A little over a year ago, when Mick Jackson’s then latest book, Yuki chan in Bronte Country, arrived in hardback, we spoke with Mick in the offices of Faber & Faber, with the intention of releaseing said interview as part of a new Bookmunch podcast. Now, for one reason and another, the podcast has failed to materialise (yet) but we do have a lovely chat with Mick and we feel it would be sad to not share it and so, to coincide with the publication of Yuki chan in paperback, here tis…
Peter Wild (PW): We’re going to launch in and get to the hot stuff straight away and talk about bereavement! There’s a thread of this that runs through all of your books in some senses – but it does feel like with this one and the last one, something interesting is happening. In The Widow’s Tale, your central protagonist is just bereaved and reeling. The new book – it’s like that Woody Allen line in Crimes and Misdemeanours – it’s tragedy plus time = comedy. In Yuki chan in Bronte Country it’s like you’re asking what happens to that feeling after time passes. Are we wholly off the mark?
Mick Jackson (MJ): No, you’re right on the money in a way. It’s a theme I come back to again and again. It was there, really, in The Underground Man, the first book. It was significant but it wasn’t what the whole book was about – the whole book was about an eccentric slipping into madness but in a way I used grief and bereavement, unconscious as it was, as a significant turning point in the novel. With The Widow’s Tale, I’d read a piece written by Catherine Whitehorn who’d lost her husband some years before when she was in her 70s and she wrote a stunning piece in the papers and I thought this is a character I’ve never really thought about. A woman in her late 70s and something completely changes their life. With Yuki chan in Bronte Country, to be honest, it’s become something of a trope with me. It’s become a trick that I use for the emotion. Realistically as I got to the end of this novel, my last two novels have protagonists reeling from this in one way or another – and my next novel won’t have anything to do with grief or bereavement. I think I’ve worked that out of my system, at least in a literary sense. I already know what the next novel is, because I’m working on it and it’s going to be nothing to do with that. So in four years or five years time when we’re chatting again you’ll say, here’s another book about bereavement and you swore you weren’t going to do it – and I’ll say oh well…
PW: The writers I like – part of the reason you go on reading a certain writer is because… well, it’s like maths. The books are individual numbers and together they make a sum. Things add up from book to book. The books stop being standalone and become part of this more interesting whole. So here, in Yuki chan in Bronte Country, there’s a point where she is talking about airport design and she says, “What’s required are warm, dark spaces. Something womb-like. Airports should in fact be underground.” I read that and thought, ooh that’s interesting. That’s like his first book. What’s he doing there? And what it did was make me fear for her – because I’m seeing connections between the protagonist of this book and your first book. I had this sense of… oh things are going to end badly…
MJ: We’re going to go underground again!
PW: But I don’t think it gives anything away to say that it isn’t as dark a book as The Underground Man…
MJ: No I don’t think it is. My last book, The Widow’s Tale, was about a woman who’d lost her husband three or four months earlier so in some respects you don’t get much darker than that. But I think – I mean, it’s horrible when writers talk about their books like this, but I think it was my funniest book. I think she’s a hysterical character partly because she doesn’t give a shit, that’s the last concern of hers. Inevitably when you are creating a novel, you have these ideas. I remember writing or having the idea for that little passage. You have these ideas yourself. I think most people do. You’re lying in the bath and you think, what if I designed some clothes that were made out of… you know, leaves – and you think, well, if I nudged that a bit to the left I could give that to my character. It doesn’t always work but then some of my characters tend to be slightly eccentric – in the way, I suppose that most of us are slightly eccentric. Most of us don’t write those ideas down and try and compose a novel out of them. We just let them drift off into the ether. My characters are the unfortunate recipients of me collecting all of that stuff and trying to generate material out of it.
PW: When you come to Yuki chan in Bronte Country after reading Junior Science [Jackson’s collection of short stories] – which demonstrated more of your interest in science than your other books have. But I think you can feel that same interest in Yuki chan in Bronte Country…
MJ: I don’t know if you know but I did a writer’s residency at the Science Museum about three or four years ago and so when I was there… I’d like to see a writer who wouldn’t be excited by being in the Science Museum, or frankly any museum, for a year and going through the archives. I’d bump into curators there and talk to them about stuff. I was interested in snow and by that point I was working on this novel and at some point someone said to me, ‘oh you know the Japanese chap? The man who invented snow?’ – and I thought, this is going to be right up my street. So, in a way I’m being slightly crass by saying, ‘I have all of these ideas and I gather them together and I stick them in a box and that becomes a novel’. It’s never as simple as that. But to a degree
PW: We talked about eccentrics. One of the things about this book is that – there is a sense in which she’s an alien. It’s not a wildly unfamiliar world, I’ve been to Haworth dozens of times but because we are seeing it through her eyes it’s refracted. Is that one of your writerly challenges to yourself? You do want to make people see the world afresh?
MJ: Yeah. That’s one of those great summings up of what writing is. It’s trying to find the extraordinary in the ordinary and vice versa. I mentioned that I saw a piece by Catherine Whitehorn that inspired my last novel and this was inspired, in a pretty direct way, by a piece I saw in a newspaper – it could be 15, 20 years ago – about signposts around the moors around Haworth and how they are written in English and Japanese because so many Japanese people visit Haworth. I thought, this is ridiculous but fantastic at the same time. So I went up there to investigate and, no word of a lie, I was getting out of the car in the carpark in Haworth and a coachload of middle-aged Japanese women turned up and headed off to the parsonage and I thought there was something here. I found that juxtaposition between those two cultures fascinating. You’ve got this museum / shrine town in West Yorkshire, not far from where I’m from in East Lancashire, I used to go there on day trips with my family when I was a kid, and what I imagine as this very modern, very – like you say – alien culture, Japanese culture, a place where if I was lost I couldn’t look up at the signs and work out what street I was in and work my way from there. So that was what was originally interesting to me. The more I wrote the novel, the more I worked on it, I thought actually what I’m doing here is looking at my country, my part of the country, the north, through an outsider’s eyes. In a way it’s about the Brontes but it’s not about the Brontes. In a way it’s about a Japanese protagonist but it’s not about her. And it’s kind of about the North but it’s not about that either. In a way, when writers have ideas they don’t know at the outset what it is that interests them. Working out what interests them is what generates the novel. If you knew straight away what was interesting to you, you wouldn’t scratch away at it for three or four years.
PW: In the past, you’ve not been a stranger to unreliable narrators. They know things we don’t and we find them out. Yuki chan in Bronte Country feels different, though. It feels like we find things out as she finds things out. There’s a real innocence to her and a palpable sense of wonder. I’m thinking, for instance, of when she is lying in bed thinking about the story her gran told her about hair on the windowsill and birds using it to make nests… It’s quite beautiful. … In your mind, do you think of your narrators as being in need of recalibration?
MJ: This novel is written in the third person but we’re very close over her shoulder so in some ways it feels almost like a first person because we are right there with her, party to her thoughts and so on and so forth. But in The Widow’s Tale, I was more aware, it felt more resolved. She’d still lost her husband, she was still understandably distraught, but there was a kind of resolution to it. And it felt too pat to do it again and I also thought that’s not how life is. This time around, without giving anything away, there’s not quite the epiphany, the brushing down of herself and carrying on that there was with the last one. I mean, I think that there is resolution and it’s not dissimilar to the last book in that there is this coda at the end. The shape of the novels is quite similar. But you try not to repeat yourself. I think you inevitably do repeat yourself in some ways no matter how hard you try. There’s no point resisting too hard otherwise you’ll just write a book that you don’t want to write. But, again, I’d be surprised if there’s any writer whose written more than three or four novels doesn’t think, oh this time I’m going to go to this territory over here… And it’s funny because I know what the next novel is about and I’m actually much more superstitious talking about it than I used to be – so I know what the territory is and I know that it’s nothing like my previous novels but I also know that as I’m writing I’m thinking, oh there’s that thing popping up over there so I can see that the territory will become more familiar as I proceed. But… [Yuki] is not aware of things in the same way as, say, the Duke in my first book. I think characters evolve as you develop them.
PW: Have you ever read a book called Gold by Dan Rhodes?
MJ: No. Dan Rhodes I know. I think someone might have sent me one of his books.
PW: Gold is about a Japanese girl on holiday in a Welsh seaside town. When I first heard the title of your new book, I thought that sounds very similar.
MJ: Thank God I haven’t read it in that case!
PW: It’s very different, though. You both have very different voices, for one thing. The tenor of the stories is different too. By the time I finished Yuki chan in Bronte Country, the two writers I came away having been reminded of the most were – well, there’s a book by Adam Thorpe called Still. It’s a massive book and quite hard but it has an elegiac tone. Each book uses snapshots to frame parts of the narrative. The other writer I was reminded of was Richard Brautigan.
MJ: Ah. My hero. Have we never discussed Brautigan before?
PW: No I don’t think we have!
MJ: Any other writer – apart from maybe Russell Hoban – I might be upset about being linked to but Richard Brautigan is my all-time hero.
PW: It feels like late period Brautigan to me.
MJ: Well, funnily enough there was a Japanese thing in his writing as well. One of my favourite books – I don’t know if this will have occurred to me while I was writing but – is The Tokyo-Montana Express. It’s funny. A couple of reviews [of Yuki chan in Bronte Country] have mentioned ‘vignettes’ and I can live with that. I don’t mind a vignette myself. And in a way, a lot of my novels, from The Underground Man, in diary-form, through to The Widow’s Tale, which was written as a journal and certainly this one – they are this patchwork, these little jigsaws that make sense as you go along. In a way, I don’t really want to know what is going on until I’m about two thirds of the way through. That’s the pay-off for having read the book. Richard Brautigan is the king of the vignette. When I started writing short stories, writing fiction really, in the late 80s early 90s, he was my guiding light in lots of ways – not least because some of his stories barely get from one page on to the next.
PW: A story like ‘The Scarlatti Tilt’ is barely four lines.
MJ: It’s not surprising that he was first a poet and then a fiction writer. Some of his books I can never quite get. I read two and never did quite understand them. The Tokyo-Montana Express, though, was like getting the keys to the door and I suddenly understood his world. He is without a word of a lie my hero.
PW: I remember reading I think it was an Ursula Le Guin review of The Widow’s Tale and she was upset because there wasn’t enough narrative. I remember thinking, you’re wrong. Obviously. The Guardian review of Yuki chan in Bronte Country – I’m paraphrasing a lot – basically said, well, there’s more narrative than last time but we could still do with a bit more…
MJ: …on the narrative-ometer.
PW: You’re just not getting it are you?
MJ: I remember with the first novel, a reviewer saying, you know, not a lot happens. And I was thinking, the man… dies. He trepans himself. Aside from that, there are emotional fireworks. You come to understand your work through reading and hearing what other people have to say about it. We’re never the best people to assess our own work. I teach creative writing now and again and I always say, for me, I don’t get plot. For me, an interesting character, an interesting situation, that’s the engine that will generate narrative. And I feel like I do get a lot of narrative into a novel but it might be that it happens over two days and that they are not quite as desperate on the second day as they were on the first…
PW: My wife is a big soap fan and I can be quite annoying when she’s watching because I’ll sit there with my arms crossed like one of Les Dawson’s neighbourhood gossips, saying well they’d never do that. The wife says but they’re doing it. And I’ll say, I know – but they’re doing it because the plot demands it rather than because that’s what they’d actually do. She’ll then say, it’s a bloody soap opera.
MJ: See, I think that’s a problem even with a… you know, quality HBO series. I think some of them get away with it. Almost any 12 episode series, by the time they’ve got to the third or fourth series, they can’t maintain it because all of their characters are going to be contradicting their previous motivations because we viewers are brilliant at remembering what someone said the year before last. You sit there thinking, you can’t do that! He once said he’d never have a drink in his life, or whatever the hell it is. I mean, there’s the occasional ones like Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire that reinvent themselves fantastically as they go along but very few of them can.
PW: Something else that I like about your books – and I think this is true of them all in a way – and I’ve struggled with quite how to put this but I think it is that your books feel fantastical without quite having a fantastical element to them. So they feel fable-like but there’s no… you know, unicorn.
MJ: I think you’re right and part of the reason is that I have youngish kids and I’m discovering all of these things that I didn’t read when I was a kid. I mentioned Russell Hoban earlier on. If ever there was a fantastical writer it was him. He wrote for children – and possibly made more money out of writing for children, which is only important in that it sustained him and helped him continue writing his adult books. I’ve thought the same thing. I’ve written screenplays and I find it very difficult to create a sort of naturalistic world. That’s not my interest. I’ve discovered over the years that I need a slightly heightened reality and perhaps that’s why I’m attracted to characters who are slightly bonkers or bereaved or under attack. I think: there’s something feverish going on here and now I’m interested. So sometimes you have to introduce that. If someone were to read Yuki chan…, and say well that wouldn’t really happen – I’d say, she’s twenty-three, she’s from Japan, she’s in Howarth, she gets drunk, anything can happen. But you’re right. Perhaps in the way I present texts, I want that something odd. It’s interesting that, in other cultures, Japanese culture I assume, there’s all sorts of superstitions right there in amongst life all the time. In Britain, we seem to have buried our folklore. Some writers allow it to come bubbling up but it’s not there. There’s a way of doing it but you have to do it carefully or people will go, what the hell is this character doing? In Ten Sorry Tales I embraced that. They were essentially folk tales, I suppose. Unless I go back to doing that, I try to just have a flavor of it.
PW: One more question for you. You’ve talked about how long it takes you, more or less, to write a book – you’ve said four or five years. Are you endlessly writing and rewriting or is that just how long it takes you to get from one side to the other?
MJ: A little bit of both, I think, in that I tend take a long time developing the idea. Here we are, four or five years after I had the idea for this one, still trying to come to terms with who the characters are. The older I get and the more I write, the more I realise that I shape my stories as I work on them. The writerly research that I do is a way of preoccupying myself so my unconscious mind can turn over the ideas and go, oh what if these two things came along over here? And: oh that’s good, I’ll keep that. It takes a long time for me to develop the idea, it tales a long time for me to write a first draft and I’m constantly rewriting as I go and then endless revision. By the time I’ve written two thirds of it, I’ve rewritten the first third a hundred times. I write slowly.
PW: Paul Auster has said that he can sometimes write 100 words a day.
MJ: If they are good words… But also: I’m talking as if I do the same thing every day of the week. There’s always other bits and pieces that need doing, there’s always distraction, it always takes forever to get back into it if you’ve had a month off doing something else.
PW: You’ve said you get superstitious talking about what you are working on so we’ll be gentle but: how far along are you? Do you have a nearly completed draft or…?
MJ: No, nowhere near to be honest. I’ve had the idea for ages. That seems to be the trend, with me at least. By the time I come to the next one, it could be one of three – I would talk to my editor here about it. He will say, either one of those two ie not that one! Not the weird one – or the even weirder one, in the middle. I would’ve developed it up to a certain point. I would imagine for the next year I will just be reading and turning over the idea to lock it down before starting on the first draft… It’s nothing like my other books. I promise. Except in every way.
PW: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.
MJ: You’re very welcome.
Yuki chan in Bronte Country by Mick Jackson is out in paperback now.