Susanna Clarke admits that her first novel took her more than 10 years to write -- "a crazy amount of time to spend on anything -- except building a cathedral, growing a garden or educating a child," she has said.
To be fair, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was obviously not a small undertaking, both literally and figuratively. For one thing, the book clocks in at 800 pages. For another, Clarke spent a good bit of time researching the history for her early nineteenth-century London tale about two magicians.
As a fantasy novel filled with historical detail and copious "footnotes" that further embellish her richly imagined world, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell had more riding on it than the average first novel. Clarke is being positioned as a writer who, like Neil Gaiman before her, brings a literary heft (not just in pages) and potential crossover appeal to a previously neglected genre.
The story is set centuries after the Raven King -- a human brought up by fairies who ruled the country with magic -- has passed into legend. Mr Norrell studies ancient lore and eventually gains fame as the only real sorcerer in the early 1800s England. When he encounters a young, dashing magician peer named Jonathan Strange and takes him on as a pupil, their styles clash and a rivalry develops.
"[The marketing push for Clarke's novel] is not so unusual for a big first novel," a New York Times writer observed. "But it is curious for a big first novel about dueling magicians that is uncompromisingly literary without being shy about taking the genre seriously."
Hmm... a thick book about magicians by an English author with "crossover hit" written all over it? The Harry Potter comparisons have already begun. Clarke's reaction? "I don't think there could ever be an adult Harry Potter," she says in a publisher's interview. "I think it's harder for adults to be enchanted -- it's hard for them to switch off their critical faculties and just be swept along by the story."
Clarke makes this enchantment possible by rooting her story in a very firm historical foundation, seamlessly drawing in the politics and culture of nineteenth-century London. She can be by turns witty and spellbinding, capable of creating breathtaking momentum in a scene. Clarke has a particular gift for making intangible, vague atmospheres quite sensate and vivid. The result is feeling as if you've wandered into a dark, mysterious castle that you can't bring yourself to leave.
One way Clarke eases suspension of the reader's disbelief is by adding not only historical detail but "magical" detail to make it seem more earth-bound. Rather than make magic something purely supernatural, she injects it with some amusing, workmanlike mundanity. When Strange is told his destiny to become a magician, he reacts, "I hope to be married soon and a life spent in dark woods surrounded by thieves and murderers would be inconvenient to say the least."
Clarke has said that her next book will be set in the same world has her first one -- and this time she hasn't got 10 years to spend on it. Fans shouldn't have to wait long to revisit Strange and Norrell's alluring world, and meet new characters.
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Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Clarke:
"I met my partner, Colin Greenland, through my writing. He was co-tutor on a week's writing course that I went on in 1993. Colin and the other tutor asked all the students to write a short story before the course. I didn't want to write a short story -- I wanted to discuss my novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. So I wrote a short story about them. So that was the first thing Colin knew about me -- that short story. Then I went on the course and met him, and now we've been together 10+ years.
"People who've only seen black and white photos of me, think my hair might be blond. It's not -- it's very grey. I'm not sure what people have against grey. It's the colour of stones and moonlight. Rather cool, I think."
"I've seen every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Huge fan."
"I like hiking through Northern hills and valleys. I like white wine, British beer from microbreweries, other people's gardens (because I don't attend to my own), other people's dogs and cats and pigs (because I have none of my own), and other people's houses (always more interesting than my own). My favourite nail polish for toes is called India by Chanel (a pretty, slightly sparkly pink), my favourite character in Law and Order is Jack McCoy, and my favourite pizza is pepperoni and jalapeno chilis."
"I don't like broccoli or Bob Dylan or D. H. Lawrence or TV programmes about celebrities."
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In the summer of 2004, Susanna Clarke took some time to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
C. S.Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia were the most important books of my childhood and showed me the sheer delight of escaping into other, more interesting worlds through reading. I still love Lewis's narrative voice -- so authoritative, but matter-of-fact and so gently ironic. At one point my mother gave my copies to a church reading club. She promised me I'd get them back. But the ones I got back were someone else's copies -- someone called Rosemary Briseley. I don't know who Rosemary Briseley is, but she has my books. This happened twenty years ago, but I'm still quite upset about it.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
Emma by Jane Austen is my favourite book. It is the cleverest of books. I especially love the dialogue -- every speech reveals the characters' obsessions and preoccupations, yet it remains perfectly natural. Emma lacks many of the qualities that one would imagine a book needs to make it compelling. True, some fairly dramatic things happen (a young woman is torn between an illicit romance which may make her happy, and her duty which will surely make her miserable) -- but the heroine manages to miss pretty much all of them -- so the reader does too. The central conflict and romance is not in the least melodramatic, but it is absolutely gripping. And none of the characters is malicious. Even in Jane Austen there is usually one character with a little wickedness, but here there is only very ordinary vulgarity and selfishness.
The rest are in no particular order:
The Man who was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton -- It's something like a very exciting detective novel and something like a poem and something like a theological puzzle -- and most of the dialogue reads as if it were written by Oscar Wilde. Unsurprisingly, it's not much like anything else in the world. It's very visual. The scenes are laid before you in a series of images -- images that are exact, startling, simple and colourful. It's like entering a beautiful hallucination or a benevolent nightmare. As in detective novels (and poetry and theology) the most mundane objects or actions can have immense significance. At the same time it is perfectly of its time and conveys a sense of what it was to be a certain sort of dandified English gentleman in 1908.
Watchmen by Alan Moore -- This is a graphic novel -- and it's about superheroes. Nevertheless it's full of real characters and real situations. The first time I read it I could not put it down. I managed on very little sleep and when I had to go to work I felt physically ill until I was able to go back to it. Moore does things in Watchmen that are impossible to do in a film or a novel without getting tricksy or arty. For example he tells two apparently unrelated stories at the same time -- showing one in pictures, and running the dialogue of the other over the top. Of course the stories aren't unrelated -- they comment on each other and make each other deeper, darker, more moving. It is simply virtuoso.
The Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle -- In the course of a year I tend to re-read all of them. Doyle creates a perfectly realised world and a quirky, cold, difficult hero who nevertheless is morally reliable.
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges -- Perfectly crafted stories with a strange philosophical twist about labyrinths, monsters, libraries, encyclopedias, mirrors, fantastic theology -- all my favourite stuff, in fact.
The Quincunx by Charles Palliser -- Another book that drove away sleep. I stayed up until three in the morning reading it. It's a huge, pastiche nineteenth-century mystery that you cannot put down. There are puzzles within puzzles. I thought I'd understood all of it, but apparently there was more. So it's a bit of a challenge too.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Such a tour de force of the imagination. The characters stay with you and so do the landscapes.
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg -- This is the oddest, eeriest book with a two-part structure. First comes an investigation into strange events centred on Edinburgh and then the main character's "confession." The author appears as a rather stroppy minor character. If it were by Martin Amis you might say it was poised at the cutting edge of the modern novel, but it was written in 1824. Hogg was a shepherd and a friend of Sir Walter Scott. Private Memoirs is about a man who believes he is "justified" -- i.e., among God's Elect -- and will be saved no matter what he does. And then he is led on to do all sorts of things.
All of Charles Dickens -- There is no one Dickens novel I could pick over all the others. Dickens is huge -- like the sky. Pick any page of Dickens and it's immediately recognisable as him, yet he might be doing social satire, or farce, or horror, or a psychological study of a murderer -- or any combination of these. He's always much more than you remember -- more playful, more surreal, more campaigning, more sentimental, more Victorian, more good and more bad.
The CAMRA Good Beer Guide -- This is the publication put out every year by the Campaign for Real Ale. It tells you what are the best pubs in England, serving the best beer. We take it with us wherever we go and we discover some great places.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I love films, but I don't have such a precise memory for them as books, so this is rather skewed towards recent films:
Spirited Away by the Japanese director/animator Hayao Miyazaki. This makes my hair stand on end it's so good. It's the story of a little girl who, through no fault of her own, slips into a strange, eerie and magical world with a vast antiquated bathhouse run by magical creatures and patronised by monsters.
Heat by Michael Mann -- I love this for the performances -- which are wonderful, especially Al Pacino; for the darkness; for the music; for the soaring, complicated plot. Sometimes I think it would be nice to go and live in Michael Mann-world, where all the buildings are perfect, and all the clothes are perfect and nothing is ever untidy. But on the other hand it's very violent there and everyone seems pretty unhappy, so maybe not.
I think I enjoyed Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy more than any other film before or since. It's not perfect, but it's as perfect as most things get. I never, ever want to see Viggo Mortensen, Elijah Wood or Sean Astin in anything else. I want to preserve them forever as Aragorn, Frodo and Sam.
Great Expectations and Oliver Twist (both black and white adaptations of Dickens's novels by the British director, David Lean). At the end of Oliver Twist there is a famous scene where Bill Sykes (a murderer) is hounded to his death across the rooftops of 19th century London. This scene still makes me catch my breath though I must have seen it a dozen times.
Films by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger -- The two I know best are The Canterbury Tales and A Matter of Life and Death -- These are quirky, black-and-white films, both very English, both set during the Second World War, both imbued with a wonderful love of life. They're about the wonderful things human beings can do -- but they're not in the least facile.
Almost anything by Terry Gilliam -- Particularly Twelve Monkeys, Time Bandits, and the flawed but marvellous The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. I love his offbeat imagination, humour, visual imagery.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
Old Motown, English folk, Dead Can Dance, U2, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Wagner, Afro Celt Sound System, David Bowie, Jeff Buckley.
On the whole, when I'm writing well I barely notice what I'm listening to, but sometimes I try to help create a particular atmosphere in a chapter by listening to music. When I was writing a certain chapter of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, I listened a lot to The Green Manalishi by Fleetwood Mac -- it's more than a song about madness; it's almost a distillation of madness. The stuff I'm writing at the moment seems to require ‘70s English folk music, like Nick Drake, Fotheringay and Fairport Convention.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
It'd be fun to convince people who'd never tried graphic novels of how wonderful they can be. I'm not quite sure what I'd choose -- perhaps Maus by Art Spiegelman which is a parable of the Holocaust, or Seth's It's a Good Life, if You Don't Weaken -- which is a sweet, melancholy tale about an artist/cartoonist in Canada.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I like getting graphic novels, books of popular history, books of folktales and myths, slightly offbeat art books. I'm wary of giving books as presents unless I really feel I understand someone's taste. For example I have no problems giving my partner a book, because he likes a lot of the same stuff as me. But I would never buy a book for my sister -- her taste is so different from mine, I'd almost certainly get it wrong.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I can write most places -- either in a notebook or on my iBook. I don't particularly need silence -- other people can be in the room. This has been and continues to be a great boon. I am especially fond of writing on trains. The continual flow of scenery and unrelated images is very beneficial to writing.
What do I have on my desk? I wish I could say there are only an interestingly shaped stone and a dried rose, but it's not true. My desk is covered with heaps of papers and books and pens. I wish I were a nice, tidy sort of person and I do try from time to time but it just doesn't ever happen.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I've been writing since my late teens (rather a long time ago). Behind me you'll find the scattered debris of several abandoned novels. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell took 10 years to write. I used to write it in the mornings before I went to work. I also wrote at weekends -- luckily my partner, Colin, is also a writer and so he understood why we never went anywhere for 10 years.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
I think some of the most sensible advice I can offer is to read a book called Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. It's not about plot construction or getting published or any of the stuff they put in other books on creative writing (though that stuff can be useful too). Nor is it mystical or spiritual. It's common-sense advice about writing every day so you build up creative muscles. She was a great believer that anyone, or almost anyone, can learn to write. She wrote her book in the 1930s, but what she says is still as relevant today as it was then.
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