Writer, Illustrator & Radio Presenter
[CS] So when did you first start writing?
[MJ] It’s a tricky one to answer in that I’m one of those people that were always writing, and I don’t necessarily think that all writers are those people. I think writers can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. But when I was in my teens I was writing poetry and I did drama college and I was in a band writing lyrics in my 20s. So it would be hard to say at what point I started writing in that respect because I was writing poetry, pretty appalling poetry like most teenager’s poetry, and then lyrics to songs. But I guess it was in the later 80s when it was pretty clear that the bands were grinding to a halt, that I had coincidentally started writing what I would now say were sort of fragments of fiction. They were odd little ideas they weren’t fully formed.
[CS] Would that have been around your mid 20s then?
[MJ] Yeah mid to late 20s. I was born in 1960 so in late 80s yeah 28 29 I suspect. But you know the songs I was writing through my 20s always had little narratives and characters in. It’s not really significant to me as to when that literary side in me started coming out, as I was as interested in the lyrics of Joni Mitchell or XTC or Elvis Costello in my teens and 20s as I am now in novels. And to me it’s all writing, whether its film or music or whatever else. It’s just stuff that I’m interested in and stuff other people are producing and me having a crack at myself.
[CS] Could you look back now at some of the things you wrote with the band and see the emergence of starting to tell stories in the lyrics that you wrote?
[MJ] Yeah, so for instance quite by chance, I don’t often sing old songs of mine to myself, but I was having a run this morning and as I was doing it for some reason I remembered a song that I wrote when I was probably in my early 20s. And I can see that it has a protagonist instead of the first person. I mean I don’t see short stories or novels necessarily as higher art forms than a beautifully crafted song. You I know I think some of Joni Mitchell’s songs are beautifully written. And you can take your pick, we’ve all got our favourite musicians. You know a well written 4 minute song or a beautifully crafted album is as good as good as a fantastic collection of short stories or novel to me. Or a well-made film is going to stay with you all your life the same way a great character in a great novel will.
[CS] I’m a big fan of Tom Waits and I think some of his lyrics could be a story to music really.
[MJ] As you mention Tom Waits I think he talks very interestingly about the creative process. I’ve heard him interviewed and been asked about putting together an album and I think constructing a collection of stories and writing an album are quite similar. Someone said to him how do you come up with an idea for an album and he said “you get two ideas, put them together and let them have children”, and I thought that’s a great way of describing a collection of stories that you have to cultivate, and out of one story comes another, you know creativity begets creativity I think.
[CS] Was The Underground Man your first attempt at a full length novel or had you written others?
[MJ] No absolutely it was my first one. I did the creative writing MA at UEA Norwich and had written some very short stories during that period, and when I came to leave I thought the next project I should do is something that’s a bit longer. So far Id managed to get a story up to 10 pages and I thought I need to write something that’s maybe 80 or 90 pages. So I genuinely thought I’ll try and write a novella. In my mind a novella was 80 or 90 printed pages so that was my intention. As I began to research it and develop the ideas, it became apparent that it might end up becoming something like a novel. And even when I look at it now, it’s a pretty odd book and It’s composed of lots of bits and pieces. And it just about looks and feels like a novel. It’s probably quite a short novel I suspect, but I like writing short novels. My current one which I’m just finishing is going to be about 65,000 words which is not a long novel by any means.
[CS] Has anything you wrote at UEA made it or influenced anything you have written later?
[MJ] Yes as in as much as I think everything your writing when you start out is laying the foundations. You know you’re trying out voices and you’re trying out technique. The things you’re interested in when your 50 or 60 or 70 are the same things really that you’re interested in when you’re 20 or 30 or 40. So it’s not so much they influence you, it’s just that you’re exploring those things that are of interest to you. And you might be doing slightly different things. You might be doing profoundly different things when you’re older, but the chances are, that there will be something common. So yes the short stories I was working on at Norwich were often about tunnels and I mentioned the stories to a friend and he said “Have you heard of the 5th Duke of Portland?” And I hadn’t, so he really directed me towards that character - the real 5th Duke of Portland. It was interesting but the more I talked to local people, I thought there’s something special here and everyone had their own ideas about the duke so there was this sort of semi mythic character already in existence. So I thought there’s something quite appealing about that that all the locals had embroidered over the years. Their own version of the Duke they’d kind of added and subtracted from the myth. That was part of the reason it was appealing I suppose.
[CS] Do you see anything that connects your work? because on the face of it you could look at them as being very different kind of stories and I wondered is it just a case of you have got an idea and you have run with it, or once you’ve finished have you seen anything and thought, oh there’s that thread again?
[MJ] Yes, but I think as a writer you’re always telling yourself you’re going to do something different, you don’t want to feel that you’re going to start another project that might take you three or four years and that you’re going to cover the same territory. That would be depressing. Yes I can look back and think there’s that motif or there’s that angle. Sometimes I can feel myself edging towards a certain type of scene and thought actually no I did that in that other book why would I want to do that again. Certainly when I have an idea I know why I’m preoccupied with it I suspect, but through developing it and working it and finishing it, you end up with something that you think oh that’s not quite what I imagined it to be often. You’re a writer yourself you know that ideas come from the most unexpected places and that some ideas stick around. I’ve got ideas I’m thinking about now for a kind of collection, and I think now I do really want to work on that. I’m desperate to find the justification to spend some time developing that, and that could be a novella or that could be a long short story.
[CS] Do you find it difficult making time for new projects? For me I find it difficult to justify thinking time. Sometimes my wife will see me and say what are you doing? And I’ll say I’m thinking!
[MJ] I think you’re absolutely right that when we talk about writing most people (non writers) imagine writing as being ink hitting paper or fingers hitting keyboard, and actually in my experience most writing is that kind of ruminative stuff that you’re talking about. Because there’s no point starting the first chapter unless you’ve got a good idea what the last chapter is going to be. Or there’s no point starting that chapter on putting ships in bottles and how that’s done, without having an idea how that is done.
[CS] It would seem strange to me, and maybe some people do, to sit at a blank page and think right what should I write about. For me there’s that process of just trying to work things through and maybe it doesn’t end up being anything.
[MJ] Yes I think there are probably plenty of writers who do just start the car and let off the hand break and go. I saw Russell Hoban talk a couple of years ago and he was talking about Riddley Walker who was talking about writing in general. And he said he does just set off and sometimes ends up in a sugar coated candy land, as in sometimes you hit paradise and sometimes you end up in the middle of the wilderness. That was just his process and he’s written some fabulous books so it worked for him! Whereas I just don’t have the self-confidence I think to just think oh well whatever. And also the prose I like is worked and re worked I think. I’m just reading some E L Doctorow at the moment and I think God this guy just writes this beautifully crafted incredibly smart stuff with these powerful voices. Who knows perhaps he just gets up in the morning and knocks it off and perhaps he can just begin a project and see how it goes. I doubt it, I bet there’s all manner of thought. I’d like to think there’s all manner of preparation goes in to a piece of work like that. And of course when you’rewriting it has to be spontaneous to some degree, otherwise it’s dead, it’s just dead material you can feel it hitting the page. So there has to be some spark. I’ve said for a long time that I feel when I’m writing I’m doing two things. There’s a part of the brain that’s the conscious active part that’s watching everything that’s happening and then there’s this unconscious part of the brain that’s dipping into deep unconscious unknown unknowable stuff at the same time. And you’re constantly flicking between those two different things. Or when you write a first draft, sometimes you think well that’s not bad, and you go back the day after and it looks dreadful. Then you put on your editorial hat and work through and think well that paragraph’s fine, this paragraph isn’t fine. Either I can just re write it now or I can try and tinker it into some kind of shape. So for me I think I’m often bouncing between that spontaneous imaginative writing that non writers think that writing is, and something that’s more considered and editorial. A lot of my writing is revision. 80% of my writing is bloody revision. Going through with a red pen and thinking that’s a killer sentence, that’s a great piece there, I need a bridge between these two and it needs to be this rhythm.
[CS] Did you enjoy your time at UEA when you were writing?
[MJ] I did yes I absolutely enjoyed it. We were back in Norwich recently and I was remembering how much I enjoyed it. Out of my adult life, my career so far, I would say my year at Norwich and the year I did at the science museum (which was my last residency), were the 2 most rewarding years. The science museum was a great place to work there were great people.
[CS] You must be excited about the residency at the Booth Museum?
[MJ] I think it will be completely different, but I’m absolutely looking forward to it. At UEA I’d worked out that I wanted to have a crack at this writing malarkey. I’d been in a band and I felt I had some sort of creative chops. But to have a year to yourself where you’re just focusing on that writing is incredibly precious. And so is just having that space and time to write. If ever I’m talking about writing now, it often comes down to that or I bring the conversation round to that point. That you just need the time and space to write. And we live in times when it’s hard to do that, writers are getting paid now quite a bit less than they have been for years. That’s what I think is the great thing about creative writing courses whether it’s at Norwich or otherwise. It’s just having the time and space and support, not just the professionals who are running the department, but also your contemporaries who are in the same boat as you and I had genuine support from both of those parties, so it was an absolute joy.
[CS] Have you ever done any teaching in creative writing yourself?
[MJ] Not really, I’ve done bits. As you know I’ve talked at Faber Academy. I’m comfortable doing the odd afternoon here or morning there. I’ve got friends who teach creative writing at various departments and I’ll sometimes visit on them.
[CS] Do you feel you’re more comfortable as a visiting speaker?
[MJ] Exactly, yes as a guest. I can come in and blabber for an hour or two. I can do a Q&A and I can talk to students and I think I’m doing something vaguely useful, even if it’s just sharing my experience of getting published or with agents or writing. I can talk about my writing. I may well do it in a couple of years, but at the moment I think there are writers who are far better at encouraging and supporting rookie writers than me. And I’m a very slow reader, so the idea that someone is going to give me 5000 words to look at over the weekend doesn’t appeal to me. I can do my little routine and get out of there, whereas after week 3 they could be going “Oh god I thought he’d be interesting after the first afternoon but listen to him now!” To be fair it was quite a few years ago now, 91 to 92 I had Rose Tremain, Malcolm Bradbury and for a while Michele Roberts, they were the three chairs of the weekly workshops at UEA, and they were all brilliant in quite different ways actually, but they were all brilliant chairs. And in a way all you’re doing is giving time and space to writers to share that work and encourage other writers to reflect on it.
[CS] I think it’s a very unique skill to recognise different needs in people. But for what it’s worth I think yourself and Lucy Caldwell were two of the most popular guest speakers we had.
[MJ] Really, that is interesting! But, yes absolutely. It’s something I’ve dabbled with once or twice in my adulthood.
[CS] Do you have a specific approach to doing research for your work?
[MJ] I always feel when I’m working through something, oh yeah I’ll do that next. I never feel like I’m following a routine. It’s only when I get to the end that I think, that’s exactly what I did the last time. You find your way naturally through the process. With The Underground Man, that needed quite a bit of research. And I think because it was my first novel, I wanted to do a lot of research. I felt that’s what literary fiction writers should be doing. And in a way, in retrospect, it bought me time to allow all those ideas just to turn. I’ve tried writing novels quickly and it very rarely works. With The Widows Tale I wrote relatively quickly. I wrote that in less than a year, but that didn’t need a lot of research I knew the area and I felt I knew something about that character. Whereas the other books have taken time. This current book has insisted on the needing of 3 or 4 years and again that just seems to be the amount time I need to develop and gestate ideas. When I set out, I don’t feel I need a lot of research, but with The Underground Man I felt early on it was going to be a Victorian vaguely gothic novel, so I thought I’d better read some of these Victorian vaguely gothic novels now. So I went off and read Mary Shelley and all those guys, just to get a sense of what the tone of the piece should be. I’m a slow reader so there’s a couple of weeks of the year gone straight away. I think if you’re not careful research can bog you down, it’s easy to get lost in research. And you need to think, I need to finish it. Unless you finish it, it’s not a novel. No one is going to publish it if it’s just a great idea that you had.
[CS] Do you have a different approach to writing novels to writing short stories?
[MJ] It’s a while since I’ve written short stories. I’ve written the odd, really short story over the last few years.
[CS] Like the great one about the mole catcher you wrote?
[MJ] Yes, I did a short story for the verb on radio 4. Then I did 3 short stories for my residency at the science museum, but they were quite quickly written. Whereas the stories I’m thinking about writing next, I would like to spend more time over them and write quite different stories. The last few stories I wrote felt like they were in the same vein as Ten Sorry Tales, which like most of my books is quite odd. Faber talk about that and Bears of England as being my curiosities. Their kind of short stories, but Bears of England in a way is meant to be more like a novella in that there’s a connection between all the different elements. Which at the end hopefully all come together. So the stories I write next, I want to be less folk tale and more grown up in a way. It seems strange but I’d like them to be different and more severe and less fanciful. I like the idea of writing something that’s a little more brutal! I don’t know why! (Laughs).
[CS] Where did the idea for Bears of England come from? Each story featuring a bear in some way.
[MJ] I think creativity comes from discipline or constraint. That sounds rather grand, but if you think I could do anything here, you’ll get lost. Whereas Ten Sorry Tales had a definite feel to it and I knew that they were going to be these kind of folk tales or fairy tales.
[CS] Ah, so much like an artist may limit their pallet?
[MJ] Yes exactly, I think it helps. It sounds contradictory, but I think those limitations encourage imaginative choices. I’d written Ten Sorry Tales and I was talking to my editor about potentially writing another collection and I mentioned one story about bears. I’d seen 2 photographs taken in the early 20th century of dancing bears. 1 in Croydon and 1 in the Lake District. And it was horrific and seemed odd that in the same century 50 years before I was born, there were dancing bears in the street. And I just thought what if those 2 bears escaped and what if they ended up meeting and having children. And this is a sort of revenge of the bears. So I had this idea and the story itself was called Bears of England. So a few days later my editor had said “You know that story you have about bears, what if you write it as a novella or a collection involving bears”. I had a think about it and I thought actually that could be quite interesting. So that was the only book of mine that was commissioned without being written first. And like Ten Sorry Tales, it probably took me the best part of a year to bolt together.
[CS] Finally the residency you’re doing, could you tell us a bit about that and how you got involved.
[MJ] Yes the Booth Museum is 10 minutes’ walk from here. It’s my local museum and I’d already been there about a dozen times, so I knew it pretty well. Edward Booth was a Victorian collector and I like Victorians and Victorian eccentrics. He wasn’t as eccentric as they come, but if you were a money man and you’d made your money in industry, then when you’re in your 60s you think I’m going to do astronomy or I’m going to travel round Africa. Edward Booth had this idea that he wanted to collect every British bird. But what made him different is that he wanted to present them in a kind of diorama. If you go there, there are all these glass cases with each habitat for that bird carefully recreated. They had these odd little narratives. This thing about the eccentricities is what attracted me to put together the proposal. Essentially I’ll be doing some creative writing workshops and I’ll be bringing people into the museum who perhaps wouldn’t normally go there and I’ll be writing some stuff in response to the collection. Taxidermy seems to be an in vogue thing at the moment, and they still have a taxidermy room at the booth museum so that’s where I’ll be spending a bit of time. But for the next few months I’m just going to be turning things over exploring the stores and the archives and see what’s there. But I’m delighted that I’ve got access to the place.
[CS] Mick that’s me done, thank you so much for your time, and the coffee!
[MJ] You’re very welcome.
For more information on Mick Jackson’s work and his residency at the Booth Museum in Brighton, visit his website at
For the press release for Mick’s residency visit:
Follow Mick on twitter @mickwriter
Mick Jackson interview 31.08.2014
“It sounds contradictory, but I think those limitations encourage imaginative choices.”
A couple of months ago I had the sincere pleasure of interviewing one of my personal favourite authors, the award winning Mick Jackson. Mick is the author of 3 novels, 2 short story collections, a junior eBook and also directs and writes screenplays. Known as a lover of curiosities, his latest ‘Writer in residency’ position sees him in submerged in the world of a Victorian eccentric.
[CS] Hi Mick, thank you for letting me ask you a few questions today.
[MJ] My pleasure Chris, fire away.