Radio Mysteries: Jon McGregor on THE RESERVOIR TAPES

The ominous disappearance of a 13-year-old girl from an English village is the catalyst for Jon McGregor’s remarkable novel in linked stories, The Reservoir Tapes, originally broadcast on the BBC and out this week in the U. S. from Catapult. I talked with him about writing for radio, village life, and fascination.


MICHAEL CART: Would you describe the rather unusual genesis of The Reservoir Tapes and, in that context, explain the significance of its title?

JOHN MCGREGOR: Just as I was finishing the edits on my last novel, Reservoir 13, BBC Radio 4 invited me to pitch for a series of 15-minute short stories; stories which would stand alone but be connected by theme and location. My head was full of the characters and stories I had developed for Reservoir 13, so it was a great opportunity to revisit that landscape and explore new stories. The stories are all framed—often rather loosely—as interviews conducted by a journalist sent to the village to look into the background to a teenage girl’s disappearance; the “tapes” of the title refers to these interviews, as well as to the stories original radio broadcasts.


How did the book’s origins affect the rhythm and style of the stories?

Writing for radio is very different to writing for the page. A listener doesn’t have the reader’s luxury of glancing back up the page or pausing to absorb new information—the sentences have to do their work immediately, and allow the listener to keep moving. I was also conscious of the listener who might know nothing of my work, or of these stories, hearing an opening sentence by accident; what could I do to keep them listening? Perhaps for the first time in my writing, I very consciously thought about drama and suspense and directness of storytelling. It was quite a change of gear.

Of course, it turns out that all the things that are good for radio—clarity, directness, pace —are also good on the page. Who knew?


The catalyst for its plot is the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl named Rebecca. In the book’s first chapter, an interviewer comes to the village to 

interview Rebecca’s mother. The resulting interview is limited to the interviewer’s questions, leaving the reader to infer the mother’s answers. Would you comment on that?

Jon McGregor

This felt like a very natural format to me; I’ve used it before, and I’m sure I’m not the first. It’s a particularly literal instance of my sense that it’s always good for the reader to take part in the imaginative work of storytelling—to leave gaps for the reader to fill in. And I think most readers can imagine what the interviewer is asking here to prompt these answers, no?


The premise of The Reservoir Tapes is similar to that of Reservoir 13. Why did you choose to revisit that material?

Reservoir 13 felt very finished as a novel, but I knew I had stories about the characters that I hadn’t yet explored. In particular, while I deliberately left Becky Shaw as a kind of blank cipher in the novel, and stood well back from the pain of her parents, I wanted to come back and find out who she was—to make her a “real” person with details and complications and a sense of story.


Would you comment on the book’s setting? Why did you choose it? Will you use it in future work?

The Derbyshire Peak District is just down the road from where I live, in Nottingham, so I’m a regular visitor as a walker and cyclist. It’s always fascinated me as a curiously hybrid landscape—it’s picturesque but not wild, quiet but not isolated, rural but industrialized—and a place where very different lifestyles rub up against each other. In reality, I only know it as an outsider; but having spent a decade working on these two books, this is a community of characters I feel very close to, in a landscape I can picture very clearly. I’d like to think I’m done with it for now, but it might be hard to stay away for good.

The Peak District, Derbyshire

What will readers learn about village life from The Reservoir Tapes?

I think the central idea here is the way that small communities are fueled by gossip and observation: These characters are forever noticing each other and passing on information in a way that happens much less in cities. (I mean, I do notice all sorts of things about people in the city, but usually I don’t know those people’s names.)
In terms of actual nature notes or details about working life in the English countryside, there’s a lot less of that in The Reservoir Tapes than there was in Reservoir 13.


Would you discuss the book’s structure? Do you consider yourself in any way an experimental writer?

The structure here was entirely determined by Radio 4’s brief: each story to be exactly 14m30s (i.e. 2000 words), each story to be independent yet interlinking, the whole package to relate to Reservoir 13 but also standalone. And it had to work equally on the page as on radio. Those were pretty tight parameters to work under, which of course turns out to be a good thing. Each story in itself is probably simpler and less “experimental” than my previous work, but there’s a lot of detail under the surface.
I don’t consider myself an experimental writer (that always makes it sound like you tried something and it didn’t quite work, no?) but I do treat form and structure as important parts of the creative process. Which is maybe what people mean?


This book and its predecessor have been called “mysteries” cast in a sinister light. Is that an accurate description?

I guess I never thought about these books as “mysteries” in the traditional sense, not least because I was never much interested in resolving the central question of what had happened to Becky Shaw. My concern was more with what people do when mystery and uncertainty and incompleteness enter their lives. And I’m not even sure that anyone in this book is all that sinister; perhaps just clumsy or lonely or enigmatic in some way. After all, one person’s sinister is just another’s left-handedness.


You teach as well as write. Has the teaching—especially the analysis of other writers’ work—affected your own writing in any way?

I avoided teaching for a long time because I was worried it would do just that: affect my own writing in some self-conscious way. But actually what I think has happened is that teaching writing (and to be honest, what I really teach is reading, and editing, and revising, and thinking) has forced me to examine my own process more thoughtfully and articulately. And I think that’s working out to be a good thing.


Are there writers who have influenced you?

With this book in particular, I was under the spell of Tom Drury, John McGahern, and Alice Oswald: I was aiming for the way they manage to get right under the skin of a small community, and to work in their simple descriptive lyricism. I was aiming pretty high.


What’s next for you?




About the Author:

Michael Cart has been a Booklist reviewer for over 20 years and is a leading expert on YA literature. He authors the column "Carte Blanche" and has published numerous books. He is the editor of Taking Aim: Teens and Guns (HarperTeen, 2015).

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