Jonathan Coe was born in Birmingham in 1961. His novels include The Rotters' Club, The Accidental Woman, A Touch of Love, The Dwarves of Death and What a Carve Up!, which won the 1995 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger. His latest novel is The Rain Before it Falls (Penguin, 2007).
The House of Sleep won the Writers' Guild Best Fiction Award for 1997.
Jonathan Coe's editor Tony Lacey on Jonathan's career:
"Jonathan Coe has said that his first two novels ought to be in the Guinness Book of Records for low sales: they each sold less than 1000 copies in hardcover. His career is indeed often cited as the perfect example of a writer who takes time to find his readership. But what a take-off it was when it finally happened! What a Carve Up!, his fourth novel, published in 1994, was everything most English novels are not: big, funny, political and bitingly satirical. It’s no surprise that Coe’s books are so successful in Europe (he’s a bestseller in France and Italy): in his trilogy of What a Carve Up!, The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle he offers a panoramic view of Britain through three decades, far removed from the small literary English novel of cliché.
His prose is clear and unpretentious, but he’s technically very adept: in What a Carve Up! he handles a big cast of characters and a complicated plot, and manages miraculously to bring it all together with the last section of the book mirroring the Sid James/Shirley Eaton 1961 film of the same name. He likes playing a few games too: The Rotters’ Club ends with one huge sentence (nearly 14,000 words), and the author himself makes an appearance at the end of his new novel, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim. But it’s probably the humour that readers love best. He’s a master of the comic set-piece: whenever you see a letter, a formal speech or something similar coming up in one of the books, you know you’re in for a real treat.
Not all Coe’s novels are big and boisterous. The House of Sleep, a favourite of many, interweaves dream, memory and reality as old friends reunite in the house where they used to live as students. And The Rain Before It Falls, an homage to one of his favourite novelists, Rosamond Lehmann is suffused with melancholy. He’s said that during the course of writing it, he had a Post-it note stuck on his computer saying ‘No Jokes’.
But the jokes will out. The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim , manages to address one of the great blights of our time – the loneliness that people feel even when surrounded by the most sophisticated means of communication – and somehow weave out of it a funny, entertaining novel."
Jonathan Coe's The Rotters’ Club, brings together all the pains, joys and frustrations of growing up in the 1970s: 'Coe recreates the period with such loving accuracy that I frankly suspect him of planting a secret microphone in the tin Oxford Mathematical Instruments box that I carried around in my school days' Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian. Here, he opens up for us on all things nostalgic, including prog-rock, politics and Reginald Perrin.
Can you tell us a little about what inspired you to write The Rotters' Club?
The impulse behind The Rotters' Club was very simple - I just wanted to write a book about my schooldays. I kept a diary for a couple of years when I was in the sixth form, and re-reading it (which I did again recently before starting the book), it really struck me as being a bizarre and surreal piece of work. I just wanted to do something with that material. I've had to normalise it and make it a bit less peculiar for the purposes of the novel, because the mind of the adolescent schoolboy in the 1970s was probably too peculiar to give shape to in a fictional way. It was just a desire to write about that period of my life - it's a very autobiographical book. As I began to write it, I became more and more interested in the social background, a background of which I was completely oblivious at the time. I was very unpoliticised, and I became more and more drawn to that aspect of the material. The political climate then seems so unimaginably different to the state we're in the late 1990s, and the idea that I'd lived through both of those periods and the complete political shift that had taken place had never struck me before so forcibly. That was something that I wanted to register in the book.
You seem to concentrate on youth and adolescent feelings. Is that because you are looking back, questioning your own youth and the kind of person that you were?
I think we're all slightly puzzled by the kind of people we were when we were younger. Of course it's one of the classic themes of fiction. Also I like writing about people whose responses to the world are still very fresh and unformed and in that process of discovery. I've written about students a lot, and now I've written a big novel about school children. Maybe there's something that I haven't faced up to yet but The Rotters' Club is part of a projected pair of novels. There is going to be a sequel called The Closed Circle that follows the same characters into the 1990s. Some of them will have had children by then I suppose, but the focus will be more on the responsibilities and achievements and disillusionments of early middle age, so it's something I'm getting around to finally.
You frequently mention David Lodge and the Birmingham novelists, is there anything special about Birmingham?
Birmingham in the 1970s was a very nurturing environment from my point of view, that's how I remember it now. I had very good schoolteachers, there was a great library in the centre of the city which was where I found out about classical music and literature, and that's where it all started. With The Rotters' Club I just wanted to give something back to that , not with the feeling that Birmingham had had a hard press in literature necessarily but more that very few provincial cities have had any kind of press. There's a huge weighting in favour of London in contemporary fiction I think, because so many writers live in London and so many writers have grown up around London. It is not an easy city to write about but still very attractive to writers, because it has so many different histories and so many different byways and so on. Almost as an experiment I wanted to see if you could write about another city in this country with the same kind of attention to detail that people like Peter Ackroyd or Iain Sinclair give to London. There's a lot of specific Birmingham geography in this book, which makes it differ from the work of, say, David Lodge or Jim Crace, two other novelists who live in Birmingham. They write about the city in very veiled ways: David never calls it Birmingham, he calls it 'Rummidge', and Jim insists that, Quarantine, the story about Christ in the desert, is in fact a novel about Birmingham, but I've never quite been able to work out what he means by that.
Do you feel the 70s were more interesting and vigorous than the 90s?
I think we all become boring old farts in the end and insist that the time we grew up in was the best of all times. We all acquire a slightly rosy glow about that particular period of our lives, but that can also be a good thing. I'm sure that popular culture was no more vibrant then than it is now, writing was no more vibrant then than it is now, society was no better then than it is now, but I think if each generation writes about the period that they grew up in with the kind of affection and the kind of attention to detail that nostalgia brings, then that leads to valuable and lively writing about that period. That's what I've tried to do in The Rotters' Club. The 70s were a very difficult time for many people and for the country, obviously, but my main memories of it are very happy ones, so it is quite an upbeat novel I think by my standards.
The book is named after an album by an obscure and now largely forgotten band (Hatfield and The North). Was there a reason for this?
I'm confident that the book is going to trigger debates in the media about whether this band is worth exhuming or not. This was a musical discovery I made at the time, so to listen to it now triggers various kind of very powerful memories, and their music and the music of a few bands who were equally quirky and unknown somehow define what the 70s were for me. We all have our own versions of the 70s and that's mine.
Who are your major influences?
One of the writers I'd most recommend to people who've enjoyed my books might strike people as an odd choice. There was a TV series in the 1970s which a lot of people will remember called The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, written by a guy called David Nobbs. He had been a novelist before he wrote that series and he's written novels ever since. He published one in 2000 which didn't get recommended for any prizes and wasn't talked about in terms of the Booker Shortlist, but I actually think it's the best novel I read last year. It's called Going Gently and it's about a woman who was born in Swansea in 1900 and dies on a hospital ward in 1999. It's a comic history of the 20th Century, seen through this person's eyes, and it has all the kind of combinations of seriousness and humour, melancholy and frivolity which I try to get in my own books. I think if this guy wasn't already known as a TV scriptwriter he'd be regarded as one of the best and most important novelists we have. I think it's a great book.