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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,