Jonathan Coe writes:
“Out of all my published novels, the idea for this one probably goes back the furthest. Some time in 1977 or 1978, when I was still a schoolboy at King Edward's School, Birmingham, I began to write a novel based on my experiences there. The title was ‘Half Asleep; Half Awake’, after the track composed by John Greaves on Henry Cow's album Unrest. Really the only thing that survives from this original conception is the word Unrest, which Benjamin Trotter adopts as the title for his never-to-be-completed magnum opus in The Closed Circle.
I only wrote about fifty pages of this novel at the time, but what lodged in my head was the idea for a story set in a school, in which the school would serve as a kind of microcosm for British society as a whole – rather in the way that Lindsay Anderson had used the public school setting in his film If …
When I began the actual writing of the novel, I discovered for the first time that London itself, my adopted city, seemed to have become something of an obstacle. Instead of writing at home, I began to get into the habit of renting out holiday properties from The Landmark Trust and spending short periods of time – usually three or four days – writing very intensively, often as much as 5,000 words a day. I remember especially productive visits to Lynch Lodge, just outside Peterborough (where I wrote the closing pages of ‘The Chick and the Hairy Guy’) and Peter's Tower in Devon (where I wrote the scene in which Sam Chase attempts to complete a crossword while his wife secretly reads a letter from her lover). A peculiar feature of the Landmark Trust properties is the massive leather-bound log books in which visitors record the details of their stay. Because the Landmark properties often attract quite eccentric guests, these logbooks can make for bizarre reading. After a while I myself began to leave pseudonymous entries, adopting the character of Sir Arthur Pusey-Hamilton, a mad, blimpish old fogey I'd invented for this purpose. After writing a number of these, I realised that I'd become fond of the character of Sir Arther, and found a way of incorporating his voice into The Rotters' Club itself.
To answer a question which comes up all the time, viz. ‘How autobiographical is the novel?’, I can only say that all the background detail of the school and the Birmingham suburbs is taken from my own life, whereas all the main developments in the story are fictitious. It's true that when I was a schoolboy I did, briefly, discover God when he answered a prayer that I made to him in the classroom, but the missing item that I needed so desperately was a piece of homework, not a pair of navy blue swimming trunks.