Writing as an Act of Hope: An Interview with Ian McGuire 

Interview conducted by: Spencer Hyde

Ian McGuire’s third novel, The North Water, was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and recognized by The New York Times as one of the 10 Best Books of 2016. In his review of the book, Colm Toibin described it as a “riveting and darkly brilliant novel” that “feels like the result of an encounter between Joseph Conrad and Cormac McCarthy in some run-down port as they offer each other a long, sour nod of recognition.”

Ian McGuire recently crossed the pond from Manchester to accept a job teaching Fiction at University of North Texas, where I took a workshop with him this past semester. After reading The North Water, I felt I needed to look deeper into this author who is a maestro at the level of the sentence—so careful, so delicate, so sharp. His tone is crisp and tight, and he is memorable as a vivid storyteller with an extraordinary talent for description.  I’m sure after reading The North Water, like me, you’ll understand just what that long, sour nod of recognition is all about.

I was able to ask Ian a few questions following our exhilarating workshop, and I continue to reflect upon his answers as the year nears its close.

Spencer Hyde: Do you have any idea what made you a writer?

Ian McGuire: It definitely started with language. Quite young, I became aware of the pleasures of language, and the power and excitement of a well-turned phrase. My father would listen to the radio a lot while I was growing up (BBC Radio 4) and that played a part I’m sure, as did the fact that in high school in England we read a lot of Shakespeare and a fair amount of poetry too. Most of my favorite fiction writers are stylists. Richard Ford, for example, talks in interviews about the ‘consolations of style’ by which he means, I think, that whatever else a novel gives you it should give you a measure of delight just from the way the sentences are built.

At the same time, there’s another, perhaps more logical, part of me that’s very interested in narrative and structure, and how to build a satisfying and surprising plot. With hindsight, I can see that, for me, developing as a writer has involved slowly learning how to bring those two sets of interests together. Early on, my tendency was definitely to care much more about the sentences than about the story, but nowadays I try to keep them both in mind.

SH: What got you started on historical fiction?

IM: After I finished my first novel, Incredible Bodies, which was set in the present day, I spent quite a lot of time trying to figure out what to write next. I began another novel which was quite similar to the first one, but I wasn’t happy with it, and after that I decided, quite self-consciously, that I needed to try something different. Writing historical fiction felt very strange at first, but now I find it quite liberating. Because no one knows what it was actually like to work on an Arctic whaling ship, once you’ve done the research, you know as much about the facts as anyone can, and you are free to use your imagination to fill in the gaps.  Some people might be put off by the idea of doing a lot of research, but I don’t find that too unpleasant. Writing about the present may be easier in some ways—because it’s all around you—but for me the present offers less room for maneuver. That’s not to say I’m going to write historical novels forever, but I think I’ll stick with it for a while at least.

SH: How do you imagine your audience?

IM: I imagine my audience as consisting of intelligent, open-minded people who like reading fiction, but have no particular reason to like my novel, or even pick it up, given there are so many hundreds of others to choose from. So part of my job is to give them something interesting, entertaining and stimulating to read, and definitely not to bore them. A lot of writers say they never think of an audience and just write for themselves, and I guess that works well for them, but for me the danger of thinking like that is that you can produce work which is too self-regarding, too much about you and your own particular foibles, fascinations and hang-ups.

SH: What’s the process of writing a novel like for you?

IM: Writing a novel involves a lot more than putting the words on the page—that’s something I’ve realized only slowly. When I was teaching with Martin Amis at Manchester, he told the students that it’s important to remember that reading and thinking are work too. He also said that when you’re stuck you should stand up from the desk and do something else, and if you do that the solution will come to you. They’re both quite simple but important pieces of advice which it took me quite a while to figure out by myself. The thinking part is particularly important. Yes, some things can be only worked out in the actual process of writing, but a lot of other things can be figured out in your head first. So for me planning is an important element of writing, even though almost all the plans I make, small and large, get altered when I try to put them into practice.

SH: Can you tell me about what you’re working on right now? What led you to the new idea?

IM: I’m writing a novel set in Manchester in 1867. It starts with the public hanging of three members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (a precursor of the IRA) for the murder of a Manchester policeman. The hangings are a matter of historical fact, but the novel then goes on to imagine possible consequences involving revenge attacks, spies, murders, betrayals and so on. The history of Irish Republican activity in Victorian England is fascinating and not very widely known about, so it struck me as a good basis for a novel.

SH: Tell me about the research you did for The North Water.

IM: It was mainly reading first-hand accounts of Arctic exploration and Arctic whaling and looking at contemporary photographs, plus scanning the internet for all manner of historical and geographical details. The recent historical literature on Arctic whaling is surprisingly limited, and there’s not much physical evidence left either, so that left me plenty of space to imagine things—which I liked.

SH: When do you work best? Did you have a work schedule for the novel?

IM: I work best in the morning, because that’s when I have most energy and my head is clearest. By late afternoon, 5pm or so, I’m finished for the day. I never try to write fiction at night. I don’t make a big deal of writing every day or even every week—I’ve always taught in universities as well as writing fiction, and I have a family too, so you have to accept there are other priorities sometimes.

SH: Are there people currently writing whose books or stories you read and enjoy?

IM: Not in any order of preference: Colm Toibin, Kevin Barry, Lorrie Moore, Ben Lerner, Richard Ford, Martin Amis, Alice Munro, Cormac McCarthy, Deborah Eisenberg, George Saunders, Michel Houellebecq. Like everyone else (pretty much) I loved Jennifer Egan’s Waiting for the Goon Squad and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. And it’s a great shame Philip Roth has stopped writing now—if I had to name a living favorite, it would probably be him.

SH: How much affinity do you feel toward your contemporaries?

IM: I taught at the University of Manchester for nearly twenty years and I would say I still feel most affinity with the writers who I worked with there and who became firm friends as well as colleagues. Writing fiction is a slow and very solitary process, and one of the great benefits of teaching creative writing is that you are able to spend time away from the desk with talented people—both faculty and students—who have similar interests. That can feel like a great pleasure and a great relief. In the wider sense, I don’t feel part of any particular school, movement or generation, and although I’m from the north of England, I would hesitate to call myself a northern English writer, so I don’t feel like I’m a member of any particular gang or group, but that’s ok.

SH: What was being long listed for the Man Booker Prize like for you?

IM: It was very nice. It feels good to have the work recognized and valued, even though everyone knows that literary prize-giving can be a slightly random affair. The most important thing for a novelist, I think, is to feel that it’s worth your while to write the next book, that you’re not wasting your time, and being nominated for a prize certainly helps with that.

SH: What is the job of the fiction writer today, as you see it?

IM: That’s a big question. A simple way to answer it would be to say that the writer’s job is the same now as it always has been—to do the best work you can in the best way you know how. I do think that’s basically true, but given the current state of politics in the U.S. and U.K. it also risks seeming rather glib or complacent. So I’d want to add that, for me, all good art expresses an ethical impulse, and writing well is always an act of hope. By creating something that has shape and form and meaning, the writer is pushing back against the forces of confusion and disorder. So a novel, or a poem, or a piece of music which doesn’t, on the surface, have much to do with politics, can still say something important about where we are and where we might be. There’s an awful lot more that could be said on the topic, of course, and I do find debates about aesthetics and the purpose of art pretty interesting, but that’s the boiled-down version.

You can read Colm Toibin’s review of McGuire’s The North Water here: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/17/books/review/the-north-water-by-ian-mcguire.html

You can also read Michiko Kakutani’s review of The North Water here:

Additionally, you can read an interview done by The Man Booker Prizes here: http://themanbookerprize.com/news/ian-mcguire-interview

Spencer Hyde holds an MFA from Brigham Young University, and is currently a Robert B. Toulouse Teaching Fellow at the University of North Texas where he is pursuing a PhD in Fiction. Apart from several literary awards, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Bellevue Literary Review, Five Points, HobartThe PinchMcSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. He is also a founding editor at elsewhere magazine, and is currently working on a novel about memory and loss.