Home >> Carr >>

Writers in the Region 6

Annie Dalton interviews J.L. Carr

This 44 minute VHS video was published in 1988 by the Nottingham Video Project of East Midlands Arts in their Writers in the Region series. EAst Midland Arts is now defunct.

The first 20 minutes consists of an interview with Stanley Middleton; the second 20 minutes is an interview with J.L. Carr. I paid to have the video transferred to a digital format and receive a copy so that the archive would have it. I have transcribed the converstation between Carr and Annie Dalton, below.

The published VHS video of J.L. Carr is based on four analogue U-matic video tapes of recordings, each of 20 minutes, which are now held by the Media Archive for Central England (MACE) at the University of Lincoln. There is a shot in the published video that is not on the orginal tapes, so I suspect that one of the original tapes is missing. The numbers 7, 9, 10 and 11 are written on the four original tapes suggesting that one, number 8, is missing.

The interview with Annie Dalton was recorded in the garden of Carr's house in Kettering. Carr was asked questions about A Month in the Country and What Hetty Did, which Carr had just published himself. There are shots of a stone sculpture in his garden and of him packing up some small books in his office (using a proof of a map to wrap them). Carr is also shown walking into the churchyard at Newton-le-Willows where he reads a passage from A Month in the Country in which Birkin first meets Alice Keach.

Image of photo

J.L. Carr in 1992, taken by Drew Gardner. Used with permission.

[Background music]

[Annied Dalton (AD) voiceover]

[James Lloyd Carr, like Stanley Middleton, is a novelist who lives in the East Midlands but unlike him was originally born and brought up in the North Riding, the son of a Methodist lay preacher. Also like Middleton, the greater part of his professional life has been spent in education. He originally came to Kettering in Northamptonshire to take up the Headmastership of a Primary School in the town.

James Carr was 50 when his first book ‘A Day in Summer’ was published and since then he has written six other novels. The one for which he is probably best known is ‘A Month in the Country’ which won The Guardian Fiction Prize, was nominated for the Booker-McConnell Prize and widely acclaimed as a modern classic. It has since been made into a film which was released in March 1988.]

AD. Could you give us a brief synopsis of 'A Month in the Country'?

JLC. Well, it’s not a very exciting story. It’s about a man who comes up from London to Yorkshire and his occupation is a rather unusual one, he’s been trained to uncover medieval wall paintings by cleaning away the grime and the distemper of ages. And he comes to this little Yorkshire village where he has a contract for I think for a miserable £25, but it’s a job. It all happens in 1920. He’s a chap whose been on the Western Front and his nerves are in a pretty bad shape, and he sleeps in the belfry, really all he can afford, and sets about the job. There’s a man in a tent in the field adjacent to the church who’s got an archaeological job on the same kind of contract. It’s so long ago is this one, it’s 1980 since I wrote it. He falls in love with the vicar’s wife but he doesn’t tell her, he doesn’t even kiss her and he just goes away again.

AD. The whole story is as much about what doesn’t happen . .

JLC. Exactly. Quite right, yes. It’s quite a nice way of writing a novel - writing a novel about something that doesn’t happen. It saves no end of imaginative effort.

AD. Could you talk a little bit about the extraordinary atmosphere of loss and longing that pervades this novel.

JLC. I did sort of plan that in, because I do . . . when you are writing a novel you have to write it for someone, and preferably someone who will want to buy it and read it and enjoy it and I am aware that not only myself but many other people do regret things that have happened and they can’t have them all over again. Some things you want to forget but some things you would like to have all over again.

AD. And hold...

JLC. ...and hold. And that’s the reason I really wrote it that way.

AD. And the Methodist scenes, were they remembered? The wonderful preaching scene?

JLC. Yes. I’m not very . . . a very imaginative person. I find it hard to make up things and so I have to use whatever material I do recall and the Ellerbeck family was probably the way my own family lived. Our life was really centred about the Wesleyan church. We were continually raising money to keep it going.

AD. Did you actually go on an organ buying expedition like the one in the book?

JLC. Well I was told that by my sister that she had gone and that they had begun to sing around the organ until the salesman got into a bad temper because he was destroying the chances of selling organs to other customers. He told them to shut up. That is a true story.

AD. But the medieval wall painting that Tom Birkin’s hired to uncover, where did that come from?

JLC. Well, in the 1960s, when I came to live in Northamptonshire, I did start to go around the county recording architectural details, sometimes doing 5 or 6 pictures on the same Saturday and then finishing them off later.

AD. How did you record them?

JLC. Well I used to record them in cold churches often wearing mittens. It was nearly always in winter. Staring up at these wall paintings sometimes through binoculars through my left hand and drawing them with my right hand.

AD. So you were copying them.

JLC. Copying these medieval wall paintings, yes. You may have gathered from what I said earlier, I tend to use material that has already happened and use it for my own purposes.

AD. And do you think you know what your own purposes are when you are doing it?

JLC. I think I had a fair idea when I was planning the novel ‘A month in the Country’. I think I had a fair idea of what I wanted to do in writing all the seven novels. I think that’s terribly important. You should know what you are about, in a rough sort of way.

AD. When did you first want to be a writer?

JLC. Write a novel or write anything?

AD. Write anything.

JLC. Well I remember Mr Rankin in the third form at Castleford Secondary School, he read the essay ‘On a Donkey ride on the sea shore’, Kenneth Cobbett’s essay. And he sat and read this to us and I thought by god I’d like my composition to be read to be read to the class. I think ambition first stirred then, probably through envy more than anything else, yes.

AD. But when novels, then?

JLC. Novels? I went to a Workers’ Educational Association class in Kettering about 1950 and it was on a great modern British novels. We had one a week. Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Joseph Conr

AD. We were supposed to read one of their books in the preceding week, which we rarely ever managed to do, but I thought why not try to start writing a novel using all this information we were getting weekly on how to write a great novel, and that’s what I began to do. The only thing was when eventually I didn’t think ever to finish it but I did, and it was published, and then the reviewers complained that it was like the early work of Virginia Woolf and the later work of Joseph Conrad and there was a mixture of Graham Green in it, which was quite true.


[AD voiceover]

[Almost all of Carr’s characters, even the apparently comic ones, are obsessed with the past, the road not taken, this kiss not given. Yet although ‘A Month in the Country’ is haunted with an overwhelming sense of loss, the writer seems to be saying at the same time that individual human happiness, human love, however yearned for, is not just elusive but finally condemned to irrelevance by the sheer scale and impersonality of all that has gone before.

Not far from J.L. Carr’s home, set amongst fields, is the church at Newton-le-Willows which was the partial inspiration for the church in ‘A month in the Country”

JLC enters churchyard and reads from ‘A Month in the Country’: Page 32, ‘I should like to have believed that men working out in the fields...' to page 33 ''...seemed to deepen the stillness.]

[Interview resumes]

AD. You said novel writing is a skill that you have learned painfully and you have the ambition and determination to write seven very different novels in style and structure but you insist that writing is a peripheral activity. Why?

JLC. Well, you can’t . . at least 20 years ago when I began one couldn’t earn a living, it worked out about 18 or 19 pence an hour. And you can’t live on that, even in 1964. So I had to have another occupation. That’s why it was peripheral.

AD. Would you have liked to have earned your money as a writer?

JLC. No, because I don’t think I could stick at it all day. I can’t think of anything worse than to have your breakfast and then have to go and sit down and start writing a novel. It would be like death itself, I should think.

AD. When I first met you, you said ‘I’m not really a writer. What I really am is a publisher’.

JLC. Um, well it’s as publisher I’ve earned my living. By selling books to other people. I started a little business. I think it’s a good idea for many people to have a change of occupation. For one reason you don’t have to retire at 60 or 65, you can keep on working until you drop. Another thing is too, that many of us do find ourselves initially in occupations that is not an ideal one for us. It’s a way of earning a living. I should think that teaching was my third choice, but I couldn’t have one and two so I went to teaching . . .

AD. I have to ask what the first choice was?

JLC. Well the first choice was to go into writing, into newspapers, and I don’t think that people ought to moan and whine about having their first job. Sooner or later a gap will come and you can creep through and find the job that maybe you should have had from the beginning.

AD. Writers are quite often private, secretive people who nevertheless schizophrenically dream of writing a runaway best seller. You seem very wary of all the trappings that are generally thought to go with success.

JLC. I think it’s . . .I’ve noticed some writers, perhaps we had better not mention their names, whose first novel, their first book was a tremendous success – financial success – or a success of acclaim and they’ve never been able to repeat it – all their future work is an anti-climax. But I believe that that kind of writer who’s had tremendous success with their first novel naturally want to repeat it. They want to win the Booker prize every year. And it can’t be so. Their work declines, but they often think that the best way to do it is to keep on writing something like their first novel since it did it once, and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work. And often their first novel is so successful that they are able to give up their normal job and become full time writer. And there aren’t many people who are capable of that, of the self-discipline necessary, you know, for five days a week writing. Just think of their poor wives having them around the house all that time. And they also lose material. If you are working you are seeing people, you are hearing more about people’s good fortunes and misfortunes, and it’s all grist to the mill. Never tell anything intimate to a writer, they use it unscrupulously. Never. Never. Never. And if you see a writer looking at you too closely always hurry round a corner. He’s probably going to use you in some way or other.

AD. Even though your heroes aren’t always heroic, your reader always knows where his or her sympathies ought to lie. Do you think that adult readers need heroes and villains just as much as children?

JLC. I don’t know. I’ve never thought of it like that. It just seemed to me to be people with their virtues and failings to me. I wouldn’t say that … I mean, poor Harpole, everything … you’d scarcely call him a hero. He was sacked in the end. Yes.

AD. But you know you’re supposed to be on his side quite clearly somehow, don’t you, in the book. And I seem to remember about Harpole as well, he tangles with some unpleasant bullying character doesn’t he.

JLC. I think it’s a good way of selling books. I think that people who read them, if they can associate with someone nice in the book they probably go and decide they’d like another of Mr Carr’s novels so that they can read about themselves all over again . . (laughs).

[AD voiceover]

[James Carr has said that ‘What Hetty Did’ will probably be his final novel. But to celebrate his 21st year of publishing maps, small books and eccentric dictionaries he decided to bring the novel out himself under the imprint of the Quince Tree Press.]

AD. You’ve been criticised for the portrayal of some of your female characters in the past . . .

JLC. I’ve been told that yes, so I thought I’d make a great effort with Hetty and make her a real person.

AD. So that was a challenge that you set yourself, was it?

JLC. I think if I recall, this chap said that all my women are unbelievable, and sort of like sex goddesses. That worried me for some time, thinking about that, having to keep on living in Kettering. It’s not the sort of reputation that I should like. But looking back I do remember that I wanted to sell the novel to someone, and it seemed to me that people like Ian Fleming seemed to be able to sell his novels with sex goddesses, so I thought I’d put a sex goddess in too. Really it was merely to sell the novel I think. But now that I no longer need to worry about selling the novel I can put in ordinary women again.

AD. Sometimes Hetty seems to turn into a kind of a reunion for characters from past novels.

JLC. Yes, that was to provide me with amusement.

AD. That was to keep you going, was it?

JLC. That was really because if you can’t amuse yourself you are unlikely to amuse anyone else.

AD. Could you talk about how and why you published Hetty yourself?

JLC. Well I’ve been publishing little 16 page books for many years, so I knew a little bit about publishing and the printing trade, but I’d never published a proper big book. When you write for another publisher they take the manuscript and after that they usually don’t consult you at all about what it’s going to look like. About the quality of the paper, the cover, the illustrations or anything of that nature. So I thought I’d like to see the whole publishing process from writing it to selling it. I didn’t take much of a risk because I really was prepared to lose money on it. In the end it didn’t, I think I probably made 5 or 600 pounds instead of losing anything on it. The print run was only 3,000 and I sold the advertised number, 2,850, in six or seven weeks. But it was a nuisance while they were there because I published them from my own house so they filled up the staircase and the hall, and even part of the lavatory. So it was a great incentive to sell them to have the house free again.

AD. Was it actually on the Best Seller list, wasn’t it?

JLC. Well only in sort of intellectual bookshops like Hatchards. W.H. Smith’s didn’t sell any at all.

AD voiceover.

[The sole advance publicity for ‘What Hetty Did’ was a 3-line insertion in ‘The Bookseller’. An initial 2,850 copies were printed and Carr himself acted as both rep. and distributor. To add the final touch to what must be a uniquely personal approach in the big business book world of the ‘80s, J.L. Carr has also nominated himself for the Booker-McConnell Prize for 1988.]

[Background music]

AD. You say that Hetty’s your last book?

JLC. The last novel, yes.

AD. The last novel?

JLC. I think so, yes. I should imagine.

AD. Because you don’t feel that you want to write another?

JLC. Well, I think I’ve written all I want to write in the way of stories. I think so. Probably shouldn’t live long enough . . . It takes about three years gestation, you know. I wouldn’t want it published posthumously. I like reading the reviews.

[Interview ends]

The other tapes

In the other tapes, not used in the main interview, Carr was asked about the names of people in his novels.

He explained that many came from Ordinance Survey maps such as Harpole in Northants and Foxberrow in Worcestershire.*

Carr was asked about printing Hetty himself.

He said that had been offered an advance by Viking Penguin of £5,000 for the hardback, with paperback rights, which was the same amount he had been paid for Pollocks Crossing, three years before. He decided to print it himself so that he had control over the production of the book, something that none of his previous publishers had offered. He chose good quality paper and thick card with gold, rather than yellow, decorations. He had the book printed in Northamptonshire by an excellent company. They charged £3,200 to set the type and print 1000 copies, so £3.20 per copy. However the next 1,000 copies cost only £600 and the third thousand also £600, which reduced the cost to £1.70 each [Actually £1.47, unless there were other costs]. Carr then calculated that he could sell copies to booksellers for £2.37 each so that they could sell them for £3.95. However he based this calculation on the cost of a Penguin paperback which he had weighed and found would cost 23 pence to post. But as his book was on better paper with card covers it was heavier and actually cost 43 pence a copy to send, which reduced his profit, at least when sending single copies. He sold most of the copies in a few weeks and made £500-600 profit.

* There is a village named Berrow in Worcestershire, but no village named Foxberrow in England.

Stanley Middleton

The other writer whose interview was published on this VHS tape was Stanley Middleton (1919-2009), whose obituary in The Guardian can be read here. The similarities between Carr and Middleton are remarkable: Middleton's father was a railwayman; he was a Methodist; he was very close to his elder sister; he taught English at a school for 30 years; he was an accomplished artist in watercolours; and he was nominated for the Booker Prize, which he won in 1974. And both were what might be called 'provincial' novelists: Middleton lived all his life in Nottingham, which is 50 miles north of Kettering.