Author Q&A:
Barbara Trapido

Brother of the More Famous Jack

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When 18-year-old Katherine is offered a place to study philosophy at university by the brilliant Jacob Goldman, her suburban life opens up. Entering the Goldman family home she finds a family unlike her own – sprawling, bohemian, political and unmannered. Inspired by them, Katherine heads out into the world a thoroughly modern young woman of the 1980s but soon finds herself a victim of her womanhood. Older, wiser and scarred, she returns to the fold and finds all the comfort and the culture she desires was among them all along. Brother of the More Famous Jack is Barbara Trapido’s debut novel and was winner of the 1982 Whitbread Special Prize for Fiction. This 40th anniversary edition includes an introduction by Maria Semple and an afterword by Rachel Cusk. 

How did you come to write Brother of the More Famous Jack? 
I first started writing Jack when I was living in the North in 1970. We had a lovely old unheated top floor flat in Silver Street in Durham City, which overlooked the river and the castle. It was there that I dreamed up the Goldman family, after hours, when I got back from my teaching job in Sunderland (nicest job I ever had, at the Monkwearmouth College of FE; such lovely kids, especially a skinny Irish boy called Michael Riley who liked Yeats). Then I put it away in a box for about ten years, before a friend encouraged me to fish it out and finish it for her, which I did in instalments.

In her foreword Maria Semple says the book is so “odd and pulsing with life” because you were a mother with no literary training when you wrote it. Was it difficult to recapture that in subsequent novels? 
I’m a bit sceptical about the uses of “literary training”, truth to tell. I find it depressing to think one’s an “outsider” if one hasn’t done an MA in creative writing. I’ve even met a student who was concurrently writing a PhD on her own novel! My belief is that one’s ear is better trained through years of reading from early childhood. Reading is not only enriching to the imagination, but causes one to internalise the music of good and varied prose rhythms and sentence structures, along with notions of imagery and narrative patterning. You don’t have to have theories about it.

As to “recapturing the freshness” of one’s first novel. Oh gosh, can one ever? A friend refers to this problem as “making the transfer from spontaneous to sculptured creativity”. With each book I do a lot of acting out to “become” a new character. I pace about shouting and crying into mirrors; I change places around my kitchen table when talking out dialogues. I babble into a dictaphone. I like to think that if I excite and intrigue myself, all that energy will transmit itself to the page as freshness. Then I spend forever rereading my drafts out loud, tapping out rhythms and tweaking my sentences.

Unaware of the existence of literary agents you sent the manuscript directly to publishers and the second one took it up. Do you think the publishing industry is more or less difficult to access for debut authors today?
Yes, I was wholly unaware of literary agents, or indeed anything to do with publishing. Having grown up and gone to uni abroad, I had no local UK networks. All I did was check out who’d published the books I liked to read and mostly it was Jonathan Cape, so I put the whole novel in a large manilla envelope and posted it to Cape. Then I tried Gollancz, for no good reason other than that my male hero was a Left Book Club type. I was dead lucky that it got picked up, because the editor described the slush pile to me – a room floor to ceiling with unsolicited manuscripts. “Yours is the first novel we’ve taken off the street in years,” she said. I believe it’s now become obligatory to use an agent, and the problem for new writers is that finding an agent is as difficult as finding a publisher. So probably the creative writing courses help an unknown writer to network.

Katherine has what she calls a “showy habit” of using literary references but she returns to Emma. Why, after becoming more worldly and immersing herself in the bohemian lives of the Goldmans, does Austen’s novel of polite society and romantic confusion remain her favourite book?
I imagine Katherine says it’s still her favourite novel partly to wind up her beloved Jonathan, whose own first novel is too raucous and sexually explicit for her taste. And why not? Jane Austen’s characters may be polite (with the exception of the ghastly Mrs Elton, and Emma herself, who is egged on to rudeness by the mischievous Frank Churchill), and her conclusions romantic – but isn’t Jonathan Goldman himself the ultimate wish fulfillment man for his own time? He whistles Boccherini over The Pauper’s Cookbook and has “dominating fantasies” while ironing Katherine’s shirts. And, like Frank Churchill, he has expensive London haircuts. Plus Jane Austen has enough energy, panache and caustic wit to satisfy any ageing Katherine.

The Goldmans have a progressive approach to family and domestic life and Katherine enjoys freedoms that weren’t afforded to her mother’s generation, but 40 years on the way the characters conduct their lives still seems radical. How did second wave feminism change family and social relations, and has progress stalled since?
Yes, I think the Goldman family are still radical 40 years on. I still love that lefty, insubordinate style they have: talky, mucky, tolerant and uninhibited regarding sex and sexual deviance, warm and life-embracing, un-consumerist . As Katherine, fresh from her repressive suburban context observes, it’s as if Jacob is all the time taking his children through an “assault course in defiance”. I love the way they have no problem with social class and ethnic difference. Yet Jacob, for all his kindness, is quite assertive and patriarchal, isn’t he? And, as to third wave feminism, which will undoubtedly have helped Katherine, Annie and Sylvia to feel confident of their right to make their own career choices, I find their era more refreshing than the present, in which the young have been crippled with student loans, conned by degree courses of declining value and shut out of decent housing and pension schemes, regardless of gender. Plus all around us there is a new puritanism obsessed with identity politics. The bourgeois, across ethnicity, claiming victimhood and the poor left to rot. So backwards? Yes!

In her afterword Rachel Cusk says “this novel teaches us to reread our lives, to look again, and to understand what escaped us the first time”. Does that apply to you rereading it now?
Rachel Cusk is lovely about Jack and has terrific analytical skills. She’s managed to pinpoint precisely what I was doing unconsciously in writing the book: namely looking again at life “to understand what escaped [me] the first time”. Rereading the novel now, and especially with groups of younger people, I’m always touched that it still resonates with them, just as it does for me. On a trivial level, I feel the need to say: “Just pretend Jonathan didn’t have that seventies moustache and the Goldmans didn’t have that puce bed linen.” In any serious respect, I’m reassured that it stands the test of time.

Are you excited by the prospect of finding a new generation of readers with the anniversary edition of the book, and what do you hope they will take away from the novel?
I’m massively excited about this beautiful 40th birthday edition – which I’m experiencing in my own 80th year – and I’m hoping that today’s young people will not only take Katherine and the Goldman tribe to their hearts, will laugh and cry with them, but will grasp at life as eagerly as they do.

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