An Interview with Jonathan Carter, Author of The Death of Mr Punch

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It gives me great pleasure to welcome Jonathan Carter to Linda’s Book Bag today to tell me about his writing and his novel The Death of Mr Punch. The Death of Mr Punch is published by Peter Owen and is available for purchase in e-book and paperback from such sellers as Amazon, Waterstones and directly from the publisher.

The Death of Mr Punch

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An elderly man dressed as Mr Punch crouches in a darkened room. Someone is coming up the stairs. A ghastly figure approaches . . .

Cut to Bayview, a care home with a difference. Increasingly haunted by memories, George Pemberton, the latest resident, is determined to return to his wife Judy. Not if the motley crew of Bayview inmates has anything to do with it. Feeling incarcerated, George has little choice but to bide his time vandalizing cars, enticing residents to sneeze their teeth out and performing exorcisms with unholy water. When George finally does take his chance of escape, freedom, brings its own problems: a busker with a grudge and a psychotic clown are hot on his heels. Will he ever find his way home to Judy?

The Death of Mr Punch, like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest takes us into an institution of neglect and explores in a manner reminiscent of J.G. Ballard only with a greater conscience and heart what it is like to feel imprisoned by old age, by memory and a nagging sensation of grief. At once funny and chilling and with a unique cast of characters, Jonathan Carter’s remarkable debut novel is one that will stay with you long after you have closed the book . . .

An Interview with Jonathan Carter

Hi Jonathan. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing and The Death of Mr Punch in particular. Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?

I was born in Kingston-Upon-Thames and spent my first decade in the London suburbs, before moving to Cornwall and various other parts of the UK. Because of all the moving about, I left school at 13 and was taught at home by my mother (a singer) and my father (an economist). As a child actor, I appeared in various TV ads and played rock guitar in my late teens. I later pursued my interest in art, winning the Jeffrey Archer Prize in 1988, in the GLC’s Spirit Of London competition. I then worked for an academic publisher, and started writing short stories. A couple of them turned up in Faber & Faber books, but most ended up in obscure literary magazines. Eventually I became a film journalist for the BBC and various other outlets, although I gave that up after a few years, unable to stomach the misplaced vanity of film actors.

And tell us a little about The Death of Mr Punch.

When my father died, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s, and my mother moved to an old people’s home, I realised how vulnerable we are to our memories. That was the impetus to start writing The Death Of Mr Punch, about an old man who’s haunted by his past in all manner of ways. I used to travel down to Brighton to see my mother on a regular basis. I vividly remember the home she was in. The whole building was like one big waiting room. When I left I used to walk along the beach, past the Punch & Judy booths. It all needed to be written down.

What an interesting premise.

So, when did you first realise you were going to be a writer?

I guess, looking back, it all started in primary school. Just to be irritating, I’d taken a maths textbook home for the weekend. It was intended to last a whole term, but I completed it in two days and came back into class on Monday morning full of boasts. From then on, when everyone else was doing maths, the Headmistress decided that I would sit at the side of the class and write stories. I used to love writing those crazy little tales. Thank you, Miss Webb. I still write short stories now. You can read one of them here on the Peter Owen website.

You seem to class yourself as a mystic. How does this help or hinder your writing process?

I don’t actually class myself as a mystic – that was the publisher’s way of putting it. I guess I’m more of a ghost whisperer, or at least someone who takes the paranormal completely in his stride. I grew up with a psychic grandmother and mother, and regularly visited mediums. There is always a presence when I’m writing or drawing. Indeed, one of the characters in The Death Of Mr Punch is based on the spirit of a small boy I encountered in a house in North London. You can hear me talking about it on Jim Harold’s Campfire podcast here. My story starts at 13m 40s.

Which aspects of your writing do you find easiest and most difficult?

By far, the most difficult aspect of writing is actually making yourself sit down and do it. There’s always one more cup of tea to make, or one more chore to complete. Which is why I have to turn the whole process into a job and go to the library. Once there, music always cures me of any reluctance to write. The easiest aspect of writing is walking around atmospheric London streets in a daze, visualising plots and situations. That can’t be bettered.

I’m sure prevarication is the bane of many writers.

What are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?

I try and write 500 words every day, including holidays. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was good enough for Graham Greene, so I guess it’s fine for me too. The key is to get in touch with that part of you that wants to write. It’s the same part of me that wants to turn up to a posh dinner party in dirty clothes, so it’s pretty easy to access.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?

Oddly enough, nowadays I rarely read fiction. There are exceptions, of course, but I mainly stick to histories and biographies. One of my current favourites is The London Nobody Knows by Geoffrey Fletcher, first published in 1962. I find truth much stranger than fiction.

Do you have other interests that give you ideas for writing?

Ever since I was a small boy, I have drawn and painted. In fact, The Death Of Mr Punch includes several examples of my artwork. I’ve even made two small films related to the story, which you can see here and here. Sometimes I’ll sit and draw, just to clear my head, and realise that a character is appearing before me on the page. Music is also a big inspiration. Often I’ll be listening to a song, or even a symphony, and I’ll imagine it as a soundtrack to a film.

You sound an incredibly creative individual Jonathan.

The Death of Mr Punch has quite a grotesque cover . How did that image come about and what were you hoping to convey (without spoiling the plot please!)?

The cover wasn’t actually designed by me. It was designed by Juan Pablo Cambariere, and I think it’s brilliant. Having said that, the creepy face peeking out from behind the curtain is part of a sculpture that I made many years ago: an intense puppet-like figure sitting in a slate-lined box. He’s holding a large nail in his hand and the slate walls are covered in graffiti…

How did you manage to balance light and shade in your writing as I know The Death of Mr Punch has humour as well as pathos?  

It’s strange. Many people talk about the way the book flits from humour to downright creepiness, and then to pathos. One person even told me that they were laughing on one page and crying on the next. However, this wasn’t done on purpose. I think it’s just the way I am.

One of the elements of The Death of Mr Punch is a psychotic clown. Why did you choose this device in your writing?

Somehow, as I was writing, the figure just seemed to appear, which I suppose is creepy in itself. I guess one reason was to play up the sinister Punch & Judy element – it’s all part of that hideous pantomime world. Our instinct tells us that anyone who’s dressed up must be hiding something, and the more vivid the disguise, the more horrible the thing that they’re hiding must be. Which makes a clown the ultimate implied horror of horrors.

I’m sure many readers agree here!

If you could choose to be a character from The Death of Mr Punch, who would you be and why?

This is a difficult question. I’m tempted, of course, to say no one, or perhaps one of the passers-by in the street. But it would probably be Upton Silver, the elderly Elvis impersonator who performs at Bayview Retirement Home. (Mr Silver also briefly appears in my next novel.)

If The Death of Mr Punch became a film, who would you like to play George Pemberton?

Definitely Michael Gambon. Or possibly Mark Rylance. Directed by Steven Spielberg, of course.

Of course!

And finally, if you had 15 words to persuade a reader that The Death of Mr Punch should be their next read, what would you say?

Dare you visit Bayview Retirement Home, where Samuel Beckett meets Stephen King at Fawlty Towers?

Thank you so much, Jonathan, for your time in answering my questions.

About Jonathan Carter

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Jonathan Carter is a writer and mystic. He was born in London in 1964 into a family of clairvoyants. He appeared as a child actor in television adverts before finishing his education at home in different parts of the country. As an arts journalist he has contributed to Dazed & Confused, The Guardian, Cosmopolitan, Esquire and GQ. He has created online films and content for London’s Serpentine Gallery, the British Film Institute, Faber and Faber and the charity NESTA.

You can follow Jonathan on Twitter.

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