Jed Mercurio interview

Scaling the heights

Having made his name with medical dramas, Jed Mercurio tells Mark Edmundson that he is twinning his obsessions in pursuit of the space race.

As someone who knows all about living up to a legacy, F1 racing driver Damon Hill once said: ‘Winning is everything. The only ones who remember you when you come second are your wife and your dog.’ It’s a sentiment that sits well with the protagonist of Jed Mercurio’s latest novel, where a life is lived in pursuit of being up there with Ivan the Terrible and Yuri Gagarin. Mercurio made his literary name with Bodies, a dark and cynical peek under the skin of hospital care, which he later adapted for the small screen. In the pipeline is a retelling of Frankenstein for ITV, bringing the nuts and bolts monster into line with the genetics debate.

In Ascent, the one-time doctor sheds a little light and imagination on two relatively uncharted historical phenomena, trading the oppressiveness of a junior hospital doctor’s brutal introduction to the NHS for the exploits of a fabulous Soviet fighter pilot and pioneering cosmonaut. Though perhaps the stuff of boys adventure books, Mercurio brings his eye for unflinching detail to the subject matter, furthering his sparse, direct prose, and again drawing on his own life.

‘I try and relate my writing to something I know about, and I had a primary experience of being in a competitive, military environment and being part of a squadron,’ claims Mercurio, who has coupled a childhood interest in the space programme with his RAF jet flight training. ‘In terms of the physical and psychological experiences of the protagonist, those were all based on my own personal recollections of learning to fly. I just transplanted them to Korea in the early 50s.’

The novel follows a fictional pilot through his encounters with the real events and characters of the covert Soviet involvement in the Korean War and then the subsequent space race with the US. In addressing the lost age of fighter pilot heroes and their eclipsing by the astronaut and cosmonaut, Mercurio also harks back to nostalgic tales of airborne derring-do and intrepid exploration, all in his own sharp and often unsentimental style. ‘I do like books to be quite an intense experience, and that’s the kind of novel I respond to as a reader,’ he explains. ‘So with Ascent, one of the things I wanted to do was not make it too remote from the reader, for it to be engaged with the human side and not just to be about the cold metal of planes and spacecraft. I wanted that very physical, visceral, intense feeling to be very strongly present.’

Despite the high adventure, Mercurio maintains this unflinching veracity and leads the reader to consider the altogether more terrestrial desire for pre-eminence and its subsequent potential for tragedy. ‘The pursuit of glory, the idea of leaving some kind of mark, of standing out and being the best of the best; all of these are things that have been written about a little bit before in terms of aviation. I just wanted to take things further and have a character who was incredibly single-minded and self-sacrificing, so that it would be a more universal story, one that is symbolic of anybody who wants to achieve something extraordinary.’

Jed Mercurio appears at Aye Write!, Sun 25 Feb;; Ascent is published by Jonathan Cape on Thu 8 Mar.

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