Adam Mars-Jones Interview

Adam Mars-Jones is one of those writers who remains, to me, frustratingly underappreciated, despite his profile as the Observer’s fiction critic, or a man who “reviews anything not nailed down.” He has no one to blame but himself. In 1983 and again in 1993, he was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, despite not having yet produced a novel. And the fifteen years that passed between his first novel The Waters of Thirst, and his second, Pilcrow, can’t have helped. Still, he has now seen the error of his ways and is publishing fiction regularly: a four-part meganovel about a disabled man who tells us everything in exquisite and excruciating detail. Oh. The second part, Cedilla, was released earlier this month and has been welcomed with giddy enthusiasm. While we await volume three, I took the opportunity to ask Adam Mars-Jones some questions about the Cromer chronicles and his work generally.

Can you tell us something about the writing process of Cedilla? Was it substantially written before Pilcrow was published? When will John Cromer’s story be complete?

The two books weren’t separate projects. Yes, it was mainly written by the time Pilcrow was published (in fact by the time Pilcrow was offered to Faber). I submitted a readable draft in May 2009, and a final one at the beginning of December that year, for publication in August/September 2010, though that didn’t happen. There was plenty of fine-tuning to do, to make sure that there was enough balance / symmetry between the volumes while also respecting the creeping onward flow of events.

Cedilla is a very large novel – or part of a very larger novel. How did this masterpiece of contrasts in scale (or ‘coral reef made of a billion tiny Crunchie bars’) find its form? Do you worry about carrying the reader along with you on such a long and detailed journey? Or to put it another way, were there any moments during the writing when you thought, “What I’m doing is mad!”?

The whole thing is clearly mad. I only realised how mad when I started editing material together to show Faber (2006?). If it had been in notebooks I would already have had a physical sense of how big it was growing, but in computer files its bulk was digitised away. It was only at that late stage that I realised that it couldn’t be a single volume.

I have to say I enjoy the disproportion between the littleness of the hero and the great size of the books that contain his epic of helplessness. It seems both strikingly wrong and strikingly right.

As for the form, Angela Carter used to tell students that they should plunge right in — not start with something about “So it was that on that November night I climbed the green stairs that would become so familiar to me. . .” but to get on with the scene you want to write. Good advice in general, but with this narrator the story was how he got to the room in the first place (not something to be taken for granted). Doors close against him, and can’t easily be opened. This was a life lived without short cuts and there could be no short cuts in the telling.

If you’re physically disabled as my narrator is then you have very little control over space, and it follows that you are at the mercy of time. The pace of the narrative needed to slow down correspondingly, with the hope that its extreme continuousness would become mesmerising rather than simply oppressive. It may be that there are readers who are put off by something that seems so very downbeat, but it was important to me not to serve this life up on a plate for consumption. A certain amount of surrender is called for! This person’s existence is multiply marginal — but not to him…

The prejudices that the modern liberal reader is likely to hold against John Cromer are not his disability, homosexuality, or vegetarianism, but his championing of homœopathy and religious faith (and perhaps his pedantry too). To what extent are you trying to balance the reader’s engagement with John Cromer with their distance from him?

Ideally the relationship between reader and narrator should be dynamic, plastic, fluid (after all, if that aspect doesn’t work, there’s not a lot else going on!). I can’t plot in detail the vagaries of this rapport — all I can hope to do is set up a force-field of potential charges, both seductive and antipathetic.

I don’t much mind what people reflexively hold against John — for instance gay readers normally want a bit more wish-fulfilment than they’re offered in these books! Paradoxically my great advantage here is that he is almost equally far removed from any possible reader, so that there is a real prospect of the free play of sympathy. A rabidly atheistic homophobe whose father is in a wheelchair (supposing such a person could touch the book without getting a rash) might conceivably have a global reaction to the book that was relatively similar to that of the modern liberal reader you hypothesise without coinciding at any single point.

I don’t particularly believe in homœopathy (thanks for preserving the digraph, by the way) but I wouldn’t want to be without my Arnica cream when there’s a bruise going on. And I do try to suggest that a major part of the character’s fascination with the system is its granting of power to the very small and insignificant. John has a similar fascination in the book with radioactive particles…

John’s religion gives him a feeling of connectedness, the sense that he’s part of the world despite appearances. That seems psychologically healthy. Hinduism too, the tradition that attracts him, regards pain as neither punishment nor sacrifice but unreal. Also healthy, I would think, since he must go through so much of it.

As for pedantry — again it’s the control of the very small exercised by someone with no possible grip on the large or even medium-sized. It’s not unique to John, by a long chalk, to have more power over words and their usage than of the things words claim to refer to.

One of the appeals of Cedilla is its verisimilitude, with almost-appearances by real people (Jon Pertwee, Tom Stoppard, poor Michael Aspel) and obscure real books on gardening and homœopathy, which goes beyond the usual 60s and 70s cultural reference hot-buttons. Was there much research involved in John Cromer’s story, given, for example, that you too were a student at Cambridge in the 1970s?

The past is a different country, but increasingly they seem to do things much the same there, don’t you think? It’s more fun to stake out your own province of the past. Some of my attempts at research were thwarted, anyway. I tried to get access to the JCR (Junior Common Room) Suggestion Books of Downing College, Cambridge in the 1970s — since nothing could be more informative about the real life of students at the time, behind the stereotypes. It turned out that thanks to Freedom of Information legislation the best I could hope for was an expensive transcript with all the names painstakingly crossed out, and that didn’t seem worth the trouble.

Illness seems to be an unavoidable topic for you in your fiction: rabies, AIDS, kidney disease, Still’s Disease. Is this coincidental, or a useful analogy or metaphor, or something else?

There’s a lot of it about. But yes, it’s a useful reminder that the body is something we forget about (to a certain extent) while it’s doing what we think it’s supposed to, until we’re reminded in some unwelcome way. Nothing rebukes our fantasies, i.e. our daily mental life, like the non-coöperation of the body. An illness is a sort of narrative opposed to the one we usually tell.

Seasoned Mars-Jones watchers for a long time awaited the publication of Hypo Vanilla, which appeared and vanished and vanished and appeared through Faber catalogues during the mid-1990s (and is now listed on Amazon as published in June 2007 and “currently unavailable”). Did this mythical work really exist, and will it ever emerge?

Blame the Internet. There have always been books that were announced and never came about, but it’s only now that the mythical object is acclaimed as real by your average search engine, having no ability to distinguish between an existing artefact and a node of references, and then picked up by others of its kind. Alasdair Gray has written about the high theoretical price fetched on one website of his Book of Prefaces, which had never been published (though he has since brought that beauty to birth). Hypo Vanilla was a planned pair of novellas, one daringly called Hypo and the other called Vanilla, which didn’t seem to want to get written. I finished a draft of Vanilla but haven’t looked at it since, while I got more simply stuck on Hypo. After the Pilcrow saga is all done, I might resurrect them with a third novella to round off a pleasing volume.

It seems astonishing that I could get away with having a book announced, as you say, more than once in a publisher’s catalogue without my editor at Faber (Robert McCrum at the time) getting tough and demanding at least to have a look at what I was doing. I hope he doesn’t feel I abused his indulgence.

McCrum coped admirably in the early 90s when Faber had announced a novel (I won’t mention the name for fear of it turning up on Amazon), had commissioned a cover and asked me for a blurb, all without seeing the thing. At the last moment I told him that the project had stalled, but that I was working on something else which might fill the gap (the gap I had made). I wrote The Waters Of Thirst in a couple of months and he put his weight behind that, new cover, new blurb and all, as if this was standard business practice.

Perhaps it is my punishment for such misbehaviour to be haunted by Hypo Vanilla. Recently I had to make more than one plea to the British Council to delete its reference to the “book” on the Contemporary Writers website. Why did a supposedly authoritative resource produced by a publicly funded body get it wrong, when Wikipedia didn’t? Good question. The Internet is full of surprises.

I see I’ve dodged the question in paragraph 1 about how much further there is to go with the Pilcrow saga. Two more books taking the character up to the mid- to late-90s, I think. The reference in Cedilla to Mallory’s body never having been found ties me to that, unless I fudge it of course, by having him miss the paper on the day the discovery was reported or giving him a convenient stay in hospital…

was dedicated to “the memory of the Net Book Agreement, unglamorous defender of my trade.” What effects have you noticed, as a novelist and critic, as a result of its demise?

Of course it’s unrealistic to imagine that the NBA could have survived into the age of the Internet, but I don’t see that the ability of supermarkets to discount bestsellers has done anything but harm to a literary culture that has always seemed precarious. Self-publishing on demand seems to work for some people. I don’t have that much self-belief. The régime of semi-dysfunctional nurturing at Fabers has suited me perfectly. Whenever I grumble that I can’t earn a living from fiction as I near my 30th anniversary in print (and I can hardly say I’ve had a rough ride), and that Fabers don’t launch rockets to carve the titles of my books on the moon, I remind myself that no sensible publisher would have let me go so very much my own way.

Can you recommend an overlooked book or author to readers of this blog?

Absolutely. I thought Enid Bagnold’s Autobiography, published in 1969, which I picked up from a shelf in Charing Cross Road a few years ago with no great expectations, was astonishing. That very mumsy name disguises an uncompromising sensibility. Maybe the book fell a bit flat on publication because people weren’t expecting an old woman to avail herself of the ’60s freedoms (she decides to explore family history on the basis that “sperm had been shot across two centuries to arrive at me”). She puts in a mention of the face-lift she had in her 70s, to amuse her grandchildren, who she speculates would live in a socialist state where such things were illegal, or a world in which they would be the only toilette for a woman after 30.

Since then I’ve read at least one first-rate novel by her (The Loved and Envied), though one that is hard to read in its grain these days, as a profound study of a range of asymmetrical relationships, because so many of the characters are stinking rich (or at least pretty whiffy). The Donmar production of The Chalk Garden convinced me that as a comedy it’s the equal of The Importance of Being Earnest, though with a lot more in the way of human interest. A later play, The Chinese Prime Minister, which she thought the better piece, was intended to be an argument for the joys of old age until wicked Edith Evans got hold of it and squeezed out of it all the pathos that wasn’t meant to be there. Perhaps the Donmar could get their teeth into that. . .

Two Irish classics: The Real Charlotte (1894) by Somerville and Ross is a rather acrid tragedy written by a pair of women (a couple, even) better known for the comedy of The Irish R.M. I can see how you can collaborate on a comedy (just top each other’s jokes), but on a tragedy? It’s a mystery. Their control of point of view is extraordinary, so that we gradually become aware of how much of her personality the heroine keeps hidden. “Heroine” seems the wrong word for someone so destructive, but sympathy holds for this un-gentle, uncongenial woman, seething with rage and desire, in a society that has only the most demeaning uses for such people.

And The March Hare by Terence de Vere White (1970), describing Dublin life of a slightly later period, with a lighter touch but no less penetration.  Holding the 1973 Penguin is a historical exercise in its own right, a flashback to the time when a book could be confidently and successfully published with no quotations from reviews, no puffs from other authors and no reference to prizes or short-lists, simply with the description “waspish Irish story-telling at its best.” The time of the NBA, yes, but so much else has changed since then. . .


  1. I’m not surprised that a writer who could produce something as unexpected and enjoyable as Pilcrow could also recommend a writer as out of fashion as Enid Bagnold. Thank for a fascinating interview. I’m looking forward to Cedilla and although its length looks rather daunting I’m reminded that Pilcrow was really a very easy read – the sentences flowed effortlessly by. Perhaps an acquired taste though – my husband couldn’t get past the first twenty pages. I was also reminded of Mars Jones’s short stories `Monopolies of Loss’ about people with Aids and their friends and families which I found in Hay on Wye last year- powerful stories and painful ones but highly recommended.

    1. Mary, I wrote about Monopolies of Loss elsewhere on this blog. And I had never heard of Bagnold before this interview, but I now realise that she is best known as the author of National Velvet and – a contemporary trivium of no importance – the great-grandmother of Samantha Cameron, wife of the current British prime minister.

  2. An excellent intervew, which does leave me scratching my head on one point. If Cedilla was mainly written when Pilcrow went to Fabers, are there early drafts of volumes three and four — or are they still at the concept stage? Even with my limited reading of Mars-Jones (I’ve only read Pilcrow) I can understand why sometimes his style and approach result in works that just don’t work, despite their promise when he starts them.

  3. John, another entertaining and illuminating, but also genuinely warm interview. It reminds me that I went to a book reading/signing by Mars-Jones many years ago. It was rather sparsely attended (under 20 people, let’s say, at a Waterstone’s in Leeds) but he was not disheartened by the turnout in the slightest and remained entirely genial throughout the entire thing. When it came to the Q&A section at the end, he encouraged us to “ask anything, no matter how mundane. I’ll just ramble on. I just need something to start with. ” (I paraphrase).

    Specific thoughts:

    i) Mars-Jones characterisation of the slow pace and huge extent of John C’s consciousness as “mesmerising” is spot-on. that’s what it is – though he’s right too that, as with any subject of hypnosis, you’ve got to want to go under (“A certain amount of surrender is called for!”)

    ii) “The reference in Cedilla to Mallory’s body never having been found” – forgive me if I’m being forgetful, or a useless reader, but what/who is that referring to? I can’t recall a Mallory, and I’m not about to pick the book up and skim-read it for clues. (That said, I do vaguely remember a line somewhere – possibly even from Pilcrow – about John C. acquiring, at some point, a criminal record.)

    iii) Finally, have you any thoughts (beyond the premable at the start of Pilcrow, quoted in your review of that book) as to the ‘meaning’ of Pilcrow, Cedilla and Umlaut (and Caret)? The cedilla, in Cedilla, is rather tenuously tied in to John’s Spanish lessons, but I can’t help thinking of it, danglingly, as male genitalia, and the umlaut as horns of some kind. Can’t help thinking, too, that Pilcrow was his working title of the whole thing, and the other names have been forced upon him by circumstance.

  4. Thanks for your thoughts, Jonathan. (Note to others: Jonathan Gibbs reviewed Cedilla for the Independent, here.)

    ‘Mallory’ simply means George Mallory, who died while ascending (or descending) Everest in 1924. His body wasn’t found until 1999, and there’s a point in Cedilla where John refers to his body as still missing at the time of writing – meaning he must be telling us his story in 1999 or earlier (and makes me wonder if Mars-Jones wrote that part before 1999 too).

    I have never seen Mars-Jones at a public appearance (nor spoken with him; this interview was done by email) but other accounts back up your description of him as likeable and genial.

    My feeling on the title is, as you suggest, that it is fully explained by the paragraph in Pilcrow (or in the preamble, as you note: it doesn’t actually appear in the text of the narrative itself): a neat analogy which also feeds into the book’s and the narrator’s love of linguistic niceties. Mars-Jones implies that he originally intended the book to be one volume, so one title was probably all he had in mind.

  5. I keep Hypo Vanilla on my bookshelf—right next to my first edition of The Williams Corner Bookstore Papers.

  6. I’m halfway through Cedilla and it is quickly becoming (with Pilcrow of course) one of my all time favorite books. I pitch the pair to every book lover I come across. I look forward to the next volume but not to the end of the series, as John and his world have become so deeply real and I will miss his voice when it ends speaking.

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