Jon McGregor’s mesmerising new novel RESERVOIR 13 has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017. Here, he discusses the inspiration and research behind writing the breathtaking novel.
I can’t remember when I started writing Reservoir 13. It’s been a long time coming, and it’s not always been easy. Life has often got in the way, as it has a habit of doing. None of the things that got in the way have ended up in the novel, but they’re still a part of the story.
When I started, all I had was an image: a hundred or so people spread out across a hillside, searching for a missing child.
It’s something I once saw on the news, and for years I wondered what it must have been like to have been a part of that search. How long would it have been, traipsing across the wet moorland, before you fell into everyday conversation? Who would have had to break away early, to get back and feed the cats, or milk the cows? Who was first to speculate about what they might actually find?
I knew that among these hundred people on the hillside I would have more than enough material for a novel, but it took me a long time to find it.
I wrote a short story about the day of the search for a missing girl. I worked on developing many of the characters from that story. I wondered how much I needed to know about the missing girl. But mostly I started to worry about how little I know of rural life.
I only know the countryside as a visitor. A regular visitor, for sure – the Peak District is within easy reach – but I was acutely aware that I lacked detailed knowledge of rural life; not just factual details around farming and land management, but the smaller details of lifestyle and culture which add up to create the rhythm and tone of a place.
I spent a week in a house built for the engineers who designed the Ladybower Reservoir, walking through the woods and hills and feeling the weight of that water everywhere. I spoke to people working for the National Park, to sheep farmers and stone-workers, to police officers, to people who had grown up there and moved away. I read guidebooks and memoirs, and I followed a lot of farmers on Twitter. I learnt about farming routines, weather patterns, the migratory habits of birds, flood management techniques.
Which is all fine, and is what you would expect me to say. But much more than the above, I spent time in my head and I made things up. I created a fictional landscape, with fictional characters living fictional lives, using tics of vocabulary and mannerism which came not from research but from daydreams. You need research in order to keep the trust of your readers – the world you are writing about needs to be coherent, and believable – but you need invention to win their trust in the first place, and their hearts.
I was falling in love with these very flawed characters I had invented, and I wanted my readers to do the same.
And those interruptions I mentioned? They were many. There were three young children. There was illness. My marriage ended. My father died. These are things that happen to people. We get through. But there were long stretches of time when I couldn’t get back to my desk, and each time I finally got back, I saw the novel in a new light. This was a good thing, in the long run. But I wish it hadn’t taken so long. I wish my father had been able to read it. He taught me a lot; not about writing, but about hearing people’s stories. He worked as a parish vicar, and had a gift for listening to people from all backgrounds, a gift which I’m still working to learn.
Reservoir 13 is about what happens when a girl goes missing, yes; but it’s mostly about what happens afterwards, for a long time afterwards, while a community has to carry on living their lives.
As with my previous novels (perhaps If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things in particular), it’s at heart a collection of stories about people moving through life in their own imperfect ways. It took a lot to write, and I can’t quite believe I’ve finished it. If people enjoy reading it even half as much as I enjoyed writing it, then I’ll be in luck.
Jon McGregor is the author of four novels and a story collection. He is the winner of the IMPAC Dublin Literature Prize, Betty Trask Prize, and Somerset Maugham Award, and has twice been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham, where he edits The Letters Page, a literary journal in letters. He was born in Bermuda in 1976, grew up in Norfolk, and now lives in Nottingham.
Midwinter in the early years of this century. A teenage girl on holiday has gone missing in the hills at the heart of England. The villagers are called up to join the search, fanning out across the moors as the police set up roadblocks and a crowd of news reporters descends on their usually quiet home.
Meanwhile, there is work that must still be done: cows milked, fences repaired, stone cut, pints poured, beds made, sermons written, a pantomime rehearsed.
The search for the missing girl goes on, but so does everyday life. As it must.
As the seasons unfold there are those who leave the village and those who are pulled back; those who come together or break apart. There are births and deaths; secrets kept and exposed; livelihoods made and lost; small kindnesses and unanticipated betrayals.
Bats hang in the eaves of the church and herons stand sentry in the river; fieldfares flock in the hawthorn trees and badgers and foxes prowl deep in the woods – mating and fighting, hunting and dying.
An extraordinary novel of cumulative power and grace, Reservoir 13 explores the rhythms of the natural world and the repeated human gift for violence, unfolding over thirteen years as the aftershocks of a stranger’s tragedy refuse to subside.
‘Absolutely magnificent; one of the most beautiful, affecting novels I’ve read in years. The prose is alive and ringing. There is so much space and life in every sentence. I don’t know how he’s done it. It’s beautiful’
Reservoir 13 is out now.