HISTORY IN THE MAKING
JONATHAN HARVEY TALKS TO ULI LENART ABOUT HIS LATEST NOVEL, A DARK AND COMIC STORY ABOUT FRIENDSHIP, SECRETS AND THEIR CONSEQUENCES, AS WELL AS WRITING FOR CORONATION STREET AND CREATING COMEDY GIMME! GIMME! GIMME!
We talk to author and playwright Jonathan Harvey
Uli Lenart: So, novel number five, congratulations! The History of Us follows three childhood friends who know each other from Liverpool in the mid-80s, to their adult lives in 90s and post-millennium London. What do people have in store for them with this latest book?
Jonathan Harvey: A few laughs, a few tears. It’s a book about friendship and how friendships evolve over thirty years, following the characters from their teenage years to the present day. I’ve thought a lot about people I’ve known through my life who I’ve lost touch with and then met up with again. Those promises that you make in childhood that are often never fulfilled, and the hopes and aspirations that you have when you are a kid that you never always achieve. So it’s about stuff like that.
UL: So let’s talk a little about each of the main characters, staring with Kathleen.
JH: Kathleen is sort of the follower in the pack, doesn’t have that much confidence really and she’s a bit obsessed with her friend Adam. Her mum has vanished from her life; she’s being brought up by her nan. Her dad’s in prison, but the euphemism is that he’s on the oil rigs. And she doesn’t really have that much get-up-and-go really, whereas the other two have quite lofty ambitions, where her ambition is to be an embalmer, which actually she never ends up being, but I suppose it’s quite a practical thing. And she’s got a big nose. UL: And Adam…
JH: Adam, I don’t know where I got this from, [laughs] he’s the little gay one who, when we first meet him, is in the church nativity play and has dreams to be a writer, and he becomes a writer. He writes quite a dreadful play when he is older based on what happens to them as kids and they get a production in London but it’s not very good, and his dreams sort of fade and die. In the present day he’s a celebrity hairdresser’s agent and he’s living with a bloke and they’ve just adopted a small child. UL: And finally, of the trio, Jocelyn… JH: Jocelyn’s from a Sierra Leonean family, she’s being brought up in Liverpool but they are a bit different from the other people on the street because she goes to a posh private school and she doesn’t really have a Liverpool accent. She’s got a beautiful voice, hence being in the church choir and rather scandalously cast as Mary in the nativity play because the local white people don’t think that having a black Mary is a very good idea. As she gets older various things happen to her, she becomes a Page Three Girl, has a bit of a crap record out and then ends up being a professional rent-a-gob. The book sort of opens with her having died. She’s, we think, committed suicide. It’s about the other two friend’s meeting at her funeral, and flashing back over all three lives. She was quite a figure of hate in the present day so we don’t really know has she thrown herself off Trellick Tower, allegedly, or was she pushed? UL: And therein lies the intrigue… JH: Exactly.
UL: We have to talk a little about my favourite character in the novel, Kathleen’s nan.
JH: [laughs] Well, I was very close to my nan growing up so there is a lot of my nan in this character. My favourite story about my nan which I did put in the book is I often went to my nan’s for my tea. My nan gave me mint sauce with everything and one day she said, “I’ve got you a gorgeous lime mousse in the fridge” and I opened it and what was inside but a Glade airfreshener with lime gel inside. Kathleen’s nan is sort of quasi-religious, she’s got a set of religious plates with all the twelve disciples on and when she serves the egg and chips you have to guess which disciple is underneath.
UL: There is a roaming narratorial perspective in the novel; the story told from the shifting view point of the different characters. Why did you make that decision when you were writing it?
JH: When I wrote my first book, which was about four years ago, I did it then and I just enjoyed that way of doing it so much and I understand writing that way. I think I find it a bit more challenging to write in a third person, I think I’d get confused about whose point of view is it. And I’m really interested in character and the reader is hopefully seeing other things and realising them before the character has themselves. Kathleen really fancies Adam when they are fifteen and think he’s just delightful because he talks about make-up and musical theatre and isn’t really interested in any other girls and he really encourages her when she fancies the boy at school and he’s more than happy to join in in following him around everywhere so the reader realises he’s gay but she doesn’t. It’s a big shock to her when she finds out; you can have some fun in what the character doesn’t realise.
UL: I love the tension between comedy and tragedy in the novel. Is that a tricky balance to get right?
JH: That’s my modus operandi really; that’s what I do. There is always a comic vein. If I was to describe that book it all sounds very dark but obviously it is a good laugh reading it, but I do think no matter how dark things get you do always have a bit of a laugh at the same time.
“I do think no matter how dark things get you do always have a bit of a laugh at the same time”
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: 20TH ANNIVERSARY PRODUCTION OF BEAUTIFUL THING; CORONATIONS STREET; GIMME GIMME GIMME