Yesterday I told you what I thought of the debut book by James Wheatley. Magnificent Joe is a touching story of friendship, loyalty and redemption. I asked James if he would answer some questions and he kindly agreed (only declining to elaborate on one of them!). Here’s what he had to say:
Tell me a little bit about yourself
I was born in 1980 in the North East, but I’ve moved around a lot. I read English at the University of Sheffield, and a few years later I did an MA in Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam. I’ve done various jobs including roofing, labouring, barman, financial and business risk analysis and market research. My hobbies include playing the guitar, boxing and photography. I live in West Yorkshire at present.
In the lead up to publication date are you nervous or excited? Have you got a busy few weeks ahead?
Definitely both nervous and excited. The people who pre-ordered my book online have already started to receive it, so I’m chewing my nails waiting to hear what they think. I’ve got a launch event happening in Sheffield on March 13th at Waterstones… so that’s worrying me at the moment. It’s a while since I’ve had to read in public.
This is your first novel; how did you come to write it?
Magnificent Joe is my first published novel, but it’s never been unusual for me to sit down and write things. I’ve been writing poems, scripts, short stories and song lyrics – among other things – ever since I was little. Magnificent Joe was another one of those projects where I had an idea that got me excited, so I started typing and eventually it turned into a novel.
Did you find any of the writing process difficult? How do you overcome those hurdles?
The writing process is always difficult in some way, whether I’m fretting about over-arching structural concerns or struggling to get a single sentence to sound right. Sometimes it’s helpful to get a trusted reader to take a look at it, but in the end the only way to overcome is to keep going. Try, fail, try again, fail better – that old chestnut.
There is a lot of emotion in the book; guilt, shame, loneliness, isolation and the meaning of real friendship. Did you find it emotionally exhausting to write? Do you have real experience of the emotions Jim goes through in the book?
I didn’t find it emotionally exhausting because of the emotional content of Magnificent Joe. Maybe I should have, because I have a tendency to stand up and physically act out what I want to happen before I write it down. (And this includes all the dialogue and sound effects, I even do different voices.) But in general it is an emotional experience to take on and carry through a project like a novel.
At first I wasn’t convinced by the 3rd person narrative, but got used to it as the book progressed. What made you decide to mix the narrative rather than keeping Jim as the sole narrator?
Writing in the first person present poses a difficult technical challenge in terms of how to convey things that the narrator is not directly experiencing at that moment in the narrative. I introduced other narrative points of view to circumvent that difficulty. So there’s an element of simple expediency there, but I don’t view it at as a problem. I think some people will always find changes of narrative voice to be jarring. One reason for this is the tendency to seek a diagetic explanation for the existence of the text itself. (For instance, the Sherlock Holmes stories exist because Watson tells them. Heart of Darkness exists because Marlow sat aboard the Nellie and told the story.) This expectation can be confounded when other narrative points of view appear. But in reality, every reader knows that the whole thing was made up by an author. So it doesn’t really bother me to put in passages that appear to come from outside, because it all comes from outside.
The first part of the book skips back and forth in time, why did you decide on this structure rather than a more linear one?
A linear structure would not have been an effective way of plotting this novel. And I like the idea of moving around in time. I also like the idea that there are readers who won’t like the changes in time and narrative point of view.
There is a real sense of place in Magnificent Joe. Did you base the village where Jim lives on somewhere you are familiar with?
To some extent, yes. There are bits of a number of places – all over the country – that I used as basis for the geography of the village.
Could this story have taken place anywhere in the UK or was it important to you to have set it in the North East? If so, why?
I think a similar story could have taken place anywhere. In fact, there are similar stories set in other places. I wanted it to happen in the North East because that was part of the voice I heard.
Did you have to do much research for the book e.g into learning difficulties?
I do research for some projects, but not this one in any big way. In this instance, the idea of research and getting things ‘correct’ just didn’t interest me that much. I may have been reacting against the idea that because the book deals with some ‘issues’ that I have a responsibility to treat them accurately. I don’t. I’m a fiction writer and I can write whatever I feel like writing. Anyway, there are no characters in that book who would talk about the ‘issues’ in a politically correct, researched kind of speech, so it would have been pointless.
The main event in the story stems from small community small-mindedness and ignorance, are you making a statement about inequalities and prejudices in wider society with this book?
The idea that our most vulnerable people often receive the most brutal treatment is a pretty common one in all kinds of fiction. So I can’t claim to be making any kind of cutting statement there. But social expectations, group tyranny, intolerance etc… do anger me, so that’s in there somewhere. But I want to say that I think MJ also reflects – though perhaps in a more muted way – some of the positive aspects of community. And, look, people are not necessarily going to be ignorant and small-minded just because they live in a pit village. There are good, conscientious people in this book just as there are in life.
I know you are a musician too, does music influence your writing at all? If so, how? Are you influenced by other media such as film/tv/art?
I think I’ve been described as a musician because I happened to mention once that I play guitar and that at one point in my life I was in gigging bands. I’m not sure that ‘musician’ is the best way of describing me now, although I still play every day just for personal pleasure. I don’t know if music directly influences my writing. I think it would be more accurate that I influence my music and my writing. I’m very interested in sound, the perception of sound and evocation through sonic effect. I think that comes through in both my writing and in the way I play my guitar. (And in the music that I do still sometimes write.)
How much of you is there in Magnificent Joe, is it at all autobiographical?
It’s not even mostly autobiographical. Obviously I’ve used evidence from life, but it’s a fictional story. As usual, some aspects of some of the characters are based on people I’ve met. Some of the places and events are based on things I’ve seen and heard. But in the end, I made it all up. That’s my job.
I listened to the interview for your publisher so I know you are writing your second book, can you give me a rough idea what it is about? (Interview with James Wheatley)
Who are the writers, modern and classic, you go back to time and again?
I’ve been devouring James Ellroy recently. I love it. I find the brutal racism and homophobia of his characters to be absolutely hilarious, although I’m sure some others find it a bit rich. With Ellroy, you’re never quite sure whether you’re dealing with a vicious, far-right lunatic or a fucking genius. (AFH: I told James I thought Ellroy was a bit of both!) Also, I think his prose style is almost poetic in its near-perfect unity of sense and form. In terms of repeat reads, it’s poets: William Blake, Barry MacSweeney, WS Graham, August Kleinzahler.
Recommend a book that will surprise me – why should I read it?
Try The Strange Hours Travelers Keep by August Kleinzahler. One of my favourite collections of poetry of all time. It’s just dead good.