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A Conversation with James Wheatley, Author of Magnificent Joe
Where did the idea for Magnificent Joe come from? Are any aspects of the novel drawn from your own experiences?
I had a vague idea of what the story of Magnificent Joe would be from the very start - and these ideas were refined into the current plot over a fairly long process of outlining and re-drafting. The fact it is set among construction workers is certainly derived from my own time spent working on building sites. The detail and the daily incidences of the work are based on things I experienced and observed (including one occasion when I narrowly avoided being hit by a collapsing brick wall.) This extends into the characters themselves, somewhat - a number of their conversations come from things I overheard at work. Barry's vicious racism is directly inspired by a man I worked with. As, for that matter, is Geoff's bumbling good nature.
The character of Joe is also very loosely inspired by a man I met - once, very briefly - who knew a friend of mine. Witnessing their interaction gave me the basic idea for the relationship between Jim and Joe. However, there is a big imaginative leap separating those real people and the characters in the book. This one meeting I saw between the man and my friend was just a seed.
Also, Magnificent Joe is set in an area of North East England where I spent the early part of my childhood - so I drew from those memories to build the sense of place.
In 2007 a British newspaper ran a story under the headline 'Broken Britain.' The editorial was about a perceived state of social decay n the United Kingdom and I was wondering if you feel this sentiment is reflected in Magnificent Joe? It does seem as though the state and its institutions have failed many of the characters, be it Mrs. Joe's lack of health care or Jim's rehabilitation after prison.
'Broken Britain' is just a right-wing stalking horse and has nothing to do with my motivation to write Magnificent Joe. I think what bothers me more is the dehumanization that happens within institutions - schools, police forces, hospitals, prisons, social services, work places - that seems to reduce humans to a set of procedures and boxes to tick. Rules, intolerance, inflexibility all disgust me and the kind of idiots who bang on about Broken Britain are more to blame for this stuff than anyone else.
You've said before that you read more poetry than prose, which definitely comes across in the rhythm of the book. Do you also write poetry?
I do read poetry, and there are times in my life when I read far more poetry than prose. I recently found a crate of assorted collections of poetry at the back of a second-hand bookshop and bought an armful of them - so poetry definitely forms the bulk of my 'to read' pile at the moment.
In the past, I have written poetry with mixed success. And there have been sustained periods where I've focused almost exclusively on poetry. But I went back to Magnificent Joe, because I really wanted to finish it and I'm glad I did. I find it difficult to accommodate writing poetry and prose at the same time - one always seems to crowd the other out. I think they draw on different creative impulses, and it's hard for me to switch between them. And I think I'm just basically better at writing fiction. There's enough bad poetry in the world - I don't need to add to the glut.
In the novel there are a number of very clearly defined social groups, but the family unit is not one of them. Was this a decision you made before starting the novel or was it something that developed as you were writing?
Not a conscious decision, it's just the way it worked out. The twin cores of the book are the Joe-Jim relationship and the Jim-Barry-Geoff triangle so family-related material took a backseat to those. I think if I had written in more of a family life for these characters it either would have been flab, or just introduced unnecessary complication to the story. (In fact, I deliberately killed off Jim's family because I didn't want to worry about their place in things - the whole story would have been totally different if they were still around.) There are lots of books about families, but Magnificent Joe is not one of them.Having said that, there are echoes of family in the novel. A few quiet minor chords. Joe and his mother, for instance.
Do you have any literary heroes - anyone you wish you could meet? Is there someone you wish you emulate or swap places with - or are you happy to follow your own route.
I certainly have literary heroes - William Blake, Barry MacSweeney and August Kleinzahler to name just three. I don't know that I really need to meet any of them, mind you (especially as two of those I've mentioned are dead.) I'm very happy just to read their work and to do that it is not necessary to know them personally. You read a text, not a person, and while I may have a casual interest in the biographical details of certain writers it's not a central concern. I'm a reader on my terms, not some sweaty-palmed fanboy. Anyway, they might be boring in real life - they are writers, after all. And I definitely wouldn't want to swap places with any other person. If you did that, neither of you would be the people you were in the first place - you'd create a paradox and the whole exercise would defeat itself. Besides which, I don't know what goes on in the minds of other people and I don't want to know. It's hard enough to work out my own brain, thanks very much.
How does music inform your writing?
There is not a causal relationship between the two, but my interest in music and parts of my writing style spring from the same place. I'm interested in sound - in the ear and in the mouth. Everything I write is spoken out loud first. I like my words to taste good - to come over the tongue just so - and to have sonic impact. So the correlation with music is clear - it's all about the physical experience. Also I'm constantly humming and singing made-up melodies to myself. And I play my guitar while I'm writing. I keep it within reach of my desk chair.
What's next for you?
I'm going to volunteer for that insanely dangerous mission to Mars I read about in the papers. If I come back alive I might write another book, or open a fish 'n chips shop.
Who have you discovered lately?
With a few exceptions I don't usually go around seeking to read more work by authors I already know about. I have a laissez-faire attitude to picking books - I just wait and let them come my way. There's no plan. This means I'm often reading a book by someone I've never read before. Recently, these include:
HHhH by Laurent Binet - very good [A Summer '12 Discover pick. -Ed.]
Pig Iron by Benjamin Myers - very good
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov - hilarious
The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch - way too f-g long, but I finished it so it must have been doing something for me
Capital by John Lanchester - very boring indeed, don't think I'll be able to finish it
I don't know if any of these count as discoveries, mind you. They're all well-known writers.
Also, I frequently go for weeks or months on end without reading anything.
Posted June 14, 2013
Posted May 23, 2013
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