Jon McGregor on writing Even The Dogs

“In January 2003, soon after my first novel was published and at a complete dead-end in the writing of my second, I was given the idea for a story about a man who gets found dead in his flat. I don’t mean ‘given’ in any mystical sense: I mean my wife came home from work and told me that a man she’d been supporting as part her job had been found dead in his flat, a couple of weeks after he’d died.

This isn’t unusual. It’s what happens in our cities now. There are well-established procedures for dealing with the aftermath; there are companies who specialise in the cleaning-up.

But there was something about this story – perhaps because it happened over the Christmas holiday, or perhaps because it was so ordinary – that made it stick with me. I started imagining who this man might have been, what his flat might have been like, who his friends or associates were and why they weren’t there when he died. What was the last conversation he had? Who found him? Who knew him? How did they find out about his death, and what did they do then?

I started to picture a flat, where this man had lived and was now lying dead on the floor. I pictured a room without any furniture, full of rubbish. I pictured windows that were either broken or boarded-up, and a door that was bolted from the inside. I imagined the outside of this flat, in the middle of winter, with this man’s body inside, in the days before somebody calls the police and they arrive to break down the door; that sense of expectancy, that tension.

And when I sat down to write the first sentence, I wrote: “We stand in a huddle by the boarded-up door, and we wait.”

I don’t really know why I wrote it like that. But as soon as I had I started to wonder who the ‘we’ was referring to. They must be the dead man’s friends, I decided, or at least his associates. I pictured the last time they had all been in the flat, with its empty rooms and broken windows, and realised – or, rather, decided – that they were all drug users, alcoholics, people without homes or places to stay, marginalised people, people on the invisible edges of society.

I started writing about the scene, and described the police arriving, and when I wrote the line “we all crowd into the room and look at the body”, in a way which made it obvious the police didn’t know they were there, I realised that I was doing something a bit strange. I realised that the point-of-view I’d fallen into wasn’t quite a naturalistic one; that the people who were describing the scene, the ‘we’, weren’t really there at all.
I wasn’t sure what this meant. Were they dead? Were they dreaming? Were they imagining the scene? Was the reader, in effect, watching a television documentary? I didn’t know, and it was a long time before I decided, but in the meantime the slightly haunting sense of ambiguity gave me a great way in to writing about the dead man lying on the floor of his ruined flat.

Once I’d written the opening scene, about the man’s body being found, I gave up. I went back to the book I’d been writing before, and finished it. I didn’t want to write a novel about heroin, or a novel about dead bodies, or a novel which may or may not feature dead narrators. It seemed like a terrible idea.

But the idea didn’t just go away. (They tend not to, I find.) I kept wondering about the dead man, and about what his life had been like. I kept wondering about his friends, and what they’d been doing before he died; what they were doing now that he was dead. I started asking people about heroin, and learning more and more about the ways in which a heroin habit can possess a person’s whole life. I learnt a few things about the camaraderie and rivalries which exist amongst the groups of people who live on the streets and spend their days trying to find enough money for drugs. Incidents and characters and storylines began to take shape in my mind. But I still wasn’t going to write this book.

I spoke to a nurse who works with homeless people, and she told me about the way a heroin addict will make heroin the priority over everything else; she told me about a man with a gangrenous leg who checked himself out of hospital in order to help his girlfriend score.

I spoke to a drug treatment worker who told me that once she can persuade someone using heroin to think about making a cup of tea when they wake up in the morning then she knows she’s making progress with them. This seemed important. Cups of tea can stand for a lot in a narrative, but as an image of the return to life and hope this seemed particularly resonant.

I spoke to a heroin addict who said that the first few times he took the drug it made him vomit, but that he didn’t mind because the heroin was so nice and it was “a good kind of vomit”.

I moved, by coincidence, into an office across the road from a block of supported accommodation, where people who are moving on from hostels or from rough sleeping are housed, and I watched as some people came and went from jobs and job interviews while others hung out of the windows to shout arrangements down to friends with bags full of cider. I watched young men running for dealers slip in and out through the front door. I watched people shouting desperately up at the windows long after it was clear that nobody was going to let them in.

I spoke to a psychiatric nurse who said that a patient had once told her that he wouldn’t have mental health problems if the voices weren’t so mean to him.

I couldn’t keep this thing in the drawer anymore. I started writing the book.

A few years before my grandfather died, he read the first story I’d had published. He didn’t say much about it, but I heard later that he felt, strongly, that I should have paid more attention to constructing a proper beginning, middle, and end.

Well; I’ve disappointed him again.

Even The Dogs has got a lot of ends, and just the one – possible – beginning.
It starts with an end (the dead body lying on the floor) and works its way through to the end of the end (the cremation of the body on the floor).

There are five chapters. Each chapter is a scene from the end: the discovery of the body, the carrying of the body, the body lying in the mortuary, the post-mortem examination, the inquest and cremation. (There were supposed to be six chapters, but when I finished the fifth chapter I realised I’d written the last line. These things happen). Each chapter takes the form of its theme, so the discovery chapter has a revelatory tone, the carrying chapter is a hurried tour around the town, the lying in chapter is all about waiting rooms and waiting, the post-mortem chapter is all about bodies and flesh, and the inquest chapter is full of questions. This might not be clear to anyone reading the book, but it helped me write it.

I didn’t want to write a book about drugs, or about homelessness, or about being or not being dead. I don’t think I have, in the end. I’ve written a book about these people; about Robert, the dead man on the floor, and about Laura, his daughter, and Heather, Danny, Ant, Steve, Ben, Jamesie and Maggie, his friends. I’ve written a book about what happens when people lose sight of their own self-worth, or when a pleasant habit takes possession of their lives, and I’ve written a book about how powerful someone’s capacity and desire to survive can be.

It’s also about dogs, a little bit.”

For more information on the background and research behind Even The Dogs, go here