writer
Jon McGregor is an award-winning British novelist and short story writer. In 2002, his first novel, If nobody speaks of remarkable things, was long listed for the Booker Prize as its youngest contender and the first debutant novelist to be considered for the prestigious award. It would also go on to win the Betty Task Prize, Somerset Maugham Award, as well as being shortlisted for other notable awards. His second novel, So many ways to begin, was long listed for the Booker Prize in 2006. In 2012, his third novel, Even the Dogs, was awarded the International Dublin Literary Award.
Jon was born in Bermuda in 1976. He grew up in Norfolk and now lives in Nottingham with his wife and two children. He graduated from Bradford with a BSc in Media Technology and Production in 1998 and received an Honorary Degree from the University of Nottingham in 2010 as well as being appointed as an Honorary Professor. Alongside teaching, writing, and reading at various literature events, he also does some work for the literary charity First Story.
We caught up with Jon to ask him about all things writing and leisure and about his rapid rise to being recognised by many as one of Britain’s best short story writers.
What attracted you to study Media Technology and Production Media at the University of Bradford?
“I wanted to be a film-maker. Or a photographer. Or a musician. I didn't really know; but I was very attracted to the fact that the course was run jointly by the University and the National Museum of Film, Photography and Television. I was looking for somewhere that taught a mixture of practices. I was also looking for something very different from my Norfolk background, and Bradford was certainly that.”
What was your fondest memory from your time at Bradford?
“Huh. There are many. Dancing in the cellar bar of the Beehive and then buying fresh poppadoms at 2am to eat on the way home is probably up there. Or cycling out to Saltaire to buy books and watch the cricket. Educationally, working on black and white photography in the darkroom was a high point. But generally there was just an exciting sense of meeting new people, finding new experiences, walking around and getting into scrapes.”
In your final year at University you wrote “Cinema 100” which was featured in the anthology five uneasy pieces. What inspired you to start writing at University and what impact did this have on your studies?
“By process of elimination I discovered that my technical skills were never quite up to scratch in any of the media forms I tried; and that in fact I wasn't best suited to collaboration. Gradually I realised that the writing I was doing - scripts and proposals and documentation of the work - was the one thing I was good at. So I stayed in my room for three years and stuck to doing that. My studies suffered, obviously.”
After graduation you moved to Sheffield and undertook various manual labour before relocating to Nottingham and buying a narrow boat in which you would go on to spend a lot of time and ultimately write your first novel. Tell us a bit about this time, why the boat, and what was the inspiration behind the novel?
“Because I'd had some work published while I was still at university, I had enough front to think I could have a go at making writing pay. So I set myself up to live as cheaply as possible, and work as little as possible, in order to carve out as much writing time as I could. Living on a boat was cheap (as well as a lot of fun), and jobs in restaurants or post-rooms saved my thinking time for the desk. The inspiration for the novel came entirely from my time in Bradford - specifically, from living on Grove Terrace for three years, looking down from my attic window at all the people coming and going in the street.”
What was your reaction to the unprecedented level of recognition received for your first novel and how did this impact on your life and your subsequent work?
“That first novel's reception was everything. I was all prepared for being an unknown and unappreciated writer, quietly publishing novels every few years without really making any money from it. The Man Booker prize long listing, and the recognition (and sales) which it generated, changed all that, and the impact continues. There are students reading that novel now who weren't even born when I wrote it. It meant I felt a lot of pressure and a weird kind of exposure when I came to write my second novel - but that was the life I'd wanted, and I'm grateful for it. Writing is what I love doing, and to be paid for it is still a delight.”
What do you think it is about your writing that others find most appealing?
“I really don't know. I'm not being facetious - it's just hard for me to say what it is that people are responding to. When I set out to write a novel I know what I'm trying to achieve - a certain way of telling a story, a certain tone I want the reader to pick up on and keep with them - but I never know quite what it is they're actually taking from the book.”
What feelings or experiences do you look to for inspiration?
“I don't think I go looking for 'inspiration'. I've always enjoyed overhearing conversations, or seeing people in the street and wondering what their stories are. Most of the stories I come up with start with a 'what if?' moment, and build from there. There are a lot more of those moments in busy cities, which is why I think they've inspired so much of my writing.”
Tell us a bit about what you do besides writing
“Well, I'm now a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham, so I do some teaching on the Creative Writing MA course there, and work with the students to produce The Letters Page, a literary journal in letters. Otherwise, I still like walking around, meeting people, getting into adventures.”
What are your current and future plans? Are you writing anything at the moment?
“I've recently finished a new novel, Reservoir 13, which will be published by 4th Estate in April 2017. After that, I'll be working on some short stories for Radio 4, and after that another novel, and after that some essays about cycling and reading and coffee, and after that....”
What advice would you give to any young writers out there who are looking to make their mark?
“Read a lot more. Read the writers you admire, read the writers you've vaguely heard about, read the writers you've never heard of. Try and work out what it is they're doing that works for you as a reader, and then try and copy that. Your own style will develop once you've got the hang of copying. Find other writers. Write a lot more. Pick a subject and write a good blog; the discipline is useful. Find people to read your work and tell you what's wrong with it. Learn to accept being told what's wrong with your work. Keep going. Walk around. Meet people. Get in adventures.”
Published June 2016