Interview with Clare Clark

With one of my favorite covers of the year and a striking, fascinating story, Beautiful Lies rocked my world last month. I'm delighted to share my interview with Clare Clark -- read on to learn about her writing, her book, and what she does when she's not writing. Be sure to check out the giveaway for a copy of Beautiful Lies!

What was the plot of your very first piece of fiction?

My very first piece of fiction would be going back a bit now. I wrote endlessly when I was a child, lots of complicated adventures involving orphans and dark, draughty, rather Gothic houses (I was a big fan of writers like Joan Aitken) or, when I tired of those, adventures about girls with horses that borrowed a great deal from the books of the Pullein-Thompson sisters, a extraordinarily prolific and very English threesome whose books have now, I think, disappeared without trace. These were just as fantastical as the orphan books — I was a very citified child who lived in London and was in fact actually rather afraid of horses. My difficulty was not starting stories — I liked a dramatic opening and plunged my characters into deeply trying situations. The hard part was finishing — I’m not sure I ever really did finish any of those stories. By that time things had grown so complicated that the only feasible way of bringing the narrative to an end was to fall back on that trusty old chestnut, “And I woke up, and realized it was all just a dream”…

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?


Clare Clark's 'writing shed'
I’m actually very disciplined about writing, a habit that dates back to when the children were small. When they have gone to school I get any admin out of the way and then I go down to my little house at the end of the garden. The building dates back to 1906 and was built with the clinker from a local glass factory, so it is very solid and feels like a quite different world to the main house a mere 100 feet away. I try not to go back to the house until I’ve written a minimum of 1000 words. I don’t believe in the Muse; if I waited to be “in the mood” it would take me decades to finish a novel. I’ve found that it’s always hard to start, almost every day, and that the temptation to duck out never quite goes away, so you just have to sit down and start writing and, even if it comes slowly, by the end of the day the act of writing will have connected you to what you want to say. It is often on the days that I want to write least that I find myself the most surprised by where the writing takes me, and most struck by the extraordinary way that fiction works in the brain, taking you somewhere both unexpected and utterly inevitable.

Was Beautiful Lies the original title of your book?


No. I have always been terrible at titles and for a long time Beautiful Lies didn’t have a title at all. Then it went through a phase of being called Smoke & Mirrors, which we all understood to be ‘right’ for the novel but which didn’t stick – it felt like a cliché and, worse, like a thriller. So when I found the Emerson quote I was thrilled. It’s not the first time it’s been used as a title (there is a film with Audrey Tatou, I think, and a US thriller from a couple of years back) but we all loved it so much, we decided we could live with that.

As you were writing Beautiful Lies, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?


A lot of Beautiful Lies surprised me. More than any novel I have written, it was a book that grew with the writing and which refused to follow the plan I had initially sketched for its shape. I knew from the outset that I wanted to write a novel about identity, and memory, and, in particular, about marriage in a time when expectations of marriage were very different to the ones we have now, but the period in which the book is set is so rich with incident that it was impossible not to let the characters get caught up in the rush of their times. If I am forced to choose, however, I think it was Maribel’s trip to Spain that was the most unexpected twist. It was inspired by a story written by Robert Cunninghame Graham, the real-life politician on whom Edward Campbell Lowe is roughly based, but it was a diversion from the story that I had not foreseen and which I worried about, especially in a book that seemed to be growing fatter and fatter. But it turned out to be vital to the novel. It is her time in Spain that opens Maribel’s eyes and finally helps her to understand just who she really is.

Talking of surprises, I have also been struck by how contemporary the concerns in this novel have turned out to be. It was never my intention to draw comparisons between this period of history and the present — I always find such notions artificial, even mendacious — but of course it has innumerable connections. It surprises me, though it should not by now, I suppose, how one’s day-to-day concerns, such as the Leveson Enquiry here in England into press standards, somehow insinuate themselves into one’s work. The creative brain is an extraordinary and astonishing thing.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?


I love the theatre and London is a wonderful place to be for plays, both new and revivals, so I am a member of several and go as much as I can. Of course I read compulsively too and, when my brain overheats from all those words, I like to swim. I find the water a very good place to work things out. I also love to walk (or hiking, in American parlance) which is not always easy with children who believe that walking is the Devil’s work, but my husband and I take ourselves off without them from time to time and walk all day, either in the mountains or, even better, by the sea, somewhere if we are lucky we won’t see another person all day. Life feels simpler and clearer when you walk and the sense of freedom is exhilarating.

Read any good books recently?

Some wonderful books. I was looking forward to Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies — I had adored Wolf Hall — but I was totally stunned by its sequel, truly a masterpiece by a writer at the absolute peak of her powers. When it ended I was bereft. I also loved Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, a tender, understated but ultimately profound story of a retired man who decides on a whim to walk the breath of England to visit an old friend who is dying in hospital. Joyce’s novel was long-listed for this year’s Booker prize but to my sadness didn’t make it to the short list. I saw Chad Harbach speak here in London this summer (amid many favourable comparisons to Woody Allen!) and adored his The Art of Fielding, which had all the scope of a Jonathan Franzen novel but triumphantly avoided Franzen’s cynicism and his unremittingly dislikeable characters. Recently I have also been rereading The Leopard by Lampedusa and realizing why so many writers cite it as among their inspirations. Set in Sicily during the years of Italian unification, it is an exquisitely written, quietly devastating exploration of the dying days of the Sicilian aristocracy. It also has flashes of wonderful humour. E M Forster called it ‘one of the great lonely books’ and, more than 150 years after it was written, its magic remains as powerful as ever.

*** *** ***

My thanks to Ms. Clark for her time and delightful responses. Be sure to check out the other reviews on the tour.

GIVEAWAY!


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Beautiful Lies to one lucky reader. To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only (sorry!). Ends 10/5.


Comments

  1. Her writing "shed" looks heavenly!

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    1. Doesn't it?! I so admire her discipline, too!

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  2. Oh, I just finished this and loved it. Thanks for this. The shed does look totally lovely. :O)

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    1. This one is totally a fav for 2012 -- really adored it -- and I love seeing the place where it was written!

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  3. Clare is as eloquent in her answers as she is in her novels!

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    1. I know, right?! I fangirl melted over this interview.

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  4. I love her writing cottage, and think that I need to build myself one of those so that I can get some real writing done! I also love that she ended all her childhood stories with "and then I woke up". I have done that with childhood stories before. Great interview today. I seriously need to read this book!

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    1. Me too -- sounds magical -- and I love that she doesn't wait for her muse. It's good advice. You totally need to read this book, Heather -- I'd offer you my copy if I could stand to part with it!!

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  5. I just love her writing shed. I'd love to see those photos/art on the walls that I spy inside the windows.

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    1. It looks/feels so magical! I hadn't noticed those photos/art but you're right -- and now I'm intrigued, too!!

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  6. Lovely interview! Clare Clark's writing shed looks wonderful.

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  7. I love that the book refused to follow the plan she initially had for it!

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  8. Great interview and am intrigued to learn more about her book (love the cover and the title). Greatly admire her writing discipline!

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  9. The interview is great and makes the book even more compelling to me- !!

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