Empathy & Atrocity: An Interview with Jonathan Lee

Jeff Vasishta


I was in high school in England when, in 1984, the IRA bombed Brighton’s Grand Hotel where Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party were meeting for their annual conference. I remember watching the BBC news with my dad. I was probably too young to recognize the audacity of the attack and, as the IRA was rarely out of the news back then for blowing up one thing or another, it was soon forgotten in the tumult of my adolescent life. Without much emotional skin in the game it was easy to move on.

Now, as an adult I can appreciate just what a daring and sinister attack it was. It is to British author Jonathan Lee’s credit that his absorbing novel, High Dive (Knopf), which is centered on the bombing, makes for such a compelling read. The book transcends 80s nostalgia, its Choose Life t-shirts and the potential for stock caricatures of Irish terrorists and British politicians.  All sides of the equation are humanized, both the IRA assassin and the innocent, fictionalized staff members of the Grand.

At the novel’s center are two invented characters, the hotel’s deputy general manager, Philip “Moose” Finch, and his teenage daughter, Freya. Once a promising teenage high dive prospect and local sporting hero, Moose is now middle aged, out of shape and divorced. He hopes that the British PM’s visit to his hotel, which he helped arrange, will be a career boost. Freya, too is finding her way. Her mother has all but walked away from her, and is left disappointed by a vacuous romantic interest, Surfer John, who also works at the hotel.

Lee succeeds in capturing the end of season melancholia of a British seaside town and combines it with the downward trajectory of its inhabitants whose lives are about to change. Suffused in are the quirky eccentrics of parochial Britain. The love between an impressionable teenage daughter and the single father who raised her is the novel’s tragic but brilliant beating heart.


Jeff Vasishta: How much IRA and general research did you do into the bombing? Roy Walsh the real name of the bomber but the other name you use for him, Dan wasn’t. How hard was the process of splicing fact and fiction?

Jonathan Lee: I did lots of research, as you’d expect, but the facts of the bombing of the Grand Hotel run out fairly quickly.  We know the date it happened, the fact the bomb exploded in room 629, the fact a man named Roy Walsh checked into the hotel and planted it there, the fact Margaret Thatcher was the target … Move beyond that and you quickly get into the realm of speculation.  That’s the realm I most enjoy inhabiting as a fiction writer. I’ve never found much truth, much depth, in straight-faced facts. What I was interested in trying to do with this book was to re-inhabit a moment of history and make it human again. Rather than distorting real lives, I chose to perform that re-animation by inventing three characters and placing their stories within the framework of the central factual event: the bombing.  So we have the stories of the assistant manager at the hotel, his daughter, and a second bomber — the sorts of stories history so rarely records.

The second bomber was particularly interesting to me — in court testimony, staff at the Grand Hotel recalled a second man being in room 629 on the day when the bomb was planted. He’s never been found.  So, I found him— in my imagination, I mean.  I began to imagine his story.  What’s that Kinky Friedman line? “There’s a fine line between fiction and non-fiction, and I think I snorted it somewhere in 1979.” Well, I snorted it too, somewhere between draft four and draft twenty.

JV: I grew up in Great Yarmouth in Norfolk so I’m very familiar with eccentric characters like the Captain. Every British town has them. Was he real?

JL: Great Yarmouth, eh?  I so miss the names we have for places back home.  Percy Passage.  Boggy Bottom.  Bushygap.  Shitlingthorpe.  Thanks for mentioning The Captain. I think about him often; he’s very real to me. The other day I thought I saw him in the street. And you recognized him, by the sounds of it.  So he must be real, right?

JV: You show great insight into Moose’s marriage and fatherhood. What was the inspiration for his character, and why high diving in particular? It’s not a sport which was especially popular in the UK in the 1970s.

JL: No, you’re right.  I wanted to find a sort of fringe sport, a lost sport, in the same way I was reclaiming, in the book, these lost stories of everyday lives.  Whenever I tried to picture Philip “Moose” Finch, my deputy general manager at the hotel, I had this image of a guy who kept falling into trapdoors in his own past—falling and falling, unable to live fully in the present.  I sensed he was a former sportsman of some sort, but given the kind of guy he is, it had to be one of those sports where you could be the fifth or sixth best practitioner in the whole of the United Kingdom and you‘d still be an absolute nobody, as far as the public is concerned.

It’s always difficult to talk about what I seek to do in my writing, because so much of it is beyond the level of consciousness, as with almost all writers, and you start lying as soon as you open your mouth.  But when I look at everything I’ve written in the last 10 years, it’s all been, to some extent, about trying to magnify mundanity in some way— about trying to capture the sadness and absurdity of everydayness, of lost moments, of half-heard conversations, of half-formed dreams or betrayals or miscommunications.  I want to find the animating quality in small moments, and the fun thing about writing High Dive was doing that act of personal salvage within the wider context of public history — the politics of the day, this extraordinary assassination attempt, offered a framework.  Anyway, once I put Moose on the diving board, he was animated.   My friend Elliott Holt, a brilliant writer who was once a talented high diver too, encouraged me to keep going in my attempts to capture what it’s like to spend your days in mid-air.  I think we all know the feeling, to some extent.

The other reason high diving felt like an appropriate sport to include in the book is that I imagined the whole novel as a kind of dive.  It’s all about the build-up to the bombing.  The novel begins with this initiation of a young Belfast guy into the Provisional IRA and then follows the fall-out through the years that follow.  We, the readers, are going through somersaults and twists, moments of slowness and moments of quick rigidity, heading towards this point of inevitable impact — the explosion.  That was the idea, anyway, to tell the story of the before.  So many disaster narratives focus on the aftermath.  I wanted to tell the story of what life was like before it was broken.

JV: You mentioned magnifying the mundane. One of the ways you do this is through comedy. I mentioned the Captain; there are also some hilarious anecdotes. The dead dog in a suitcase story comes immediately to mind. Where did they come from?

JL: The epigraph for High Dive comes from Czesław Miłosz. He once said that, “when a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”  Well, plenty of friendships get finished, too.  At some point or other, every interesting corner of lived experience becomes material for a book, and you end up stealing your friend’s best in-the-pub stories.  My friend Ed, years ago, told me a story about a friend of his. It was one of those friend of friend of friend stories that I love so much. This friend was dog-sitting for someone.  The dog died on his watch, of natural causes; it was an old dog. But, shit, the dog was dead.  What was he going to do?  He needed to take the dead dog to a professional—a dog undertaker or vet or whatever.  It couldn’t just lie there on the carpet for two days, could it?  So he put it in a suitcase, took it on the London Underground, and the suitcase ended up being stolen.  So, that went in the book: a dead dog in a suitcase being stolen, and the idea of a thief opening it and finding himself—not rewarded with designer clothes—but placed as the punch line of a shaggy dog story about a shaggy dog. 

JV: Another great piece of detail is the knotweed story with Dan’s mother. Was  that a private battle you had first hand experience with?

JL: You’re really exposing my magpie amorality here … The knotweed came from another anecdote someone told me.  I’d been writing High Dive for perhaps two and a half years and was really struggling with the sections in which my character Dan, in Belfast, was at home with his mother.  There was something missing—some element of everydayness—of quiet, lived life. One evening, I found myself in a pub taking to a very funny man named Dan Greene, and he started telling me about this battle he’d been having with knotweed in his garden.  Suddenly my character made sense to me.  I thought: “Oh, this guy can’t even keep the territory of his own back garden sacrosanct, let alone create a united Ireland.” In a book about territory, about a thousand different types of occupation, this knotweed battle was exactly what I’d been searching for.  My second bomber came alive to me once I knew he was battling this knotweed stuff as well as British troops. He was human. He was a man who did normal human things as well as being a person who helped to plant bombs. What do you need in order to create a good story? A given character in a given situation.  But it’s awful how long it takes sometimes to find the right situation. Years.

JV: The birthday dinner in the Prime Minister’s honor, being moved to the Metropole  really illuminated the unfeeling bureaucratic personalities involved and Moose’s predicament. Did that actually occur?

JL: It really was Margaret Thatcher’s birthday during her stay at the Grand, when the bomb went off, and arrangements for her events there really did change, but I don’t know whether the dinner was really moved to the Metropole. Probably I made that part up.  There’s this moment in the book where Moose talks about how the art of hospitality requires a peculiar combination of density and gauze, of heavy-planning and lightness of touch, and I wanted to put him through as many hoops as possible in order to find out who he really was.

JV: I remember being in school when the bombing happened and in England there was a hatred for the IRA but also for the Conservative government. In reading this I had a new found respect for Margaret Thatcher and sympathy for her cabinet, even Norman Tebbit who I loathed. You are empathetic to all sides of the equation – the bombers and the bombed. How hard was it to find the right balance?

JL: I think probably there never is a right balance, in a novel.  Once you start aiming for balance, you’ve made a piece of dishonest art. Something engineered for an audience. Instead, I tried to look as deeply as possible at everyone in my book—to find the mess of specifics that defines any life —and then to do that life justice, or try to, through a certain individualized cadence or fizz or pop in the sentences.  I wanted to try and get at the true music of who these people were, if that makes sense.

I personally am no fan of Margaret Thatcher, but fiction, in my opinion, isn’t a great space to exercise long-held personal convictions.  Questions grow well in good novels. Answers seldom do.  Questions are the knotweed in the soil.  In a novel, particularly a close third person novel in which you inhabit various perspectives, the leading impulse has to be, for me, empathy, which is not the same as sympathy — you have to try and figure out what makes a person tick and put that on the page. Then it’s for the reader to judge whether the balance is right, and it will be different for every reader.  Some people have written to me since High Dive came out in the U.K. and told me they’re absolutely disgusted by how apparently sympathetic my portrayal of the IRA is in the book.  Others have told me they’re absolutely disgusted that I didn’t use the novel to call Thatcher out on all of the damaging things she did to England in the ’70s and ’80s.  A lot of people seem to be disgusted about a lot of things in the book, and want to let me know.  That’s okay.  It’s not my job as a writer to serve everyone a tepid cup of tea.

JV:  How did you research the inner workings of the Grand Hotel and things guests could get away with – getting room upgrades and free mini bar stuff?

JL: There are several great books about working in the hotel industry that I read and enjoyed. Also, I like to hang out in hotels and listen to the staff who work there — that was part of my research. I like to overhear them.  Hotels are a world within a world, aren’t they?  They’re gods and rulers, these people who work in hotels.  They see every single angle of humanity coming in through the doors.  They’ve seen guests giving birth, guests getting married, guests shooting up drugs, guests having affairs, guests committing suicide, guests arriving with five suitcases containing the what’s left of their broken marriage … Hotel workers have seen it all.  I discovered there are these little tricks guests can use. You know, go into your room, drink all the whisky from the mini-bar, light a cigarette, go downstairs, complain about a smell of smoke in your room, get assigned a new room. If anyone notices the missing whisky, they’re unlikely to pull you up on it.  They’re more likely to think a staff member has snuck in there while the room was vacant and had a fag-break and a tipple.  That sort of thing helps in terms of world-building — making the novel a space in which reality seems fulsome and comical and strange, as it always does in a Coen Brothers movie, or a DeLillo novel, or a Joy Williams or Lorrie Moore or Grace Paley story.  You might have to include a disclaimer with this interview: Jonathan Lee cannot be held responsible for hotel-based misconduct that takes place among Tin House readers.

JV:  As well as writing two previous books, what did you do in England prior to this novel coming out. I heard you were a lawyer? How did that inform your writing? When and why did you decide to leave?

JL: That’s true. I enjoyed lots of elements of being a lawyer, and I practiced for six years, but I never found a way to balance law and writing.  There were times when I was doing a really good job as a lawyer, and times when I was producing some decent pages of prose, but never really both in the same week.  In 2009, my first novel sold to a U.K. publisher — its never been released in the U.S. — and although the money wasn’t by any means huge, it allowed me to give up my lawyer job and write full-time for a while.  Then I started taking up various part-time jobs to help support my writing, jobs like working as an editor for A Public Space, and so on.  I love editing at small magazines.  I love discovering other writers, especially if they’re brand new or forgotten, and it’s the best job in the world to gain a stake in other people’s stories.  The same applies to reading friends’ work-in-progress.

 JV: You live in Brooklyn. Do you intend to stay in New York on a full time basis?

JL: I’ve been in New York for three and a half years now. I miss London sometimes, and I also have the occasional homogenous middle-class fantasies of escaping cities — you know, finding a patch of countryside, a washing machine, four walls that don’t touch other walls, some savings in a real-life bank account … But I’m happy here right now, I think, and if I ever left New York I’d miss Greenlight bookstore too much.


High Dive by Jonathan Lee is out on March 30th.

Jeff Vasishta started his writing career as a music journalist interviewing legends such as Prince, Beyonce, Dr. Dre and Herbie Hancock for publications such as Billboard, Yahoo.com and The Daily Telegraph. These days he is an Op-Ed writer for AM New York and a features writer InterviewMagazineTinHouse and The Amazon Book Review.