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Under the Skin of History: An Interview with Jonathan Lee

March 4, 2016 | by

Photo: Tanja Kernweiss

Jonathan Lee’s new novel, High Dive, focuses on the events leading up to the 1984 bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England, an Irish Republican Army assassination attempt on Margaret Thatcher. Lee follows both sides, moving with ease between the epic and the intimate. The hotel’s deputy manager, Moose, and his daughter, Freya, show one side of the story, while Dan, a young man swept up in the IRA, provides a viewpoint from within the terrorist plot. But High Dive doesn’t rely on historical significance to give the narrative its weight. Lee’s close third-person narration, full of humor and compassion, follows each of the characters as they approach the explosion that we can see coming.

The novel, Lee’s first release in the U.S. but his third in his native England, is already making waves abroad. I spoke to him about the challenges of writing historical events, especially seen through the compacted society of a hotel.

Though High Dive is focused on a specific event in 1984, it felt very current, with its focus on the dwindling power of men and their confusion in coping with this. Was this a theme you chose to take on or was its emergence more subconscious?

I read somewhere that Grace Paley, when younger writers asked her for advice, would say two things—“keep a low overhead” and “don’t live with a person who doesn’t respect your work.” I think all the major characters in my novel—especially the men, as we’re an insecure species—are aspiring, above all, to live with people who respect their work. Moose wants to be respected and promoted in his job at the hotel, and respected and loved by his daughter, who is seventeen but already wiser than him. And in the sections about Dan, a young IRA recruit, there is of course some vengefulness, but hopefully also this air of performance that is shared with hotel life. He wants to be heard and respected within and beyond his own small community. This above all is what leads him toward his fate—standing in a hotel with explosives in a bag, pretending to be someone else, calling himself “Roy Walsh,” fictionalizing himself. High Dive seems to me to be about people in small rooms, plotting. Plotting an attack that will shake them out of their powerlessness, plotting a promotion that will shake them out of their powerlessness, plotting a speech that will secure their position as Prime Minister—or sitting in another small room, mine, plotting a novel about these things. Fiction felt like the right form for this book partly because there’s so much fiction within the actual story—it’s about men and women making things up and pretending to be people they’re not. Do you feel the Grand Hotel represents some of these ideas?

A beautiful but stuffy old hotel, with its faded seaside glamour and unaffordable rates, epitomizes, for me, this idea of the public, the crowd, being broken down into hundreds of small private spaces. We lock the door. We ask for no intrusions on our private dreaming. Hotels are such carefully curated places, but what happens when history, which has its own momentum, determines to intrude? That’s part of what’s so shocking about the explosion that happened at the Grand in 1984.

For a while I collected—stole—those little paper PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB signs from all the bad hotels I’d stayed at. They say something about an attitude of self-interest, maybe—something about the 1980s, even, and Mrs. Thatcher. They also serve as a piece of writing advice I want to remind myself never to follow. In small ways—exposing small decisions, small mistakes, or the ease with which the ordinary can lead to the extreme—a writer should always try to disturb, I think, should always try to unsettle comfortable assumptions. For example, the assumption that victims, witnesses, and perpetrators are three separate categories that never ever touch each other. Or the lazy way we have with language when we say that killing others with a bomb is “inhuman.” Murder is something humans do to other humans. I wonder if pretending otherwise might be a way, sometimes, of us all relieving ourselves of the need to think—to think about the layers of actual human suffering involved.

I’m curious about what your approach was when writing about a historical event.

I like the idea that some readers will bring their own partial memories of the event to the novel, and that for others the book might be the beginning. There’s a lovely line in Zadie Smith’s book The Embassy of Cambodia that I had pinned above my writing desk for the last year or two of working on High Dive—“Surely there is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle. But how large should this circle be?” It’s such a good question. The main question in art and in life, maybe. How far outside our sphere of our own private interests should we venture as writers and as people? Why do we expect writers in China to use their art to make a stand against the political regime, but never expect our writers in the West to engage with politics at all? And also, how far into own imaginations are we permitted to withdraw when addressing real events?

There are huge gaps in what’s known about the bombing of the Grand Hotel. Everything I read about it, all the nonfiction, seemed to depersonalize the event somehow, in the same way that calling this period of history “The Troubles” inevitably depersonalizes it. I wanted to write a book about people. My big hope is that, done well, fiction can take us under the skin of history—look at Libra, or The Man Without Qualities, or Wolf Hall, or The Lazarus Project, or Beloved. Novels to aim for. Of course, it’s risky to fictionalize and speculate, but books that don’t take risks aren’t books at all—they’re just bound pieces of paper. The moment as a writer when you’re terrified might be the moment to keep going. Self-justification, perhaps, but there you go.

You’re releasing this book in the U.S. during a particularly gaudy act of the GOP circus. Do any aspects of High Dive stand out to you now that our very own fascists are vying for power?

As an outsider in America, a Brit, I wonder what relation this particular 2016 incarnation of the circus, the Donald Trump show, has with reality television. Whatever else Trump is—a racist bigot, for example—he’s entertaining to watch. He draws the eye. Voting for him in a primary is like voting to keep the villain in the Big Brother house, or whatever the reality show is—there’s a dark longing to keep him on screen and see just how bad things can get. Margaret Thatcher was very different, but she had the same intense watchability. You never see her in High Dive. You only ever glimpse her shoes, and you can’t step into them. Lots of things in the book are accidental, but that’s deliberate. She’s a blank—sometimes an absence is more vivid than a presence—and people project themselves, their own insecurities and longings, upon her.

The book has a cinematic feel—it seemed much of the dialogue could be dropped verbatim into a script.

I always feel a bit conflicted when someone says something I wrote is cinematic. There’s a certain type of fiction that is so filmic—cut cut cut, a series of quick scenes with no space for exploring the depths of characters’ dreams or shameful layers—that it cedes fiction’s greatest advantage over film and television, which for me is interiority. But, that said, I do hate a lot of dialogue in contemporary novels, and I find myself looking to favorite films as better models sometimes. I don’t like the kind of friendly fakery and false coherence that a lot of dialogue in fiction has, the burden of exposition and sympathy-gathering that it sometimes carries—you can feel the heavy effort of it, can’t you? I think a really good contemporary film about the conflict in Northern Ireland like Yann Demange’s ’71 or Steve McQueen’s Hunger does a better job of capturing the missed connections and accidental humor of actual speech than most novels about that The Troubles do. And DeLillo, Joy Williams, Bernard MacLaverty—these writers are great at dialogue because their dialogue is about musicality and patterning and breakage more than it’s about telling the reader what’s going on.

High Dive seems to be made of moments when the outside comes in, an invisible guest, and when the inside—long-held memories, the stories we tell ourselves—are escaping outward. And when you write about England and Ireland in the eighties, you can’t help but be preoccupied with borders in land and language and religion, things walled in and out—this private-public tension again. So it became a challenge to try and reflect that inside-outness in the style, too, with long passages of surface speech in which people say everything except what they mean, and then chapters when they just fall through trapdoors into their own past and the excess of meaning—to them—is suffocating. Pinter said speech is just a strategy to cover our nakedness, and I guess only a few people get a kick out of being naked in public.

This line stood out to me—“What is beautiful about the dive? It isn’t the splash, is it?” Did that notion guide your process?

I’m a bit aimless when I start writing. I have to figure out what I’m interested in. But one thing I did know at the outset was that this book would be about the before. Most disaster narratives begin with the moment of impact and explore the aftermath. For instance, a bomb goes off at the opening of the book or film and you then follow one guy’s heroic struggle to overcome his grief and rescue, maybe, his surviving family from the rubble or repercussions. I’m not against that kind of narrative, but I wanted to look at the ordinariness of the lives people lived before the bomb exploded—the limbo, the midair stuff—because I feel like disaster narratives sometimes show you nothing of what has actually been lost. Susan Sontag’s essay “The Imagination of Disaster” is important to me. “Ours is indeed an age of extremity,” it begins, and she goes on to discuss two equally fearful destinies between which we are all caught—the banality of the safe everyday, and the high drama of inconceivable terror. I wanted the book to try and move between those two poles. The novel has this tidal structure, hopefully, washing in and out between ordinary, grounded moments and the more extreme, less comprehensible ones. And between the past and the present, too, trying to show their influences on each other. That was the idea, anyway.

Moose and Freya’s relationship, to me, was the heart of the book in many ways. The minutia of their relationship had a special intensity to it because the reader knows what’s coming. When in the process did this father-daughter relationship emerge?

It came early-ish, I think. I wanted there to be lots of little individual struggles within the wider struggle. And I’ve come to see—I realize I’m treating you as a therapist now, and—that in writing all this father-daughter material in the Brighton sections of the book, and mother-son stuff in the Belfast sections, I was processing my relationship with my own parents, and maybe also preparing to be a parent myself. I’ve wanted to be a father, but I used to worry about the prospect of not being a good-enough father, or being too selfish about my writing, my time. And then, imaginatively, within the book, I suddenly was a father—I had this fictional daughter named Freya, whom I loved. I stayed a father for the four years it took to write it. And, genuinely, I was really upset when I finished the book. I regressed, became a moody teenager, difficult to live with. Something was missing. It’s a weird thing to be shut out of your own book, and to begin seeing it—your own sentences and characters—as a stranger might. That’s already happening to me with High Dive, I’m growing more distant from it every day. Which probably means it’s time to try and write another book.

Catherine Lacey is the author of Nobody Is Ever Missing.