Award-winning author Jonathan Trigell is admired for his gritty but literary style. His strong family bonds to the North East of England underpin his latest work. Under Country is the story of the miners’ strike: the sudden shock of poverty; the camaraderie; the brutality. It is the story of one man’s fight for redemption, as the wounds of an embattled generation hardened to scars.
In this interview we talk to Jonathan about his research behind the novel, what inspired him to write it, and some of his creative choices.
Laura Lewis: Under Country is a tense but also tender story of how mining and the miners’ strike sent ripples through the lives of many families. How did you research this novel? Were any of the events lived experiences or stories passed from friends/family?
Jonathan Trigell: Well, my mum is from the former mining town of Stanley, in Country Durham, so I would obviously visit my grandparents and I was very aware of the strike and the subsequent closure of the pits and how that affected the town, even though I was only around ten during the strike itself. We weren’t a mining family as such though – my grandad was a mechanic at the bus garage and then later a bus conductor, as he neared retirement – but everything in Stanley at that time seemed to be steeped in coal mining.
My first novel – Boy A – is also part set in a pit village, so I suppose it must have had quite a profound influence on me; though in that novel the location is fairly incidental to the story.
I read a lot of books for research purposes and I also spoke to former miners, especially at the National Coal Mining Museum and the Durham Mining Museum.
LL: Each of your novels follows different stories and narratives, but what was it that inspired you and drew you into writing Under Country?
JT: Yes, it’s never been intentional, but all of my books are completely different from one another. I’ve always just chosen something that interested me sufficiently to keep researching and writing about it over several years. I’m not a fast writer, so first and foremost, it has to be a story and a topic that will keep me captivated and then, if I’m lucky, readers will feel the same way.
With Under Country, I think it was also a way for me to process current events: there seemed to be issues from the miners’ strike still playing out in the present. I was interested as to how the wounds of the past had influenced later decisions. As is the case with the best science fiction, I think historical novels (and the miners’ strike now just counts as historical, by common literary convention) should always be holding up a mirror to the present, as well as telling a compelling story about the past.
LL: The novel opens with Charlie, son of a miner’s son, but by the second phase we start to follow the point of view of Blue. Did you try to write the novel solely focused on Charlie or did you always know it was important to share the snapshots of other characters’ stories?
JT: From the beginning, my idea was always to tell a father/son story (although it should be said that there are a lot of strong female characters as well). Actually, my initial plan was to have shifts between time periods and points of view throughout. I switched to a mostly linear structure because I felt like it might have ended up too confusing. Sometimes, as a writer, you can find yourself being elaborate for its own sake and if that’s the case – if there isn’t a necessity – it’s probably better to keep the story flowing in a more natural way. So I reverted to a traditional time line and the role of the story’s main protagonist therefore gradually moves onward from father to son. But all the mysteries of the past are of course still resolved by the novel’s end.
LL: Each phase opens with a quote from a classic piece of literature including Germinal by Emile Zola and 1984 by George Orwell. How did you choose these quotes?
JT: My rule was that every quotation must have a resonance beyond just being pleasing to read or beautifully phrased. In a way, each is an instruction on how to read the next phase, or maybe even a key to unlock it.
To use your examples: Germinal is the seminal novel about coal mining (though set and written in 19th century France) so I always wanted to use a quote from it, but the one I found also tells the reader something about one of the characters in Under Country, which goes on to be crucial in their development and their journey.
1984, as well as being about an authoritarian regime, a surveillance society and an oppressed proletariat, was also the year that the miners’ strike started, so it was already very appropriate from that point of view, but the quote I use also gives a clue as to what will happen in the coming chapters.
LL: Many themes are explored in Under Country including regret, loneliness, wealth, and family, but is there a message you would most like readers to take away from the book?
JT: Wow, that is a brilliant question, and a hard question to answer. I suppose that one of the feelings that was flowing from me most strongly while I was writing it was about regret. But about how we should try to live without regret, beyond regret, that regret is the most pointless of emotions. I dare say that very few of us would do things exactly the same, if we could run time backwards, live it all again, but as one of the characters in Under Country says:
“It doesn’t matter if I would or wouldn’t, because we can’t.”
Purchase a copy of Under Country here.