Jonathan Trigell interviewed by Max Liu.
Jonathan Trigell’s debut novel, Boy A (2004), won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and was made into a Bafta Award winning film. His second, Cham, was a thriller set in the French mountain resort of Chamonix where he lives, writes and skis. Genus, his new book, is an electrifying departure into a grim future where physical perfection and social status can be bought and London is divided between the ‘unimproved’ and the ‘improved.’ It’s a timely meditation on the possibilities of genetic engineering within an unequal society. Here’s what the author had to say when I went to talk to him.
3:AM: The genesis of Genus: did you begin with Holman, the dwarfish anti-hero who we follow through London, or the Kross, the nightmarish underclass ghetto where most of the action is set?
Jonathan Trigell: I wanted to write a book that imagined where advances in the study of genetics might lead us. Holman was the first character who came to me: I envisaged the misshapen offspring of beautiful, wealthy parents. Then I realised that he bore a striking resemblance to Toulouse-Lautrec. I developed that, made Holman an alcoholic who lives among hookers, an artist tortured by his disability. The Kross is Holman’s Montmartre, a place where the poor live and the rich sometimes go to for slum tourism and all night parties.
3:AM: How far in the future is the book set?
JT: I debated whether or not to pin the setting down to a particular date but in the end I decided to leave things vague. It depends how fast technology improves. What I imagined doesn’t require anti-gravity beams or anything too spectacular, just advances in analysing different genes, finding out what they can do and recombining them. New technologies are a good thing but we must consider how they will impact on us so that, when they become achievable, they aren’t allowed to run amok.
3:AM: The world of the Kross is bleak. Is there any hope in the book?
JT: Holman’s world is a worst case scenario but it’s healthy to examine extreme possibilities. If the technology that is used for genetic enrichment in Genus had been distributed equitably, across society, it could have been nirvana, a great world where people don’t fear the diseases that we die from. The problems that arrive are more to do with resource hording than technology itself.
3:AM: In Boy A, you wrote twenty-six chapters – A to Z – and it occurred to me that such a structure, rather than being restrictive, could prove liberating, especially for a first time novelist. How did you structure Genus?
JT: Having twenty-six chapters to write really helped me structure Boy A. It meant I had to plot with rigidity and, because that was my first novel, I’ve adapted a similar approach since. For Genus, I chose an arbitrary number. I think it was forty-six and, even though I didn’t actually end up with forty-six chapters, the discipline that plan imposed was helpful.
3:AM: What about the structure of society? There’s an ambiguous attitude towards religion throughout Genus.
JT: I’m a hardened atheist but I feel that we have an inbuilt need for God. If you eradicate religion, you end up with something terrible in its place, like the communist state, as in Russia or China, where the dictator becomes the messiah figure. There are very good evolutionary reasons for having religion. From early human history we have evolved a need to see God. We have a perception of ourselves and in order for that to be a true perception we have to believe in a soul within us. We have this sense that there’s something bigger than us, above and beyond. If you take away the idea of God, you need to replace it with a shared moral code. Otherwise, everybody becomes very self-centred and materialistic.
3:AM: The unimproved are frequently referred to as “scum.” I saw parallels with the rise of the word ‘chav,’ the stigmatisation of the under-privileged.
JT: You are supposed to look at the unimproved and think about the way that we dismiss so-called ‘chavs’ and certain immigrant classes that are considered unworthy, the “undeserving poor”. Those kind of prejudices are getting worse. Social mobility decreased under Labour and under the current government it is reversing. The differences between the poorest and richest are returning to Victorian levels. We don’t have open sewers and infant mortality rates at fifty percent but in economic terms we’re getting to a level of disparity we haven’t seen for a couple of hundred years. And we’re getting there very quickly.
3:AM: So do you feel a social responsibility as a novelist?
JT: Yes. I come from a privileged background but I worked a lot of winter seasons in the Alps and I’ve done lots of mundane summer jobs back in Britain where I mixed with less well off people. Maybe it comes from there but I’ve always felt that it’s our duty to make society fairer. At the moment we seem to be heading in the opposite direction. However you dress it up, it’s pretty obvious who is being affected by the government’s cuts.
3:AM: The detective, Gunt, believes that it’s his responsibility to clean up the streets of the Kross but his means are pretty brutal. He’s morally ambiguous so how do you regard him?
JT: I’ve been surprised to find that people find Gunt less despicable than I tried to make him. Perhaps that’s because I found myself warming to him as well – as you often do with your characters. He’s certainly meant to be symbolic of a certain type of state and a way of dealing with the underclass. He treats the unimproved in a way that he wouldn’t treat others and takes pleasure in doling out pain, but he’s the only one who wants to solve the murder cases in the Kross. Some times people like Gunt do need to go to extraordinary lengths but that doesn’t mean we should condone those lengths.
3:AM: Does living in France help you see the UK with clarity? Is Genus an allegory?
JT: I don’t regard it as an allegory. Living in France means I see the UK in snapshots. There is something quite nice about being in exile and the things you remember about places tend to be the most vivid details. You don’t get that when you see somewhere every day.
3:AM: Speaking of vivid details, did the futuristic setting make the sex scenes easier to write?
JT: There have been sex scenes in each of my books. In Boy A, awkward fumblings demonstrated the character’s inexperience and isolation. In Cham the sex was illuminating, showing the character to be a bit of a bastard. In Genus, there’s a long sex scene where I explain how the technology works; I thought that intermingling meant the information wasn’t too dreary and the sex wasn’t too purple.
3:AM: Your use of repetition is marvellous and works well when read aloud. Is that something you have consciously cultivated?
JT: When I start writing for the day, I usually read aloud the chapter I’m working on. It gets me into it and illuminates mistakes. I’m very rhythm conscious and I do enjoy repetition. I remember reading David Peace‘s 1974 and thinking his incantations were beautiful. He’s definitely an example of what I’m trying to do. James Ellroy plays with rhythm in a way I admire. I read the Black Dahlia while writing Boy A. His later stuff I find a bit weird, seems like he’s started thinking “I’m James Elroy,” writing five word sentences all the time and becoming a parody of himself. But I love the Black Dahlia.
3:AM: There’s a strong sense of direction in your fiction and I know that you’re a very keen skier. Any connection between the two things?
JT: There’s an inevitability about Genus and Boy A, a feeling that you are heading somewhere and you cannot go anywhere else, which is very like skiing where, whatever route you choose, you’re going to get to the bottom of the hill. I do always know where I’m going in my books. I know the endpoint. I’ve written only two thousand words of my next novel but I know what the ending will be already.
3:AM: Can you tell us any more about that book?
JT: It’s an historical road movie set in post-biblical times, spanning many decades. I’ve done tons of research. I’ve re-read the scriptures, I’m fascinated by them and Christianity in general. I studied the Bible as an historical, literary document at university. Some passages are beautiful, I think some people exaggerate the artistic merits of it but throughout so much of our history it was the only text many people encountered and we should never underestimate the significance of that.
3:AM: Genus ends with a wall being erected around the Kross and there is, in each of your books, a profound sense of separation. Why?
JT: I’m not sure if I deliberately set out to examine separation but it is a strong theme. I’m slightly pessimistic about human nature, about how close it’s possible to bond with those around you. Dying alone is a deep fear for most people. I’m not scared of death but I’m scared of dying scared. Maybe everything else in life comes from those two points: the separation anxiety of childhood and the ultimate fear of dying alone.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Max Liu is a writer and journalist. He lives in North London where he is at work on a novel and a collection of autobiographical essays.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 27th, 2011.