Interview: J. R. Crook

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Is J. R. Crook Dead? Author Photo
J. R. (Jamie) Crook is a first-time novelist whose debut novel, Sleeping Patterns, won the Luke Bitmead Writers' Bursary 2011 and was subsequently published by Legend Press this year. Jamie is interested in experimentalism, writer-reader relations and to a lesser extent, literary theory. He is also a fan of experimental music and is an avid record collector. He lives in London where he is involved in numerous creative projects.

Sleeping Patterns is Jamie's first novel - six years in the writing, it follows a handful of university students as they interact and form relationships. An experimental novel, it is written in a fragmented and unusual narrative style, and considers a range of literary and existential questions.

You can read my review here: Sleeping Patterns by J. R. Crook

The first note I wrote down when I read a synopsis of Sleeping Patterns was ‘death of the author’. I know you’ve cited Roland Barthes as an influence, so perhaps a good place to start would be to explain how Barthes’s work, in particular his essay The Death of the Author, has influenced Sleeping Patterns.

Although The Death of the Author did influence some of the conceptual aspects of Sleeping Patterns, it bears very little relevance to the reader’s understanding of the work as a whole. I view it as an interesting footnote for those who are interested. It tied in quite nicely with the themes I was thinking about when I first starting planning the book; the removal of authorial presence from a text; the recognition of the reader as the master of meaning; using not only the words on a page, but the infinite space (both internal and external) that surrounds them. I find the relationship between author, subject and reader fascinating and saw in Barthes’ essay a means of trying to manipulate it somehow. As for its application in Sleeping Patterns, it really comes down to two things: the dedication at the start of the novel and the reader’s own expectations.

The dedication, which states that the author is dead, can be viewed in a number of ways. Firstly and most obviously, it’s fundamental to the reader’s understanding of the entire work and therefore one of the most important lines in the novel. Secondly, I wanted to play on the romanticism of the ‘dead artist’ (which is multiplied tenfold for artists who died young and/or tragically). If a reader picks up Sleeping Patterns with no prior knowledge of its content or author, it is perfectly feasible that they will read the whole thing under the impression that the author died before its publication. The interesting point for me is how an artist’s death can overshadow and contaminate their work; how it alters the way people approach it; how it is never again viewed in quite the same way. The death of the author (in a literal sense) causes people to search for meaning in different places; certain occurrences, dialogue or descriptions might take on different connotations altogether, as if the late-author had been trying to express something about himself, only he hadn’t quite known how to say it. The words, even if they are the most mundane of words, can suddenly assume a new significance in the mind of the living, one that was most likely unintended by the author. And all of this is set in motion before even the first page has been turned. It is interesting to me that one simple line – Dedicated to the Memory of the Author – has the potential to alter the reader’s perception in such a fundamental way. This all ties in with one of the key themes of Sleeping Patterns: the search for meaning in something that may well be bereft of it. When you search too hard for ‘meaning’ you risk overlooking what has been obvious from the start.

Finally, after all of that, the dedication can also be viewed as a simple nod towards Barthes, a joke almost, although that’s perhaps the least interesting interpretation. I’m sure there are others I’m unaware of too. I should also add that the novel would of course be missing a layer of fiction if the reader truly believed that I was dead, so it’s important to have it made clear that I’m not. Preferably this should happen shortly after they’ve finished the book, but it’s not overly important.

Sleeping Patterns features several layers of fiction. It seems to me that the two most discernible levels of these form a means of communication between their author and their intended reader. The impression is given that within each story there is an intended interpretation on the author's part, which he tries to convey to the (intended) reader. However, these intentions are ambiguous. Can we suggest then, that the respective author’s personal biography is crucial to understanding his writing, and that his relationship with his work does not, as the dedication in Sleeping Patterns might suggest, end when the Reader opens the book?

Well, this is quite difficult to answer without giving the entirety of the novel away. The intention of using so many layers of fiction was to ensure that, in one sense, the book never ends. Just as one layer closes, another begins to overlap it until eventually, we arrive at the point at which reader is reading (or rather finishing) the physical book, Sleeping Patterns, therefore ensuring that the story continues beyond the last page. So you’re right, the author’s involvement doesn’t end with the opening of the book (at the point of his death – the dedication), but then neither does the reader’s involvement when they close it at the end.

As for a certain knowledge, or at least assumption of the author’s personal biography and intentions, that depends on which author you are referring to. On one level, the author wrote Sleeping Patterns (or rather the fragments that comprise it) with only one intended reader in mind – Annelie Strandli. For that reader, there was no need to discuss the author’s biography as she was already very familiar with him. The same goes for the character development (or lack of) with the supporting characters – if we are considering them as ‘real’, then they too required very little exposition. As for the author’s intentions, they are clear and understood perfectly well by the reader at the end of the book (as stated in Grethe’s introduction).

However, on a higher level, when referring to the external reader (I.E: you), in your role as the ‘outside observer’ over the interactions between the author and the characters, then things are very different. Although having some knowledge of the author could well prove beneficial to understanding his intentions, you are offered very little and instead must rely upon whatever you can draw from his text to fill in the gaps. Of course, this is because in one sense, the fragments were never written for you, so why would you expect anything more? Furthermore, if we then move up another level and consider the relationship between you and I, the writer and reader in the physical world, then things get even more interesting…

Inevitably readers will extend the themes from the meta-fiction to the author, and by extension to yourself. How much of yourself, if anything, is in the book?

Probably more than I’m willing to admit to, but definitely less than a reader might think. Personally, I’ve never really been interested in how much of an author’s reality is apparent in any given book. I believe that books should stand on their own as much as possible. For me, the better question is how far the reader identifies himself in the text, rather than the author. The fiction itself, and how it interacts with the reader, is always the most important thing.

If we take Grethe as purely fictional, is her nationality (Finnish) important other than creating the appealing escape that exoticism suggests, and the exclusion that foreign cultures and languages creates? If we take Grethe as a stand-in for a real person, would you like to tell us a little more?

Her nationality isn’t particularly important, other than, as you say, providing the appeal of the unknown. For all it matters, she could have spoken in a non-existent language (although I should note that the Finnish sections in the book are accurate and do have meaning). The crucial thing is that through her spoken language, Grethe creates a distance between the reader and the text. This distancing not only affects Berry in the narrative, but also extends to Grethe herself (as she in turn reads the fragments of Sleeping Patterns) and finally the reader. For the reader, this distancing effect is fundamental to the novel (and Grethe’s language isn’t the only example of it) because it reminds them of the context in which they are reading it. It forces them to move between the layers of fiction. Or so was the intention.

As for how ‘real’ Grethe is: she is as real as J.R. Crook is. Now, which version of J.R. Crook I’m referring to is something that I’m afraid I can’t say. Whether readers consider her as ‘real’ or ‘fictional’ is entirely up to them. The same goes for Jamie Crook.

The meshing of literary theory with fiction is notoriously difficult. How did you approach this?

I don’t think it’s ever wise to set out to write an academically-inspired novel. My feeling is that theory should only be used as something to inform the conceptual direction you are already heading in. Literary theory isn’t particularly vital to me; rather it’s a useful resource to draw upon if and when it’s needed. Sleeping Patterns was originally devised as an experiment (and a personal one too - getting it published was very much an unlikely afterthought) and that required some research, to a certain extent. As it progressed, the novel morphed into something else entirely, but always with those original theoretical aspects running underneath. So there’s only a very small amount of literary theory that’s noticeable in Sleeping Patterns today.

Authorial intrusion is a post-modern technique that often divides readers. Did you have any qualms about parachuting J. R. Crook into the story, and did you look at any particularly successful examples in literature to help shape your own presence in the novel?

I suppose that depends on how far you regard Jamie Crook as having authorship over the work in the first place. Since the entire concept hangs on the interactions between the characters, reader, author(s) and me, the inclusion of the author/narrator was never in question. His presence is deliberately muted though; he is given no dialogue and shows little opinion. He serves many purposes, not least to play a role in creating the distancing effect between reader and text. Of course, for being the ‘author’ he was also granted certain privileges over his characters; he could pick and chose which scenes were depicted in the narrative and which were excluded; he could plant dialogue in the mouths of those around him; he could move back and forth through time and memory.

I didn’t draw upon any examples in particular when planning the novel. There’s a long history of authorial intrusion in literature and it extends far beyond the confines of post-modernism (whatever use that term has today, beyond being an easy label or diversion). You’re right, it can divide readers, but that’s no bad thing. In my view, if more writers sought to divide readers, rather than please as many as possible, then modern literature in general would be in a far better state. There’s nothing worse than a novel that’s universally regarded as ‘okay.’ It’s good to be hated as much as it is to be loved.

You've stated in previous interviews that you worked on Sleeping Patterns for six years and that the first manuscript was 150,000 words. What do you think the novel gained from the pared down style that you settled on, and do you think you lost anything in shedding all those words?

I lost nothing and gained everything. I always wanted to try and develop a style that I could consider my own, because I think that’s something every writer should strive for, but that takes time and patience. I also love minimalism, but it’s really hard work. So I took my time. Unfortunately, my early drafts simply didn’t fit with the uncertain vision I had for this book and for my style in general. So they had to go, but it was liberating to start all over again.

If the dedication wasn’t to the author, who would it have been to?

The reader, of course!

We already know that Sleeping Patterns was six years in the making – but what does your life look like during the writing process?

I stay up all night (usually until around dawn) listening to records, drinking green tea and trying to squeeze out a few words. Sometimes I spend days upon days trying to resolve a problem, scribbling furiously in my notebook, until eventually I realise that the solution is simpler than I had led myself to believe. Most days I wake up in the afternoon, do emails and chores and then resume work at around midnight. So I often go without sunlight for long periods, which probably isn’t healthy.

And when you’re not writing?

I only write over prolonged, intensive periods and often go without writing anything at all for weeks on end. Whenever I’m not writing I do feel guilty, like I should be doing something. However, that sense of guilt doesn’t tend to make much of a difference. I’m a very slow writer.

What, if anything, would you change about the writing of Sleeping Patterns?

I don’t think I would change anything. The book turned out the way it did because it went through so many phases.

What are your long term writing ambitions, and what are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently working on a new novel. In some ways it will work as a counterpart to Sleeping Patterns, in terms of concept and minor themes, but overall it will be very different. I don’t have any particular long term ambitions and prefer just to see how it goes from one book to the next. I always write as if the book I’m working on will be my last. Who knows, perhaps this one will be?

Finally, what is your favourite word?

End. Because it’s something to work towards.

If you'd like to find out more about Jamie and his writing, visit his personal website at www.jrcrook.co.uk. Sleeping Patterns is available now, in both paperback and e-formats.

Useful Links
Sleeping Patterns on Amazon (UK)
Sleeping Patterns on Amazon (US)
J. R. Crook's Author Website
J. R. Crook on Twitter
J. R. Crook on Facebook  

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Review: Sleeping Patterns by J. R. Crook
Sleeping Patterns (2012) is the debut novel of J. R. Crook. An exploration of consciousness and the author-reader relationship, this is an experimental novel that grapples with major literary theories. In a brief foreward the story is set by Annelie ... [Read More]

1 comment:

Matthew Selwyn said...

I thoroughly enjoyed talking with Jamie about his writing and Sleeping Patterns while putting this post together - a genuinely interesting author who couldn't have done more to help me get this interview out. Thanks go to him, and I hope you all enjoy reading his views as much as I did.