THOUGH HE’S only 34, you might say that British writer Jonathan Lee is now firmly ensconced in Phase Two of his professional life. Phase One saw him litigating for one of the United Kingdom’s “Magic Circle” law firms, operating out of London and Tokyo. These are the über-kinetic arenas that would go on to form the backdrops to his first two critically acclaimed novels: Who is Mr Satoshi? (Windmill Books, 2010) and Joy (Windmill Books, 2012). On the strength of those successes, Lee relocated to Brooklyn, where he joined the editorial team at indie powerhouse A Public Space and set to work on his third novel, High Dive.
High Dive is the story of the weeks leading up to the real-life 1984 bombing of The Grand Hotel in the English seaside town of Brighton by the IRA. The events before the attack are seen though the eyes of three imagined protagonists: Moose, the hotel’s beleaguered deputy manager; Freya, his 18-year-old daughter; and Dan, a young IRA explosives expert. It’s a powerful, compassionate work of historical fiction — illuminating the quiet internal struggles of this trio with humor and nuance, while the novel drives toward its ferocious conclusion. Since its US publication in March, High Dive has been called “A beautifully realized novel about the intertwining of loyalty, family, ambition and politics” by The Washington Post and “a masterly novel” by The New Yorker.
Lee chatted with me by email about rehumanizing the historical record, fabricating in order to tell the truth, depicting Margaret Thatcher in fiction, and the power of small moments.
DAN SHEEHAN: The period known as “The Troubles” in Ireland produced so many instances, over so many years, of carnage and loss. Why did you choose the bombing of The Grand Hotel as the backdrop for this story?
JONATHAN LEE: This isn’t a very literary answer, but I’ve always found grand hotels fascinating. I’ve never stayed in one, but I’ve wandered around a lot — I’ve loitered. There’s conflict everywhere. In the high visibility of the communal spaces compared to the intimacy or even obscenity of what goes on in the rooms. In the sense of boxed life, of locked doors, compared to the staff teamwork making it all tick, you know? There’s something about these old hotels, with their cultivated air of unreality that makes them particularly shocking sites for disruptions. Even a drunk, old guy staggering into the lobby can seem like a disaster in a place where every vase of flowers has been positioned with absolute care. I’m probably drawn, as a writer, to moments when the outside comes hurtling in. Everything I write seems to be about the private colliding with the public. As a kid growing up in the south of England, and visiting Brighton, and seeing that huge impressive Grand Hotel standing on the coastline, it defied belief to hear that the IRA had once blown it up. Memory — it’s definitely a fiction writer. But I think it’s true to say that, even as a kid, I wanted to know more.
You interweave the personal and the political so skillfully in this novel, neither disparate aspect overwhelming or undermining the other. Can you tell me a little about the challenge of balancing the quiet internal struggles of these three central characters with the weight of political history?
I think if a balance has been struck in the novel, it’s mainly accidental. I tried to read a lot of political history about the period, but my focus in the book was very much on the characters. The one thing that mattered to me was that all three main characters in the book be living, breathing people, with their own sense of compromised fullness and their own internal soundtrack in terms of how the sentences in their sections come across. I tried to fight my very first instinct, in the early drafts, to fill the book with telling bits of historical and political commentary — stuff that is really only visible with hindsight, and would have been unlikely to feature in people’s daily thoughts at the time. In early drafts, I had a lot of characters spouting all this stuff about the Conservative Party and the Labour Party and the problems with Thatcher and her foreign policy and so on. But I got to the point where I hoped that stuff would just suffuse the narrative in a less explicit way and become almost invisible. People do think about politics, but most of us think more often about what we’re going to have for lunch. When you’re writing a novel in the close third person I think you have to be aware of people’s myopia and try to dramatize that in some way without condescending to the characters. The distances between the characters, structurally, start to close as we near the end of the book. Their eyes open, but only very slightly.
Individual stories so often fade to obscurity amid the headlines and body count statistics of seminal events like this one. Do you think humanizing these individual stories should be a central objective of historical fiction?
I don’t know whether there should ever be an objective behind writing a book. I prefer a Tristram Shandy–like aimlessness where you’re chasing your tail and taking breaks to wind the clock. It’s so fucking farcical, the whole process of writing a book, isn’t it? But why use fiction to explore real events? My answer to that does relate to this idea of salvaging individual stories, of rehumanizing the historical record. We use terms like “The Troubles” to talk about human loss — a term that inherently generates distance — and we write bloodless history books that focus on leaders and ideologies and contain not an ounce of ordinary human hope or suffering. Sometimes we have to fabricate to tell the truth, to access the inner emotional reality of what might have happened, don’t you think? Fiction has the ability, more so perhaps than any art form, to put us inside someone else’s skin. Someone recently said they were disappointed with my novel because for most of the story characters are “just hanging in midair.” I took that as a compliment.
Most disaster narratives focus on the moment of impact and aftermath. I wanted to look at the before — investigate the ordinariness that’s then disrupted.
The mystery and speculation surrounding the existence of a second Brighton bomber, is, I would imagine, an intriguing prospect for a novelist. Was the continued lack of certainty on this issue liberating in terms of creating the character of Dan? Or did the prospect of reader backlash worry you?
I did worry about people’s reactions, but only after I’d written it. While I’m actually writing, I’m as myopic as my characters — I’m just thinking about the characters, the turns of phrase. There have been some readers who’ve been offended by the way I’ve written Dan, and I have to respect that — it is, in many ways, a stupid move to speculate as to what this never-found second bomber’s inner life was like. Unfortunately, that’s a novelist’s entire job, right? Speculation. Since he’s never been found, he’s this empty space. He exists where the facts start to falter and fade. You couldn’t write a nonfiction account of Dan. It wouldn’t be possible. He excludes the possibility of that “non.” So do we ignore him, or find a way into the experience? I decided to fill him in, to try and imagine who he was. Room service records show two sandwiches and two Cokes and a bottle of vodka being ordered to room 629 during the time when we think the bomb was planted there. That’s not much to go on — that the guy likes sandwiches and vodka, and Coke, or vodka and Coke mixed together? But strangely, it was enough. He became very real to me.
Even though your characters comment on the policies of Margaret Thatcher and her government, even though the specter of her arrival looms large over everyone and everything — she’s not really present in the book. As Freya considers: “Margaret Thatcher had nothing to do with real life […] [she] was a character other people made up.” Was it important to you that the novel not fall into the trap of caricaturing the Iron Lady?
Portrayals of Thatcher in fiction are often a bit disappointing. It struck me, at some point in the writing process, that what’s most interesting about Thatcher is that she’s a kind of blank screen on which other people project all their wildly different ideas of her. So I made her — not really consciously, at first — a blank in the book. She’s a space people dance around but never interact with. I liked the idea, once I noticed what was happening on the page, of reverse-engineering blankness. I was taking a well-known figure — Thatcher — and making her absent. And then I was taking an invisible figure from that period — the second bomber — and making him present. We glimpse Thatcher’s shoes in the novel, but we never get to step into them, which is fitting, I think, given that empathy isn’t something she was particularly good at by 1984 … she’d hardened herself by then. The bombers, at a whole different level, also had to harden themselves.
As for caricaturing Thatcher, or others in the book, I don’t worry about that too much. I think real life is full of caricatures, or at least people who seem like caricatures as they pass through our limited first-person or close third-person field of vision. If every minor character in the book is three-dimensional, it’s not lifelike, it feels false to me.
You’ve spoken recently about your desire to find “the animating quality in small moments.” What is it about life’s small, rarely scrutinized moments that so appeals to you as a fiction writer?
I’m drawn to characters who are noticers. Freya, for instance — the 18-year-old girl behind the receptionist desk at The Grand. Writing her scenes involved me falling into memories of all these summer jobs I did during high school — jobs where you’re so bored that you’re forced into a close noticing of the surface of things, which is very proximate to what writers try to do at their desks each day. There’s a stapler on the eastern end of her reception desk. She watches it for signs of life. That desk is her territory, and it’s a novel about territory and how much of our own space we should be entitled to defend. I suppose I could have had characters thinking all sorts of grand thoughts about territory and borders and the rape of land and language, all of which are highly relevant when you’re talking about how England treated huge parts of Ireland in the ’80s. It seems more interesting to me, usually, to try and think about those big ideas for a long time, and then condense them into tiny everyday moments of specificity — a girl at a desk, bored out of her mind, guarding her desk-territory, unaware of what is coming. It’s about looking for tiny little echoes and shadows. The mundanity of small moments allows a certain comedy into the narrative, too, I hope — a lifelike comedy of the accidental. I don’t really see how a story can be sad unless it’s also funny, and I’m reluctant, even when dealing with a big moment in the history of England and Ireland, to lose sight of the ordinariness that surrounds these major events. If we lose sight of that ordinariness, we begin to fetishize and push events into abstraction, and then once again you’re in the realm of inhuman history — facts not feelings. As a novelist, I try to be faithful to the important facts but to prioritize, in most cases, feelings.
Diving is a sport we rarely see depicted in fiction, yet that moment of fleeting grandeur between the leap and the splash seems perfectly suited to Moose’s interiority.
Sport is full of these stories of dispersed talent, isn’t it? Reread David Foster Wallace’s Esquire essay on Michael T. Joyce, and then look up Joyce on Twitter. There he is, alive in the everyday, tweeting to a couple hundred people about hoping to catch the O. J. Simpson show tonight — this guy whose greatness Foster Wallace envied.
Moose is by no means a past sporting hero in the vein of Roth’s Swede Levov or anything like that — he’s got just enough talent to be applauded in his early years, but never enough to put him at an extraordinary height of recognition from which he can then fall. His fall, compared to theirs, is a very ordinary one. He looks back at local press clippings and realizes he misremembered things. He remembers a newspaper declaring he was “the best young sportsman Brighton’s ever seen” — in itself a bit of a backhanded compliment, but a source of pride for him — but then he looks back at the article in adulthood and sees there was a question mark after “seen,” and that the piece was written by a family friend, and it’s only published in a tiny newspaper. He’s a kind of anti-Swede Levov, a jokey nod in that direction. An anti-Rothian Great American Hero. He’s good at diving, a marginal sport, but not good enough to compete on the international scale. Despite his grace and his actual talent — imagine being in the top 100 anything in your country — he is confined to the margins of the margins, as almost all of us are. Moose and I have a lot in common — or so it seemed to me as I was writing this book year after year, in the dark, wondering if anyone would ever read it. Writing is definitely a marginal sport.