Meet the author: Jonathan Coe

The Rain Before it Falls by Jonathan Coe

Meet the Author Event – Interview with moderator Jan Bild

 

Q: What inspired you to write this novel in the first place?

A: Two things really, firstly my own childhood memories: I come from Birmingham and I spent many summer days in Shropshire as a boy. A great-uncle had a farm there and I always pestered my grandparents to take me there. Then there was an encounter at a friend’s wedding in the 80’s: there was a little girl, very blond and with an aura of calm around her ? and blind. And nobody seemed to know who this little girl was or who she belonged to and what she was doing at this family party. I wanted to write about this girl ever since. I had in mind a title like “50 scenes from a half-life”. But I felt I wasn’t ready yet, maybe because I didn’t have children yet. When I finally got to writing the novel, I found that fifty would have been a lot, in the end I settled on the more manageable number of twenty.

Q: Why did you choose the format of photographs?

A: Now I have daughters of my own and we visit my parents in Birmingham regularly. And on each of these occasions, my daughters would drag out an old family album and wanted to know who all these people were with these bizarre hairstyles and clothes. And while I explained, I found that I slipped into narrating our family history.

Q: Why did you choose the task of describing photos to a blind person?

A: In an earlier work that was adapted for TV, I found that the set designer had come up with a wonderful setting, but when she asked me whether it was just how I had imagined it in the book, I realized that I had actually given very little description of it, and this made me realise that I very rarely described the visual world in my novels. So I set myself the task of describing very thoroughly this time.

Q: What did the episode Gill and the blackbird mean?

 

A: Well, firstly, it was to illustrate that Gill thought she had second sight and that she was on a quest to detect a pattern in all that’s happening as becomes apparent at the end of the book. Ant then it was sort of an homage to Rosamond Lehmann, a novelist I like very much – hence I also named my heroine Rosamond very subtly, and she incidentally also had a sister called Beatrix. The blackbird incident is an autobiographical episode from her life, she claimed to have had such an experience before she heard that her daughter had died. She never recovered from her daughter’s death and gave up writing and turned to the study of psychic experiences instead.

Questions from the audience

Q: How could you write so convincingly from a female perspective?

A: My own family history is very male, the men clearly outnumbered the women. But now I live in a very female household, my wife, my daughters, even my two cats are female, so that gives me a certain amount of female perspective. I don’t see why literature should be gender-bound, I think it is a writer’s duty to have empathy with both sexes, I can’t just ignore one half of humanity.

Q: Why were there so many horrible mothers?

A: Were there so many? Well, Ivy was clearly a horrible mother, and Beatrix and then Thea, that’s true. I wanted to show what parents can do to their children, what mothers do to daughters. The irony in the story is that the only good mother is Rosamond. But she could not be a mother, having discovered early on in her life that she was gay, and back then adoption wasn’t open to gay couples. By the way, my latest novel, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, shows the male perspective, and shows basically the reverse situation in that there is a father-son conflict at its centre, although a lot less tragic.

Q: Why did Imogen have to die?

A: Well, writing is a progress and in the beginning I hadn’t seen that she should die. But I told you about this girl I had seen at that wedding party. And when I had started writing the book, I researched what had become of her ? and found out that she had died. So I felt that Imogen had to die, too. It seemed appropriate for that reason ? although I’m still not sure that it was the right thing to do artistically.

Q: Do you think the photos should have been recreated and added to the book?

A: There were suggestions to do that, but I didn’t think that would have been a good idea. I had these pictures very clearly in my mind and it would have been hard to match them. Also it would have defeated the purpose of describing and I wanted to leave the result to the reader’s imagination. But of the twenty pictures, twelve or thirteen are based on photographs of my own family.

Q: Wasn’t it cruel of Rosamond to tell Imogen all these stories, especially how she became blind?

A: The readers must make up their minds about Rosamond’s motives. I really can’t tell… (smiles)

 

Q: Can you tell us about your musical experiences?

A: (smiles) I’d rather not go into that too deep, I never could write lyrics. This chapter should best be closed, except for mentioning my work with a female band called “Wanda & the Willy Warmers” and a very beautiful song we wrote together entitled “I wish I was your penis” ? [After Coe has read the title-bearing scene in France]

Q: Why this title?

A: Well, the title is very important and I usually start with that. But this one I started without a title, maybe I still hadn’t gotten over the “50 scenes” thing. One day I listened to my iPod and heard a song I hadn’t heard in a long time and I couldn’t remember the title. So I looked down on my iPod and read “The Rain before it falls”. There was my title. That was before I wrote the scene in France. With Thea’s observation about how things can make you happy even if they are not real, I also wanted to show the wisdom of children. As an example, my daughter once asked me what investment bankers do. So I explained it as best I could and then she summarized it with the words “So they earn money by cheating?” I found this very wise and yet so simple ? it is just a child’s concept of immorality. In football, an adult would say the player committed a foul, but a child simply says he cheated.

Q: Please tell us about your new book.

A: You probably mean my last book, writers usually think this refers to what they are currently writing. But as a matter of fact I am not currently writing anything. My latest book, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, refers back to my previous work: I returned to writing comedy. And it is about a man, in this case patterns of behaviour between fathers and sons as opposed to The Rain before it falls. It is about loneliness; Maxwell’s wife and daughter have left him and he finds he never really knew them. It is sort of a road novel, Max is a travelling salesman and meets a lot of people and each encounter tells him something about himself. Basically it all boils down to his relationship with his father. But again, all this on a positive note, the book is a comic novel. Maxwell Sim is also a contemporary novel ? unlike The Rain Before It Falls. Max spends a lot of his time pursuing virtual relationships on social networking sites like Facebook.

Q: How do you as a writer see these media?

A: Well, Max’s only successful relationship is with his GPS. Online or offline, if you’re bad at relationships, you’ll mess them up in your virtual or in your real life. I am on Facebook, but rather half-heartedly and I only accept friendship requests from my real friends which is rather silly, so I have a stunning two-digit number of friends (smiles). But nowadays I also have a website with a message board where my readers can post. It’s at www.jonathancoewriter.com.

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