The Rumpus Book Club chats with Jon McGregor about his newest novel, Reservoir 13, his writing process, and why he chose not to sidestep the “missing girl” trope.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Katia D. Ulysse, Jesse Ball, Melissa Broder, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Jon McGregor about his newest novel, Reservoir 13!
Jon McGregor: Hello from Nottingham, where it’s dark and cold and I’m waiting with a mug of hot tea for your questions…
Marisa: Hi, Jon! Thanks for joining us tonight.
Jon McGregor: Thanks for inviting me! And I’m glad I could make it. There were some complications with a late-running train, but here I am.
Marisa: I am always interested in epigraphs, and how and why a writer selects one to preface a novel or collection. Can you share a little about how or why you came to select the Wallace Stevens lines you quote?
AnnB: Hi Jon! Can we talk about Wallace Stevens and your own blackbirds in this novel?
Jon McGregor: Well, to be honest, I’ve usually avoided epigraphs in the past. It can sometimes feel as though the writer is signposting something that should perhaps be obvious in the text. But in this case, having worked for a long time with ideas of the number thirteen, I was excited to rediscover Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at A Blackbird,” and so it seemed like an obvious choice.
Jon McGregor: AnnB, hello! Yes, to continue the thoughts about Wallace Stevens…
AnnB: Clearly, Marisa and I are on the same wavelength.
Jon McGregor: I wanted to reference “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” without spelling it out too directly. And of course, in Reservoir 13, we do get to see a blackbird on thirteen occasions.
Jon McGregor: And there’s something about that line in particular—the river is moving, the blackbird must be flying—which speaks so clearly and simply about the way life just goes along, in a way that I’d been trying all along to reflect in the novel I was writing.
Jon McGregor: So… that’s why Wallace Stevens, and that’s why the blackbirds. I wanted to give the reader a clue about what I was doing. But not *too* much of a clue.
Marisa: How did you come to focus on the number 13 in the first place? Did the title and/or landscape come ahead of that, or the interest in the number itself?
AnnB: That’s a pretty big 13 on the cover 😉
Jon McGregor: I love that big 13 on the cover! (Although did you notice that it also looks a little like an uppercase B?)
AnnB: For ReBecca or Becky or Bex?!
Jon McGregor: (Exactly!)
Jon McGregor: I did pick thirteen arbitrarily, to be honest. I had decided that I wanted the missing girl to be thirteen, because I wanted her to be on the cusp of adulthood, and have some agency, but still be a child. And it’s such an important/difficult/lost age.
Jon McGregor: And so, then I thought about the timespan of the book, making it thirteen years long to reflect her age seemed like a nice fit. And then I settled on thirteen months in a year (because lunar months), and then I was on a roll really.
Marisa: Did you find anything in your research around the number that changed your ideas for the story?
Jon McGregor: Not really, Marisa. I mean—the number itself doesn’t really have any significance. I wasn’t using it in any kind of numerological (?) way. It was just a useful organizing principle.
Marisa: That makes sense.
Jon McGregor: By which I mean, it ensured plenty in the book. I decided to populate the book with thirteen of each thing—13 animals, 13 birds, 13 plants, 13 weather types, etc. etc. etc. Which forced me to think of more than I might otherwise have done.
AnnB: How about the choice of making the missing teen a girl instead of a boy (yes, I’ve read the Guardian review of the book)? I wonder your process with this choice.
Jon McGregor: That’s a good question, Ann. I did struggle with that a little. Partly, that was just how the idea came to me. But, of course, I could then still choose.
Jon McGregor: And a big part of me wanted to steer away from the sometimes-objectifying trope of the “missing teenage girl.” Making her a boy (or a much older person, or a person without family) would have been one way of doing that.
Jon McGregor: But actually, two things made me keep her as a girl. Firstly, that I wanted media interest, and the sustained concern of the villagers, to be a part of the story; and those things are both heightened when it’s a teenage girl, and much reduced when it’s—for example—an older person without family.
Jon McGregor: But also, if we think that what *might* have happened to Becky is something connected to male violence, then we know that women and girls are many, many times more likely to be the victim of that than men and boys. It seemed disingenuous to sidestep it.
AnnB: Every other book these days has “girl” in the title. I loved that you nodded at that, yet the book was only tangentially about her. Brilliantly tangential.
Jon McGregor: And I was really conscious of writing another book that might just be part of that. I think that’s why it was important for me that we never know what has happened to Becky. So many of those books are about the young woman as a dead body; I wanted to Becky to still have lots of possibilities.
Marisa: It’s so helpful for me to see your thought process around the “missing girl trope” written out so clearly. Thank you!
Marisa: How long did you spend writing Reservoir 13? This is your fourth novel—does it ever get easier? Or is each novel its own beast to conquer?
Jon McGregor: For a while I tried telling people it took thirteen years, so as to keep on-brand.
Jon McGregor: But that’s not true. It was seven years since my previous novel came out, but it probably took about three years actual solid writing time.
Jon McGregor: There was a lot of thinking time in between. And small children.
Jon McGregor: But to answer your question—no, I don’t think it gets easier. I think each novel has its own challenges and puzzles and solutions. But I do think I enjoyed working on this one the most, and was most confident that I’d finished it when it was finished.
AnnB: Is this town modeled after one you know well? Or is it a composite?
Jon McGregor: It’s a composite, Ann. But a composite of some pretty specific villages. Certainly people who live in the area have identified some of the streets almost exactly!
Jon McGregor: I cherry-picked some of my favorite and most interesting places in Derbyshire, and squished them together. I wanted to avoid using a whole existing village, so that no one would think any characters were based on real people. They’re certainly not.
Jon McGregor: But if you’re ever in Derbyshire I can suggest some locations to visit that you might recognize!
AnnB: The Reservoir 13 tour of the Peak District. Give Pride and Prejudice some competition. But I think I’d maybe skip Irene’s B&B.
Marisa: When you began writing, did you know how you’d conclude the book? Certainly many readers were hoping for a more solid “conclusion” to the mystery. I know this is hard to discuss without spoilers, but did you always intend to leave that more open-ended?
Jon McGregor: Yes. It was clear to me almost from the initial idea, and I became more settled on it the more I worked on the book. The tragedy that Becky’s parents live with, and that the villagers are affected by, is that they don’t know what’s happened to her. That’s enough. That’s something that happens in real life.
Jon McGregor: I didn’t want to write the kind of book where readers have to solve a mystery, or process clues, or wait to be told an answer. Nothing wrong with those books, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to explore the impact unknownness can have on people.
Jon McGregor: And so I made sure that I never resolved the question for myself—I don’t know what’s happened to Becky, so there’s nothing I’m deliberately concealing.
Jon McGregor: Ann, come on! Irene’s B&B would definitely be *clean*!
Marisa: There are so many characters in the novel, and drawn so clearly over time. How did you keep track? (I’m imagining pages of notes or an actual timeline…) I’d also love to know if you had a favorite character, or set of characters, and which characters were the hardest to write.
Jon McGregor: There were whole ring-binders of notes, Marisa! (The process was actually pretty complicated. I just chatted about it with Maile Meloy in an interview on *a different literary site* but maybe you don’t want to see a link here…)
AnnB: I found myself always thrilled to get back to the packhorse bridge and the river tumbling beneath it. Also, the foxes. And the badgers! This book was wonderful to read on paper, but I feel like I want a searchable e-version to track characters and critters and such.
Jon McGregor: But briefly: yes, I wrote all the characters (and all the animals, and the birds, etc.) one at a time, and *then* worked out where they all fitted within the timeline. It drove me a little bit crazy keeping track of it.
Jon McGregor: Geoff Simmons the potter is one of my favorite characters, undoubtedly.
Marisa: I have that interview bookmarked but have not read it yet. I’m a big fan of Maile’s work and look forward to reading that. AnnB and other readers, you can find it here.
AnnB: Thank you, Marisa!
Jon McGregor: Ann—do you think I should publish a remix edition of the book, with all the characters/animals/birds/etc. set out one at a time?
Marisa: Geoff the potter was one of the characters I was most intrigued by. I’d love to know more of the backstory you imagined for him.
Jon McGregor: Or a searchable e-book… Or an app… I’ll talk to my publishers.
Marisa: Was any character especially challenging to write?
Marisa: (And I love the idea of a searchable e-book or accompanying app!)
AnnB: Me, too. Both e-book and app.
Jon McGregor: Ah, Geoff. The funny thing was, I imagined him so clearly, in one go—walking his slow whippet, patiently turning his pots—and yet any attempt to flesh out his backstory seemed to fall flat. There are things I know about his biography, but they all seemed kind of secondary to that line about him walking a slow whippet…
Jon McGregor: Jones was challenging to write, Marisa. By the time I’d decided that he was going to be arrested for having illegal pornography on his computer, I’d already made him quite a loveable grouch of a character, and was fond of him. I didn’t want to lose that—but I also didn’t want to downplay or excuse the immense culpability of what he’s done. That was really difficult.
Marisa: I felt like he had so many frustrations brimming under the surface (Geoff, that is) about small-town life and making art and being under-appreciated. Perhaps that is why I liked him so much. 😉
Marisa: The Jones moment took me aback as a reader, so I can see why that would have been tough. But he was such a fascinating character, and his sister, too. And the relationship there between them.
Jon McGregor: That’s Geoff! One of those people who have such a thin line between a noble dedication to their craft and a snobbery about why no-one is buying it…
Jon McGregor: I do feel like I could probably write a lot more about Jones and his sister. There’s a lot more to explore.
AnnB: And Gordon Jackson. What a guy.
Marisa: Oh, Gordon.
Jon McGregor: Do you mean that in a good way or a bad way, Ann? I’ve been fascinated by how people take Gordon. I’m not all that sure what I make of him myself.
AnnB: His world has only started to rock. Things have always been such a way for him, and now—like women of a certain age—he’s having to come to terms.
Marisa: I mean that in a good and bad way. One of my favorite things about Reservoir 13 is the investment in these seemingly background characters, and the complex people they are on the page for the reader, and to each other.
AnnB: I found him a fascinating character.
Jon McGregor: Yes. That crept in right at the end of the book, and at the end of my writing of it. That was one of the rewards of working with a long timespan—having to reimagine the characters with the turning of each new year.
Jon McGregor: (Incidentally, I *have* written more about Gordon, and some of the other characters, in these stories going out on Radio 4 at the moment.)
Marisa: I look forward to reading!
Marisa: We’re in our last ten minutes. Jon, I always like to ask writers who their literary influences are. Can you share who your foundational writers (or books) are? Are there any writers or books that specifically influenced this novel?
AnnB: And are you doing readings in the States?
Jon McGregor: This book in particular? That’s pretty straightforward. Three answers:
AnnB: Wallace Stevens?
AnnB: James Joyce?
Jon McGregor: 1) The Grouse County novels by Tom Drury, 2) That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern (I think that was published as ‘The Lake’ or ‘Beside the Lake’ in the US), and 3) Dart by Alice Oswald.
I went back to those books, and those writers, again and again. They had already done just what I wanted to do in these books; a rich cast, lots of detail, fresh language, humor, engaging with the reader. It was a pretty high bar.
Jon McGregor: Ann, I did a reading in New York last month! But other than that, no plans yet. Some talk of going to Minneapolis next year. We’ll see. I don’t get to travel much, as my kids are still school-age and keep me busy enough here.
Marisa: Jon, what are you reading right now? And are there any forthcoming books you are especially excited about?
Marisa: And yes, travel is hard with little ones (mine is three).
Jon McGregor: Right now I’m reading Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward. And it really is as good as everyone says.
Marisa: Thank you so much for joining us tonight, Jon! And AnnB, thank you for your thoughtful questions!
Marisa: I hope that you both have a lovely evening. And of course, Jon, thank you for sharing this book with the Book Club!
Jon McGregor: You’re very welcome. Thank you, and thank you AnnB!
AnnB: Thank you, and bravo.
Author photograph © Jo Wheeler.