Jon McGregor’s astonishing new Booker-longlisted novel, Reservoir 13, begins with a search for a thirteen-year-old girl who disappears while walking in the English Peak District. The people in the nearest village help with the search, and their lives are altered by her disappearance — they’re haunted by the presence of the distraught parents, by half-formed theories and suspicions, by secret teenage knowledge, and by recurring public scrutiny.
That the life of the village necessarily goes on, in the wake of an unimaginable private catastrophe, is the great subject of the novel. Love blooms and fails, seasons change, revenge is exacted, animals give birth and hunt and die. I’ve never seen the passage of time more intricately imagined, and the effect is profound and moving.
Reservoir 13 is a wonder, and expanded my ideas about what fiction can do. I finished it in simple awe — and then found I had a lot of questions about how it was done. — Maile Meloy
Maile Meloy: The reservoirs beyond the Derbyshire village where the girl vanishes are an attraction for walkers and a water source, but they’re also an ominous presence: all that water, hiding things, hiding a whole earlier village. I’ve just learned that there’s a genre called Reservoir Noir — crime fiction about drowned towns, as a niche in environmental fiction. Do you feel like a part of that tradition (now that you know it exists)? Why do you think people are drawn to write about reservoirs?
Jon McGregor: Well, that really is a niche within a niche. I had no idea there was such a tradition! Certainly, in the UK it does feel as though reservoirs generate an ambivalent creepy/beautiful response from a lot of people. They have become apparently natural features, nestled in the landscape, and yet people know that 100 years ago there were villages and communities living down there. During drought season, crowds will gather to watch the churches and barns resurface beneath the water. It’s all just a bit creepy. And yet at the same time, the reservoirs are a crucial part of our national infrastructure and classic pieces of engineering. And those are the sorts of things I’m drawn to write about: things where you can say, “Well, it’s this, but it’s also this.” In this book in particular, the reservoirs are also a good example of the way in which an apparently pastoral landscape is actually heavily industrialized.
One thing I didn’t think through: it turns out that I’m not all that great at pronouncing “reservoir,” which has made author events hard work.
MM: Wait, now I need to know how you pronounce it.
JM: Well, it’s more that I stumble over it. It comes out a little bit “wesevwoir,” but also I kind of swallow the whole word. I’ve started using it as a vocal warm-up and really stretching my lips around the word. That seems to help.
MM: The missing girl, Becky, is really the only character who’s physically described. And she has to be described, because they’re searching for her. Sometimes you get a sense about someone’s size or physical presence, but that’s it. Obviously that’s a very deliberate choice. Do your editors ever ask you for descriptions? (I’m asking because mine do, but I think I lead them to expect it.)
JM: I don’t know how deliberate a choice it was, really . . . I think I’ve just never had the instinct to describe a character physically in any detail. I tend to find my way into a character by thinking about the way they speak, the way they move through a space, the clothes they wear, the choices they make. Hair color and nose shape and jawline always seem less interesting to me. Although I have to say, there’s probably more physical description in this book than in any of my previous books. (For the record, my editors have never asked for physical descriptions. They’re too busy fixing other clunkers.)
And actually, here’s the thing: the whole point of the detailed description of Becky is that it’s a formulaic police description, and that the repetition of it actually renders her less visible and less real. Something I had in mind while writing this book was the way in which when someone disappears in a newsworthy way like this, they quickly become fixed in the public mind — a single photograph, a single description, the knowledge of where they were last seen. And the way the lack of complexity must be another loss for the family to cope with.
MM: You’re a master of the collective narrative. This novel is passed among characters and animals and bodies of water, within paragraphs. Did you start with primary characters and then work out from there? Did you have this whole village in your head? How did it begin?
JM: How did it begin? I . . . don’t really know. Wait, I do know. It started with a short story I wrote about the day when a search party goes up on the hill to look for Becky, in which there was very little of Becky and plenty of the lives of half a dozen of the characters involved in the search. Those were my core group of characters initially, and the story had already given me a sense of the landscape and the layout of the village; and I knew that I wanted to explore that world a lot more fully. There was just a natural opening-out process, from each of those original characters. Who are the brothers and sisters? Who are the partners or the ex-partners? Where are the children? And then beyond that: where does this character live? What’s in her garden? Where does she work? What does that involve? If there’s a blackbird in the garden, where does it nest, and when does it lay eggs, and when do those chicks leave the nest? If a fox catches the blackbird, where does it get eaten? Does it get taken back to the cubs? And when were they born? And if the fox den is in the woodland, what kind of trees are growing there, and how old are they?
I could go on.
It was just a kind of endless pursuit of curiosity, constantly asking these questions to try and expand my sense of the world, make it bigger and more detailed. By the time I was done with that pursuit of curiosity, I had hundreds of characters, if you count the animals and birds and trees and bodies of water as characters. Which I think I do.
MM: I love that you don’t feel you need to provide a kind of internal glossary about that incredibly detailed world, when specific terms and customs come up — you let the reader figure things out. There’s a woman who thinks, “How could you live in a well-dressing town and not know these things?” But it isn’t until very late in the book that it’s clear what well dressing is. We’re expected to know, too, or to learn, or to Google, and eventually we do. Can you talk about terms, and that kind of specific local knowledge?
JM: Well, I’m going to be a bit chippy here and say that my experience as a reader of American fiction has often been that of the baffled outsider who doesn’t understand all the terms and is expected to catch up fast. It was years before I knew what wainscoting was, for example, or bangs. I never really understood where a stoop was, or what the various horse-drawn vehicles in William Maxwell’s novels were. But it didn’t actually matter. It felt authentic, and it felt like something I could discover later on, and I would never have wanted an explanation from the writer to interrupt the story.
So that was my instinct with this book. I understood that, even in the UK, many readers wouldn’t understand well dressing (I barely understand it myself, to be honest), or the finer details of sheep farming, or some of the more technical reservoir-maintenance vocabulary. But my basic rule is that if the people in the book understand these things, why would they go to the trouble of explaining them to the reader? I hope that by the end of the book most of it is more or less clear, just by simple accumulation of detail, but I also want these things to function as details of a landscape — a world — in which the reader is only a visiting guest.
MM: The book is so beautiful, and such a fully realized world, that I kept wondering, “How did you do that?” The human characters each have stories that play out over seasons and years, but so do the badgers, foxes, buzzards, springtails, and sheep. I know you did a lot of research. Did you have a chart? Did you have seasons laid out? Did you have a fox narrative, and then break it up and figure out where to put it in? Or did you write each paragraph as it is?
JM: Oh, well now. There’s a short answer to this question, and a very long one. The short answer is that I wrote each narrative line separately, and that each narrative line followed either an arc or a cycle. So the human characters mostly had stories that, as you say, played out over several years (although some of those are stuck in repetitions and loops of a kind; poor old Geoff Simmons endlessly walking his slow whippet, for example). And the blackbirds had an annual lifecycle narrative of nesting, hatching, fledging, fattening. There were also working routines, across a day (milking the cows) or across a year (making the hay), as well as cycles of weather, season, water levels, and plenty more besides. Once I’d written all of that, all I had to do was put them in the right order.
(And that “right order” had something to do with an idea of accumulation as a narrative technique, of the relentless and measured passing of time, of life coming at you fast and from all directions. I liked the idea of using the non sequitur as a device, and working that pretty hard.)
Sorry, that was supposed to be the short version of the answer. Don’t let me get started on the long version. It involves ring binders, scissors and Sellotape, and a lot of floor space.
MM: Just reading that makes my head hurt. Although maybe the ring binders and scissors are important for a book that’s so much about process and physical work.
JM: Well, in the end I didn’t really have enough floor space for the physical cut-and-paste operation I had planned, and I ended up on these extended mental juggling sequences, trying to hold a whole series of decisions in my head while I frantically found the text and dragged it to the right spot. It was like those scenes in movies about socially awkward mathematics geniuses, where our hero solves a fiendish formula by scribbling all over a series of paper napkins. Only without the musical montage. Or the mathematics genius.
MM: Can we tell people that “Reservoir 13” is not a clue? Do you want to talk about the title? And does the number 13 really show up in your life all the time, as it does in your Instagram account?
JM: Oh boy . . . “Reservoir” 13 is really not supposed to be a clue. There are no clues in this book, although there are plenty of possibilities and a lot of speculation. It’s been interesting to me, having set out to write a book in which there would be little in the way of resolution, how many clues readers say they have found. Readers have been trained to find resolution, I think; trained to see a book as a puzzle to be solved. I have a lot of time for that kind of reading experience, and admiration for the writers who do that work; but I’d like there to be space for the lack of resolution and the lack of closure which life so often offers us.
The title was a kind of placeholder title for a long time — ah, this is the project with all the reservoirs, and all the instances of the number thirteen — and then eventually I just became very fond of it. I like the way it alludes to a kind of 1970s abstract art title, or a Richard Brautigan−era tiny literary magazine. It has no real meaning, but readers are looking for one.
And yes, ever since I started this project, the number 13 has been remarkably prevalent. My marriage ended after 13 years. I moved into an apartment numbered 13. My membership number at the local subscription library is 13. I book a train ticket and land in carriage number 13. I end up on the Booker Prize longlist, and there are 13 books; they announce the shortlist on the 13th of the month. What does it all mean? It means nothing.
MM: We met at a writers’ retreat where I got nothing done and you wrote every day, and I was very envious, and then I was shamefully pleased when you told me you’d thrown what you’d done there away. How much do you throw away, in relation to what makes it into a book?
JM: You realize this was 13 years ago? Thirteen years ago?
I was so young and anxious then. I remember we were in Italy, in a beautiful house in the Tuscan hills, and there should have been long, lazy days of walking and drinking fine wine and finding little family restaurants, but I was desperate to hide in my room and write in some very puritan way. Like, this is called a writing retreat, so if I don’t write the whole time I am a fraud.
I wrote a lot of rubbish that month. I’m sure you had a much nicer time. Writers’ retreats are a funny thing, aren’t they?
It’s hard to say how much I throw away. It’s not like I get to the end and have whole abandoned chapters. But I’m pretty fussy at the point when I’m putting sentences together. Things are crossed out and rewritten often in the early stages. And then I get to the point where most paragraphs are improved by lopping off the beginning and the end. But a lot of the time it’s not so much throwing something away as constantly reworking it. Do you want a percentage? Thirteen. I throw away 13 percent of the text that goes toward a finished book.
MM: That’s a really good retention rate — 87 percent stays in?
JM: Oh, I should make myself sound more heroic or puritan or something. Okay: I keep 13 percent of the text, and the rest gets thrown away.
MM: How do your Reservoir Tapes for BBC Radio 4 relate to the novel?
JM: Well, I’m glad you asked. They’re a set of 15 short stories (each 15 minutes long; I asked if I could 13 stories at 13 minutes each, and they wouldn’t have it), which are all set in the same village as Reservoir 13, in the weeks and months before the girl goes missing. I have no shame in calling it a prequel. It’s been a real challenge — and a perverse kind of fun — to retune my writing ear to the radio. There’s a perilous sense that a listener could turn the radio off at any second, and so each line has to give them a reason to keep listening; and each line has to follow a clear narrative, because the listener has no chance to glance back up the page, or slow down. There needs to be more space in the text, and less density.
The stories could be read as a kind of prelude to the novel; or they could be read afterwards to fill in some gaps; or they could be read completely separately. I tried to keep those options open. They’re available as a podcast from the BBC now, and Catapult Books will be publishing them late next year.
Author photo of Jon McGregor (c) Jo Wheeler.