“I’m a Noun Geek”: Jonathan Lee on Historical Memory, Literary Duels, and the Making of “High Dive”


High Dive, the latest novel from Jonathan Lee, is a beautifully rendered portrait of lives headed toward disaster. The disaster is the 1984 bombing of The Grand Hotel, in Brighton, England, during the annual conference of the Conservative Party, with then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in attendance. Thatcher survived, but five others were killed and thirty-one were injured. The IRA claimed responsibility. One of its members, Patrick Magee, served fourteen years in prison for his part in the attack, but there were indications that a second IRA man, never apprehended, may have been involved in planting the bomb. That’s the mystery Lee takes as the starting point for his novel: Who was that second man? How did he come to join the IRA’s fight, and how did he end up in Brighton in 1984?

High Dive could easily have been a Le Carré style thriller. Lee has a way with operational precision, the swirl of intrigue, the bloody familiarity of militants. But that’s not his intent here. Lee’s greatest talent is in capturing the quiet raptures of the everyday. From Belfast, he takes us to Brighton, where we meet Philip “Moose” Finch and Freya, father and daughter, both working at The Grand in the lead-up to Thatcher’s visit. We follow their daily worries, their ups and downs. We learn the intimate details of staff life at a once-opulent seaside hotel. Meanwhile, the tragedy to come – the bombing – is never far out of mind, though we don’t yet know how it will happen, or who will suffer. The result is as powerful and vivid a novel as you will read this year.

I recently reached out to Lee, whom I’ve known for several years, and arranged to speak with him about High Dive. We chatted over the course of a week, by email and in-person, about the novel’s role in recording history, Hilary Mantel’s close combat dagger skills, hotel life, and finding suspense in the nuances of a fully realized character.

I want to start by asking you about how the Brighton bombing is remembered in the UK today. Does it loom large in the national memory? And what about your own? You must have been very young when it happened.

I was three years old when the bomb went off. I think the first memory I have relating to it was a few years after that. My parents took regular day trips to the seaside during the summer, and often it would be Brighton we went to. The Grand Hotel had been rebuilt by then—Thatcher had spoken at the reopening ceremony, and the Concorde had flown low in salute—and because there weren’t any public toilets on the beach, or none that met my mother’s idea of cleanliness, she dragged me into The Grand Hotel to use the bathrooms there. She says this happened frequently on these trips, and that at some point she or my father told me there had once been a big explosion in the hotel—which as a child, of course, would have been very exciting. There’s a generation in the UK, in their fifties and older, who remember the details of the bombing well, but for the rest of us, the bombing is some discrete thing we’ve heard about within the larger collective memory of Thatcher as someone who survived many battles. When I was back in the UK promoting High Dive recently, I found that a lot of people in their twenties and thirties don’t know anything about the event, or think of it as only a near-miss, forgetting that although it failed to kill its target—the Prime Minister—the bomb did in fact kill five innocent people. The chilling words of the IRA to Thatcher after the event perhaps linger more in the memory than any of the visuals: “Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once – you will have to be lucky always.”

You obviously did a good deal of research on the bombing, and on events in Belfast in the period leading up to it. Were there times when the research threatened to swallow the story? I imagine it required imaginative discipline, ensuring these fictional characters were fully formed individuals, the kind we would want from any good novel, and at the same time keeping true to the known history.

The research really did threaten to swallow the book up early on, because you want to get all the important stuff right. Once you feel you’ve done that, a couple of years into the project, there’s a point where you have to let the available information launch you into something beyond information—into a space where you can try hope to intuit or imagine an emotional truth. It took me a long time to get comfortable with making stuff up, but there’s so much uncertainty and speculation in the recorded history of the event—it is already a destabilized, gap-filled, novelistic corner of history. I think we’re going through a period at the moment, even in the literary world, where there’s this suspicion around the idea of writers making stuff up. The revered writers of the moment are the likes of Knausgaard and Ferrante, whose fiction takes a lot of its power from the its seeming closeness to memoir. But the story of this bombing seemed to me to be in part a story about making things up—coming up with a fiction to trick your way into a hotel and plant a bomb there, for example. And if you’re writing a book about empathy, of how successful or unsuccessful people are in imagining themselves into other people’s shoes—Thatcher, the bombers, the general public in England in 1984—then fiction, to me, feels right. Fiction is a form that’s always trying to push us into other minds and bodies. Politics and terrorism are practices that operate through a similar process of self-centered pushing.

Speaking of the work you put into High Dive, about a year or so ago, news broke that Hilary Mantel (author of the enormously successful Wolf Hall series) was coming out with a new book called The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Did your heart stop when you saw that? Did you consider challenging her to a duel?

I did briefly consider assassinating Hilary Mantel, but she’s too good a writer, it would have been a waste, and it soon transpired that her book was nothing to do with the bombing and revolved instead around an imagined sniper. Also: she’d find a way to kill me first. I truly believe that. No one who understands Cromwell so astutely would allow someone like me to get the dagger in first.

Because we know from the outset of High Dive that a bombing will eventually happen, the book has an incredible tension. That guarantees the story’s momentum and allows you to explore some very subtle observations – on the nature of boredom, for example, on disappointed expectations, on the relationship of parents and children. Every scene has a special charge, because of what we know is coming.

I’m glad you think that, but I also know a lot of people have felt the opposite—have felt that the fact we know the bomb will go off at the end of the book deprives the novel of suspense. I’m not the person best placed to decide if that’s true, but as a reader what I really care about is characters. Characters are plot, for me. Every move has to happen because it’s what the character decides to do or accidentally does. It can’t come from the outside. Also, there’s always the question of where the characters will be when the event happens, and how it will effect them. I think a “how will it happen?” question is sometimes more intriguing than a “will it happen?” question. It frees you up to commit absolutely to the psychology of the characters and to be steadfast in your refusal to shut your eyes to their daily lives. I think what keeps us reading a book like The Corrections isn’t that we wonder whether the big Lambert family Christmas will ever happen, but that we wonder how the different members of the Lambert family are going to be impacted by it, how they’ll feel, what they’ll say, how crazed they’ll get. We turn the page for the small things in the prose and the small things in the characters’ lives. I do enjoy reading thrillers but I don’t think I could ever write one. The best I can offer, sometimes, is a tense first chapter that hopefully gives a kind of launching momentum to the narrative and allows the main work I want to do, which is slow-motion work, to sprawl across the pages that follow.

The novel is set in an old seaside hotel. It seemed to me you were reveling in the details of hotel life. Any favorite anecdotes, tricks – things you came across, either in research or experience, that just had to be in the book?

Well, I found it fascinating to read, in hospitality industry books, about tricks customers use to get free room upgrades and stuff like that. If people send me a lot of money, I’m happy to share my new wisdom. One thing that stayed with me is this idea you can check into a room, drink everything in the mini-bar, light a cigarette, and then ring down to reception and tell them your room smells of smoke. They put you in a new room at no charge, the thinking goes, and assume that staff must have been smoking and drinking in-between shifts. Cruel, but interesting. People in any business are greatly reluctant to call their customers liars. The broader tip? Always be nice to the receptionist. But if you’re not doing that already you’re an asshole.

Your writing reaches a special place when you’re describing a sort of bodily intelligence, when training, form and focus align. Moose, on the high dive, for example. Dan, the IRA advance man, handling wires. What do you find special in those moments?

I think I just love nouns. I’m a noun geek. I tend to be indulgent with the adjectives, too, particularly when I want to reach for a comic effect or get deep inside the confusions of a particular close third person perspective, but nouns are my first love. Dibble. Sundial. Cappelletti. Salad. Bolt. Nut. Knife. I love that the indentation in a brick is called a frog. Discovering something like that makes me happy for days. When you’re talking about a feat of bodily engineering—Moose high diving—or else the engineering that goes into making an explosive device, there can be this specificity to the language that I like. It makes the moment concrete. I don’t have many writing tips to offer people starting out with their first novel or story, but one thing I firmly believe is that good writing almost always comes down to making an escape from the general and rushing instead to the specific. John McPhee is great at that. Rather than telling you all sorts of sweeping things about the fruit-growing industry, he tells you about a particular orange.

This is a book, also, about decline. Bodies fail. Life disappoints. Moose often reminded me of Rabbit Angstrom – the boy athlete, the local star, now aging, not so much dwelling on his glory days, but those days taught him to expect too much from life, and from himself. He can’t quite accept the world’s drabness. In fact, that’s a problem all your main characters seem to be dealing with, in one way or another.

That’s an interesting question, because I actually think it’s almost the opposite—that Philip “Moose” Finch can’t quite accept how colorful the world is. He feels that his presence introduces a drabness into it—into the hushed elegance of this beautiful, colorful old grand hotel that he loves—and that depresses him. Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom is like that too, I guess, in that he senses the color has gone from him—that it lies in his past—and that others, these young kids playing pick-up basketball on a Monday night or whatever, are still living an electric existence. But Rabbit was a genuine sporting hero, and my character wasn’t ever really even that. He was one of the more promising young sportsman in Brighton, but he starts to realize that it was a pretty tiny pool, and when people wrote things about his sporting skill as a kid they wrote it in these little local papers, and it was friends of his family that wrote the articles. And when he finds a sport he’s really good at—high diving—it’s a marginal one, and he’s found it too late in life to ever make a real success of it.

Youth, and what to do with it, is another preoccupation here. Besides Moose, we’re getting the story from two other perspectives: Freya, a teenager, on the cusp of life; Dan, in his mid-twenties, mired in it. I know the circumstances of your life were very different, but do you look back at a few key ages and think, those were the pivotal times? Those are the moments that engineered what was coming?

Definitely. I’m obsessed with the idea of turning points. It’s false, really, to look back on your life and think everything could have been different if this one thing had happened or not happened—it’s never that simple. But it’s entirely human to focus on these single moments. It makes sense of the story. I’m thirty-four, and every day between my thirtieth birthday and my thirty-fourth, with just a few exceptions, I was writing this book. When you’re doing something as solitary as writing—you know this—the idea of spent youth does become a preoccupation, as does the notion of the distances between people, and between imagination and reality. I’ve been locked up inside my own head for four years, moving commas around, the glamorous life of a writer, and often I’ll think back to moments in my past—the moment when I gave up being a lawyer, for example, or began going to Belfast for work and saw the IRA murals on the walls, or the moment when I moved from the UK to the US and got an American book deal, and I’ll think “What if that had never happened?” It’s a fascinating question because it’s so resistant to answers.

It was your job as a novelist to find the humanity in the character of Dan, a would-be assassin, essentially. Were you ever startled at how closely you identified with him?

It was a strange process. If you spend years imagining yourself into somebody else’s fate, even their most unforgivable flaws become precious to you. But one thing that struck me is that it’s not that hard to find the humanity in people. I mean, they are human, after all. Members of the Thatcher government, and of the English judiciary, were sometimes keen in the 70s and 80s to label IRA men as “animals,” to make them seem sub-human, but whatever some of these people did—and much of it was utterly appalling—they’re still people, human beings, and we need to be aware of that if we’re going to have a hope of stopping these atrocious events from happening again. Everyone’s humanity is tangled up with everyone else’s. Also: as a writer, I both am and am not the character, and I think in connection with that there’s a difference between sympathy and empathy. A writer has to avoid condescending or judging his or her characters, has to put himself in that character’s shoes, but that act of imaginative relation does not equal sympathy. I have no sympathy in the end for what Dan does in the book. But what I’m writing about is his blindness, which is a terrible human blindness, and to get at that, its progression and consequences, I need empathy.

I want to ask you about this book’s US release, in particular. The layers of author-identity politics are sort of dizzying. You’re a Brit writing about an IRA attack. After a big UK release, the book is now coming out in the US, which has not only its own tortured past with the British, but probably more to the point, a huge population of Irish descent. And I’ll say, although I know you won’t comment, that Irish-Americans are their own rare breed with a strong, sometimes warped view of what’s happened in the motherland. Add to all that the fact that you have a reputation in certain US literary circles as a champion of young Irish authors. I don’t really have a question. That’s just a damn complicated situation.

You’re right. But, of course, none of this stuff matters at all when I’m writing the book. It all just sort of comes flooding in at you after. You ask yourself, afterwards, if you had any right to try and tell the story, and who owns the story, and whether anyone ever owns any story, and also whether anyone will read it. You become Woody Allen—in the anxiety sense. But when I’m writing in the depths of a book, when I know I’ve finally got an idea I can do something with and am going at it every day, I feel beleaguered but generally calm. When the book is published, I’m not calm. I’m thinking, as you put it, “this is a damn complicated situation.”

For whatever reason – I’m not sure why – when I finished High Dive and had to find a place for it on my bookshelf, I put it on the shelf reserved for American authors. So, in the Murphy household, at least, you are an American. Deal with it.

I’m honored. At this point in my life I read mainly American writers, or writers in other languages who are working with American translators, and I have my green card too—so I won’t object to my assigned shelf, though my mother probably would.

Photo: Tanja Kernweiss

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