Monday, 1 November 2010

Jonathan Lee Visits

I'm very pleased to welcome the fabulously talented Jonathan Lee, who is here to talk about his writing. :) Put the kettle on and sit down (that's an order!). At the end of the interview you can find out how to be in with a chance of winning a free copy of his fantastic debut novel.

Hi Jonathan, welcome to my blog. Please take a seat/beanbag/make yourself at home.

I'll take the beanbag please. Hugely underrated bit of furniture, the beanbag.

Your first novel 'Who is Mr. Satoshi?' was published with Random House this July; sell it to us in a couple of sentences.

The central character is a once famous photographer who has lost his creative urge and become a bit of a recluse. His mother dies and leaves him a package addressed to the mysterious Mr Satoshi, and - searching for some sense of purpose in his life - he sets out to deliver it. His quest takes him to Tokyo, a new neon world full of colourful characters, and forces him to excavate some long-buried secrets in his past. (Three sentences - sorry.)

I'm sure it must be an amazing feeling to see your book sitting on a bookshelf in a bookshop; where was the first place you saw it?

A couple of days after Who Is Mr Satoshi? came out in hardback I saw it in the 'our favourite books' display of Daunt's in Marylebone. That was a nice feeling - to see something you've produced sitting there in one of the loveliest of all bookshops.

How long have you been writing?

In terms of fiction writing, I've been scribbling bits and pieces for the last ten years or so. I'm twenty-nine now, and though I'd been a keen reader since a young age, it was at Bristol University, studying English, that fiction became something of an obsession for me. I was twenty-seven when I started writing Who Is Mr Satoshi?, my first published piece of fiction. It was the first thing I'd done which I wasn't instantly ashamed of. The rest was terrible autobiographical stuff about English literature students sitting around trying to write novels about English literature students sitting around trying to write novels. Often on beanbags, coincidentally. There's nothing wrong with autobiographical fiction, but perhaps you need to have had an interesting life. Mine is dull: full of coffee, paper, and - of late - Amazon rankings.

When did you write this book, and how long did it take you to get it published?

I was working as a lawyer and saved up enough money to take a six month period of unpaid leave. That's when the bulk of the book was written.

I sent the first three chapters, with a synopsis and cover letter, to a number of literary agents. One of them was Clare Alexander at Aitken Alexander Associates, who loved it (or made a good show of loving it). I was chuffed to bits - she's a bit of a superstar in the agenting world. When she'd read the whole thing we had a coffee and worked out which aspects of the manuscript needed further work. People don't necessarily realise what a collaborative process book-writing is. First your agent gives you feedback, and then your editor has a go, and what ends up on the shelves can be quite different to the thing you initially envisaged - better, hopefully. In my case the book definitely took strength from the editorial process. Jason Arthur, my editor at Random House, gave some hugely helpful suggestions, as did Clare. I took the book as far as I could, and then I needed sensitive expert readers to help me with the finishing touches.

Where did the idea for your book come from?

I became interested in photography and the idea of a photographer who has a trauma in his past that's blocking his creativity. His life has become flat, still and outside time. It's less a life and more a record of past events - a photo, if you like. He's fallen out of love with his own creative process, and he's become reclusive and unproductive, untethered from the wider world. Then some seemingly insignificant but intriguing object comes into his life - a parcel wrapped in brown paper, addressed to a guy he's never heard of - and it sets him off in a new direction.

I had spent some time living and working in Tokyo. It seemed like the perfect setting in which to drop a withdrawn, quiet character - it was the counterpoint to everything he is. So that's where I put him, and the story rolled on from there.

When you write, do you have a specific place to sit? Do you type or write? Must it be quiet, or do you prefer background noise?

I type into a laptop. I suspect I'm of a generation that can't think in longhand. Most of my writing gets done at the dining room table of the flat I rent in Islington. Preferably in silence - although I don't go to the Franzean extreme of blindfolding myself and strapping on ear-defenders. Seems to work for him, though ...

Which writers would you say have inspired you the most, and why?

John Updike, for his lovely lilting sentences and forensic eye for detail; David Foster Wallace, for the frenzied and funny edginess of his prose; Samuel Beckett, for perfect comic timing in the darkest of places. I don't get anywhere near these writers, of course, and I'm not sure I'm trying to, but they are each a source of inspiration on some level.

There seems to be quite a lot of discussion about whether reading a lot makes you a better writer. Personally, I agree with this. What do you think?

Yes. I agree. Could you be a top chef without first knowing what good food tastes like? I haven't met any writers who don't read widely. If they exist, I would hazard a guess that they're a bit rubbish.

In our book forum, we have the Book Tree, where members post books to each other in a circle, writing comments in each book as they read them, so that when your book comes back to you it's filled up with notes from lots of different people. If you were to send a book round our Book Tree, what would you choose?

I recently read a cool little book called All My Friends Are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman. It's very short but, I think, rich in all sorts of ways. It's the sort of story that lends itself to lots of different interpretations, so it would be interesting to re-read it alongside readers' notes.

What are your writing plans for the future?

I'm working on a second novel for Random House, unrelated to the first. No Japan, no Mr Satoshi, no parcel requiring delivery. It's possible that one minor-ish character from Who Is Mr Satoshi? will turn up again, but we'll see. I'll audition him/her and see how they perform.

Finally: the infamous 'six word novel' [baby shoes for sale: never worn]. Go on, give us a six word novel.

Am I concise with words? Possibly.

Jonathan is 29 and lives in London. Who is Mr. Satoshi? is available from Amazon over HERE. His website is over HERE.


Thank you so much to Jonathan for taking the time to stop by!


  1. Oh must find this book Downunder! Thanks to both of you!

  2. Lovely interview, Jen. Looking forward to this one.