September 2005

Geoffrey H. Goodwin


An Interview with Susanna Clarke

Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell just won the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel. The debut combines a Pre-Victorian sensibility, language reminiscent of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen and fairies and magicians -- with surprisingly original and compelling results.

It’s too vast a book to summarize effectively, but, in an attempt to set the stage, magic has left Northern England -- living on in theory and books but not in practice. Mr. Norrell of Hurtfew Abbey, a book-hoarder who lacks some social graces, steps in and proves that real magic can and does still exist. He gains an arrogant pupil, Jonathan Strange, but a rift forms between them. Norrell’s love of secrecy and Strange’s attraction to the wilder edges of magic invoke dark and sinister happenings. People start to come back from the dead and mirrors reveal paths to other worlds...

At 800 pages, with footnotes, the book took Clarke a decade to write, research and construct. She’s said that she wouldn’t have written it if she’d known how long it would take. Along with the Hugo, the novel’s other accomplishments include being BookSense’s adult fiction book of the year, Time magazine’s #1 Book of 2004, and the Locus Award for first novel.

One of the first raves was on Tuesday February 24th, 2004 (six months before the book’s initial hardcover release) when Neil Gaiman’s journal linked to a Guardian Unlimited article and said, “For many years, whenever people have asked me who my favourite fantasy writers are, after I've mentioned Susanna Clarke, they look blank. ‘One day,’ I'd tell them, ‘She'll finish her novel....’ And look, she did, she did!”

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell has just been released in trade paperback by Bloomsbury USA.

Congratulations on the Hugo win. Did you have any idea how gigantic Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell would be? Have your fans been rabid?

Fans of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are very polite. They are charming and highly intelligent. They have excellent dress-sense, and are kind to animals and small children. Rabid? Certainly not. Apart from all that what’s interesting about people who come to readings of Strange and Norrell is that they are all different ages -- from grandparents to kids; there are men and women; and there are people who read fantasy all the time and people who never read fantasy. This is very gratifying.

I get asked a lot about my expectations for Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and I honestly don’t think I had any. I worked in publishing for twenty years and everything I had seen there taught me that writing books and publishing them is hard and full of frustrations. So my expectations were these: I expected to gain the respect of other writers and some discerning fantasy readers. That’s about it. Even when Bloomsbury started to get enthusiastic and show great energy in promoting the book, I thought, “This is great, but we’ll see what happens.”

You dedicated your book to the memory of your brother, Paul Frederick Gunn Clarke. Had he read parts of the novel before his death?

No, I didn’t show the book to any one other than my agent before it was sold.

It isn’t at all the sort of book Paul would have liked. Paul had a great fondness for old-fashioned British comics like the Dandy, and the Beano. These comics are/were an oddity; I don’t think anything exactly like them exists in the States. They were published up to the 1980s but they still reflected British schoolboy humour of the 1930s and 1940s where every boy had a catapult in his pocket and his wildest dreams were about sweets and ice cream, and putting banana skins under the headmaster’s feet. Paul also liked really snappy, short thrillers. As you may know Strange and Norrell fits neither of these profiles. But I know he would have been tickled pink to know that there was a book published in many countries with his name in it. He would have thought that was very funny.

And I also did it for my parents. I might have dedicated the book to them, but after Paul died, I knew it would mean more to them if I dedicated it to him. Recently I showed my mother some foreign editions and she immediately turned to the dedication page to see how Paul’s name looked in all the foreign languages. It was important to her to see it.

Had you done much world travel before the extensive book tour?

Not really. That’s one of the things Strange and Norrell has done for us (Colin and me): we’ve been able to travel and see places that would have been completely beyond our scope before. We’ve been to the States several times, to Norway. And I’m soon going to Italy and Sweden.

In certain circles, your shorter fiction has been well known for almost a decade. Have you (or your publisher) considered doing a collection of your stories?

The subject of a collection crops up from time to time. I think it’ll happen eventually but there are no firm plans at the moment.

Do the two lead characters still talk to you? On the whole, are they grateful for what you did for them?

We don’t talk at the moment. Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange and I are like three people who worked together in a very small office for a very long time. I think we’re all glad to have a bit of a break from each other. That’s not to say we might not talk later on. There’s been no big break up. But they’re off doing whatever they’re doing (I don’t enquire) and I’m doing my stuff. As for being grateful, excuse me? Have you met them? Grateful isn’t in their vocabulary.

When, in the writing process, did it make sense to start telling the story of the Aureate or Golden Age magicians in footnotes?

I originally imagined Strange and Norrell as eighteenth-century characters and one of my early ideas was to write their story as an eighteenth-century novel of letters. I did actually write some letters from one character to another. But I realized quickly that this was a cumbersome way to tell a story and so I abandoned it. But there had been a freedom in writing the letters that I missed. I’d been able to wander on to any miscellaneous subject I liked and the characters had been able to explore the medieval history of their world. What happened then was that I tried a footnote to explain one little point and immediately I realised that here was the perfect vehicle for writing little stories of the medieval history and going off down any side-road. And now there are 150 of them.

Did working with Bloomsbury feel like it put pressure on the book? Or did it seem like your work would be crucial for the publisher?

I was really fortunate in stumbling upon Bloomsbury US. Because they’re a relatively small company with a relatively small list, they’re able to think carefully about the individual titles -- and this can really benefit quirky, don’t-quite-fit-the-profile books like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I felt the book got a kind of attention that I wouldn’t imagine possible with a larger company. Of course it put pressure on the book. If a publisher really gets behind a book, then obviously they have certain expectations. You can’t have one without the other. But it’s definitely pressure of the right sort. I was just very, very grateful.

And also along the same lines, magic has been hot (in books and film) for a spell, but your book definitely reached an audience beyond typical SF and Fantasy fans. Did you worry that magicians would turn off some readers?

Magicians will turn off some readers. Other readers (or possibly the same ones) will be turned off by an insightful examination of the lives of an alcoholic family in, say, Boston, Mass, or Bristol, England. This is all as it should be. It is entirely legitimate not to like reading about magicians or alcoholics. And I would never try to persuade anyone that they ought to try it if they don’t fancy it. Far better to encourage people to read things that do attract them.

Beyond this, there are clearly people who have some sort of taste for magic and fantasy (because they liked magical books when they were children or now watch fantasy movies and television) but who would never read a genre fantasy novel. Why this should be, I do not exactly know. It has something to do with perceptions of fantasy and fantasy-readers as a sub-culture and something to do with marketing. Either way this was the reason that we wanted Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to be published on a mainstream list -- not because it’s not fantasy, clearly it is -- but to try and reach some of those readers.

Your historical research is exquisite. Are you one who can get lost in research? Did you also use the story to look at present day issues, or is that going too far?

I love doing research. At least I love reading about subjects that aren’t quite connected to what I’m writing about. For instance I read about the history of food or table settings. And scarcely any of this makes it into the book or story, but it gives you a feel for the period you’re writing about; and sometimes bits of knowledge you pick up can creep into the writing in surprising ways.

I don’t want to write consciously about the present in a historical story. In Strange and Norrell I wanted to use the historical background to make the magic seem more real, more convincing. It’s hard enough trying to will yourself and the reader back in time without dragging in contemporary issues and attitudes. I don’t subscribe to this idea that’s going round that what’s interesting about the past is how similar it is to the present. What’s interesting about the past is how different it is.

To be a bit complicated, many contemporary authors seem to propel their characters, and for the matter readers, with over-the-top page-turner action. Through a certain lens, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell can be seen as a refreshing antidote, seeming more meticulous or measured and less forced. Not to imply that you don't have plenty of action, but would you consider that a valid assessment?

I don’t think in these terms. I try to surprise the reader, do the not-obvious thing. If I can do that -- make the story as consistently intriguing and unexpected as possible -- then I don’t think it matters whether the scenes are action or not-action. I think what I’m saying is that I don’t put my faith in action, but in story.

You've answered this one a bunch, and, whether you know it or not, Bookslut loves some of the same authors you do, but who are your favorite contemporary writers to read?

I’m not a very contemporary person. I read a lot of old books. However I will read pretty much anything Alan Moore writes. He’s my hero. Promethea is probably my favourite of his (recent-ish) comics. I’m also reading Alan Garner’s Thursbitch at the moment. He is the English writer above all others who is steeped in English landscape, English past, English dialect. He writes about the bones of England. Thursbitch is not an easy read, but it is extraordinary. I’m finding it fascinating to compare these two Alans. They are completely dissimilar in some ways and curiously similar in others. Both have stayed all their writing lives in unfashionable, provincial England (Moore in Northampton and I think Garner lives in Cheshire). Their writing gets fashionable, then unfashionable, then fashionable again. Neither takes any notice; they just do what they do. In Promethea Moore explains very articulately what magic and shamanism is. Whereas in Garner’s Thursbitch the reader is often at a loss to know what is going on, but reading it is a bit like experiencing shamanism for yourself.

You may be sick of being asked, but how is the next book going? Is Childermass still a central character? Have things changed for this one?

Oh, yes, Childermass is still around, but the next book has been a bit slowed down by persistent ill-health. (Mine not its.)

Finally, do you see yourself editing cookbooks any time soon?

Not really. By the time I left publishing I felt that I’d had enough of cookbooks for a while. I recently bought a few new ones and so I guess I must be interested in food and food history again. Food, landscape, culture; and how they all connect.