Article published on April 20, 2015.
Sometimes things just come together without almost trying, which is what happened with our reviewer, Rebecca Kershaw and Jamie Mollart, author of The Zoo. Rebecca had thoroughly enjoyed the book and sent in an intriguing review. Simultaneously, we had been talking to Jamie about coverage of his debut on nudge and I broached the idea of an e-conversation between the two. Jamie had seen Rebecca’s review and liked it (a good start) and Rebecca was intrigued enough to want to explore the book further.
Many interviews – some of ours included – are simply a list of questions supplied together to which the author replies as he or she feels best. What we like about what follows is that it’s more spontaneous and, as a result, more enlightening.
As Rebecca wrote when she sent in the finished result:
Thanks for the introduction to Jamie. I think we have both enjoyed our email conversation this week . . . I have really enjoyed this so if you have any similar projects please let me know!
Inevitably, it starts off in a slightly formal tone but . . .
Nice to meet you! I hear you might have some interesting questions for me 🙂
Nice to meet you too! It’s great for me to have this chance to ask you about The Zoo. I should say straight away I really enjoyed it and it was a book which hung around in my head for quite a while after I finished reading.
I liked that it was a book with something to say about our modern society and the choices we sometimes make not to confront the difficult issues in the world – such as the exploitation of Nghosa. Was it your intention to challenge the reader in that way?
Thank you for reading The Zoo, I’m really pleased it hung around in your head! It was always my intention to challenge readers, but I was very careful not to make it preaching or too judgemental. I wanted there to be a level of complexity in both the plot and the characterisations that made the reader think, but not feel like they were being manipulated to share my opinion on issues.
I guess it’s a fine line to walk and the novels I enjoy most that achieve this do so by discussing big issues on a macro level.
In this way James acts as a focal point and the personalisation of the issues become the catalyst for his personal problems. In theory the reader can then be challenged by something on a personal, relatable level, rather than be overwhelmed by them.
I think, particularly in the West, that we’re very good at ignoring things which aren’t on our doorstep, blood minerals are a good example, but also climate change and the violence in the Middle East. It’s easy for us to think that events don’t affect us because they’re miles away on another continent. When I learned about blood minerals being used to manufacture our phones the juxtaposition of far away genocide that was in the name of what we hold in our hands and rely on in an entirely selfish way every day seemed to be the perfect centrepoint of the story I wanted to tell.
What makes this challenging is that in order to confront it we need to question the way in which we live on a very personal level, and it’s this that causes James’ moral conflict. My aim was to make the reader buy into a difficult character and his arc through associating with his dilemma.
Good afternoon Jamie
I very much enjoy novels with a message but which manage not to preach. I thought you achieved that very well by, as you say, personalising the issues in James.
You are scathing, in the book, about the advertising industry. I’m assuming that comes from personal experience? Is it really as bad as you portray? I was fascinated by the way James sums up everyone he meets in terms of their advertising potential. Is that what is going on in your head too?!
Not really, in reality I love my job and can’t imagine working anywhere else doing anything else.
My wife is a teacher and there’s a joke in our house that she does the good work to cancel out my evil!
Having said that the industry I portray on the book is an exaggeration and is probably unrecognisable to most people who work in it. I’m not denying that there used to be a lot of booze and bad behaviour in advertising, just watching Mad Men will tell you there was, and in the past it’s been possible to wear bad behaviour as a badge of honour, but frankly it just isn’t the case any more.
There’s a mystique about the industry for people who don’t work in it, that a) there’s a huge amount of money in it b) that there’s 3 hour long lunches where all the business is done and c) that there’s a sort of scoundrel reputation attached to it. In reality it’s a lot of nice people working really, really hard over long hours and the 3 hour lunches are long gone.
In the book I am attacking consumerism and deification of products and objects rather than advertising per se; the advertising industry works as a nice metaphor for this. It also conveniently put James in a place where his personal conflict could play out. I toyed with having him as a solicitor or actually working for the bank, but this just didn’t work very well.
The way James measures people up is to a degree true. We hold so much data on people now that it is relatively simple for us to be very, very targeted in the way we market to people. I always say that people who work in marketing have a huge knowledge base about a disparate range of subjects at a superficial level. You have to be able to take stock of a company you go and see very quickly and understand its target market equally quickly. The by product of this is that, if you’re not careful, on a personal level you can end up reducing people and things to their core components. James is the extreme of this.
I’m very glad you didn’t make James a solicitor as that’s what I am! A very nice, socially responsible solicitor I hope!
A lot of the book is set inside a psychiatric unit and James comes in contact with other patients with varying mental health issues. Without meaning to pry is any of this based on personal experience and if not did you have to do a lot of research? In particular I’m thinking about the ‘episodes’ James has when we are right inside his head sharing his experiences. They are intense scenes and I was wondering where they came from?
Haha! I nearly did!
As research I spent a lot of time on mental health wards, with varying degrees of security, and met a lot of people with varying severity of mental health issues. The first thing I noticed is that the line between ‘fine’ and ‘not able to cope’ is extremely thin. The people I met were absolutely fascinating and some of their stories were heartbreaking. It really highlighted to me how easy it is to slip between the net. I don’t want to get political and talk about the NHS, but you can see how people get lost in the system.
I always found the line between reality and the internal world to be really interesting anyway, but particularly when it’s viscous and ill-defined. Brett Easton-Ellis is brilliant at doing this. Lunar Park and American Psycho are great examples of where you are very much part of the internal world of the main characters and it’s unclear about where reality begins and ends.
The main reason I wanted you to be right there inside of James’s head was to reduce the distance between Nghosa and the UK. As I’m commenting on culpability one step removed I wanted to bring the horrors of what was happening on the other side of the world right into focus, and the closest focus there is the inside of your head. I also wanted his interior world, which is basically the world of The Zoo to be as horrible as possible.
As to where they came from, I’m not really sure other than my imagination. Worryingly these sections were actually quite easy to write and flowed for me.
The time you spent on the mental health wards must have been fascinating – and disturbing too. As are the characters with whom you’ve peopled your fictional world.
Talking a bit more about James’s internal world – what was the inspiration for the Zoo itself? It’s kind of creepy and familiar all at once. I had a lot of plastic animals and figures when I was a child and the way you described the Zoo hierarchy certainly rang true for the way I used to view them. And what about the chimpanzee? Why was he the key to it all? What does he symbolise for you?
This is a really difficult question to answer without giving away plot points of the book, so I’m afraid my answer may be quite cryptic.
The Zoo are the physical representation of my feeling that we are deifying the wrong things. The image of The Zoo itself came to me quite early in the planning stage and then I worked on the hierarchy, a lot of James’s feelings about them are my own and come from childhood. Anyone my age would have had a similar set of toys and would have built up a hierarchical structure for them.
They operate on a metaphorical level and much of the book is about James discovering this. I can’t really say much more than that without giving things away, but I will say that you’re pretty spot on with the creepy and familiar, The Zoo comes to represent much more than just the physicality of the objects themselves.
The Ape is hugely important, but again I don’t want to give too much away, what I will say is that his similarity to humans was key to my thinking on this one. It’s about communication, understanding and our place in nature.
I realise I’ve not really answered your question!
I think you did a pretty good job of giving me an answer without giving too much away!
Talking of the Ape brings me to the book cover. If you’ve read my review you’ll know I was not very keen on it! What are your thoughts on the cover? Did you have much input? If you actually designed it many apologies!!
I was painfully aware that I had the potential to be a terrible client when it came to the cover, as doing what I do I have very strong feelings on design, so I didn’t have much input to start with. I sent over a couple of covers that I liked and knew talked to the same market I thought the book would appeal to, but that was it.
When it came back though I loved it. It feels very iconic to me and when it’s on the shelf I think it’ll really stand out. In my opinion it has just the right amount of sinister atmosphere and I like the fact that the designer picked up on The Ape being important to the plot. From a design point of view I love the fact that the o’s of The Zoo make up The Ape’s eyes, it seems to represent that James is looking at the world through the skewed perception of The Zoo.
I really liked in your review that you appreciated the book despite the design of it; it really does show the power of covers to help people form first impressions, but demonstrates the importance of not judging a book on the cover alone. Design is such a subjective thing, what works for one person can really turn someone else off completely.
I agree the book will stand out!
I guess I’d better make this the last question though I could go on and ask lots more about your working life as a writer, what you’re working on next etc. But I’ll stick to something that only struck me when I went back to the book for this interview. James/Jamie? That had to be deliberate but it’s quite unusual for a writer to associate himself so clearly with his character isn’t it. What were your reasons for choosing to name your protagonist James?
I could quite happily do this backwards and forwards forever, I’m enjoying myself!
You’re right and I did realise that this question was inevitable. Yes, it was deliberate, but probably not for the reasons you think. It began as a kind of post-modern joke with myself. I like it when authors appears as characters in their book, Brett Easton-Ellis in Lunar Park again, Martin Amis appears as a cameo in Money, it’s got a touch of the Hitchcock about it.
I chose James Marlowe for two very specific cultural references.
My lead character is a classic unreliable narrator: he’s not telling us everything, he gets a lot of things wrong and he’s hiding things from both us and himself, but he is the only point of view we get. And the most famous example of unreliable narrator has to be Turn of the Screw, so I called him James as a nod to Henry James.
The book is about how somebody can completely lose themselves and lose sight of the things that are important to them. Marlowe is swept along both by the journey he goes on, but he also loses his personal identity through his reliance on the crutches of drink and drugs. I wanted to really get across the idea of him losing a sense of who he is and what he stands for because of relentless forward motion as he is carried along by a tide of events that he seems to have little control of. I kept thinking back to Heart of Darkness as I wrote it and wanted to reference it. I toyed with calling him Kurtz, but it was too obvious and also Kurtz is lost without redemption, and I wanted the possibility of redemption always to be there for James, so I settled on Marlowe. I changed the spelling to make it a little more oblique, hoping that people would pick up on it anyway.
The fact that his initials remain JM seemed to keep enough of the post-modern joke without being as self-conscious.
I’ve got another question in me if you want 🙂
Good morning Jamie
What a fascinating reply – a lot more in the choice of a name than I was expecting!
As I get the chance to ask another question I’ll sneak in two:
How long did The Zoo take to write – by which I mean more than the just the actual writing, but from the initial idea, the gestation period, how many drafts did you go through? Do you write quickly or is it a more tortuous process?
And what’s next? Will you be concentrating on promoting The Zoo or diving straight into the next novel?
I love doing things like choosing names, that’s the fun bit!
As you probably know writing is a very laborious and ethereal process. It’s hard to say when you start writing something – is it when you open the wWord doc? Or is it when you start thinking about things?
In terms of actually writing it, as in getting the words on the page it probably took about 2 years, but the ideas were percolating well before that. I tend to plot quite a lot in my head before I start the actual writing process as well, it helps me to get to know the characters before I get any words down.
I think there were 4 complete drafts but lots of tinkering in between as well. And then it was about another 2 years from there to publication. So it’s a long process. Luckily my agent and editor are brilliant and really got the book. The changes they made have really strengthened it for me.
Sometimes I write really quickly and then others it’s quite hard going. As with all creative things you need to be in the right frame of mind. Some days I can totally lose myself in it and others it’s more of a process to go through. With squeezing it around work I tend to write because there is an idea burning to get out.
I’m already a substantial way through my next book. It is a complete departure from The Zoo in that it’s probably speculative fiction. I lose track, but that’s what they call literary Sci-fi now isn’t it? Like The Zoo I’m trying to concentrate on discussing big issues on the small scale. I don’t want to give too much away at this stage but I will say it’s very focused on the family unit again and discusses how we chose to use the time we’re given.
I’ve been booked for a few book festivals this year so I’m really looking forward to getting out there and talking to people about The Zoo. Writing is such a solitary thing to do and whatever book you write it’s incredibly personal no matter what, so the idea of being able to discuss your ideas with people who have read your words and formed their own opinions on what you are trying to say is very appealing to me.
Thanks Jamie. I’ve really enjoyed this and if you are doing any events near me – South Yorkshire/North Lincolnshire – I’d love to come along and bother you some more!
Thanks once again for being such a willing and informative interviewee and good luck with the book. I’ll be recommending it to my reading group next week!
Guy Pringle, April 2015
The In-between by Barbara Stewart