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Jonathan Lee: Characters on the Outer Edges

Kyle Lucia Wu interviews Jonathan Lee about his latest novel

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Photo courtesy of Tanja Kernweiss

In October 1984, a bomb went off at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England, planted weeks earlier and timed for Margaret Thatcher’s arrival. Thatcher survived, five others were killed, and IRA member Patrick Magee was charged: that’s the story we know. Jonathan Lee’s latest novel, High Dive, imagines what we might not know. There were murmurs of a second bomber who helped Magee, and in High Dive Lee renders the possibility of who it could have been: eighteen year old IRA volunteer Dan. The novel links the stories of Dan, who checks in under the name Roy Walsh, and the staff at the Grand, switching between Moose, the deputy manager hoping for a promotion, and Freya, his apathetic teenage daughter who works the front desk.

High Dive lives in the before, not the after, a stone that history hasn’t fully turned over. Lee’s an excellent storyteller, the kind you’d follow anywhere—his prose is full of sharp wit and surprising empathy, easily earning complete absorption. The characters are incredibly well-drawn, flawed and familiar, each dealing with personal loss and still to be reached potential. The story moves along quickly and naturally, drawing us into the myriad of other worries spinning around the characters: family, career, new love and past love. The tension of what’s ticking alongside them steadily builds. Though we know how Thatcher will fare in the end, it doesn’t diminish our investment in how Lee’s new characters will.

Lee moved to New York from England a few years ago, and previously published two novels in the UK: Who Is Mr. Satoshi? and Joy. High Dive is his first book published in the US. To mark its release, we talked about falling for the fraud of fiction, the space between banality and horror, and his childhood dreams of becoming a wrestler.

-Kyle Lucia Wu for Guernica Daily

Guernica: What led you to write about the Brighton bombing?

Jonathan Lee: I grew up in a commuter town outside London, but I think my parents always secretly wanted to live by the sea. During the summer, when I was a kid, we’d go down to Brighton for day-trips quite often. We’d spend an afternoon on the beach, staring at the sea, eating fish and chips, dodging the assaults of seagulls. I’d read my Roald Dahl books and reflect on how misunderstood I was, and whether it was really within reach for me to fulfill my dreams of becoming a WWF wrestler. I was about three feet tall. If memory were a writer, her specialty would be fiction, but I think I remember seeing The Grand Hotel from the beach on those childhood trips— that giant white wedding cake of a building staring out onto the English Channel. This was in the early 1990s, after the hotel had been rebuilt. At some point I heard the story of how, in 1984, it had been bombed by the IRA in an attempt to kill Margaret Thatcher. That got me curious. It was precisely the sort of dramatic event that my childhood was entirely lacking in, and Thatcher was someone much discussed at home. My mother thought she was great, and my dad despised her, so that made for some interesting arguments to overhear.

Fiction was, for me, the only way to tell this story, because fiction is really what the story is about—a group of individuals in Northern Ireland constructed a plot, and gave themselves false names and backstories, all in an attempt to kill the British Prime Minister.

Guernica: How did you decide on the characters you wanted to focus on?

Jonathan Lee: I’m interested in writing about people who exist at the outer edges of public events—the people who, if they make it into the history books at all, are pressed into footnotes or trapped in parentheses. I knew early on in the writing of High Dive that Thatcher should be this kind of ghost in the center of the book, a hardly-glimpsed character, an absence more vivid than a presence, this kind of suction-zone. The characters I wanted to focus on needed to be mine—my inventions—and they needed to be the type of people posterity generally forgets to remember. The first character came to mind, I think, was Philip Finch, nicknamed “Moose”—the ex high-diver who works as the Deputy General Manager at the hotel, wandering around with his name badge pinned close-in on the lapel, so his necktie half-covers it—a promotion without the salary or associated sense of pride. That was my first image of him. Then Freya, his teenager daughter, stuck behind the reception desk for the summer. At some point I was reading an essay about the bombing and saw a reference to the fact that there may have been a second bomber in The Grand Hotel who was never found. Staff in the hotel recalled seeing him. Who was he? As far as history is concerned, he doesn’t exist. He became my third central character—I imagined myself into his life. Fiction was, for me, the only way to tell this story, because fiction is really what the story is about—a group of individuals in Northern Ireland constructed a plot, and gave themselves false names and backstories, all in an attempt to kill the British Prime Minister.

Guernica: It’s fitting that, since it was a long-delay time bomb set to go off in three weeks, the action builds slowly, with the explosion the end. What did you think made the buildup more interesting than the aftereffects?

Jonathan Lee: There’s a great Susan Sontag essay called “The Imagination of Disaster.” It’s an analysis of the popularity of science fiction films during the Cold War, particularly those that flirted with the idea of apocalypse. The essay begins by saying something like, “Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destines: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror.” That was an important essay for me as I was writing this book—that and some of Camillo Boano’s papers on the philosophy of disaster and disaster-recovery, and papers by the academics Emma Huchinson and Roland Bleiker on disaster-trauma and cultures of inhospitality and stuff like that. In High Dive I really wanted to explore the space between banality and terror, the space Sontag hints at, which is a muddle of smaller private and public spaces, of secrecy and showmanship, of authenticity and performance. You know, you don’t plant a bomb without having strongly held private convictions, do you? But you also don’t plant one unless you want people to notice your acts. One thing that’s deep in the nature of terror is the desire to find an audience, and that became interesting to me—the extremes of privacy and publicity at the heart of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland. That’s also what interests me, in part, about hotels. They are sites of secret intimacies but they’re also performative spaces—they are arenas of hosting, of public play.

Most disaster narratives start with an explosion and explore the aftermath, but it seemed more interesting to me to show ordinary life, in all its color, its precious flawed privacy, before the irreversible moment of terror struck. To the extent I had any solid intention when I embarked on this book, I planned to try and humanize the before—the moments and fringe characters who fall into the shadows of major events.

How do we know what is lost in an act of terror unless we’ve looked hard at what was there before?

Guernica: The title, High Dive, seems to feed into that idea.

Jonathan Lee: Yeah. High divers have this term for the period they spend in the air on the way down. They call it “the flight of a dive.” At some point it occurred to me that was my plot. I wanted to show the flight of the dive all the way from the initial injection of momentum—the small acts and words from which an assassination attempt might first develop—right through all the little somersaults and twists, down to the irreversible moment of impact. How do we know what is lost in an act of terror unless we’ve looked hard at what was there before? We fail to do that, all the time, this business of looking hard at things, because we don’t realize the gravity of what’s coming around the corner. We’re all too wrapped up in ourselves. Or I am, at least. Apathy and self-centeredness became part of my subject. Zadie Smith has this line in her story “The Embassy of Cambodia”: “Surely there is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle. But how large should this circle be?” That’s the main question of life, I guess. To what extent are we an activist for something other than ourselves?

Guernica: One of the memories Moose has of his ex-wife Viv is her getting angry at him after his wedding speech, citing his lack of authenticity. Each character in this book is putting on a performance—hospitality in itself is a performance. Dan performs Roy Walsh. How do these masks affect the characters?

Jonathan Lee: That’s a great question. There’s a line in Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence that I’ll try and get right. It’s something like: “Sometimes people carry to such perfection the mask they have assumed that in due course they actually become the person they seem.” In the book, Dan, like many young Belfast Catholics, gets caught up in the struggle for Irish independence. I think he’s the best example in the book of someone who wants to contribute meaningfully to the shape the world takes, but has to harden himself and adopt a certain persona in order to find himself able to do that. He looks in the mirror at one point and sees his features slightly changed, the emotional muscle tone gone—he’s become emptied of empathy, but not so badly that he doesn’t notice what he’s lacking—that’s his tragedy, if I can use so grand a word. He’s had to create a certain distance between himself, a distance between his conscience and his acts, and as that distance stretches over the course of his book, his own humanity becomes a great inconvenience to him. So he kills it, or tries to.

Thatcher was an example of that too, I think. She had to create a wide distance between her public and private self in order to be taken seriously as a politician, to get where she got to, and that distance in the end left her somewhat cold when it came to the business of empathy—of putting oneself in other shoes. She could never really imagine herself into the minds of the disenfranchised Irish Catholics in Belfast, or the hunger-strikers, or of the people of color suffering at the hands of Apartheid in South Africa, or the miners striking in her own country. They didn’t fit her narrative. All the other characters in High Dive are engaged in performances of one kind or another—I guess you’re right about that. They all have their public selves—the faces they wear for others. Mask comes from “masquerade,” right? A disguise you’d wear to a public gathering. The novel works through a series of private moments towards a public event, and by then everyone’s mask is fixed.

If our fuck-ups turn out to be non-catastrophic, our life story is a comedy. If our mistakes happen to lead us toward irretrievable ruin, our story is a tragedy.

Guernica: Freya’s dominant emotion throughout is boredom, which bothers Moose as he’s plagued by his unrealized dreams and wants better for her. Do you think this is something that follows us all around, how we reconcile the ways we think our lives will turn out, and the way they actually do?

Jonathan Lee: I think that’s the main subject of all art. The eyes we see the world through are our eyes, so it makes sense that we consider ourselves a bit more three-dimensional and stuffed with potential than that random guy we just met in the queue at Starbucks—sorry, Blue Bottle Coffee. As you get older, we all start to realize there are some things we’ll never do, and then we realize there are a lot of things we’ll never do, and that’s the source of most comedy and also most tragedy in books and films and plays. If our fuck-ups turn out to be non-catastrophic, our life story is a comedy. If our mistakes happen to lead us toward irretrievable ruin, our story is a tragedy. Pretty much every Shakespeare play follows that pattern. Pretty much every Coen brothers movie, too. I love the Coen brothers. I love the way they’re not afraid to mingle the desperately sad with the desperately absurd, the awfully funny and the awfully awful. It’s the same with Lorrie Moore, Joy Williams, Don DeLillo, Robert Walser, William Maxwell, Javier Marías, Grace Paley, Robert Musil, Dickens—all the writers I love.

Guernica: Your portrayal of Dan is very empathetic, though not apologetic. I especially enjoyed his contrast with Freya—they’ve both lost a parent, in one way or another, which leaves them feeling unmoored and taking a wayward path, though Dan’s is much more extreme. Were you ever conflicted about the way you wanted to portray Dan?

Jonathan Lee: I’m very conflicted in the way I portray all my characters. That conflict never seems to go away, no matter how many years I spend on a book. A lot of writers say that, at a certain point, their characters take on a life of their own and begin to make their own decisions, to form their own plot. I’ve never found that to be true. The writer is always the puppet-master, everything always springs from the conscious or unconscious brain or heart of the person with the pen, and I find it hard to believe in this romantic idea that there is a character on a page who ever has a life of their own. And yet, it’s also true that a certain point in the writing process your characters—whilst still being animated by you, the author—want to stand apart from you a little bit, want to breathe and exist at a remove. They obtain a degree, not of autonomy, but of dreaminess—they begin to dream of independence. When the book ends, when the author moves on to a new project, some characters don’t want to go down with the ship.

Halfway through writing High Dive, I wished Dan wasn’t going to do the things I knew he was going to do. But he was, by then, the guy I’d made him. His deterioration, the steps he takes towards his own destruction and the destruction of other lives, were at that point more or less inevitable. I was writing his final scenes—I held the pen—but my options were suddenly very limited. I don’t think it’s possible to build characters based on pre-conceived ideas—to say, “they need a bit of this, and a bit of that.” That feels false, to me. I just start writing, and see where it goes, and at some point I have no choice but to portray the characters as they are—I’m watching from a remove, there are only one or two faithful avenues to send them down. Something like that, anyway.

Guernica: The book mostly lives in The Grand, and the small details of hotel life were brilliantly observed and so specific. Did you have a previous life in hospitality?

Jonathan Lee: Ha, no. I’ve worked in restaurants and stores and various service-industries, but never in a hotel. I once mended watches for a summer. That was cool. You’re having the time of your life, my boss kept saying to me. It was a good job, except for the way she kept saying that sentence. But it’s a nice thing about fiction that you can sometimes, if you’re lucky, create a world that is so aggressive in its specificity that it seems to be borne out of first-hand experience. Last year I read a wonderful story by Téa Obreht called “The Laugh,” which takes place in Tanzania and beautifully conjures the feel of the place. I saw Téa shortly after reading her story. I told her I’d always wanted to go somewhere in Africa and do a safari. And she said, “Me too.” She’d never been anywhere near Tanzania. That was unbelievable to me, given the beauty and precision of her story. So: I still fall for it, the fraudulent specificity of all good fiction.

Guernica: How did you get a feel for The Grand?

Jonathan Lee: There’s a point where research has to stop and intuition and imagination have to start, but before reaching that point I was lucky to spend some time walking around The Grand and talking to people and seeing into the room where Margaret Thatcher stayed. The Grand in the novel is a sort of ghost version of the real thing, it follows the logic of a dream rather than a historical floor plan, but you still need the little details to make it seem real. When I watch a good manager or front-desk staff member in a hotel, I think of writers. They welcome people into the world they’ve curated, show them around, hope they have a good time. That’s what writers do, too. They invite characters into their own stories—temporary guests. There’s something in a hotel that wants to wall people in and wall other people out, isn’t there? The rules of these little hotel-worlds began to stand, for me, as a loose metaphor for something—Belfast, occupation of territory, exclusivity, class divides, the divisions created between Catholic and Protestant spaces, communities enclosed and excluded. I think so, anyway. Sometimes these thoughts come only after you’ve finished the book. It’s easy to claim too much intention.

Guernica: Your second novel, Joy, which was published in the UK, is about the aftereffects of a talented young lawyer’s suicide. Is High Dive the opposite—the buildup, rather than the fallout?

Jonathan Lee: I hadn’t thought of the books fitting together that way, but I guess it’s true. Joy cuts between the last day of this young lawyer’s life and then the aftermath of her apparent suicide, in which all these different voices of colleagues offer their differing perspectives on what happened to her, and what sort of person she was, unwittingly revealing more about themselves than about her. So Joy structurally does this before and after seesaw thing. For High Dive I was thinking of the sea-side, of the the sea washing in and out—the narrative does that backward-forward thing again, even though all the main events precede the bombing. If there’s one thing that unites all my books, it seems to be the idea of never really knowing anyone fully. That and the way, when someone dies, or falls silent, through choice or through the acts of another, that all these untold stories die with them. I have no idea why I seem so preoccupied with that, but it seems to be there.

I allowed myself the freedom to imagine myself into the gaps of the known facts.

Guernica: High Dive is a different type of novel than your previous two since it’s so rooted in a specific historical event. How was it different to write a book based around an actual event?

Jonathan Lee: Well, Joy was tricky too, in some respects, because while I was working as a lawyer in London in my twenties, a talented young colleague died in what seemed to be a suicide. The idea of that preoccupied me, my writing, for a long time. It was the seed of Joy. But you’re right. High Dive very much exists within a framework of established fact in a way the other books don’t, and that was a challenge and a thrill. There’s a greater responsibility to get things right—not in terms of the facts, but the emotional truth. I deliberately set the book in a neighborhood of Belfast that doesn’t exist, which seems to have upset at least one reviewer back home, and Moose goes to a swimming pool that never existed in Brighton either. All of the characters refer to these places that are ghost places, or fake places, and these people who are not real people. This is a novel, and it’s full of my inventions. I allowed myself the freedom to imagine myself into the gaps of the known facts—to begin to invent. And there were many, many gaps. Huge ones. We know very little about the bombing.

Guernica: Is there a character you feel closest to in High Dive? I felt a kinship with Freya myself.

Jonathan Lee: Thank you for saying that about Freya. In the year or so since I finished edits on High Dive, she’s been the character I’ve thought about most often, too. I think within every novel there’s probably a character—more than one, maybe—who is the truth-teller, and therefore feels like the future: the one who will take the story forward, beyond the last page, when the book is closed. That’s Freya, for me. Part of my sadness at the end of writing the book was leaving her behind. I don’t have kids, and she came to feel like a daughter—someone I really loved, who I wanted to spent a lot of time trying to intuit. But she’s fine. Freya is funny. She has a sense of humor. That’s the key to surviving most things, don’t you think? The book is over, but Freya is still out there. She didn’t go down with my ship.

Jonathan Lee is a British writer whose recent fiction has appeared in Tin House, Granta, and A Public Space, among other magazines. High Dive is his first novel to be published in the United States. He is a senior editor at Catapult.

Kyle Lucia Wu is a writer living in New York. She is the managing editor for Joyland and has an MFA in fiction from The New School.

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