Mick Jackson wanted to be a poet from a tender age. When his teacher asked him the usual question about career aspirations, he got laughter. He tells the audience packed into All Saints Church for the monthly Lewes Literary Society talk that he ‘did dreadfully at school.’ Thankfully his spirit was not broken by a teacher who failed to take him seriously and Mick followed words and rhythm into music. He was singer in a band called The Screaming Abdabs in his 20s.
In his early 30s he secured a place on the feted University of East Anglia Creative Writing MA where in 1991 Malcolm Bradbury was a tutor. Without getting into the politics of the value of creative writing courses, he says, ‘it gave him 1 year to think about his writing.’ This luxury is one I agree is of immense value.
Shortly after that Mick Jackson declares that he ‘became interested in tunnels.’ I chuckle at his delivery and reflect that his years of entertaining audiences have given him both stage presence and an ability to hold and entertain a crowd.
Signposted to the fabulously wealthy 5th Duke of Portland who had built a network of tunnels under his house, he began research (which included exploring those tunnels) for The Underground Man. His first novel won several prizes and was translated into many languages.
Mick reads from The Underground Man, which is written in 1st person journal form and delivers a fictionalised version of the 5th Duke of Portland’s descent from eccentricity into madness. The chosen excerpt has us in stitches as we visualise the aging Duke, who has taken up the hot and cold treatment of jumping directly from a hot to cold bath, running naked down the corridor to the distress of an unsuspecting maid.
I’m delighted that Mick gives an insight into his creative process as this has always fascinated me – partly I suspect because I did not grow up in the years when creative writing was on offer at school as so retained its ‘magic’ as a dark art available to only the chosen few. So when I started to write as a child I always wondered what proper writers did to produce the words on the page, and how long it took them, whether they needed to edit or if it just landed on the page fully formed. I now know, having interviewed bestselling authors, that everyone is unique. Perhaps one of the benefits of not learning how to write gives writers this freedom to forge their own method.
It takes 4-5 years for Mick to complete a novel. He usually goes through numerous edits. I have noticed that unless a writer is able to be financially secure the whole length of their novel writing, if they write genre fiction, or if little research is required, 5 years is a standard duration for a novel to come to fruition. That is how long it took me to write Rufius.
After the success of The Underground Man came Five boys. That was followed by a book of short stories, which Mick tells us felt like light relief after the long haul of novel writing. Haruki Murakami has commented that he often cannot surge straight into another novel and will oscillate between novel and short story writing. The Widow’s Tale was written at record speed for Mick, taking him just 1.5 years.
Then came his latest novel – Yuki Chan in Brontë Country. Originally a screenplay and then developed into a novel, for Yuki Chan in Bronte Country, Mick interviewed many young Japanese people.
Set in Howarth, which is the only place in England where there are signs in English & Japanese due to the hoards of Japanese tourists who descend by the coach load to trudge across the Bronte country. It fascinated Mick that an entirely different culture to ours has such an interest in our culture, or an element – or rather, a mythologised element of it.
Mick drew together seemingly disparate and unrelated subject matter into a cohesive whole. The Bronte sisters, spirit photography and artificial snow melt together in Yuki Chan in Brontë Country. Mick found a place for his interest in the myths of well known people, spirit photography – ghostly shadows hovering over people in the pictures, which was popular in Victorian and Edwardian England, as well as artificial snow inspired by a chance meeting with a Japanese physicist.
Yuki, his cynical heroine, isn’t interested in the Brontës. She imagines them so bored in their country house that they dream about giving up novel writing and becoming highway women, pinch their father’s gun and hold up a stage coach.
As Mick had threatened to ask the audience questions if they did not have any for him, there were plenty of questions – ranging from his residences at the Booth Museum and London’s Science Museum, to whether he had visited Japan (which he had not). All of which he answered with the same relaxed good humour and erudite eloquence that he had delivered his talk.