First-time author tunes into success with The Radio

Jonathan Lee
Jonathan Lee
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His debut novel has been compared to the work of Nick Hornby. Yvette Huddleston spoke to Barnsley author Jonathan Lee.

“Writing is something that I have always had a love for,” says Barnsley-based author Jonathan Lee whose first novel The Radio was published last month. “When I was nine I started self-publishing a magazine for school and I have piles of journals and exercise books full of ideas.”

Lee is manager of the Tax and Trust Department at Leeds wealth management company Pearson Jones Plc and had long nursed a dream of writing a book. “I think my friends were getting a bit fed up with me saying that I would write a novel one day,” he laughs. “Then I got divorced five years ago and I found I had some time on my hands. I got joint custody of my three children and on the nights that they weren’t with me, I started to write again.”

On those nights he writes from 8pm to midnight and although he has a full-time job that requires him to work long hours, he is very disciplined about it. “This is what I want to do with my life so I have to make time,” he says. “I book slots in my diary.”

Lee has described The Radio as “a dark story of family life, the perception of loving and being loved, and what it means to be sane.”

The central character in the novel is gentle, mild-mannered George Poppleton, a retired husband and father with a demanding wife and grown-up daughter and a granddaughter whom he dotes on.

Having stumbled across an old transistor radio in the loft one day, George becomes obsessed with listening to it, plugging in his earphones to escape from the banality – and often hostility – of his domestic life. As George’s behaviour becomes increasingly eccentric, it gradually transpires that he is also trying to blot out a tragic memory – the loss of his son Adam.

Elements of the book are autobiographical. Lee’s older brother Simon, to whom the book is poignantly dedicated, took his own life nine years ago having made a previous suicide attempt as a teenager.

“I had the idea of a henpecked husband who is trying to escape from life, by listening to a radio, and then I had to find something that he was trying to escape from,” says Lee. “So I turned to my past experience with my brother. It was something I wanted to write about; I thought it would be cathartic.”

When he finished the first draft he gave it to his parents to read, forewarning them that they may find part of it upsetting. “I had numerous conversations with my brother after he made the suicide attempt and about why it happened,” he says. “So I had dealt with quite a lot of it and I wanted to write it all down for other people. We were best friends and we had a fantastic childhood; it is just such a shame that people end up in these situations.”

Despite the distressing events at its heart, the book combines some very moving moments with black comedy and some wonderfully well-observed passages about the dynamics of family life and the exquisite awkwardness of certain social situations.

“There are a lot of things that you pick up during your life. George is two or three different people and I probably share a percentage of his traits,” says Lee, chuckling. “The other characters are a little bit similar to somebody I know or have met.”

The Radio is part of a planned trilogy about the Poppleton family and was shortlisted for The Novel Prize, a competition for unpublished authors launched last year. “There were nearly 3,000 entries and I got down to the last five,” says Lee. “It was judged by authors, agents and publishers so I was over the moon.”

The Radio, published by Matador, £7.99.

Novelist’s Barnsley roots

Jonathan Lee was born in 1974 in Barnsley where he was brought up and still lives with his three children – nine year old twins James and Annabel and 14-year old daughter Alexandra.

He went to university in Preston and then moved back to Barnsley. He is manager of the Tax and Trust Department at Leeds wealth management company Pearson Jones Plc. The Radio is his first novel.

He is planning a tour of The Radio, speaking in schools, colleges and universities about creative writing and storytelling.

The Radio has been compared to the work of Nick Hornby and Mark Haddon.

He is currently halfway through writing his second novel, The Page.