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APRIL 2005

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Susanna Clarke
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31 March 2005




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The Three Susanna Clarkes April 2005

Susanna Clarke grew up in Northern England and Scotland, and attended St. Hilda's College at Oxford studying philosophy, politics, and economics. She worked in publishing for eight years, then taught English as a foreign language in Italy and Spain for two years. From 1993 to 2003 she edited cookbooks Simon & Schuster UK in Cambridge. In 1993 she attended a writing class taught by Colin Greenland and Geoff Ryman, and wrote her first story as a requirement for the class. Greenland sent one of her stories, "The Ladies of Grace Adieu", to Neil Gaiman, who showed it to Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who bought it for his anthology Starlight 1 (1996), launching Clarke's career as a fiction writer. She has published only a few stories, many related to the world of her novel, from "Stopp't-Clock Yard" in 1996 to World Fantasy Award-nominee "Mr. Simonelli or the Fairy Widower" in 2000 and "Anticks and Frets" in 2004. In 1993 she began writing Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which Neil Gaiman called "unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years." Published to acclaim in 2004, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was longlisted for the Man Booker prize and shortlisted for the Whitbread Award.

Clarke lives in Cambridge with her partner, Colin Greenland.
Photo by Charles N. Brown

Excerpts from the interview:

“Maybe there are three Susanna Clarkes. There's the one that wrote Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and the one that goes around Cambridge and knows our friends and lives in the house with Colin and gets the dry cleaning and does the shopping, all that sort of thing. And then there's the person that goes on tour and stays in hotels and gets to eat at places like Chez Panisse. That third person has lots and lots of treats, but that third person has to work quite hard, actually. It's a strain sometimes, because she's on show all the time. It's like a job, and you have the responsibility to do it in the right way. The middle person that lives in Cambridge and is the 'real' person, she's OK (I hope). The first person, the one who writes the books, is the one I'm a little nervous about. She's the one that needs shielding from celebrity, and from the opinions going 'gabble gabble gabble.'”


“I wanted to explore my ideas of the fantastic, as well as my ideas of England and my attachment to English landscape. From an English person's point of view, you look across at America and you get the impression there is a sort of fable, a myth of America: an ideal of what America really is. Sometimes it feels to me as though we don't have a fable of England, of Britain, something strong and idealized and romantic. I didn't consciously think of things like Arthurian myth or The Matter of Britain when I was writing, and I don't know that Arthurian myths (fond as I am of them) are there. I was picking up on things like Chesterton and Conan Doyle, and the sense (which is also in Jane Austen) of what it was to be an English gentleman at the time when England was a very confident place -- as America is now.”


“Although some of my favorite stories are set in other worlds, I didn't want to write about a completely fantastic world -- it seemed too arbitrary, somehow. And I wanted to have this chronology of magicians, for I knew very early that at one end would be a very powerful magician king, and at the other end there would be two magicians who were always named together. People couldn't necessarily tell the difference between them, and that would be a source of intense frustration to them because they thought they were poles apart, so they would have quite a difficult relationship. The medieval background came first, not the background of the early 1800s. I didn't know anything about that in the beginning, but I did know the story of the Raven King. In a way, he's the character that's closest to me. In the later part, it was the characters of Strange and Norrell, and as soon as I'd got their relationship -- it came all of a piece into my head -- everything evolved from that.”


“I try not to read too many reviews -- even good ones -- because they fill your head up with all these buzzy voices and opinions about what you're writing. Colin can read them and tell me if somebody's going to sue me or whatever! He did say, 'I think you should probably read Clute's.' I don't understand quite a lot of it and some of it I don't agree with (I don't know where he got it from that it's the first of a trilogy and I have a three-book contract!), but a lot of it is so incisive that I think he's laid bare to me some things about the book that I wasn't aware of. Once I'd read it, it was hard to see the book the same way again. The great virtue of Clute and the others is that they think and analyze, whereas I write very instinctively. Sometimes I really don't know what I'm doing and I may go down a path which is entirely supplementary and unnecessary. Still, not reading reviews is one of the things I'm trying to do to protect the Susanna Clarke that sits down and writes. After all those long years I spent writing this book with nobody knowing anything about it except Colin and Neil and a few other people, I want to protect that person because she's the one that's got to write the next book.”

The full interview, with biographical profile, is published in the April 2005 issue of Locus Magazine.

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