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An Interview with Jarred McGinnis

Marc Amfreville, Sophie Vallas et Jarred McGinnis

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Jarred McGinnis © Sarah McGinnis

1Born and brought up in the US, Jarred McGinnis studied and lived in Great Britain, where he obtained a PhD in artificial intelligence and started to write his first stories, before recently choosing Marseilles as his new basecamp, almost on the spur of the moment. It’s in Marseille that he now navigates his wheelchair. His first novel, The Coward, was published in the UK by Canongate Books in 2021: it was welcome to general acclaim and McGinnis was hailed as one of the UK’s ten best emerging writers by The Guardian. In France, Le Lâche, translated by Marc Amfreville and published by Métailié, received the 2022 Prix du premier roman and was short-listed for the Prix Fémina étranger. In 2023, Jarred McGinnis won the Eccles Centre & Hay Festival Writer’s Award for his forthcoming book.

2This interview took place at the end of November 2022 in Marseilles. Jarred McGinnis accepted to discuss his beginnings as a writer in the UK where some of his short stories were commissioned and adapted by BBC Radio 4, and where he co-founded The Special Relationship to develop “experiments in live literature.” We also discussed The Coward, his novel which stages a young man named Jarred McGinnis who, after a car accident, wakes up in a wheelchair with no choice but to go and live with a father he hasn’t seen in ten years—enough to feed exchanges on fiction, memoir and autofiction. And of course, there was talk of translation, and how strange it is to see your own words dance to another kind of music.

Jarred McGinnis: Shall I go ahead? I was always a reader. I always wanted to write and often dabbled. But I really didn’t start my… my internship until after I finished my PhD. I was working in London as an academic in computer science. And the great thing about academia is there’s no money, but you have a lot of free time. [Laughing] So I used that time to learn how to write. And I started with short stories. Short stories were always my first love. I think it’s the truly American form–we’re very good at it. The form flourishes there.

As a scientist, I took a scientific approach. I looked for the short stories that moved me and tried to dissect why they moved me, but also equally because I’m a good scientist, I looked at stories that annoyed me or thought were terrible, and I tried to understand, why am I so angry at this terrible story? And I genuinely get very angry. I did that for probably five years, I suspect. I can’t really remember, but I got better. People started paying attention, I started being listed, I started winning awards. And I still a have profound respect for the short form. I find it an unforgiving form if you want to do it well. I think since I wrote The Coward, I’ve written one short story that’s worth a damn. Other than that, I try and I mostly fail. There’s a precision that’s required that when you have two children, I just can’t get to. [Laughing]

Marc Amfreville: Not novels?

JMcG: Novels are more forgiving. I believe so.

Sophie Vallas: And who were the short story writers that you were interested in or that you like so much?

JMcG: Whose short stories have moved me over the years? Saunders is the obvious choice. Claire Vaye Watkins. And Wells Tower, Barthelme. In the British tradition, Sarah Hall, the kind of new Irish school, Kevin Barry, of course, is kind of the Godfather that I would think of as the new kind of Irish resurgence. Chris Power. Everyone of those people have written something that made me think of… wow! And then of course, the masters like Denis Johnson. I didn’t realize it until I reread a bit of The Coward. And I was like, “Oh, this guy wants to steal the fire from Dennis Johnson.” Jesus’s Son is one of those collections of short stories that once you read it, you can’t go back. William Vollman, there’s another one whom I read very early on, before I presumed to be a writer. Atlas, I think it’s called The Atlas. Now he writes these enormous like 800-page novels. And again, I have children now, I have not tackled any of them. [Laughing] Who else? In the European tradition, the Russians, the French also, the short story used to be a French form, Guy de Maupassant, with this classic short story, where the jewelry… Do you know which one I’m talking about?

SV: Yes, “Le collier.”

JMcG: His work is in the DNA of the short story as we understand it now.

SV: Some of the stories that you sent me, “Charles III” for instance, or “A Short Affair,” are quite violent…

JMcG: [Laughing]. Well, actually, those short stories I would call my History short stories. And History is brutal and it’s still brutal today. I’m reflecting that. And so those stories particularly are about the violence inherent in the system and how the little man has to deal with it. I should have sent you “Daughters of the Revolution,” that’s a little sweet story, no violence. But “Charles III” is about something that used to be somebody’s job: you’d have to carry the quartered severed limbs of a traitor to the state back to the seat of their power. So it’s not that hard to imagine that in the modern state, they do it much more subtly these days. But there are people suffering greatly, and so again, it’s just me always obsessed with the little lives that exist in our universe and then you put that up against someone with unlimited power, somebody like Charles III. It’s such an easy way to represent the State in a single human, which for years and years was how they did it. But I’m always interested in the little guy who has to deal with these… And we’re always doing this, right? I mean, I’m right now dealing with the Office of Public Finances in France. Frankly, I would happily drag a corpse! [Laughing]

SV: This little guy is exactly what “The Overcoat” by Gogol is all about…

JmcG: Exactly, yeah, exactly! And the other story, “Rough Beasts,” that was me looking at how members of my family had turned into Trumpites and how they were radicalized by the state, by Fox News, and by politicians openly preaching hate. And how effective that was and how much they bought into it. That’s me talking about that. I wrote that after I had kids. I had a little baby in 2016 which, in the Anglophone world, was the absolute collapse. You had Trump, you had Brexit, like, what the hell is going on? And that was me trying to process it in like a weird, lurid, violent way. I had cousins excitedly watching videos from the Iraqi War of Iraqi soldiers, with their guts falling out because they’d been shot by A-10 airplanes, enormous planes, basically flying tanks, and showing me these videos, saying “Look what we’re doing!” I’m like: “Yeah, look what we are doing…” There’s a key scene where, the characters are doing exactly that, but I’ve made the victims cuddly animals. So… sorry, but we do live in violent times.

SV: I have a question about something that I read about you, that your stories were commissioned for BBC Radio 4. What does it mean exactly?

JMcG: They wanted me to write a short story for them. I had submitted a short story, a sweet little story about a heroin addict taking her little son to get pictures taken. [Laughing] In Scotland. So it’s one of my few British stories and that’s another thing: how difficult it is to write in British. I can only carry it off for about a short story, and it’s so difficult and it’s for so many reasons I can go into. But yeah, so they wanted this story. They thought it was quite a sweet story. And so I wrote it and then they had an actor perform it. Yeah, that was one of my first kind of breakthroughs. That was the first time I got paid for a story. No, that’s not true! The first story I published was about a drag queen and a young boy on a cleaning crew. And it was published by this small journal. I got paid 5$. And it was a journal that focused on young men and older men love. And so, like all the great writers, I started in pornography. [Laughing]

MA: I was wondering how much the BBC intervened in the final story that they commissioned. Did they ask you for changes?

JMcG: No, actually they intervened very little. I think because there are so many short stories, for anything to get accepted, it has to be ready to go. And so, they might have made some small changes, but only typographical. Yeah, it was pretty much my story.

SV: And what do you think about the result on the radio?

JMcG: I loved hearing it. When somebody, when an actor performs the text, it’s not yours solely anymore. Actors are very good at inhabiting texts, they bring their own experiences to them. And it’s another form of translation for me. And I’ve always been very open about the fact that you make something and then it’s out in the world and, you know, let art make art that art make art… and forever. It was my first kind of experience with that. I really enjoyed it. I’m very good at kind of just letting go. Once you’ve written it, you’ve done your best work, for me. I think it’s best for your psychology to just let it be out in the world now, and accept that you no longer control it. You see, some writers just can’t do that. And I think madness lies that way. [Laughing]

SV: And can you say a few words about The Special Relationship that you co-founded in London?

JMcG: That was an organization that I was involved in. I was learning to write. And so, I was going to a bunch of literary events, and they were boring as hell. And I mean, I’m a nerd, but I was like, “God, these are so boring.” Like, the most exciting thing that happens is some poet brings a friend who plays the flute. And that’s not exciting. When you see that flute coming, “Oh no, here it comes.” [Laughing] And also most of the events were not wheelchair accessible. So I was like, “I will do what I want to do. I will get the writers I want to hear, and it’ll be wheelchair accessible by necessity.” And I worked with a really good friend of mine, another American, Sam Taradash, who’s a beautiful human, beautiful writer, and with an Englishman, Tom Basden, a professional comedian who now writes for TV and theatre. He’s very well read and he’s a very good writer. Our tagline was “raffish and over-read,” and we would just be in some cool kid bar in East London, just kind of goofing off. But we had incredible writing, so we would have famous comedians doing really good short stories. We’d also have playwrights doing short stories. Just kind of a mix. If somebody wanted to try something new, it was possible. We had live illustration: I read a story while an illustrator illustrated it as I read it to the audience. So we were just experimenting with this form of live literature. A reading is something different. It’s not quite theater, it’s not just performance. So how can we explore the ‘reading’ as an artistic form?

And then it evolved into these special projects. For instance, we took Moby-Dick and read all of it over four days, with 300 people–it was called “Moby-Dick Unabridged.” Half of the readers were just people who loved the book, and half were kind of famous people, for whatever reason, but they also loved the book. While the readings were going on, we had dance troops interpreting the chapters. Because Moby-Dick is such a generous, expansive work, it could fit all that and you could never take away from the text. So you could have dance troops interpreting whales, and you would still hear the text. It’s Moby-Dick, so it turns into a Shakespearean play halfway through, of course, and we had three actors performing those pieces, we had illustrations, animations. So it was this huge four-day celebration of one work, and it was a great success.

SV: Was it recorded?

JMcG: Yeah, we have it recorded. My wife is very smart. She told everyone beforehand “Do not let him take the coffin home,” because of course we had Queequeg’s coffin made, and the guy who made it is a set designer, so he actually carved it like a Maori coffin. So it was a beautiful piece of work and literally, I asked the grips, the stagehands, “Hey, can you help me get this into a taxi?” And they said, “We’re not allowed, Sir. Your wife…” [Laughing] There were all these things, these artifacts… The book itself is a totem. It’s an artifact. In the Western tradition, we have a real sacred sense that the books are sacred, once it’s bound, and it’s got to come from the Bible, you know: these books are sacred. But you know that’s not true, it happens to be the version at the time you have to submit, but actually books are very living and they kind of exist… And you know, this came out of this experiment: how do I bleed the edges beyond the covers of author and character. That’s part of the mischief of The Coward. I mean, I have my other reasons for naming the character Jarred but part of it comes from that need or that interest in bleeding the edges of a book beyond the covers.

SV: And was the Moby-Dick experience successful?

JMcG: It was hugely successful. Yeah, it was just an incredible experience. It was at the South Bank Centre. It worked so well, and I went on to do other projects. I have one now that kind of got shelved because of COVID, because it’s a live event. So I’m hoping, having just won this Eccles prize, that I might be able to get a space for this installation. It’s something that’s going to go into the new book, but it’s also a live installation and collaboration with a photographer whom I greatly admired. So yeah, we still work on it.

MA: Will it be in England again?

JMcG: I don’t know. Frankly, the piece is about me moving to France with the girls. You know, we moved in a pique: we decided in August and we were in Marseilles in October, during a pandemic, never having been to Marseilles before, with two children and not speaking the language at all. [Laughing] Totally reasonable! So the project is about that moment of change. We’ll see.

SV: And when did you start thinking about writing a novel?

JMcG: You know, it’s funny, I hadn’t really realized it until I was doing this tour around France. And you do get asked the same questions, like when I did it, how long did it take… And I realized that actually… I knew it started as short stories. But it started out as short stories about the childhood scenes. I was writing about an American childhood, not necessarily about this character in the novel, just around this world of what it’s like to be a teenager in America. When you have two parents who are working full time, or a single parent that’s working full time, you have no social care, but you live in a relatively affluent world, you know, and awash in drugs and violence and guns and stuff like that. And I was writing about these innocents in quite a frightening world. And then I kind of realized, “I’m writing about the same kid. Or the same kids.” I wrote this short story called “Daughters of the Revolution,” and I used that character for the Melissa character in The Coward. And none of that book, none of that short story appears in the book. So I was writing about these people, and Fritz as well. At some point I realized these stories came from the same world. And then I started writing these weird short stories, dealing with disability, but in a very odd, bizarre way. One of them is about this dream this disabled character has about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was a famous wheelchair user but who hid it. I envisioned Franklin Del Roosevelt as a really crass, kind of sex-obsessed guy, reliving his victories in office and all this kind of things. And again, a very bombastic, humoristic way of dealing with disability. And then, you know, when you have some good short stories, immediately in the UK agents come and say: “Hey, your short stories are great. I can’t make money off of those. Can you write a novel?” I didn’t know if I could write a novel. Publishers were interested, but the kind of novel they wanted from me was just not the novel I was going to write. I was trying to write what they wanted and my instincts were pushing against it, and that makes for a bad book. Then my daughter arrived, and we traveled with her for a year and that was a great opportunity to write because my wife was there. We only had one kid. We were living in the middle of Haute Provence for a month. And I looked at the book, I thought, there’s something here. And I then brought the voice and the energy and the anger of the narrative, the Jack-and-Jarred narrative. And then it was just fine tuning that over several years of just getting it tight between the two narratives. Because once you have two little narratives, you’ve created three problems: You’ve got to make two stories good, and you have to have them work well together and balance. And that’s it. I think the hardest thing to the main thing I was working on was getting the balance between the two threads.

SV: So how long did it take, to use a question that you are often asked?

JMcG: Well, my daughter is six [Laughing]. There was an unfinished book when she arrived. And then I got it published. I got an agent three years ago. I got a publisher two years ago. It was published a year ago. So let’s say six years, and if you count the short stories, eight years. So that it was kind of floating around. And the next novel needs to be submitted in a year. So yeah, nothing to worry about. It’ll be fine. [Laughing]

SV: Can you say a few words about your decision to name your main character Jarred?

JMcG: I really avoided it from the early on. I didn’t want to be this character because I’m a disabled writer. I knew people would be unimaginative and just assume the character was me. And so I would try to really push us apart. But I realized that no matter what I did, people would just assume it was me. And then I was teaching a bunch of students who were writing fictionalized versions of themselves. I was like, “Why are we doing this? So weird that we would pretend… What value do we get?” I always use Roth and Carver as examples. They wrote fiction. But, surprise, Roth was also a sex pest like his characters! Writing like that, that intimacy, the writing of that style, requires something of your soul. So I was like: “What if I stopped doing this and melded them together and see what happens? Really lean into I am this character.” And you know, and that’s where it came out of. But I wanted to make sure I wasn’t fooling anyone. I want you to know, I read a bunch of memoirs to see what from memoir I could steal, because people love memoir. And I was just fascinated by this because I literally do not care about the author. I couldn’t care less about the author. In fact, I’m annoyed when I know something about the author. And now it’s very hard not to know something about the author, the way they market books these days. But I just want a book, and I want the book to decide, the book to talk to me, and if the book works, if we get along, that’s fine. You know, I have the epigraph in the beginning, as if to say “Pay attention…”

SV: …an epigraph which is not that easy to read or to understand: “The distance between fiction and memoir is measured in self-delusions.” With a picture.

JMcG: Well, it’s me telling the reader: “You’ve got to do a little bit of work here.”

MA: It was hard to translate as well. We had a long discussion with the editor.

JMcG: What it means is that the games have already begun. I want somebody to think about that, you know: “Here we go. What is he saying by that?” And then you hit his name, Jarred McGinnis. “What? What are we talking about?”

MA: But the name comes late, right? I have to confess that I never read books before I translate them. Well, that’s not actually true. I read bits of them. But I refuse to deprive myself of the pleasure of reading. And I think that one reason is that I’m lazy. But I would claim my attitude because I think it places you in the position of the future reader discovering things little by little. The translator can always go back when he’s made mistakes and things are incoherent. I’m going to make this up, but the fact that Jarred comes inside the text only on page 200 or so…

JMcG: I don’t remember either!

3SV: Just like Moby-Dick, by the way…

MA: I remember thinking, “Well, Jarred may be an accident,” and only when the father is called Mr. McGinnis by somebody else in the book, I started thinking of it in terms of strategy: “Why does he say it, and why does he say it so late?” I’m very sensitive to what you said about unimaginative readers. I mean, how did you give up on that project not to cater to unimaginative reader?

SV: Especially since you read a lot of memoirs…

JMcG: Yeah, although it was a form I was not interested in, but I knew people were interested in it, and I was fascinated by this idea of them needing to know there’s a real person behind the book because that was something so antithetical to me. And most memoirs are terrible. Particularly the celebrity ones, because they lean on the fact that you are already invested as a celebrity. So the celebrity really can just lean on the fact that you’re interested in them, and can do whatever. Whatever tends to be rambling boring stories poorly written. And that was fascinating to me. That’s why they’re mostly bad: They don’t have to try. And I do because nobody, nobody cares about me. And you see that in later works by famous authors: their later works are less strong and I think it comes from the fact that publishers are a little bit more lenient about what’s getting through the system because it’s a famous person. They know they will sell a certain number of units. And it’s such kind of sad fate. But maybe inevitable, because you know that by that time they just don’t care. It’s not fun anymore. Sarah Hall has a great line. She says: “You only have so many novels in you before your knees give out.” [Laughing] I love that idea. I think it’s probably something true. You just gotta figure out which race wins your last race and bow out gracefully. So there is a very light brushing of that kind of memoir voice. Because I try to make it Jarred-the-character’s voice, and it’s more in the beginning because I’m trying to get the reader over the fact that I’m in a wheelchair. Or the character is in the wheelchair—see, it gets confusing. Because in my experience that’s what you have to do. And so I’m telling the reader: “I know all the things you think about us. I get it. But I’m going to disappoint you.” You know, nobody wants to hear that, but this thing that’s so in front of you [showing the wheelchair] is insignificant, and that’s talking to the reader. In practice, Jarred is talking to himself, right, because at that point in the book, he thinks his life is over, but as he’s telling it, you know, he realizes: “That’s right, my disability is insignificant to me,” because he’s experienced all these things and stuff.

SV: Just before you came, Marc, Jarred and I were discussing Annie Ernaux, that Jarred has been reading recently. Ernaux’s work is memoir without being memoir, somewhere in-between, as Jarred was saying.

JMcG: Yeah, again, that kind of disinterest for genre is something I carry with me. A book is a book, you know, it’s all story. To me, memoir is often a story in which the author needs it to be true. [Laughing] And that’s what’s fascinating, whatever I do, people still want to connect the author and I can’t do anything about that. They were going to do that anyways and now they think it’s my fault. Maybe it is, because I put the characters’ name and stuff, but…

SV: It’s not a memoir, then. Is it a sort of Bildungsroman?

JMcG: Well, my favorite word is “livre vécu.” Again you can argue, aren’t they all? But no, I think there’s a time in which you are really utilizing very self-consciously and very obviously yourself. And that’s definitely my project. And I know authors personally. And I know their life and I know their work. And they are absolutely writing “livres vécus.” But they are completely disinterested in the conversation around that, and that’s fascinating to me. They want their work perceived as novel, whereas again, like I said, I’m interested in the bleeding edges. I think they’re inevitable, so why not explore them and talk about them? They are not interested. And I think that’s a legitimate response as well, just as legitimate as mine, as my artistic project is to play with that. I think that’s fascinating.

SV: “Livre vécu…” Well, it’s not that far from the old autobiographical novel.

JMcG: Yeah, I mean, it’s a kind of concatenation of autobiographical fiction and stuff like that. But the idea that it’s lived, for me—again, we have a translator here—for me it’s lived but not necessarily by you. So you’re pulling from everyone’s unity experience you’ve had of other people as well. That’s where you get a little bit more, a little bit more distance. But again, I don’t think any terms are useful because it’s art.

MA: It just shifts the emphasis on the book, I mean it’s the book that’s lived. I have a question about something you said, which is new to me: you mentioned the way you felt, the necessity to create a balance between the two stories, I don’t know what you mean exactly by “balance of interest, balance of suspense.” But what I was very sensitive to as a translator is all the working of echoes between what you call the two parts, which I really have just realized, to my mistake, that I’ve never seen them as two parts precisely because everything is so cohesive.

JMcG: But two timelines, yeah, two timelines is a better way to say it. And I think this is what accounts for the success of Le Lâche: those echoes are vital to me, the architecture of the book is the thing I’m most proud of. And whether anybody reads it and sees it, I’m not sure. I think you can read it without being aware of all the clever things I’m doing in terms of structure. Really, there is just one story. And every time we go into the past, that’s Jarred thinking, that’s him remembering, we’re not going actually into the past. That’s Jarred’s version of the past. And so characters like Patrick, his brother, are there to remind you that I wouldn’t trust this charming wag, Jarred McGinnis: He has an agenda. He’s telling a different story. So the Patrick you meet in the past isn’t necessarily the real Patrick. And we find that near the end. I hope that’s clear in the end, when Patrick starts to reveal his story and he reminds you that, you know, Jarred is processing the traumas of his childhood while dealing with the trauma of the disability of the car accident. So it’s very subtle, but there are things that push, why the memory is there on the next chapter. And sometimes it’s not so subtle. Sometimes it’s a tiny, tiny little thing. But there are connections. And then there are these balances between the weight of the story. So, for example, Jarred meets a disabled man in a store very early on, and that’s pretty equal distance to when he meets Marco, another disabled character, and the interactions are completely different. And it was important for me, that balance of showing Jarred’s psychological change in reference to disability and how he’s able to process that, and then there are resonances between where Jarred is psychologically and where Jack, his father, is psychologically in the past. And actually, what fell out of that was quite a practical thing in terms of narrative structure: I could balance the emotional notes. So if we’re talking about something really hard and heavy in the present, I can lighten the mood in the past to give the reader a break, and I always had that in mind, that there would be a break for the reader. It’s a very emotional book and so, I wanted to balance that for the reader so they have moments of relief before we go right back into those dark, dark moments. That’s how I use humor and how humor can exist in the two things. And what I meant by balance was that, when you have two timelines, sometimes a reader will resent one or the other because they prefer young Jarred to old Jarred, right, because 26-year-old Jarred is a real pain, so those are two very different stories. When I read other books with two timelines, I’m often aware that I’m annoyed that we’ve gone to this story when I would rather be with that story, and so that’s what I meant by balancing: to make present Jarred as vivid as past Jarred and Jack.

MA: And that’s what I meant by echo. I mean, it reminds me of what Pontalis, the French psychoanalyst, added to Freud. He resented the metaphor of archaeology and said something about the fact that the object you extract from the ground is never the one that was buried. There is that unifying factor in that gesture of telling his story that unites the two parts. Now that you mentioned that there are two timelines, of course, you’re right. In the process of translating, I was more after what was in common. In turn, it has to do with what you said earlier about short stories as your education or formation, because I think short stories made you very well aware of this necessity of echoes in a short space of time. I think part of your work is precisely to have extended techniques that come from the short story to a novel in that respect, something between the poetical and the narrative, to say it quickly.

JMcG: A lot of the work was also kind of loosening. The short stories that I love are really concise and every sentence does three things and I just realized you cannot have that kind of intensity over 80,000 words. And so, a lot of the earlier drafts were really loosening it up, and also saying things twice or three times because people can’t have the attention span required of a short story. And that was me learning to relax and be much more generous to the reader, I think, whereas short stories are really a space in which you are very demanding. There’s this kind of trope of like, short stories are made for our modern age. Absolutely not. You need the attention span. They’re closer to poetry than the novel. You need to pay attention to every line, in every line break, in every paragraph, to really get a good short story. I mean, bad ones, yes, are totally for the train. But why would you read a bad short story? Just too many good ones out there.

SV: There is a character in The Coward who is just wonderful, I think, it’s the child’s mother, because we don’t know much about her: she died years before the moment when Jarred goes back to his father’s, and her long illness and her death are part of what drove father and son apart. She is a remote, mysterious woman and you don’t know exactly what to think about her…

JMcG: Well, I mean, you know what Jarred and his father think about her, right? She’s perfect, and then it is later that you come to understand the cost of that perfection and wonder whether it’s a true perfection. What really sets Jarred and Jack on the path of what the novel tells is her illness and her death. People often talk about her death, but it’s actually her illness: The moment that is really the trigger for the guilt and shame that Jarred feels is the illness, not the death. I’ve never had a chance to talk about this. There are intimate moments when his mother is sick, gravely ill, but for Jarred, they’re just beautiful, tender moments. And for Jack as well, and that shows they’re on the same team, but they’re fighting for her attentions. And you remember this scene that’s described late in the novel, when Jarred intrudes on their intimacy: Jarred is watching Jack wash his wife and kiss her toe, and it’s a beautiful, tender moment. But that’s the heart of his guilt and shame. That’s right. Jarred says it: “I like wait and see,” but when she dies, what he feels is: “I liked her being ill because she never had time for me before, because she was too busy being a drunk and in love with my dad.” And then the kind of Œdipus complex. You know my mom, when she read the book, said: “Why did you kill me?” [Laughing] I loved that! “Mom, you’re alive, so it’s maybe not you!” So, you see, even my mom had trouble with autofiction! [Laughing]

SV: I’d like to listen to both of you, actually, about the dialogues in the book. Jarred, you rely on dialogues a lot…

JMcG I feel like I’m very strong in dialogue. I love dialogue because it’s probably the most efficient way to do a character. And I would like to know how that’s even possible to translate! [Laughing]

MA: I don’t know how to answer that. Nicholas, the editor, and I were very sensitive to the authenticity of dialogue. And you know that, by definition, some of it is going to be lost in translation. So the balance between recreating authenticity and betraying precise fidelity so your words sound more authentic to a French reader was a part of the challenge. And Nicholas did help. I always read dialogues aloud to myself, but my voice is my voice, and I know it. What you said about that experience you had with Moby-Dick reminded me very strongly of the moment when Nicholas read my French translation in front of the audience with you present in the room. It was totally mind-blowing, actually. Are those my words? Are those Jarred’s? It was very strange. So we worked a lot on the perfection of dialogues. That perfection doesn’t make sense, but that’s close not so much to the words as to the spirit, the effect produced by any given sentence.

JMcG: It’s very easy to do Americana, where you can’t quite tell the region. It’s impossible to do the same in British English because as soon as a British character speaks, you know his class, you know their gender potentially, and you know their region to a fidelity that is incredible. Like, literally, which side of the street they are from in Belfast. And so that’s why I say it’s very difficult for me, who loves dialogue, who uses dialogue, to do British stories. So I’m curious: is that the same in French? Did you give Jarred a kind of regional flavor or was there enough argot and slang that you could bring into the French? Because you do use argot and slang.

MA: And God, we did discuss the point: the level of argot and slang is something difficult to define: To what extent is something plain vulgar? To what extent is something just colloquial?

JMcG: And then Jarred’s own unique use of language?

MA: Yes, exactly. That was exactly what I was going to say: And to what extent is something specific to the character or how trite the expression is? Would somebody else use it? Not to mention the fact that you referred only to your main two characters, but there’s also the girl. The question of voices, of course, comes with every translation. Because Nicholas and I had been so moved by the book, there was an urge for transmitting it that may have been one of a kind for me. And I’ve translated some sixty books, but yes, there was a special urge, I’d say. So no, I don’t think we tried to give him a regional flavor. It was enough for us to deal with the problem of leaving him to be American, and a teenager.

JMcG: And I did try to make sure they sounded different. Melissa, for instance, is the same generation, but she’s younger. She’s female. Jack is older. In my head, Jack actually has more of a Texan accent whereas Jarred does not have a Texan accent, especially because Austin is relatively international.

MA: And Jarred also has a different kind of slang.

JMcG: Exactly, and he would use a real good old boy slang, so he would probably be the only one that needed a regional accent. But again, as you say, how does that translate? I want to use dialogue very efficiently, so I try to get rid of the descriptions like the “she said,” “he said,” so we can just have a nice block, because my theory is that if I’ve done the work up here, you know who’s talking just by their word choice and stuff like that, to get this, you just zip through the dialogue like you’re there in real time.

MA: And then another difficulty was, I suppose, the doubling effect. That is, God knows they’re different, yes, but they are also very alike in many respects.

JMcG: Exactly! And often, that was another thing deliberately done: Jarred does say and act like Jack on occasion because he is Jack. They’re the same man, if they just chilled out and realized it, they would figure this out. Yeah, that’s very true. That’s a good point. Even though Jarred, who’s the narrator, doesn’t realize it, he’s a little Jack. He’s learned from Jack whether he likes it or not.

SV: Jack’s voice is a wonderful one. He’s the character I manage to imagine best in the novel: I can immediately see him move and act.

JMcG: He’s very present. And because he’s observed by the main character, you get much more understanding of him and he holds up the story. Jarred is just chaos. Jarred is the narrative drive of the book, but then it’s built upon the kind of steel beam that is Jack.

SV: And what about the humor in the text? How difficult was it to translate?

JMcG: Well, actually, it’s funny as we’ve exchanged emails and I could tell Marc had a sense of humor and I think that’s what it requires. He’ll get what’s funny about it. And a lot of our emails were about the humor actually, to get the timbre of the joke.

MA: Yes. I wanted to make sure how specific or how common any given joke or pun was, and Jarred was a great help. I mean, you know, some writers refuse to speak with their translator. And I understand. When I send questions to a writer, I always wonder: “Isn’t he going to think that I don’t understand a thing about his text? And then if he loses trust, then what will happen?” But with Jarred, I think we had a very easy dialogue.

JMcG: Yes, because I’m just fascinated by the process. I wanted to learn about Marc’s process. And because I had just started learning French, it was fascinating to me to talk to him. One of my favorite emails was him writing: “I’ve been looking for an hour. I just give up. What does tofu fiddler mean?” [Laughing] It was a neologism that I made up, I just put two things together. But if you know these two words, you get that it is Jarred being clever, but a pain. And so I wrote a whole paragraph explaining why I pulled these two words together, what the intention behind it was. So when the novel gets translated in whatever language, I go look and see how that’s translated because it’s just a perfect example of something that’s very particular. I think you just have to come up with something on your own, just get that hint of Jarred making fun of hippies. And so yeah, I think it’s very hard to capture that. All the flavors that are going on in that simple kind of vulgarity, that’s kind of fascinating.

SV: So how did you translate it, Marc?

MA: I don’t remember! [Laughing] But again, I think it’s interesting that I have forgotten. What matters to me is to realize the innovation, the creative part of it, then you feel sort of freer to create and what matters is that it’s a word or a concept or whatever that does not exist. If you’re filled with that, then the detail of the adaptation into French matters less, I think. So, honestly, I don’t remember.

JMcG: And I have to say that when I got the book finally, I said: “Oh, I’ll read my own book in French. Won’t that be exciting?” And it was the worst possible experience I’ve ever had in my life! [Laughing] It felt like dementia. Because those were my words, but they weren’t my words. I didn’t have the musicality; I couldn’t understand my own writing. And so, it was completely unnerving in terms of, like: “I don’t know if this is any good because I don’t have the instinct for it.” And so again, it’s this moment of fate when you have to let it go: this book is my book as understood by Marc. And thank God I had someone who understood it and wanted to bring it to French. I mean, I’ve done it because there’s a little bit that I read in French or French audiences want to hear me speak French, but I’ve gotten over it. But yeah, I don’t think I’ll ever read it in French completely! And also there are certain things that are more efficient to do in English than in French, and vice versa. And I think that now, I have just enough French to be dangerous: I would probably be more of a pain in the ass for him. Again, I like concision and efficiency. And so in the bit that I read, the text says: “Jack shrugs the joke off.” It’s a literal shrug, but it’s also an expression that we have in English that you don’t really have in French. So it’s much more laborious to say “he shrugged off his joke.” And so I would have been like: “Just cut it because it just takes too much time to get to the next line.” And it goes against my need for fidelity. And I’ve heard this horror story for translators. A translator was translating a book and the author was also fluent in French. The author wrote this enormous volume of notes for the translator, and the translator came back to the publisher and said: “I’m going to need more money.” [Laughing] “If you want me to do what he wants me to do, I’m going to need more money.” And that’s fascinating. I don’t think I’d ever do that, honestly I think I would rather it stays as I would much rather see his understanding of the book than me forcing my understanding of the book on him, and I think that’s a much healthier thing for the book and for the author. But I have learned French from my own book. That’s kind of cool! [Laughing] The expression he doesn’t have a sou in his pocket to say he doesn’t have any money. I learned that from you! I learned that from myself! [Laughing]

MA: But you see, I’ve had experiences with writers who spoke French, or even worse, whose wives were French, and not only was it difficult for me, but the point is that it lay emphasis on fidelity, on faithfulness to details, which is the exact opposite of my way of working. You see, for example, when you mentioned: “Jack shrugged the joke off,” it’s called in linguistics “a result clause,” and it is one of the characteristics of English that French is very poor at rendering. Again, I don’t remember what I did with it. I don’t mind about the movement of shrugging, but what I know is that it’s a very punchy sentence. I’m more sensitive to rhythm.

JMcG: And that’s fascinating. When I’ve been doing events and I hear the French coming from the audience, I’m like, “Oh, there’s a musicality there that is completely lost on me.” I can hear it because it’s just a wash of sound to me, it’s too hard for me to get the understanding of that. And that’s it. Sometimes the sentence is about the music of it, not the kind of practical, you know, what it’s doing in the story. And again, it’s why I would not want to ever interfere with the translator. I tell the publisher that if they want to ask me questions, I’m very open to it because I like these conversations. But equally, if they don’t, it’s OK. I never had any conversation for the Catalan version and I had a few questions from the Italian.

MA: Yes, I remember we discussed that. You told me: “You’re the first one to ask.”

JMcG: Yeah, I keep saying you’ve written a better book than I did! [Laughing]

MA: That’s not a tease. That’s it. I take it as a compliment!

SV: One last question about the new book.

JMcG: Yeah, the new work. The first book, The Coward, was fiction moving towards nonfiction, and this one is very deliberately nonfiction moving towards fiction. Again, I have a complete disinterest in genre. I just write a story that works, a book that works. But this one is very inherently looking at the family mythologies that we create. Because I’m the first son of a first son for six generations, and then I had two daughters, the curse has been lifted! [Laughing] What do I tell my daughters? What stories do I tell when my story is completely different than my forefathers’? You know, all the stories I was handed down were about being tougher than death. It was about how everyone tried to kill us and we’re still here, you know, it was about war. It’s about violence. And what do I do with those stories when I have two little girls who live in France, with a kind of solid social network, social net? So it’s about examining those mythologies. And what they say about us and why we want these stories to be true when they’re probably not. I’m writing about stories I knew from my mom, but also from my great grandparents and stuff like that. It’s basically a kind of social history of masculinity in America. Where did these tropes come from? How has it gone so wrong? That’s what I’m writing now. And again, I just won this big prize in the UK: it pays for me to write it, which is brilliant. I have a publisher that’s interested, so it bodes well. The first excerpt has been published by a UK journal called Hinterland. So it seems to be going well. Who knows? With The Coward, I had written it, I knew it was good, good enough. Now I’m in a place in which everyone else thinks whatever I’m going to do is good. But I don’t know if it’s good. I have to write it. And then I’ll tell you. But I mean, it’s such a privileged place for a writer to just have space to write.

SV: Is it going to be written in a first-person voice?

JMcG: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I’ve written some of it and I literally don’t know. I think it is, again, because I think voices are my strength. And people seem to like my voice. [Laughing] Because, you know, books live or die on their voice. But there’s interesting questions about whether I can. At one point, I conflated my two daughters. I only have one daughter in the book because I was worried that they would read this and go like: “Oh, you wrote about her more than me!” But the reality of two children is just so different than one child! [Laughing] I met this woman who told me she had five, I think, four or five, and she said: “One is a hobby, two is parenting, three is absolutely insanity, and after that, you’ve given up, so it’s OK.” [Laughing] And again, it’s like those little bits of mythology that we all have in our families, right? We all talk about who we are. Why are these the stories we tell each other? What are we saying about ourselves when we share these stories? That’s what I’m doing, and I can’t wait to get back to it because I’ve been touring. The way I write, I need to get obsessed. Once I get obsessed, the book will get written. And I haven’t been able to get the chance to just get obsessed where I’m just writing and that’s what I need right now. But the good news is, because my book has been a success, people want me to talk about it, people want to read it. So I don’t say no because it might not come again.

SV: Are you going to translate the next book, Marc?

MA: I don’t know.

JMcG: Well, there’s writing and then there’s the industry. We haven’t sold foreign rights and all that kind of thing. Obviously, I would love Marc to translate it, but he has to like the book, of course. And I’ve had a great time with Métailié éditions. It has been an absolute pleasure to work with.

SV: Do you have a say in the choice of the translator?

JMcG: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I just assumed not, because as a writer, you’re absolutely powerless and you just accept that.

SV: And for instance, do you have anything to say about the jacket, about the text on the back cover? I’m just being curious…

JMcG: The Brits will ask your opinion, and if they don’t like your answer, well… [Laughing] But to their great credit, they sent me the first cover and I absolutely hated it. Absolutely hated it. And I didn’t answer for a couple of days. My editor there was like: “We’re in trouble, aren’t we?” I just gave myself a couple of days to calm down. And then I wrote a very constructive email saying: “This is why I don’t think this book cover works. I think this cover is relatively lazy, and I am going to explain why. It’s conveying an America that does not exist, that only you Brits think exists, because these characters come from the lower middle class. You think their houses look like shit. That’s not true, actually. You know, actually, Jack is very houseproud. He’s been making do for a very long time. His is a beautiful house, and Jarred just can’t see that.” They had a broken white picket fence on the cover. And I get the metaphor: the house is broken inside, blablabla, but it does not work. It does not work. I suggested some other possibilities, which they ignored, and they came up with their own cover and I liked it. What I liked about this one is that if you read the book, you know that the ententes between Jack and Jarred occur at this seat. It’s very American. It’s very Hopper. So to me, this cover works much harder than the previous cover they had imagined. And, you know, cover designers or artists, they hate you for it, but I think I’ve pushed them to make something beautiful. He ignored all my suggestions, which shows that he’s a good artist. [Laughing] But I tried to be constructive, to not just say I hated it and not telling them why.

Jarred McGinnis, The Coward, ©Canongate Books, 2022

Jarred McGinnis, Le Lâche, ©Éditions Métailié, 2022

SV: I like the French cover too.

JMcG: The French cover is my favorite, I think. And again, Nicholas is passionate, and he dug hard for that cover because Anne Marie Métailié said: “I don’t like the British cover. It’s too dark, it’s too heavy. I want something lighter.” And it’s just the juxtaposition between Le Lâche, a very harsh word, and this almost whimsical cover. It’s like the combination of doughnuts and arrow. That’s a cover because people are like: “Le Lâche and a sign indicating ‘donuts,’ what is going on? I’m going to look,” and if they read the first page, I got them. [Laughing] And that’s all you need a cover to do. I’m very proud of that. Yes, I’ve been very lucky. And the Catalan cover is crazy. It’s my head. It’s very weird. Everyone loves it, but just because it’s my head, I find it disturbing. It’s very grotesque. So to me, it’s a bit much, but again, I don’t know how to sell books in Catalonia. What I like about it is that it is me, but it isn’t. And that’s kind of the project. And that’s it. I didn’t even sell the book in the US.

SV: The Coward is not published in the US?

JMcG: No, it’s only distributed. It’s a bizarre thing. I don’t know if you know this, but in the UK there’s something called “the French kiss of death”: If your first foreign rights are French, you’ll never sell in any other country. [Laughing] Apparently, I’m OK because my first translation rights were Catalan, and my publisher said: “We have never had Catalan rights sold first. We’ve never sold Catalan rights. We don’t know what about your book brought the Catalans to the table.” And then French came in, and Italian later, but they told me the curse doesn’t apply because the Catalans were first. [Laughing]

MA: It wasn’t translated into Spanish, right?

JMcG: No, and I even met the scout who tried to sell it. And the same with the German.

SV: Perhaps they’ll be interested now that the book is receiving so many prizes?

JMcG: I don’t know how publishing works and frankly, I’m not sure it does work. [Laughing] I think it’s the most absurd industry I’ve ever met. I mean, because I used to work in the tech industry, I had multimillion dollar projects that would be finished in six months. And you know, you actually have already written a book and it still takes a year and a half to come out. “What are you guys doing?” It’s a weird industry.

SV: What about the back cover? Do you have a say?

JMcG: No, not really. I mean, I got a quote from another author right before the paperback came out and I said: “I don’t know if you want this quote,” but here it is. I liked the quote because it is from a writer I admire but I don’t know if it’s a quote that will sell books. But again, do quotes from The Big Issue, The Guardian and The Times sell books, who knows? Honestly, the less I think about it the better. The only thing that I insisted on was the credits page at the end. This was important to me and all the editions have done this for me. And sometimes the publishers use a third-party company for typesetting. I said: “I don’t want to thank the companies, I want to mention the actual people who touched my book.” And that’s something that’s important to me. I tried to get your name on the cover, Marc. But they said: “We don’t do that.” [Laughing] But now that I’m a success, who knows? [Laughing]

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MCGINNIS, Jarred. The Coward. London: Canongate Books, 2022.

MCGINNIS, Jarred. Le Lâche. Paris: Éditions Métailié, 2022.

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Jarred McGinnis reading The Coward (Chapter 3)

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Table des illustrations

Légende Jarred McGinnis © Sarah McGinnis
Fichier image/jpeg, 4,7M
Légende Jarred McGinnis, The Coward, ©Canongate Books, 2022
Fichier image/jpeg, 19k
Légende Jarred McGinnis, Le Lâche, ©Éditions Métailié, 2022
Fichier image/jpeg, 2,8M
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Marc Amfreville, Sophie Vallas et Jarred McGinnis, « An Interview with Jarred McGinnis »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2023, consulté le 26 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Marc Amfreville

Sorbonne Université

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Sophie Vallas

Aix Marseille Université

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Jarred McGinnis

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