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Awarded for literary bravery

16 August 2012

In June, the novelist Jon McGregor won one of the richest international literary prizes in the world. But his story began in the vicarage and the public library. He talks to Deborah Fielding


WHEN they awarded Jon McGregor's novel Even the Dogs the 2012 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the judges called the book a "fearless experiment" and a "masterpiece of narrative technique".

The nomination process for the award is unique: libraries in capital and large cities throughout the world name their candidates. Even the Dogs was nominated by only one - the M. I. Rudomino All-Russia State Library for Foreign Literature, in Moscow.

It is fitting that McGregor should be promoted by a library, when his writing career began with childhood visits to the Plumstead Road Library, in Norwich. Here, he worked his way through the entire children's section, borrowing three books every three weeks, and reading another while he was there so as to consume as much as possible.

McGregor has never studied English literature or creative writing, and has never been in a writing group. Alongside the tales he read in the library, he found stories in the lyrics of songs, and in films. And also at home.

He grew up on a council estate, in a vicarage. It was a house with "lots of books; a house where it was acceptable to work from home, to have a flexible lifestyle; a house where birth and death were accepted as normal; a house with lots of stories".

In the area of Heartsease, Norwich, where McGregor grew up, his family were in a strange social situation. Like many vicarages, theirs was the largest house in the parish, and, at home, the family mixed with academics and other middle-class types. But, at the local schools, McGregor and his siblings made friends with children from the estate.

A VARIED background such as this is fertile ground for a writer of fiction. In fact, McGregor says, he is involved with a project on writers who come from clergy families - there are quite a few of them.

He grew up with a natural certainty about faith, but "at some point, that just faded away," he says. "There was no great period of wrestling with doubt. I just stopped believing. But it's still my heritage, and a big part of who I am."

These days, McGregor describes himself as "a secular Christian". He explains that, although he no longer has an active faith, he still feels an attachment to the values of the Gospels, and to some strands of Christian tradition. His wife and children attend a Methodist church, and he has made regular appearances at the Greenbelt Festival for a number of years.

Even the Dogs follows a group of people as they pursue the full-time occupation of heroin addiction. The opening chapter introduces the reader to a hugely overweight dead body on the living-room floor of a rancid flat. He turns out to be Robert, who died in the week between Christmas and New Year.

Robert was the centre of a group of friends and acquaintances who shoot up and drink and smoke together. They share drugs and help each other to score, they inject each other, they talk, and sometimes they fight. Perhaps it is simplistic or obvious to say that they are a kind of family - but they certainly act like one.

SOMETHING McGregor was keen to represent was how skilled a job it is to be an addict. The life of an addict is often seen as a waste, or a failure - but, actually, getting the amounts of heroin right, cooking up, injecting in the right place, getting money, waiting for appointments with key workers, and waiting at day centres is a highly skilled, inventive, and involved job.

"Waiting is one thing we're good at, as it happens," one of his characters says. "We've had a lot of practice. We've got the time. We've got all the time in the world."

McGregor stopped writing the book after he had finished the first chapter, in 2003, because he had anxieties about the content. "It's dead people; it's drugs - it's not my universe." He was worried about not being able to do enough research, and about exploiting someone else's hardship for his own gain.

He was also worried about his readers, who might not recognise the book as a McGregor novel, or who might not like it, or want to read it. But, as he did more research, he picked up on the huge inventiveness of the vocabulary. He was particularly interested to find that the slang for cocaine and heroin is "light" and "dark".

Then he developed the "we" voice - a kind of chorus - and that is when Even the Dogs became a novel of voices. There is the refrain of the support group, of the key worker, and of other individual characters, such as the addicts Danny, Mike, and Heather. There are the voices of the police, the pathologist, the coroner: all of them part of a rhythm, and important in the waiting game that they all play. So he ignored his anxieties, and gave himself a licence to write.

"I could picture the sort of book I was trying to write, and I didn't know if anyone was going to like it, but I knew if I got it right, I was going to really enjoy having written it."

He is surprised to find that he underestimated his readers, and that they are just as enthusiastic as they were about his first and second novels.

The novel's epigraph is from Dante's The Inferno: "Cut off from hope, we live on in desire." Robert's daughter Laura (also a user) hopes that she'll "wake up one morning and think about making a cup of tea" rather than thinking first about her next fix.

In his IMPAC acceptance speech, McGregor paid tribute to people such as his wife - a mental-health support-worker with an organisation that works with homeless people - whose triumphs are small and rare.

And he dedicated his award to "the thousands of people . . . who do the difficult, and messy, and demoralising work that most of us wouldn't have a clue how to do - the picking up the pieces, and mopping up the sick, and finding-the-bodies type of work - [who] will never win awards for what they do. In fact, quite the opposite.

"These are the very people who, as we supposedly all tighten our belts, are losing their jobs in droves, just as we need the work they do more than ever - because, obviously, we're all in this together."

In the novel, McGregor repeats phrases that we can all recognise - phrases used in support groups, or by the key worker - and weaves them into the experiences of his characters. He was careful to use made-up stories in the book, and not to steal from those he interviewed, but he wanted to get the "context accurate".

I ask whether he ever feels like a snoop. "Not a snoop," he says; "but I think, when I'm writing a scene or developing a character, it doesn't really ring true for me until I feel I'm close enough to write it in the first person . . . I want to be able to see a character's physical movements through their own eyes; so, by that point, I'm hoping that I can identify sufficiently with them that it doesn't feel intrusive."

At the close of the novel, there is a very slight hint that one person, out of the half-dozen characters, might make a change, and - with the help of a key worker and a rehab centre - come out on the other side. But this is a representative sample; it is unlikely that people will get out if they have got in.

The novel suggests that life is not linear - that there are always holes, and there is never an absolute fix. But there is the desire for "a big wide bed of their own, a car in the driveway, two cars in the driveway, jobs to go to. . . The smell of coffee and bread drifting from a spotless kitchen . . . and the two of them clean and naked in bed beneath soft white sheets, without fear or shame, without scars or sores or bruises or scabs."

EVEN the Dogs is McGregor's third novel. Before his first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, came out in 2002 (and was longlisted for the Man Booker prize), he wrote short stories - still an important part of his work.

His first full collection of stories was published this year, and he has recently been giving readings around the country. This reading tour is different: he wants to give his audiences value for money, and not, like some writers, mumble a passage that has been chosen at the last minute.

He is armed with a travelling salesman's case filled with books, some visual aids, and a rehearsed reading. He is bored with readings that take place in a dull room, with nothing to look at, and no fun to be had.

The collection This Isn't the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone Like You is about places; so the salesman part fits nicely. There are funny stories, extremely short ones, and one about gourmet snacks.

McGregor says that the process of writing short stories is not so very different from writing novels. The one big difference is that you can take more risks, and expect more of your reader, because you can be almost certain that it will be read in one sitting.

Short stories make for more entertaining readings, too, because whole stories can be performed, not just parts of a longer narrative which may not make sense to an audience.

It is the audience, the reader, then, that makes writing work. McGregor does not see a lot of point in writing if nobody is going to read. So, if you get the opportunity to see him perform, it is worth finding out what he will pull from his case. If you are lucky, he might start with a joke, as his dad did, every Sunday.

Even The Dogs, by Jon McGregor, is published by Bloomsbury at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-1-408809-47-1.

This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You, by Jon McGregor, is published by Bloomsbury at £14.99 (CT Bookshop £13.50); 978-1-408809-26-6.

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