An Interview With Jonathan Coe
Charlotte Stretch meets Jonathan Coe.
Jonathan Coe is used to writing about the past. What a Carve Up!, the 1994 novel which sealed Coe’s reputation as a writer, neatly uses the historical legacy of one family to explore the ruthless greed of 1980s Britain. Seven years later, The Rotter’s Club offered readers a marvellously evocative portrait of 1970s Birmingham.
Critics have noted the seemingly dramatic change in direction taken by Coe in his latest novel, The Rain Before It Falls. They are right, of course; for now, it seems, the past is no longer merely a theme of Coe’s writing but in fact becomes its key character. The story of seventy-three year old Rosamond takes a journey through a series of meticulously described photographs, each of which encapsulates a key moment in her tale.
I meet Coe in his flat on the King’s Road in Chelsea, which is where he writes most of his novels. When I tell him that I will record the interview and transcribe it later, he tells me not to worry as “I won’t say very much.” And yet he does; Coe is quietly but astoundingly articulate, a lucid speaker who considers carefully the weight of his responses. It is clear that he has spent a long time thinking about his eighth novel; even so, I am astonished by his admission that The Rain Before It Falls has, in fact, been fermenting for over a decade. “It predates the idea for What a Carve Up!,” he says, before describing the episode from which the novel grew. “I met a little girl at a family party in the late 1980s; probably ’87 or ’88. She was just how I described Imogen at the start of this book: she was blonde-haired and blue-eyed and about seven years old, and blind. She was milling around in the crowd at this friend’s wedding party, in their back garden, and nobody really seemed to know which part of the family she belonged to, or what she was doing there. The image of that just sort of stayed with me, and I promised myself that I would write a story around her at one point explaining how she had come to be at this party.”
Coe explains that this is one of two key ideas behind the novel. The other, he tells me, belongs to an even earlier period in his life. “It was to do with this house which in the novel is called Warden Farm; it’s based on memories of my great-aunt and uncle’s farmhouse in Shropshire which I used to go and visit whenever we were staying with my grandparents. And this house was about a hundred and fifty years old and seemed incredibly romantic and mysterious and remote and intriguing to me as a kid. And that kind of haunted my imagination as well; I always wanted to write a story, or even a series of stories based around this house.” In The Rain Before it Falls it is the same house, and even the same Aunt Ivy, who appeared in a short story called “Ivy and Her Nonsense”, written in 1989 and published by Penguin in 2005. “I looked back at that story, and at the characters who were already in it, and I drew up a big family tree placing those characters, working out who could be related to them and what kind of descendants they might have. That gave me Rosamond on one side of the family, and Beatrix and Thea and Imogen on the other side of the family.”
In spite of – or perhaps because of – this protracted period of development, The Rain Before It Falls boasts a remarkably daring and innovative structure, which has itself captured the imagination of a number of critics. Most of these have attributed this feat to Coe’s well-documented interest in the experimental writing of novelist B.S. Johnson, the subject of a 2004 biography written by Coe. He acknowledges B.S. Johnson’s influence, but is keen to namecheck other sources of inspiration. “One [book] I haven’t spoken about very much is The Pledge by Friedrich Durrenmatt. I read it maybe four or five years ago I suppose; I was really struck by how formally perfect it was – how very beautifully the main narrative is wrapped up in a framing device, and how uncluttered it is. It tells a very simple, very linear story which nevertheless sets off incredible resonances and echoes.”
As he says this, I find myself thinking of Rosamond’s story: simple, linear, incredibly resonant. The gradual, unsensational emergence of her homosexuality is responsible for one of the novel’s most poignant unfairnesses, although Coe insists that his work was never deliberately engineered in this way. “People have asked me why I made her gay, and it’s one of those questions I can’t answer because I don’t remember making that decision, or how I made that decision. And actually,” he adds thoughtfully, “‘decision’ is the wrong word to use. it was just an instinct that this was right for her character.”
Indeed, the heartbreaking implications of Rosamond’s sexuality seem almost to have passed Coe by. “It’s only since I’ve had to talk about this book in interviews that I’ve started to describe it as a tragedy, and realise that that’s the genre that I ended up writing in this time,” he tells me. “And Rosamond’s tragedy is that she is the most maternal person in the book, but she’s the one person who, for reasons of her sexuality, is never going to have children of her own, and is never going to be allowed to look after other people’s children either under the mores of the time.”
Though he has never shied away from looking at issues of social attitudes throughout his work, The Rain Before it Falls nonetheless sees Coe treading new ground in his work. Although he assures me that, certainly in terms of form, his next novel will return to the “looser, baggier” style of his earlier novels. “I think it will be quite a long one again. And centring on the theme of fathers and sons, rather than mothers and daughters this time.”
Interestingly, Coe’s relentless scrutiny of the world around him, while promising to remain very much intact, also seems to be taking on new dimensions. “It will be talking about technology, which isn’t a subject I’ve really addressed much in my books before. I’m interested in the ways that communications technology have been revolutionised again and again over the last twenty or twenty-five years.” Does this mean that the past, the subject of such scrutiny in this and other novels, has now been laid to rest? As if by response, Coe starts telling me about his first experiences with text messages, that staple of mobile phone communication. “I remember somebody demonstrating to me how to send a text message for the first time – probably about six or seven years ago. And I remember looking at this and thinking, ‘This is the stupidest way of communicating with someone I’ve ever come across before.’” It might seem an odd response, coming from a writer; but coming from someone who makes a living from capturing the past and showing its ceaseless relevance to the present, it is the perfect sentiment.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Charlotte Stretch lives in Brixton where she is a freelance writer and an editor of 3:AM. She is currently working on her first novel.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 8th, 2007.