Jarred McGinnis’s debut novel, The Coward, charts a young man’s journey following a devastating car crash. Suddenly reliant on a “giant roller skate”, he faces up to his traumatic past and uncertain future, navigating wrecked relationships and inaccessible streetscapes along the way. “What’s worse than being in wheelchair? Being a f***-up in a wheelchair,” declares the narrator of this visceral yet immensely witty read. Here, the US-born, Edinburgh-educated author describes his writing life, then offers a gripping preview of his book.
The Coward’s protagonist is called Jarred McGinnis. Is the book fiction, “auto-fiction” or memoir?
This question gets at the grit that forced the pearl, but I’ve tried not to use the term auto-fiction. This is a novel, but the main character has the same name as me. You could do a replace+all with any other name and the book would still work. Fictionalising self has been around as long as the novel has been a form. Zola’s L’Œuvre was described as “un livre vecu”, a lived book, because the main characters were fictional versions of him and his friends. I knew from experience that readers were never going to let this character not be me. I’d get the same questions whatever I named the wheelchair guy. By naming him Jarred, it was a land grab. I was getting there before the reader, making them think about the conflation we as readers make.
But also, there was a part of me that didn’t want, maybe naively, that plausible deniability that previous generations of novelists had. Think how many times we’ve come to learn that an author was just as rotten as his characters. Philip Roth is the latest and glaringly obvious example. The intimacy with Jarred the character, with all his tangled, mutable, complexity of personhood, comes from the fact that I owned up to his and my ugliness. Something that would have been harder if I was trying to represent myself in memoir. Something cracked open in the writing when I admitted that his anger was mine.
The sections describing the immediate aftermath of the crash are incredibly powerful. Having survived a car accident, was this difficult territory to inhabit while writing?
The difficulty was that I’ve now been in a wheelchair for 20 years. The challenge was to remember when I was readjusting my life to accommodate a wheelchair. So here I was guy-in-wheelchair lurking disability forums to understand when being disabled felt significant.
This is why I love writing. Using only words, ungainly units of meaning, to try and reproduce an experience into the head of a stranger a thousand miles, possible a thousand years, away. I may have had the advantage of personal experience from which to draw but that’s not enough to succeed.
Saying that, finishing this book laid to rest a lot of ghosts. Trauma I carried was clearly processed, understood and captured in the text. It’s a feat that I marvel at especially because I know what a goofball the author is.
Did you face any dilemmas where the story touches on other people’s lives?
Not really because it’s fiction, purely. The people who actually know me are going to struggle more than the general public. Memory is plasticine and I could easily see them struggling between what they know happened to me and the novel. Especially because I think I’ve done a pretty good job at the clean seams between them. It’s a lived book. Even I get confused about what Jarred the author did and what Jarred the character got up to. My advice is just read the book. If it compels you, high five to me. If it doesn’t, try to keep it to yourself, I’ve got bills to pay.
What role does humour play in a book such as this?
For The Coward, humour did a lot of practical work. Firstly, it lightened a work that explores difficult and heavy relationships and themes. I didn’t want some Hardy-esque march of doom and misery. But, I definitely didn’t want a farce.
People who’ve had a hard go of it and come through the other side, in my experience, tend to have a joyful sense of humour. It’s a defence mechanism. That’s definitely how the characters are using it. The snipes and jokes between father and son are their way of navigating their difficult pasts. It felt true to their characters and made for a better read.
I find it odd when humour is lacking from a book. It’s such an essential part of the human experience. Maybe we should be asking why so much of literature is po-faced?
Tell us about your working day.
Coffee and sugar are the Adderall for the rest of us all. I wrote final drafts of The Coward fuelled by coffee and doughnuts late at night because I was a stay-at-home dad [to two daughters] during the day. I’d then stop by a pub to do admin and answer emails. It was not a sustainable approach and I do not recommend it. These days, I work in the morning. I definitely have to switch off everything. If I just start writing, I get a lot done. If I check Twitter or the news, the day is gone.
Have Covid-related restrictions affected your writing life?
The closing of schools has been a pain. I can’t write a thing with the girls in the house. I need quite a lot of concentration and that’s hard when tiny people are fighting over cardboard they’ve pulled out of a bin. We’re in Marseilles now. Why not move to a country with two small children where you don’t speak the language during a pandemic? I’ve been run over by a car and lived. There isn’t much that scares me.
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
God, yes. All the time. I try to not take it too seriously, because there are actual problems in the world. My not having a synonym for “shiny” ready at hand is not one of them. My advice is to take a walk, call a friend, flirt with your partner, go be kind, whatever, then come back later and try again.
The Coward is launched next week at an Edinburgh bookshop event. What does the city mean to you?
I moved to Edinburgh from Austin, Texas, to go to university a long time ago. Edinburgh is my adopted hometown. To be more specific, Leith. I loved it there. It’s a real, and increasingly rare, community. I have very fond memories of pubs packed with old bald men wearing green, greeting and belting out Sunshine on Leith. So, I love that it was a Scottish publisher, Canongate, that took a chance on this book.
Sadly, all my launch events are virtual, but my need for a glass of warm white wine and the adulation of strangers will have to wait until more certain, less infectious, times. On July 1, I have my launch online hosted by the Lighthouse Bookshop and AL Kennedy. That will be fun.
Are there downsides to the writer’s life?
Not mine. I live an annoyingly jammy life for a guy who can’t tap dance.
The Coward by Jarred McGinnis is published by Canongate, £16.99. It will be launched online at 7pm on July 1 at an event hosted by Edinburgh’s Lighthouse Bookshop and chaired by AL Kennedy. Tickets available via http://lighthousebookshop.com
EXCLUSIVE EXTRACT FROM THE COWARD BY JARRED MCGINNIS:
In the dream I couldn’t direct or rescript, paramedics stood over me. The buildings and people in waterproof coveralls were washed in the alternating red and amber of an idling fire truck. There was no pain, yet. There was confusion.There was fear. There was my heart trying to escape my chest. But no pain, and that scared me too. I was going to die. I knew that. I wanted to ask if I was dying, but I didn’t know the words. More people nearby. People speaking to the driver. People speaking to Melissa. Melissa, was she okay? Ask if Melissa is okay. Every thin thought fell apart before I made sense of it. A voice to my left. I looked. A middle-aged woman. Her helmet, so yellow it glowed, loomed closer until I saw only her sun-hardened face.The deep crow’s feet at her eyes made her look kind and gentle. I thought maybe it was going to be okay.
It was not going to be okay.
‘Can you hear me? What’s your name?’ Behind her safety glasses, her black eyes shone in the glare of the headlights. ‘Can you tell me your name?’
‘Hello, Jerry. Can you tell me if you’re allergic to any medication?’
‘No, you can’t tell me? No, you’re not allergic?’
‘No, not allergic.’
‘Jerry, I’m going to put this tube between your ribs to inflate your lung. Your ribs are broken. It’s going to hurt. Ready? One . . . two . . . three.’
Pain arrived as promised. A fiery Fourth of July bloom of hurt burst from my side. It vibrated down my ribs, spreading along my spine, shoulders, arms, neck, skull. My teeth loosened in their sockets. It awoke all the other agonies. A jolt of electric pain shot from the break in my arm and churned my stomach. I didn’t want to be sick. I was going to be sick. I needed to tell them I was going to be sick. The kind-eyed woman set my arm in a splint and I heard the terrible yelp of a dog being punished. It was me who had made that noise. Scared, I was very scared. Golden sparks swam and fizzled in my vision and each time she adjusted the tube between my broken ribs the pain rippled new and fresh.This couldn’t possibly go on. This couldn’t get worse. I was wrong. Every root and branch of nerve hummed hate and each shallow sip of air that burned my throat reassured me that what had happened was not a dream. My body shook.
‘I’m cold,’ I said through chattering teeth.
‘We’re going to take care of you,’ she said.
In the darkness my body drifted up.The sounds of that night faded and there was a steady beeping of an unseen machine. I felt the flicker of tv light behind my closed eyelids. I opened them and I was in my hospital bed. The sheets were damp with sweat. The redneck roommate snored away on the other side of the curtain, dreaming of beer and bass. The harsh light from under the door kept the room in a yellow gloam. I had to reassure myself that I was awake and this was not the dream. But I still felt pain.
My head was being compressed. At each throb, pain jabbed my eyes. Nausea churned my stomach and I fumbled for the bedpan. My heart tapped out a triple beat before stumbling back to its steady rhythm. I mashed the nurse call button. My unfeeling, unmoving legs were being twisted. I was lying on my back, but my legs were pinned up behind me, curling like a withering plant. My left leg twisted away from my body. The bundled straw of my muscles snapped one by one under the torture. I tried to climb the bed to escape the attack. I mashed and mashed the call button. I could hear the bell ringing at their desk down the hall. My howls resonated in my skull and drowned out the snores of my unperturbed roommate. I yelled a little louder, partly for the relief, partly to hurry the nurse and partly to wake the redneck up. A nurse arrived and casually walked to my bed. I felt an urgency that this suffering should be shared.
‘My legs! What’s happening to my legs? They’re breaking. They’re breaking!’
She pulled the sheets away. She touched my legs, still irritatingly calm, while I struggled in bed pulling at the skin of my stomach. She felt my head. How could she be calm right now? How could my roommate be sleeping?
‘Do you feel like you have a hangover? Nauseous?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, teeth clenched.
‘You need to sit up.’ She pressed the button on the bed.
Another nurse came in and took my blood pressure.‘Have you peed?’
‘My fucking legs. They’re twisted. Straighten my legs, straighten my legs!’
‘They are straight. It’s neurological pain, probably dysreflexia. I’ll go see if you can have some meds.’
‘I can have meds,’ I screamed, as the unseen hands twisted my legs into another impossible direction. Paraplegia isn’t just the golden ticket to great parking and people’s condescension. It comes with surprises like autonomic dysreflexia and phantom pain. Though it was the phantom pain that was torturing me, I found out later that it was the dysreflexia that could kill me.
She came back with two yellow pills. I gripped the rails so tight that my fingers hurt and tried to pull the rail from the bed. I wanted something besides me to be broken. I wanted the nurses to be as scared too. I wanted my room-mate to be awake and witnessing. The pain in my head started to fade, but my legs were still being twisted off.
‘The pills aren’t working.’
‘They will.They will.’
‘No! They won’t.’
The two nurses looked at each other, looked at me, wordlessly conferring. I wanted to shout, ‘Why are you so calm? Look at my legs!’ A nurse left and came back filling a syringe. She gave me the shot and calm and peace and a floating goodness spread through my rebelling body. My legs drifted back to their normal position and I felt warm and exhausted and happy to be going to sleep and, as I drifted off, I heard my roommate’s thick Texan drawl say, ‘Welcome to the shitshow, partner.’