Monday, February 11, 2008

[Interview_3] Jonathan Taylor

Jonathan Taylor's memoir, Take Me Home: Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself (Granta, 2007) has been described as a “a beautifully constructed and often profound piece of work” which “stands as a fine testimonial to man whose life was a mystery.”

Taylor has written two academic books, Science and Omniscience in Nineteenth-Century Literature (Sussex Academic Press, 2007) and Mastery and Slavery in Victorian Writing (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2003) and has co-edited the collection of essays, Figures of Heresy: Radical Theology in English and American Writing, 1800-2000 (Sussex Academic Press, 2005) with Dr. Andrew Dix.

In this, the last of a two-part interview, Taylor speaks about Take Me Home, how it got published and how has been received by readers.

Who is your target audience?

I would say my target audience has various layers.

Obviously, people who have experienced Parkinson's disease or dementia in their family (or in themselves) are central to who the book is for.

The book is also for carers, and intended as a way of encapsulating the experience of care in a realistic way; I don’t think there are many books of this kind which deal with the subject in an experiential and personal way.

In more general terms, the book is for people who enjoy reading literary memoirs and biographies. There are elements to stories like mine which everyone can associate with: family secrets, hidden histories, illness and mourning are, of course, universal concerns.

How did you choose a publisher for the book?

I chose the publisher, Granta, primarily because they published at least two of the books which influenced me the most: Linda Grant's Remind Me Who I Am Again?, and Blake Morrison's And When Did You Last See Your Father?

Granta specialise in this kind of work, and they were always my first choice. I was overjoyed when they accepted the book, and they have been great ever since really looking after me and the book. Ian Jack (ex-editor of Granta) went through my book word by word, editing it with me, making the book much better than the original manuscript.

How would you compare Take Me Home to the other books you have written?

Before Take Me Home -- up till now -- I've only written academic books -- works of literary criticism. These really helped in learning how to write in a flowing style. Writing formally is a really useful discipline -- it forces you to listen to every sentence and make sure everything links up "logically."

My next book is in very early stages at the moment, but I'm trying to write a novel which is partly based on my own experiences and partly fictional. Years ago, one night, I was rather, shall we say, drunk, and I invited a homeless person back to the house I was living in at the time -- to feed them everything in the fridge. On request, we then listened to some Debussy together. I never saw the person again, but the experience forms the basis of the novel I'm currently trying to write.

How did you go about writing Take Me Home?

I wrote Take Me Home over a number of years, constructing chapters out of fragmentary memories, and working out ways of turning isolated experiences into a narrative. At the same time, I was doing a lot of research -- interviewing relatives, contacting people who'd been "lost" for years, and searching for documents about some of his experiences.

There was so much that had been lost, hidden or forgotten -- a whole life in the Isle of Man, Oldham and afterwards which was shrouded by mystery. I really got caught up with the research. Then I suppose the majority of the actual writing was done in 2005.

Were you writing everyday?

When I was in full flow with Take Me Home, I was writing almost every day.

Coincidentally (and luckily), I got a sabbatical from my day job (lecturing) in 2005, so I had the chance to really get to grips with the book. I was sitting down at 8 am every morning and writing 1,000 words before lunch -- and then, after lunch, doing other jobs or editing what I'd done in the morning.

Although I'd written substantial amounts of the book before (and continued to redraft after) the sabbatical, those six or seven months of solid writing were essential. Otherwise, I don't think I'd ever have got it done.

I'd done a great deal of ground work before this period, so when it came to sitting down and writing, I found it relatively easy to write in quantity -- it flowed surprisingly easily, possibly also because I always felt there was something compelling me to write it. Somehow, I had to get it on the page. So, at that time, it wasn't hard to write at all.

Having said that, I never really believed I might finish the book: it felt like such an Everest. Even in the final rewrites, oddly enough, I felt utterly daunted by the magnitude of the task.

I suppose the problem here was the same thing that made it easy to write: I knew exactly what I wanted to get down, so I was daunted by getting to the end of a story I already knew.

My experience of writing in 2005 isn't representative -- normally, I find it very difficult to sit down and write at all. There are always other things to do: carpets to hoover; lopsided shelves to put up.

I think writing works best when I've got a substantial amount of time -- at least a week -- in which to sit down and write every day.

I do sometimes write in the evenings, or at times, around my job, but this is very difficult to do and often results in "bitty" work. It's suitable for short stories, but for longer work I really need proper periods of solid writing.

Generally speaking, I write all but the most first of first drafts on the computer. This isn't because I like computers(!), but because word processors are helpful for editing. I'm a very painstaking writer, and I like to edit the sentence I've just written over and over again -- and a word processor is useful for that.

How has the book been received so far?

I've been overjoyed how the memoir has been received. Most importantly, all members of my family and friends have loved it.

I've also had various letters and emails from carers who have associated with various elements of the book. Those reactions are clearly more precious than any formal reviews. But it has also received really good reviews in The Guardian, The Sunday Times and The Times Literary Supplement and on Oneword Radio.

I never expected to receive this kind of feedback, and have, of course, been overjoyed and surprised in equal measure.

All these people seem to understand what the book attempts to be: an honest literary memoir about my experiences and my father’s illness.

Inevitably, I’ve also received a few more negative reactions, for example, on amazon.co.uk. I expected this – I mean, if you write a book like this, then you're opening yourself up to criticism. I am myself more than aware of the ethical questions surrounding what I’ve done, and have wrestled with them continually. I believe, though that many of the negative reactions are because people have misunderstood the genre of the book, thinking its some kind of medical textbook rather than what it is: a literary memoir, an exploration of personal experiences.

Related articles:
  • Jonathan Taylor [Interview_2], Conversations with Writers, February 7, 2008
  • Jonathan Taylor [Interview_1], Conversations with Writers, August 10, 2007

2 comments:

The Go Mann said...

It's a great book - far warmer and nowhere near as maudlin as I'd expected. Very touching.

Misque Writer said...

Thanks for that interview. I'll check out Take Me Home.