Author interview – J.R. Crook

I reviewed J.R. Crook’s debut novel Sleeping Patterns on this blog a few weeks ago, and thought I’d follow up by asking the writer himself some questions. If you’re not familiar with the book, click here to read my review, or have a look through the brief description below. Or just skip straight to the interview!

Sleeping Patterns by J.R. CrookFollowing the death of her narrator, Annelie Strandli, a character in the unfinished novel, Sleeping Patterns, revisits fragmented scenes in search of hidden meanings…

In a run-down student residence in South London, Annelie, a beautiful but confused designer, who is disorientated after leaving her native Finland, finds herself gravitating towards Berry Walker, an insomniac and aspiring writer.

Berry is often introspective and withdrawn, but in his writings Annelie sees the chance to glimpse him as he truly is. With the help of the narrator, she conspires to discover parts of a secret story that is concealed within his desk. As Annelie gradually puts the pieces together, she finds herself questioning not only her relationship to Berry, but ultimately the dividing line between fiction and memory.

Sleeping Patterns is a novel of intricate layers, hidden within each a tale of love, uncertain meanings, and the relationship between writer and reader.

J.R. CrookJ.R. Crook grew up in a small town in South Devon, before moving to London in 2002 to undertake a degree at The University of the Arts. In 2005, shortly after graduating, he moved into a series of bedsits in North London to begin writing what would eventually become his debut novel, Sleeping Patterns. The novel went on to win the Luke Bitmead Writers’ Bursary in December 2011 and was published the following summer. He is 29 and currently living in Ealing, London.

You refer to characters by both their first and last names throughout the book. For me this had a slight distancing effect – was this your intention?

Well, one of the opening premises of the book is that each chapter has been sent separately to the novel’s main character, Annelie, over a certain period of time by the late author, J.R. Crook. Although the chapters interplay with one another on various levels, each should also be capable of existing on its own, because Annelie received each at different times. The use of first and last names relates to this to a certain degree.

You’re quite right to assume that there was an intentional ‘distance’ created between the reader and the text. Well, it’s not so much intentional as it is inevitable. On one level, the reader himself was never the intended reader anyway: Crook wrote the chapters only for Annelie. So I can sympathise with the reader if he feels a little left out at times. I often feel the same way. On another level however, this distance also has the potential to bring the reader and the text closer together. After all, who inherits ownership over the text in the absence of the author? The answer, of course, is the same person who would have owned it either way: the reader. Furthermore, if you think that space is wide, then the distance between the reader and author is even more so.

The book is presented to us with the chapters “out of order” – starting with chapter 5, then 1, then 11, etc. I was impressed with how the story made sense both in that order, and if read from 1 to 15. Did you intend for the reader to read the book both ways? Was it a lot of work to keep track of such an intricate structure?

The chapters are not necessarily ‘out of order,’ rather they are presented in the order that Annelie first received them. It is unclear (although presumed) that Annelie numbered the chapters prior to presenting them for publication, in order to show the reader their true chronological order, had the author intended for them to be read that way. She used her memory of how the events depicted in the novel occurred in reality to do this. The novel is primarily designed to be read in the order it is presented, however there is nothing stopping the reader from reading the chapters through from 1-15. I’ve never tried it myself, but there’s no reason why it wouldn’t work. I suppose there’s a risk the reader might miss something that way, but equally he could end up gaining something new. Most importantly, I wanted the novel to be a different experience on second reading and I think (I hope) it achieved this, regardless of how people chose to re-visit it. The short length also plays an important role in this.

Sleeping Patterns was never written with a linear structure in mind. At times it evolved on its own accord, but at its core there was always a pretty strict set of structural and stylistic rules. For example, the chapters alternate between ‘male’ and ‘female,’ switching between the two main characters, Annelie and Berry. With the exception of the opening chapter, the narrative flows in a chronological sequence – each chapter’s place in the scheme of things is relative to the position of others in a chronological sense. It did take a lot of work to perfect the structure. Within each chapter there are numerous references to other chapters, which in turn are presented in either past, present or future tense, so keeping on top of it all was challenging. Whenever I changed one thing, it would have a knock-on effect on everything else. So I had to be very careful.

How long did the book take to write? And to edit?

This book went through many different incarnations, over a six year period. I spent the first two years working on a version that ran to over 150,000 words, but I ended up hating it and actually discarded it completely. I then spent the next four years re-writing it from scratch, but in a very different style. The vast majority of this time was spent editing and refining the text down to its bare minimum. I think first novels inevitably take a long time because you’re still developing your own style, learning how to do things your own way. Above all else, it’s important to take your time. I had virtually no expectations of it ever being published, so I was in no hurry. When it came to editing the manuscript with my publisher, Legend Press, there was actually very little left to do. The text had been stripped back so much over the years that when I came to publishing it, there was very little ‘space’ left for editorial changes. In the end only a handful of things were changed or added, which suited me just fine.

Do you hope that readers get something in particular from reading the book? Or, being dead, are you indifferent?

If the author were alive, I think he would be reasonably indifferent to what the reader thinks. Unless, of course, that reader’s name is Annelie Strandli. As for me, I’m reasonably indifferent too, but that’s only because I believe the author has very little authority over literary meaning anyway. Whilst there are very definite ‘meanings’ in Sleeping Patterns so far as I’m concerned, and not a single sentence in the book appears by chance, it’s ultimately up to the reader to draw whatever they want from it. The reader should have complete freedom of interpretation. As for Annelie, I’m not sure what she makes of all of this, but I think she agrees.

More generally, when and why did you first start writing fiction? Has your motivation changed at all since then?

I wrote fiction as a child beneath my bedcovers, but I didn’t start doing it seriously until I was 22. After graduating from university I went straight into a bedsit and started working on a project that would eventually turn into Sleeping Patterns. My motivation then was the same as it is now: I write out of a strange necessity. I would never be able to operate in the professional world, so writing seems like a useful way to spend my life. If just a few people enjoy my work and get something out of it, that’s good enough for me.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a new novel. It’s very different to Sleeping Patterns and I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes me. I wrote a short story prior to that, which was an experiment really, but it proved to be a very useful exercise in getting me back into the habit of writing. It had been a very long time (years in fact) since I’d written anything new, so I had been worried that I wouldn’t be able to get back into it.

What are you reading?

I’m not reading anything at the moment, but the last book I read was The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. It was great.

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There are 8 comments

  1. This is a brilliant interview, the questions are great and the answers bring a whole new set of angles to view the book from. I love that he hasn’t read the book in order himself – I haven’t gone back yet to read it in order and wondered if it was really necessary. Interesting to read about interpretations, and reading about the length of time it took and all the issues with everything working will definitely add to reading experience the second time round.

    1. Hi Charlie, Glad you liked the interview. It’s the kind of book you could definitely reread several times, being short but with quite a bit of complexity. I thought he gave some interesting answers!

  2. Great interview! I also just read your excellent commentary on the book Andrew. Very interesting how the author suggested that a reader could try to read the work in chronological
    order instead of the order that it was presented.

    It also never ceases to amaze me how much work and effort goes into these works!

    1. Thanks Brian. Yes, it takes a long time! Being a writer has given me a whole new understanding of what it takes to produce a good book. Makes me more compassionate when I’m reviewing – even if I don’t like a book, I can respect what it took to produce it.

      Six years is very long, though. And I was struck by the fact that he started out with 150,000 words, then discarded that version completely! That must have hurt.

  3. Loved this interview, Andrew! I liked very much what Crook said about the reader getting whatever meaning he / she wanted out of the book. So Roland Barthesque 🙂 I also loved your question – ‘Or, being dead, are you indifferent?’ – It made me smile 🙂 It was also interesting to read about how the author spent years stripping away words that he thought were not required and paring the book to the bare minimum. It must have been quite difficult to do that. Thanks for hosting this interview, Andrew. I want to read this book now.

    1. Thanks Vishy! I think you would enjoy the book. Yes, it was interesting to hear about his process. It was a very short book, but it makes sense that he spent so long on it – everything felt very well thought out and deliberate.

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