By Adam Vitcavage
Jonathan Lee is no stranger to the literary world. He is a senior editor at Catapult and a contributing editor to Guernica. Lee has previously published two books in Europe, but the British writer has just published his first novel in America. High Dive has already received advance praise ahead of its March release and was selected to be apart of Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers program.
His smartly written story about the 1984 assassination attempt of the British Prime Minister juggles multiple characters and threads in an inmate way. Fellow authors have proclaimed Lee’s pacing and dialogue are exceptional, which is obvious from the very beginning.
I chatted with Lee via email as he embarks on a U.S. book tour about where this book came from, his writing process, and the literary world he’s a part of.
Adam Vitcavage: Why this event? Did you already have interest in the bombing when you thought of the idea? Or did you seek an event out for the book?
Jonathan Lee: For me a book always comes out of a specific image or fact or moment. I’ve never been able to write well about broad ideas—I’m more of a micro thinker, and, therefore, a micro writer. I’m interested in small details and moments and hope that by paying an almost absurd amount of attention to those micro moments—finding the right word when a character is fusing electrical components together, or finding the right image to capture the feel of the air in a swimming pool—larger patterns will emerge on their own. So my idea for High Dive wasn’t “I must write about the conflict in Northern Ireland.” It was that I’d seen The Grand Hotel on various childhood visits to Brighton, was maybe struck by the grandeur of it—so different from the three-bedroom, viewless terraced house I grew up in—and eventually heard the small details: that this long-delay device had been planted in the hotel under the bath in room 629, and had exploded 26 days later. That 26 days, and that bath, and that room number... These were the kinds of micro things that fascinated me. I began at some point to wonder what life was like in the hotel during that 26 days of highly charged unawareness, if that makes sense. And also what life was like for the men who had planted the bomb and were back in Belfast, waiting to see its effects on a television screen.
AV: What sort of research had to go into this?
JL: Lots of reading of IRA memoirs, many of them self-published. Lots of hanging around in hotels. Lots of reading about hospitality, as a trade—books written by people who managed hotels, and also brilliantly absurd 1980s books aimed at telling travelers on how to get the most out of their hotel experience. I tried to avoid reading too many books about the time and instead focused on books written in the time—1984 and the years before it—as well as newspaper accounts from the relevant months. Those kinds of contemporaneous records have none of the lethal objectivity of hindsight, do they? I wanted to avoid deep-freezing my novel with hindsight. If a character said or thought something about Thatcher, I wanted the hot mess of what they thought or said to be there on the page. I wanted everything to be in the moment—very partial and open to revision.
AV: How did writing this book differ from other projects? How was it similar?
JL: High Dive is my third novel, and somehow the writing doesn’t get easier with each new book. The good news is it doesn’t get harder, either. I guess I worry a little less about things like plot than I used to do. I’m keener now to let the entire plot, the sequence of events—and I do like there to be events; I like my novels to offer a compelling narrative—to just emerge from the personalities, the natural decisions, of my characters. With High Dive, more than with earlier projects, I wanted to be very focused on day-to-day lives. I wanted character to be plot, and character to be language, and character to be structure. The other thing that gets very slightly easier the more books you write, I find, is that you get better at getting characters in and out of rooms, and using section breaks and chapter breaks to your advantage—leaning into the white space when you need to. There was a time when I’d send my characters on all these costly 5,000-word taxi rides. Now, more often, I just have them thinking about going to X or Y’s house, and then turning up. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to no longer be describing those taxi rides.
AV: Building off of that: how did you decide to weave these particular stories together?
JL: I just started writing a few pages from the perspectives of six or seven possible characters, and the three who are center stage in the published book seemed to be the ones that intrigued me most. I didn’t have a specific structural idea at the start, save for the fact that I wanted the story to look at things at least two ways—to have an Irish republican perspective as well as a protestant English one—and I wanted it to move back and forth in time in a manner I still think of, perhaps rather grandly, as tidal. As the book progressed it also seemed to me to make sense to pull the rope of the narrative very gradually tighter—to have the three main threads, the three characters’ stories, get closer to each other as the ending came near. So by page 300 or so you have these very short sections—sometimes just a paragraph—before the next character has his or her close third person section. The characters’ fates and thoughts become more intertwined as we approach the explosion. There’s a sort of structural empathy, maybe—purely structural.
AV: How would you describe your writer process for novels? How intricate are you outlines? For instance: do they include white boards of each chapter?
JL: No, I’m not much of a planner. I just start writing and see what comes. Worse, I’m a hypocrite about it, because when I teach students on occasional residential courses or workshop weekends, I preach the importance of planning. It’s because I know my own methods lead to so much wastage—tens of thousands of words needing to be cut away, and several novels abandoned midway through.
AV: A lot of aspiring writers don’t really get the process of selling a book. Can you take us through how this became your first American release?
JL: Well, that’s a long story. It took me a long time to find the right U.S. editor—one who could fall in love with weird novels set in England, which are the kinds of books I seem to write. For my first two books I was lucky to have publishers in Poland and Taiwan and all sorts of places, but not America. But I think sometimes aspiring writers worry about trying to please everyone, as I used to do, when in fact you just have to please one person. Publication is a process of matchmaking, I think. It is more intimate than people think, and it requires patience. At each stage before publication, you only need one person to really love your work. One agent’s assistant—the one who looks through the slush pile. Then one agent. Then one editor. In Diana Miller at Knopf, I happened to find the perfect U.S. editor, and in Jason Arthur at William Heinemann in the U.K. I’ve had for many years an essential relationship too—he was the first editor who ever saw any potential in my work. Then there’s also this issue of community-building, and that too is intimate. I sometimes get messages from writers starting out that contain a line like “I only read the classics.” That’s an infuriating thing to say. You have to support the system you want to be part of. If you want to write contemporary fiction, read some contemporary fiction. If you want to be an author reading your work at a bookstore one day, go see authors reading at bookstores today. Maybe even set up your own reading series. Build the community. Go to the library and read a story in Tin House before you think of submitting to Tin House. You don’t want to be published everywhere, and you don’t want to be edited by everyone—you just want to find the one or two key people who love the sentences you love.
AV: When you’re giving talks, how different is each appearance? Or is there a script where you always want to hit certain points for discussion? If so, what are those points?
JL: A script! If only. It depends who the audience is. I feel like a lot of readers that I’m meeting on the High Dive book tour at the moment are also aspiring writers. So I try and bear that in mind and not get too caught up in talking about this or that moment in the book when what they might be looking for is more general encouragement, or to hear me or another author talk about craft. When I went to readings in my early twenties in London, I was often attending more out of a fascination with process than through obsession with a particular book. It’s the same reason I compulsively read Paris Review interviews back then. They got into the nitty-gritty of process, the staples and paper and handwriting. And I remember writers like David Mitchell being really kind when I queued up to get a copy of an early book of his signed many years ago. He took one look at me and said, “So you write as well, then?” Not “want to write.” Not “hope to write.” He didn’t condescend. There must have been a certain desperation in my eye, and he was incredibly kind—he knew he was part of a community.
AV: You interview a lot of authors. What’s your approach to those conversations? What do you choose to focus on?
JL: I like interviewing other writers. I like that, in the book world, it’s so easy to meet your heroes, because no literary author, however famous, is too famous. Authors hardly ever get asked about their sentences, so I like to ask about that if I’m interviewing them. I like to find out what they’re trying to erase or emphasize as they re-write, given most writing is re-writing. Sometimes I’m a little rude and bring up a particular review of their work, perhaps a negative one, because I think the type of response to that question speaks a lot to the honesty or at least the openness of the writer, and I tend to know at that point whether it’ll be a good interview or not. When I was interviewing James Salter for Guernica several years ago, and the conversation turned to a negative review that Robert Towers had given of Light Years in The New York Times on its original release, he immediately smiled and said “that review was wounding.” Then he went on to explain how the reviewer’s criticisms had actually changed the way he wrote his subsequent work. I loved him for that. A less generous writer would have covered up their pain.