The Penguin Q&A

Jonathan Coe

'Coleridge had his opium, Verlaine had his absinthe, I have my digestive biscuits': the Number 11 author gives us an insight into his life and work

Author Jonathan Coe

Author Jonathan Coe

Where did you grow up, and what was it like?

I grew up on the Lickey Hills, in the southwestern outskirts of Birmingham. It was very quiet and suburban.

What was your childhood ambition?

To be a stand-up comedian with my own TV show. The first part of the game plan was to change my name to Cliff, for some reason. But I never got as far as that, thankfully.

What is your earliest reading memory?

The Secret Of Terror Castle, a mystery story starring The Three Investigators, a trio of California detectives who were very big among young readers in the late 1960s.

When did you know you wanted to write?

Aged around eight.

Where do you live now?

I live in Chelsea, near central London, with my wife and two daughters. It’s a very varied and cosmopolitan area – we are surrounded by French bankers, Italian bankers, Japanese bankers…

What did you do before you were a writer?

I’ve had almost no regular paid employment. I was briefly a bank clerk and then a legal proofreader. I suppose I started considering myself a 'writer' when my first novel was published at the age of 25, although it was actually the fourth that I’d sent to a publisher.

What are your inspirations?

Too many to mention: in literature, BS Johnson, Rosamond Lehmann, Henry Fielding and David Nobbs. But probably more than any of those, the films of Billy Wilder.

What are you reading at the moment?

At the moment I’m just back from Sri Lanka so I’m reading a strange memoir called Fifty Years In Ceylon by Major Thomas Skinner, who oversaw a massive colonial road-building programme there in the 19th century. He’s an engaging narrator but it’s jaw-dropping to see how attitudes have changed. The first time (aged 16) he sees an elephant in the wild, the very first thing that enters his head is to shoot it dead for sport. According to the introduction, 'he is credited (sic) with having shot over a thousand elephants in his half century in Ceylon.' What a thing to have as your epitaph.

Who is your favourite fictional character (one you didn’t write) and why?

Probably Dr Watson. He’s a more flawed and empathetic character than Sherlock Holmes, and also a bit thick, which makes him easier to relate to.

Which fictional character would you like to go out drinking with and why?

I have a serious ginger beer habit so I’d like to go out with Julian from The Famous Five and see if I could match him pint for pint.

Which fictional location would you most like to visit and why?

Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. What an imagination that man had!

What would be your desert island…

Song: 'Hole In The Ground' by Bernard Cribbins, which sums up the British class system in one minute fifty-two seconds. I could listen to it again and again.

Book: Tom Jones by Henry Fielding.

Film: The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg.

Artwork: Las Meninas by Velázquez.

What are you like on social media?

I’ve more or less stopped using Facebook. But after years of being scared of Twitter, I’ve been on it for more than a year now and thoroughly enjoy it. As John O’Farrell told me, it’s like having a series of conversations at a really nice party except every so often someone comes up and taps you on the shoulder to say: 'By the way, you’re shit.' I’m there as @jonathancoe.

Not many people know this, but I’m very good at…

Well, I’m not very good at it, but I do write and perform music. I have a little album on Bandcamp, if anyone’s interested.

What is your guilty pleasure?

I don’t think you should feel guilty about anything that gives you pleasure, unless it harms somebody else. Which none of mine do.

Where do you write?

I have a tiny study at home – sometimes I write there, sometimes I go to a studio flat on the King’s Road which belongs to a family member but is hardly ever used, or if I feel like spoiling myself I’ll rent a cottage in the country for a few days. I snack constantly, the most unhealthy kind of snacking: Coleridge had his opium, Verlaine had his absinthe, I have my digestive biscuits.

How do you prefer to write?

I usually write on a laptop but sometimes I get sick of staring at screens and revert to pen and paper, writing on the Victorian writing tablet which was passed down to me from my great-grandfather. About a quarter of my new novel, Number 11, was written this way.

Can you tell us about a problem you hit with one of your works and how you got around it?

Yes, I got completely blocked on Number 11 and finally got round it by writing in longhand for about a hundred pages.

Do you ever re-read your earlier works?

Only if I’m being interviewed about them, or have been asked to give a reading from one.

What’s the most useful piece of advice about writing you’ve been given?

I don’t think anyone has ever given me any advice about writing. Apart from Beryl Bainbridge, who advised me to stop reviewing other novelists’ work, which I did.

The greatest sentence you’ve written so far?

I’m not sure it’s the greatest, but the final sentence of The Rotters’ Club is about 30 pages long and is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest sentence in English. I remember my editor phoning up and asking when I was going to deliver the book, and saying to him: 'Don’t worry, I’m just this minute writing the last sentence.'

Your favourite first line (written by you)?

'Take a birth. Any birth.' (The Accidental Woman)

How do you celebrate finishing a book?

It varies but with the last one I had a glass of white wine and some beans on toast.

And finally, what’s the question no one has ever asked you but you wish they would?

Question: How does it feel to have sold more copies than E L James and J K Rowling put together?

Answer: Unreal.


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