Thursday, February 18, 2016

England's Jonathan Taylor on the MUSICality of The Novel, The Memoir, and LIfe . . .

Christal Cooper

All excerpts given copyright privilege by Jonathan Taylor and Salt Publishing.

Jonathan Taylor’s fictional novel  MELISSA:
The Musical Problem,
The Musical Mourning,
The Musical Solution,
The Musical Memoir

This past October of 2015 Jonathan Taylor’s fiction novel Melissa was published by SALT.

       Melissa focuses on a community called Spark Close in Stoke-on-Trent in a cul-de-sac where all of the neighbors experience the same musical hallucination following the death of neighbor girl Melissa Comb, age 7, who succumbs to Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia.  In addition, 45 individuals who are connected with the 13 families but lived distances away also experience the musical phenomenon. 

       The Comb Family does not experience any musical hallucinations – only the death of the beloved and musically inclined Melissa Comb.  

Melissa delves into the psyche of the community, the neighborhood, and the family of Melissa – her father Harry Comb, mother Lizzie Comb, and her older half-sister seventeen-year-old Serena, who each go through his/her own grief in isolation – which damages the family even more. 

                                                   Jonathan Taylor's father as a young boy.

This is a fiction novel, but there are many elements in Jonathan Taylor’s life that correspond with Melissa.  The most important element is that Taylor’s life just like the life of Melissa’s family was deeply affected upon his father’s nervous breakdown when he was ten and leading to his father’s death from dementia almost 20 years later. 

                                   Jonathan Taylor's father

“As many people have said, writing is often produced by loss, alienation, and – indeed- the breakdown of families and communities.  In some ways, it’s an inadequate attempt to bridge over loss: as the critic J. Hillis Miller remarks, ‘storytelling is always after the fact, and it is always constructed over a loss.”

                    J. Hillis Miller

The loss of his father and the loss of his family unit as he knew it (both due to his father’s death) that are the driving forces that led Jonathan Taylor to become a memoirist instead of a fantasy and science-fiction writer he craved in his teenage years.     

                     Father and Son

“It’d never have crossed my mind at the time that I’d end up writing about reality.”

Six months after this article came out – that is, over a year after the Spark Close Phenomenon-Miss Rosa Adler happened across it, while showing her grandson and a local historian the “dossier” (as she called her scrapbook) of cutting about the Phenomenon which she’d collected.  At that time, she was in bed, recovering from a fall, but still wanted to talk about the Phenomenon, the Combs, her “dossier”; and , despite pain and illness, she sat up when she saw the column.  Her response to it, according to the local historian, was angry, impassioned:  “It wasn’t a disaster,” she declared, jabbing a bent finger at it, and finally through it, “For me, it was just horrible and there was nothing but “makeitstopmakeitstop’ that day;’ but I know that for others it was different.  And even for me, you know, it wasn’t a ‘disaster.’  You know, I think all of us, we made a mistake.  We got it wrong.  All of us on the Close, we had our own thought about why it had happened, what the hallucination meant.  Well, at least some of us had our own thought about it. Some of us didn’t seem to think  about it at all afterwards, and carried on as if nothing – how do you say?-‘untoward’ had taken place.  But I couldn’t carry on as normal.  I could still hear it, the music-noise, pianissimo-haunting me in the corner of my head.  All that horrid-old-fashionedness was still there, so I couldn’t just carry on.
       “And those of us who didn’t just carry on, we thought it meant something.  We thought it meant something about that poor girl – you know, the Fraulein. . . Miss Melissa, who died before the screeching and music.  Maybe it was a punishment for something, we thought.  Maybe we hadn’t looked after her enough when she was with the living.  Or maybe she was such a beautiful girl, we were being told something from ‘up high’ about her being at peace.  After all, she liked the music, and I used to hear her singing and humming old tunes around the Close – so maybe, we thought, heaven is music for her.  Not for me: for me it is the other place, full of trombones and fires . .
       “But where was I?  Ah, yes, I was talking about the poor Fr . . . Miss Melissa, no?”
Pages 23-25.

                                               Jonathan Taylor as a toddler

1. Birthdate and birthplace?
I was born on the 5th June 1973 in Stoke-on-Trent, a provincial city in England. 

2.  You describe Melissa’s childhood and family life in Melissa.  Can you describe your own childhood and family life?
Obviously, that’s a big question, and I suppose I tackle it at length in my memoir, Take Me Home: Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself, which was published by Granta Books back in 2007.

I was the third of four children – though, many years later, I discovered that my father had had a family before us (as children, we never knew), and, by a different reckoning, I was actually his fifth child. 

                     Jonathan Taylor, far right, with his siblings.

As the third or fifth child, I escaped a lot of the pressures of my older siblings, and spent a lot of time doing what I wanted: playing, reading, computer gaming, and so on. 

                                               Jonathan Taylor age 9

I was always seen as the less bright one of the family; all of my siblings are high-flying scientists, and I just wasn’t very academic for many years. So I escaped from some of the competitiveness that siblings usually have, and just trundled along in my own slow-learning path.
Overall, my early childhood was quite stable, really: I loved home life (and hence often resented school), and my parents were very caring. I had no idea that anything could be different, or that anything would ever change.
But as I say in the memoir, these memories are quite distant for me precisely because I was a younger child: the memories of a stable family life, prior to my father’s retirement and illness, are a long time ago, almost mythically so, in my mind. No doubt that’s the case for a lot of people, to a lesser or greater extent.

3.  What is your first memory of music?
       Music was always part of my life, as it is for most children.  In many ways, I think music in the broadest sense (and, of course, other art forms) are life, are what it means to be human. And the music I was exposed to as a child was very eclectic: my mother listened to Brahms, my father anything from Beethoven to Glenn Miller, my elder siblings 1970s and 1980s rock and pop, my younger sister boy bands. 


                                           Ludwig Van Beethoven

                                        Glenn Miller  
I think that kind of eclecticism is very healthy, and also fascinating: some of the modern and contemporary musicians and composers I enjoy the most mix genres and forms in fascinating ways: George Gershwin, Igor Stravinsky, Alfred Schnittke, for example, all do this, as do, on the other hand, many rock and pop bands – like Queen and the Beatles, for instance. 

                                    George Gershwin

                                    Igor Stravinsky

                              Alfred Schnittke


                       The Beatles

The first LP I ever bought was a second-hand recording of Tchaikovksy’s Nutcracker, when I was probably about nine years old. I didn’t find classical music any more “difficult” than pop music at the time – and still don’t think it is. I also had two very rebellious, teenage siblings, who listened to (what was then) cutting edge pop and rock music. 
As a pre-teen, I came to the paradoxical conclusion that the biggest rebellion of all was rebelling against rebellion: to rebel against their rebellious forms of music, and get into classical music. It made sense at the time.

4.  What is your first memory of literature?
As a kid, I loved books, but it took me a long while to learn to read. I was – and still am – a very slow learner.  As a teenager, I mainly read science fiction and fantasy – and, for many years, that was what I wanted to write. I’d have laughed at anyone who suggested that I’d gone on to write pseudo-realist fiction and non-fiction about my own experiences and about Stoke-on-Trent (which I hated at the time). It would have seemed mad to me to think that my own life, and my family, might make good material for writing. 

                     Jonathan Taylor (far right in orange t-shirt) with parents and siblings.    

So as a teenager, I devoured Tolkien, Asimov, Aldiss and others – and still love them now. 




Then, at about fifteen, I was introduced to Dickens’s Great Expectations – which, as I say, was probably one of the first “classics” I ever read. And I instantly loved it – couldn’t put it down. To be honest, I thought it was as weird and wonderful as fantasy – and demonstrated to me, even at that age, how reality and fantasy aren’t necessarily separate, but overlap in many and various ways. 

                                        Charles Dickens

A year or so later, I discovered another “literary” author who I loved: the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century writer Arnold Bennett. He came from Stoke-on-Trent, and wrote about it in his novels – and, again, it showed me how a place which seemed (at the time) very grim, a place I wanted to escape from, a place I took for granted, might also be a wonderful place for fiction; that sometimes the best stories arise in the most unexpected places. 

                                               Arnold Bennett

What Bennett wrote about – especially in his wonderful novel Clayhanger – sounded a bit like my life, and it had never struck me before that powerful storytelling might arise from my own life and context.

5.  Education History?
I obtained my B.A. and M.A. in English from Warwick University (in 1995 and 1997 respectively) in the U.K., and my Ph.D in English at Loughborough University, where I was Lecturer in English, specialising in nineteenth-century literature and Creative Writing, until 2007.
6.  Career History?
At Loughborough University, I was co-founder and director of the M.A. and Ph.D programmes in Creative Writing. 
From 2007 to March 2014, I was Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at De Montfort University, where I helped to set up and taught on the B.A. joint honours programme in Creative Writing.

                                Jonathan Taylor at De Montfort University

I’ve taught Creative Writing and English Literature in universities for many years and am currently Lecturer in Creative Writing in the school of English at the University of Leicester in the U.K. 

7.  Writing History
       I’m author of the memoir Take Me Home:  Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself (Granta Books, 2007), which was my first creative book.

       My novels are Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012) – which was shortlisted for the East Midlands Book Award, and Melissa (Salt, 2015).

       My short story collection is Kontakte and Other Stories (Roman Books, 2013 and 2014), and my poetry
collection is Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013).

I’m also co-director of arts organisation and small publisher Crystal Clear Creators.  In this latter role, I am general editor of Hearing Voices Magazine, and the Crystal Pamphlets series.

I’m editor of the anthology Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud (Salt, 2012), which won the Saboteur Award for Best Short Fiction Anthology.

I also write and publish critically and academically – in fact, I see fiction, poetry and critical writing as a kind of continuum, rather than separate from each other.  

I am author of two academic monographs: Mastery and Slavery in Victorian Writing (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2003), and Science and Omniscience in Nineteenth-Century Literature (Sussex Academic Press, hardback 2007, paperback edition 2014).

With Dr. Andrew Dix, I am co-editor of Figures of Heresy:  Radical Theology in English and American Writing, 1800-2000 (Sussex Academic Press, 2005).

       I’m currently Series Editor for a new series of fictional novels and short story collections called “Stretto Fictions” from Roman Books. 

8.  When did you know you were a writer?
When I was ten, my father had a nervous breakdown and retired from his job as headmaster of a local (very tough) school.  Over the next few years, he suffered from Parkinson’s disease and dementia, till his death in 2001.
One evening in 2007 I realized that the moment I first decided I wanted to be a writer coincided with my father’s retirement and the beginning of his illness.
It’s no coincidence, therefore, in retrospect that my first book,  Take Me Home: Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself (Granta Books, 2007),was a memoir about my father’s illness.  It starts with an attempt to locate the moment that things started going wrong for him and for us as a family.

It strikes me forcibly that writing, at least in the West, since the early nineteenth century, is all about fracture, alienation, distance, loss; and that these things are (unfortunately, tragically) necessary to create any art at all.
Hence why I started writing when my father had a breakdown and became ill: writing is a sign of a stable childhood being lost; hence too why there are so many writers from my home city, Stoke-on-Trent, who leave the city, but end up writing about it. 


9.  The step-by-step process of writing Melissa from the moment the idea was first conceived in your mind until final book form?
       For many years, I’d had the idea of writing a ‘novel” which – like Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay – discussed a strange ‘phenomenon’ in partly non-fictional terms.

                                                   Joan Lindsay

       Then one day in early 2011, I was in the bath (where all the best ideas come) and suddenly various memories from growing up in Stoke-on-Trent and various historical events coalesced in my mind, and the idea of the novel struck me forcibly. 

It had spread like a mini-tornado, in a near-complete circle.  Within a minute of Melissa Comb’s death at Number 4, Paul Higgins at Number 6, was the first to hear the screeching, followed by the unexplained music; a minute or so later, it had spread to Numbers 8 and 10; at roughly 2:38 p.m., Miss Rosa Adler at Number 12 was afflicted by the inner-music and, at 2:39 p.m., she dialed 999; simultaneously, Dr. Williams from the end of the cul-de-sac heard “hellish gnashing” in his head; then, between about 2:40 p.m. and 2:45 p.m., the musical cyclone circled round to the left-hand (or south) side of the Close, affecting in turn Rajesh Parmar at Number 9, the Shelley sisters at Number 5, and Lelly and Davy Lawson at Number 3; and finally, the cyclone turned the corner again, to hit the Runtills’ household, Number 2, on the right-hand side of the Close, next door to the dead girl.  Estimates vary, but the general consensus is that the Runtills emerged from Number 2, Spark Close at approximately 2:47 p.m. 
Meanwhile, no-one at Number 4 heard anything.  Number 4 was the silent centre of the musical storm – at this point, the still centre of the story.  No one there so much as looked out of the window, to see what was going on in the Close.  All the living who were present in Melissa’s bedroom at the time – including two Macmillan nurses, Mr. Harry Comb, Mrs. Lizzie Comb, and Harry’s eldest daughter, seventeen-year-old Serena – have been asked over and again whether they experienced any aural disturbances that afternoon; and they have all repeatedly denied hearing anything.  Indeed, Melissa’s half-sister Serena has gone so far as to testify to the neurologist investigating the case that those few minutes were, for her, the “silentest moments of my whole life so far.  When I remember those moments, it seems as if we were kind of . . . sound-proofed from the world outside.  The silent moments went on so long, I started thinking silly things – like perhaps poor Mel had taken my hearing with her, and I’d never hear anything again . . . or at least never hear anything right again.”
Page 13-14

I knew then I had to write it – and I wasn’t particularly happy about it, given that I’d just finished one novel, and had no intention of writing another.  I always want my present book to be my last, believe it or not!  I live on the precipice of giving up writing, but never jump.

       I knew from the start what the central image of the book was to be, and its starting point:  one day, on a small street in Stoke-on-Trent, a young girl called Melissa dies of Leukaemia.  
At the almost same moment, everyone on the street experiences the same musical hallucination.  The novel – again, I knew this somehow from that moment in the bath – would be about this bizarre phenomenon, and about the aftermath, as the family at the center of it all struggles to come to terms with their terrible loss. 

Finally, one day Melissa said to her mother, “Can I actually hear Seri playing the piano?”
       And her mother looked around, and said, “No, I don’t think you can.”
       “I don’t mean, Mother, that I’m actually hearing things in my head like before.  I mean:  please can I hear Seri actually really play the piano?”
       “Not unless they bring a piano onto the Thomas the Tank Ward, darling.”
       “I didn’t mean that too, Mother.  I mean:  I want to hear Seri on the piano at home.  And I want to check up that she’s not actually, you know, poisoning my spideys – or that you’ve let them all out again, Mother.”
       “I haven’t, but you can’t.  You can’t go home.  You’ve got to stay in the hospital till you’re well.”
       Melissa said, “Don’t be silly, Mother.”
       And Lizzie said, “Don’t call me that.”
       And Melissa said, “What?”
       And her mother said “Silly’ or ‘Mother.’  All me ‘Mummy’ like normal little girls.”
       And Melissa said, “But you are being silly, Mother.  They’re not actually going to make me better.  I’ve heard them all whispery-whispering about it.  And it all hurts too much.  I want to go home and hear Seri play Sherbert on the piano.”
       “You can’t darling.  And the whispers you heard, they’re in your head.  You’re hearing things because of the drugs again.  The whispers aren’t true.”
       And Melissa said, “Silly-silly Mother.”
       When Lizzi mentioned what Melissa had said to the consultant, she was surprised to find he agreed:  “Yes Mrs. Comb.  Perhaps she’s right.  Why not.  Let her go home for – well, let’s say a little while.”
       So they took her home, for a few weeks . . .
Pages 69-70

                                                Two girls at the piano 1892 by August Renoir
       I wrote the first draft really quickly, and then spent years editing it.  The whole project took me over in a way no other book ever has:  I don’t really believe in things like ‘inspiration,’ but this particular book came upon me in a forceful way and I couldn’t stop myself writing it. 

       The book was written as a kind of collage of memories, events, experiences, and non-fictional accounts – and one of the rewriting challenges was arranging this collage into a coherent narrative with beginning, middle, and end.

10.  How long did the entire process take – from what date to what date?
       I’ve never edited and redrafted a book so much as Melissa.  So I wrote the first draft in a massive outpouring of words, all in about 2011.  I was writing 1000 words almost every evening.  But once I’d got it all down quite quickly, I then spent years rewriting, editing and particularly cutting it down and down (from over 125,000 words to the final version which is about 70,000 words).  Because it’s so different to anything I’ve done before – and in, many ways, more experimental – I worked really hard on making it not just experimental but also (hopefully) entertaining as a read.  So I finished editing it shortly before it was published in 2015.

       In the living room of the Comb household, these questions were rehearsed again and again:  “So, what’s the arrangement for . . .?,” “remind me, who’s picking up cousin thinky from Stoke station?,”  “Did you manage to check if Mark and Sparks do sandwiches with the crusts off?” – all in the same tones of voice, Harry Comb’s monotone a living tick-list, Lizzie’s high notes teetering on the edge of a precipice, Serena’s grumbling monosyllables never quite answering the questions asked – and no-one every seeming to speak directly to anyone else, conversations more like atonal counterpoint than human interaction.
       One conversation which Harry had with himself over and over concerned who would play music at the service.  Everyone was agreed, he said, that there had to be music – Melissa had asked for it.  The organist would be there in the church; but that wasn’t the point.  There should be a pianist, playing something Mel herself had enjoyed listening to.  Who would, should be the pianist?  Who?  Who?, he kept insisting, over and again.
       “Who?” was a rhetorical question, and no-one dared answer it.  No-one said:  look, it was Serena who played the piano for Melissa whilst she was alive, so it should be Serena who played for her dead. No-one answered Harry in this way, perhaps because no-one wanted to upset Harry; or perhaps because everyone had more important things to think about; or perhaps because everyone knew the answer Harry was looking for, and simply couldn’t give it to him.
       In the absence of the sought-for answer, Harry eventually answered himself:  he decided he would play.
Pages 71 and 72.

                                   Young Man Playing the Piano by Gustave Caillebotte

11.  Can you describe the physical environment of where you did most of the writing for Melissa?
       I’d like to be Romantic here, and paint a picture of my writing in a falling-down shed in a meadow, surrounded by nature.  Unfortunately, that’s not true for Melissa:  I wrote most of it on a sofa in our living room, sometimes with the TV on, sometimes off.

       We have seven-year-old twins, so I have to find corners of the day (for example, when the twins have finally gone to bed) when I can write.  I can’t be precious about it – I have to write in the spaces and times I get the chance. 

12.  What was the most compelling excerpt to write from Melissa and why?
       I’ve never loved a book as much as I have Melissa.  For some reason – even though it’s not a memoir, like my first ‘creative book’ – it means more to me emotionally than anything else I’ve written.  Some of the reason for that are, no doubt, unconscious, But I certainly fell in love with the four or five main characters, and especially Lizzie and Serena Comb, who are at the centre of the storm, but overlooked by the rest of the street. 

                                Fury of the Kilns Stoke on Trent by Frederick J Elgland

       In the street, Lizzie breathed in-out-in, and turned right.  Walking – even striding- towards Number 10, Spark Close, she tried to keep her head up high, her back straight, her posture correct.  But she kept glancing down at the cracks in the pavement; and in every crack, she seemed to glimpse something she didn’t want to remember, further and further back in time . . .

. . . in the first crack, she remembered today, the getting-on-with-it-morning, the meeting with the Head of Year, the newspaper full of bare thighs, the argument with Harry.
       In the second crack, she remembered yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that,  before she knew any of this was going to happen – although maybe she’d sensed that the armchair-bound status quo wouldn’t last forever, that something might be round the corner.
       In the third crack, she remembered Harry giving up work, Harry giving up everything apart from his armchair and cheese and crackers.
       In the fourth crack, she glimpsed an eight-month-old darkness, and closed her eyes.
       In the fifth, crack, she saw long strands of Melissa’s auburn hair on a pillow, on the back of the sofa, blocking the plughole in the bathroom.
       In the sixth crack she saw Melissa catching spiders in jars with Simon and Serena.
       From the seventh crack Serena’s piano music, as she played to Melisa to calm down her baby-screams.
       From the eight crack, rising up like steam, came a pre-=history, a rush of pre-Melissa memories; and she felt acutely Melissa’s absence from those memories, as if she were losing Melissa even before she was born.
Pages 206-207

                                 Stoke-on-Trent - industrial

       There are two or three chapters towards the end which focus on Lizzie and Serena which are very important, and represent my attempt to show truthfully what the physical experience of grief might consist for them.

                                   Stoke-on-Trent by Sid Kirkham

After her stepmother left, Serena half-wondered if, mathematically speaking, the change would mean she was less lonely than before:  now there was only one, not two people ignoring her at home.  Surely, mathematically speaking – surely in terms of the kinds of equations she studied with Mr. Jenkins – that would mean that home life was less, not more, desolate, than it had been.   Loneliness should obey an inverse-square law, she thought, whereby the further away people like her stepmother and mother were, the less ignored, and therefore the less lonely, she felt.
Page 220 

13.  Did you listen to music as you wrote Melissa?  And what specific music and music performers did you listen to?
       Yes!  The whole novel is structured like a piece of music (with themes and variations), and a lot of the chapters centre on particular pieces of music.  I suppose, in many ways, I wanted to show that the process of grief has a kind of musical structure – or, at least, has lots of different structures, which might be analogous to lots of different musical structures.

                                                    Franz Schubert

       I believe that, when writing about music, it’s important to understand the music, to write about it from the “inside.” The kind of “musical fiction” that interests me most is the kind which occupies the music, which comprehends it – which doesn’t just skim over the surface, idealising it, romanticising it. A writer’s job, I think, is to understand what he or she is writing about, and that includes music – not merely to talk about his or her own response to it. For that reason, I listened very carefully to all the pieces I refer to in Melissa hundreds of times whilst writing it – and also studied the scores. I write music myself (well, at least I did before the twins were born, after which something had to give!), and play the piano very badly, and this helps at least to some extent. 

                               Jonathan Taylor and wife Maria
Whereas the emphasis in my first novel, Entertaining Strangers, is particularly on modernist and contemporary music, Melissa is particularly about the kind of music which a good pianist might play at home, or in an everyday setting. 
Two of the characters in it are pianists, so a lot of the music I discuss, and listened to whilst writing – is nineteenth-century piano music.

There are three pieces, I think, which really haunt the whole novel, two of which are piano pieces, and one of which has been arranged for the piano: Schubert’s B-Flat Sonata (the late one, and particularly the slow movement); Schubert’s two-handed Fantasia in F Minor (which forms, in a sense, the climax of the novel); and Elgar’s Enigma Variations (which, in many ways, provides the model for the whole structure of the novel, given that it is divided into variations, rather than chapters). 

                               Edward Elgar

Coming back from Rosa’s that evening, hoping wish-
ing she wasn’t right,
finding his daughter Serena in the sitting room, looking up
at him slouching in, his shoulders drooping, mouth sagging, putting her magazine down, getting up to help him, as one
might help an elderly man on a bus, tyring to guide him to his customary armchair,
but he just shakes her off,
instead shuffling over to confront the piano, as thought it is
an enemy,
taking down the Jasperware pot on top, lifting the lid,
taking out the piano key, replacing the lid with a scraping
sound, tossing the Jasperware pot away, so it smashes  behind
him, unlocking and opening the fallboard with a creak, sitting down on the stool, and placing his hand son the key, which
aren’t cold as he’d expected, but the same temperature as his fingers,
resting there, right thumb on middle-C up to small right
finger on G, left thumb on middle-C down to small left
finger on F, doing nothing, merely touching, ever-so-lightly,
keys hardly touched since the funeral,
Pages 243-244

14.  Were there any books or writers that influenced your writing of Melissa?
       In some ways, I think you’re influenced by everything you’ve ever read – at least unconsciously.  But there were some particular texts, which influenced me in Melissa, and especially the works of the great neurologist, Oliver Sacks. 

                                  Oliver Sacks

       His wonderful book Musicophilia was a starting point:  in it, he describes many neurological conditions associated with music – including, crucially, musical hallucinations. 

       In fact, most of my books are informed by Sacks’s work in various ways.  Modern neurology raises fascinating questions – which I think remain under-explored in fiction – about the nature of consciousness, ‘mental’ illness and how we experience the world.  It also affects how we as writers – must conceptualise the notion of ‘character’: in the modern age, ‘character’ is no longer a matter just of psychology or free will, but also a matter of neurology. 

15.  Can you describe the publishing process? 
       I’ve now published two books, and one edited anthology, with Salt Publishing.  They’re really supportive and helpful, and – just as importantly – produce beautiful-looking books (books should be beautiful things in themselves!).  They made lots of good suggestions about the final version of Melissa.

       Editing is so essential – and I received excellent feedback from the publisher and from other writers I know.  Finding good editors and mentors is one of the most important things for a writer:  you need to find people who you trust, and who give you honest feedback.  I don’t believe any book is really ever the product of just one person.  Books – to a lesser or greater extent – are always collaborative activities.

16.  What upcoming projects are you working on now?
       I’m currently working on a critical book about the nature of laughter, and the way in which comedy and violence overlap.  The monograph concerns the representation of laughter in literature between 1840 and 1920.  I am also working towards a second poetry collection.
       All my books mix (in different ways) comedy and tragedy, laughter and horror, humour and violence:  I suppose one of the key elements of my ‘style’ is dark humour.  So I’m very interested in the relationship between these things.  I’m also interested most in writing which mixes tragedy and comedy – because I think that’s how we experience the world.  Experiences are almost never emotionally monolithic, even in the most extreme circumstances.  

17.  What is your writing routine as of now?
       I don’t have one!  I wish I did – but with a full-time teaching job, seven-year-old twins and so on, I don’t get enough time to write at all.  It’s a common problem as a writer:  how do you balance the demands the living with those of writing?  The latter usually end up losing out.

18.  Contact info?
My email address is  My website is

The real tragedy, of course, happened before the story beings – seconds before.  At 2:35 p.m. on Wednesday 9th June 1999, in Number 4, Spark Close, Hanford, Stoke-on-=Trent, Miss Melissa Comb, a seven-year-old girl, died of Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia in her own bed, surrounded by family and nurses.
Page 3.