About The Author
Jonathan Lee's first novel, Who is Mr Satoshi?, was nominated for the Desmond Elliott Prize and shortlisted for an MJA Open Book Award in 2011. His second novel, Joy, published in 2013, was shortlisted for the Encore Award. The BBC's Culture Show programme recently featured him as being one of Britain's 'best new novelists'. He lives in New York.
His latest novel, High Dive, is set in the 1980s and is about the IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, at the time of the Tory Party Conference. Taking us inside one of the twentieth-century’s most ambitious assassination attempts – ‘making history personal,’ as one character puts it – Lee’s novel moves between the luxurious hospitality of a British tourist town and the troubled city of Belfast at the height of the armed struggle between the Irish Republican Army and those loyal to the UK government.
Below, exclusively for Foyles, Jonathan writes about how other people's sentences help him to appreciate his own surroundings, and the books and writings that inspired him while he was writing his latest novel.
Author photo © Tanja Kernweiss
The Author At Foyles
That Elusive Sense of Place
In my real life I’m often lacking a sense of place. I’m too busy staring down at the Google Maps app on my phone, trying to figure out where I need to go, or thinking about snacks, or the next precious source of caffeine, or movie scripts I could maybe write to help fund my literary career – films with titles like Killer Spiders On A Plane, or Squirrelnado, though at times I worry they might be derivative.
When I’m reading a good book, though, my level of attention is different. In other people’s sentences I can appreciate my surroundings. I spent ten years living in London, much of it spent near Chancery Lane. But the city remains most vivid to me in the pages of Bleak House, with Dickens’ descriptions of “smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.” When I think of Northern Ireland, it isn’t the Northern Ireland I’ve seen on my visits. It’s the place as evoked in Bernard MacLaverty’s incredible body of work – stories and novels I find myself journeying through afresh each year. Burgundy, for me, will always be James Salter’s Burgundy. Certain parts of the American Midwest are pure Lorrie Moore.
My new novel, High Dive, is set partly in Brighton and partly in Belfast. I spent a lot of time in Brighton as a child, and I returned there during the early stages of writing the book. it's about the bombing of The Grand Hotel in 1984: an attempt to assassinate Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet. I took mediocre photographs on my research trips, three of which accompany this piece. I made copious notes as well. I sat on the bed in the hotel room where Thatcher was working when the bomb went off, revising her speech in the early hours of the morning. I walked the route from the train station that the bombers might have taken. I did many months of dutiful background work – the work that helps make fiction writers, professional liars us all, feel a little less like frauds.
I kept hoping that this research would spark useful memories or imaginings – that it would help me to capture, on the page, what a sunlit day in Brighton is really like.
It didn’t, or not much. What really inspired me, as I worked working through successive drafts of High Dive, was rereading Brighton Rock. I lingered on Greene’s descriptions of the “fresh and glittering air”, “the bewildered multitudes” stepping off the train at the weekends, the way “the new silver paint sparkled on the piers” and “cream houses ran away into the west” like homes in “a pale Victorian water-colour”. I re-read Damian Barr’s memoir, Maggie & Me, and loved losing myself again under the Brighton sky he describes – a sky which in his memory is “obediently Tory blue” – and I followed him as he approached The Grand Hotel, smelling “the scent of gingerbread biscuits being laid on complimentary tea-trays” and “the faint hint of bees-wax from parquet floors walked on by the well-heeled”. I read Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square, falling again into the passages in which his compellingly cold and alcohol-addled characters spend time in the boarding houses of Brighton, the mundanity of their everyday lives made beautiful under the light of Hamilton’s noticing eye. I read Polly Samson’s stories, and her wonderful description in a Guardian article http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/mar/22/on-my-radar-polly-samson-richard-linklater-nick-cave of the collapsing wreck of the West Pier. “Though ravaged by fires and storms,” she wrote, “you can still see its good bones”.
You can still see its good bones, I thought, examining the unsteady structure of my novel-in-progress, trying to keep insecurity at bay as I reshaped the manuscript yet again. Then I’d work on a scene in which two young people are sitting on Brighton Beach, trying to talk around the fact that their friendship is failing. That fragile and well-meaning West Pier became the backdrop.
I began copying out passages from Ann Quin’s Berg on days when my own writing refused to come, a book that for such a long time was inexplicably out of print. It begins with these audaciously opaque lines, which prize an impressionistic sense of place above everything else:
“Window blurred by out of season spray. Above the sea, overlooking the town, a body rolls upon a creaking bed: fish without fins, flat-headed, white-scaled, bound by a corridor room – dimensions rarely touched by the sun ...”
There are places where experience stalls, and intuition and imagination are forced to take flight. There are straightfaced facts, and there are roadmaps, and there is research to be done. But often what writers need, I think, is other writers. In a good book I can feel fully present.