Jon McGregor on turning the 'missing girl' genre on its head

A teenager disappears in the hills above an English village one bleak midwinter. The community rallies round to find her. So far, so conventional. What happens next breaks the rules of fiction

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 27:  British novelist and short story writer Jon McGregor attends a photocall during the annual Edinburgh International Book Festival at Charlotte Square Gardens on August 27, 2017 in Edinburgh, Scotland.  (Photo by Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images)
Powered by automated translation

Jon McGregor is not a man who sings his own praises. As a stimulating hour in his company draws to a close, I ask him if he considers his latest novel, Reservoir 13, his finest to date. "Yes I do," he says uneasily. "It's not something I'm comfortable saying out loud. But this was the first book I finished being really sure that I'd done what I aimed to do at the beginning."

While such modesty is refreshing, McGregor has every right to be proud of this book. It has been rapturously received. Last year it made the long-list of the Man Booker Prize and the shortlist of the Goldsmiths Prize. At the start of this year, it won the Costa Book Award for Best Novel of 2017. It is a mesmerising story about the disappearance of a teenage girl in the hills of an English village one bleak midwinter, and the way the community deals with the tragedy and then learns to move on from it.

Critics and readers have been moved and captivated by McGregor’s treatment – both stark and lyrical – of quotidian reality and seasonal shifts. Many have also been bowled over by his artistic risks: instead of a protagonist there is a whole range of village voices; rather than high-stakes drama and exalted emotion we get day-to-day business and routine hopes and fears.

Over the course of 13 years, people change and stay the same, while in the natural world things wither and blossom. Rebecca Shaw, the missing girl, is never found.

This last aspect may seem like a bold move on McGregor’s part – or authorial dereliction of duty – but readers familiar with his fiction will know he doesn’t peddle in cathartic closure or offer neat answers to life’s problems. He admits there have been some voices of dissent, mainly Amazon reviewers who have felt shortchanged by the unsolved mystery at the centre of the novel – despite the abundance of life unfolding around it.

“There is this tradition in fiction and drama that if you start with a missing girl and then the police are called in, you’re going to end up with some kind of solution. People are trained to read those books almost as crossword puzzles.”

He sighs. “It puzzles me really that there is this insistence on that because that’s not how life works. In real life people disappear and are not found, crimes are not always solved, things are left hanging.”

McGregor was just as uncompromising with his decision to chronicle the passing of time in rhythmic, carefully apportioned instalments, and to catalogue the clutter of ordinary lives. “Once I knew I was giving each month the same space on the page, it had a really surprising effect. It hadn’t dawned on me but actually, you can’t generally do that in fiction. A writer’s instinct is to land on a moment of tension, tragedy or drama, and that’s where you stay for 50 pages. Then you move on to the next moment of drama. With the structure that I created, and kind of trapped myself into, I had to let the moment of drama pass after a page or two and give the less interesting months just as much attention.”

These calculated risks pay huge dividends: Rebecca disappears but in doing so, a whole community comes alive. The novel is a career high for a man who at one point never envisaged writing as a profession. Born in Bermuda in 1976, McGregor grew up in Norfolk then went to university in Bradford to study media production. “Like a lot of teenagers I had gone through a whole series of creative plans – I was in a terrible band, I wrote terrible poetry – but at university it was photography and filmmaking I was particularly interested in,” he recalls.

However, he came to realise that he wasn’t as technically able as some of his peers. He also wasn’t good at working with other people. He began writing Douglas Coupland-influenced short stories and got some of them published in an anthology. “That,” he says, “gave me the gumption to make a go of it.”

McGregor wrote his first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, while living on a narrowboat and working in a restaurant. "I never expected to make a living out of writing," he says, "but I thought I had an opportunity to get my work published. So I set up my life so I could work as little as possible and live as cheaply as possible and concentrate on my writing."

This urban hymn of a novel opens with the line “The city, it sings” and then goes on to amplify the voices of residents of a suburban English street over 24 hours. “I was really interested in writing about Bradford,” McGregor explains. “Those four years I lived there I had my eyes very wide open and absorbed a lot of stories, and I wanted to put them on the page.”

That British debut sounded like no other published in 2002. Indeed, McGregor reveals he was “in a mid-20s kind of way”, going against the grain of what was currently being written. The book was nominated for the Booker Prize, making 26-year-old McGregor the youngest contender in its history. In a short space of time, it completely transformed his expectations about how writing was going to function in his life.

McGregor's accomplished follow-up, So Many Ways to Begin (2006), was also Booker nominated, but it was his third novel, Even the Dogs (2010), which elevated him to a different league. A harsh, unflinching work of formal daring about neglect and addiction, McGregor's enclosed world this time around was not so much an open-view community as the underbelly of society. Such flip-sides are essential for him. "Each time I start a project I'm looking for something new to do," he says, "partly because I don't want to be stuck in a rut."

That freshness and free-ranging diversity is perhaps most evident in McGregor's 2012 collection of stories This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You. He finds the reduced word count liberating. "The short story can literally be anything from a single sentence to 20,000 words. That gives you a lot of creative freedom. The one thing I always have in mind when writing one is that in theory a reader is going to read it in a single sitting, so you can expect a different quality of attention, which is quite rewarding."

Equally quick to consume and just as nourishing is The Reservoir Tapes, the recently released prequel to Reservoir 13. It was written and broadcast as a series of commissioned stories for BBC Radio 4. The opportunity arose when McGregor was finishing the final edits on Reservoir 13. "It occurred to me almost immediately that I had this landscape and cast of characters and still had a lot of unfinished business with them."

I admit to him that I had reservations about the book. What works on the radio doesn’t necessarily work on the page. Plus, why retread the same ground? However, McGregor has penned a companion piece that is markedly different: shorter, sharper, darker and more eventful.

McGregor relished the challenge of a new writing approach. “I had to move away from the voice I developed in the novel,” he says. “Everything had to be cleaner, simpler, more direct. On the radio you can’t flick back the page or slow down. You hear it once. The one thing that was haunting me throughout was this image of somebody in their kitchen while the radio is on. They’ve just been listening to something else and then this comes on.

“They don’t know what it is, they hear the first sentence and they’re hovering in the doorway of the kitchen and are about to leave the room, and so every sentence has to give them a reason to listen to the next sentence. I think when someone buys a book there isn’t that same pressure.”

In these stories, we meet Becky before she vanishes. "I was quite excited about this," McGregor says. "In the novel I deliberately kept away from her and her family. I wanted them to be peripheral figures. I didn't want to dwell on who they were or where they came from.By the time I was writing the Tapes, I was really quite interested in them. By the end of the novel Becky becomes this two-dimensional figure. Here, I wanted to recast her and give her a sense of life and reality." McGregor has come a long way. He has developed into a fearless writer, unafraid to pursue his own agenda in terms of content and style. "My very early work was fairly sentimental, trying to be poetic with a capital P," he confesses. "I'd like to think my creative journey has been one of pulling back from that instinct. Trying to concentrate on what language can do naturally, without trying too hard."


Read more: