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A Conversation with Susanna Clarke, Part 1
Interview by Steven H Silver
October 2004
© Susanna Clarke
Susanna Clarke
Susanna Clarke
Susanna Clarke was born in Nottingham in 1959. A nomadic childhood was spent in towns in Northern England and Scotland. She was educated at St Hilda's College, Oxford, and has worked in various areas of non-fiction publishing, including Gordon Fraser and Quarto. In 1990, she left London and went to Turin to teach English to stressed-out executives of the Fiat motor company. The following year she taught English in Bilbao.

She returned to England in 1992 and spent the rest of that year in County Durham, in a house that looked out over the North Sea. There she began working on her first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

From 1993 to 2003, Susanna Clarke was an editor at Simon and Schuster's Cambridge office, where she worked on their cookery list. She has published seven short stories and novellas in US anthologies. One, "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse," first appeared in a limited-edition, illustrated chapbook from Green Man Press. Another, "Mr Simonelli or The Fairy Widower," was shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award in 2001.

She lives in Cambridge with her partner, the novelist and reviewer Colin Greenland.

ISFDB Bibliography
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Website

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Did you have any difficulties keeping the complexity of the story straight?
No. Because what I had in my head for most of the time was a very abstract or a simplified shape in my head. Then for each section, I would have a much more detailed idea of what was going on in that section. In a way, that's worrying because towards the end of the novel, I didn't know exactly what was going to happen. I just knew roughly what I wanted to happen. And how I was going to work it out. I never knew. But that's also the way I write my stories. I don't know exactly how I'm going to do what I'm going to do before I start writing and I have to cleft through the writing to sort that out for me.

Did you have an end point in mind when you start working?
I know roughly where the characters are going to end up. I just have to get them there. There was no worry in my mind that I would just reach a point and think, well is this the end or isn't it. I would know when I got there.

Did you know how the whole Stephen Black-John Uskglass thing was going to play out or did that change over time?
I knew where Stephen was going to end up. I didn't know quite how he was going to end up, but I knew the place. I knew with John Uskglass that I had a sense of how he was powering the whole story.

How did the book change as you were working on it? Were you surprised by some of the things? Was it different from the way you envisioned it?
Yes. It wasn't exactly different. It's just that my original plan was so blocked out. Just simple shapes. Some of the details, that I thought were going to be in there, I had to drop. I realized it slowed the plot down even more. I could have made it slower than it actually is. So those things I would drop. A lot of the complexity and a lot of the detail were a total surprise to me. I thought it would be nice if Strange went to the war but I didn't think I was capable of writing those passages. So I was very very nervous. Early on, if I could have got out of it, I would have done. But it was inevitable, so I had to do it.

When you were researching, because I imagine though you created the magic system and the tradition of English magic...
What came to me originally were the two characters. I knew their relationship, foremost their difficult relationship or a lot about their relationship from the beginning, but the actual details of the system of magic, that was something that I worked out as I went along. I now feel I know something about it. But at the beginning, apart from the fact that I knew that I wanted it to seem as real as the magic in Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy, I didn't know quite how it would be. I knew it involved a lot of books. That was always in there.

What about the research into the time and the place where the book is set, early nineteenth-century England and Venice?
I did a lot of research. First of all I did political history and then I did a lot of social details and details of people's houses. Primarily for the short stories on folk and fairy tales in England, Scotland and Ireland. It's much more detailed, the Irish and Scottish stuff. It wasn't that the English lost their fairy belief that early. It's just that it's much more fragmented. It's much more developed in the Celtic countries. Then once I got stuck into the military stuff then I had to start looking at military history. The naval stuff I never really got a grip on.

What about serendipity as you were researching things? Did you find things and just think, "I've got to include this"?
There was a wonderful bit about Waterloo. All these people came out to watch Waterloo from Brussels. It was very, very dangerous, but apparently they didn't care. A lot of Wellington's messengers, his aides-de-camp, were being killed. He had no one to deliver his orders, so he used civilians. He got them to deliver his orders, and one of them was a commercial traveler for Birmingham Button manufacturer. He had been wandering around getting orders for buttons on the battlefield of Waterloo. So I had to have him in the book.

There was also this thing I suddenly discovered. Byron wrote "Manfred," a poem about a magician. I mean obviously a poem about a magician based on Byron, but it's still a magician. He wrote this poem at almost exactly the time that I wanted Strange and Byron to first meet. I thought that was great and it was quite believable.

The other thing was the Duke of Roxburgh's library. There is this auction in which Norrell gets involved where this huge library of Medieval books gets auctioned off. That, again, was something that I just found. It was amazing.

At the end of the book, Strange and Norrell have a very ambiguous understanding of what seems to have happened. Although you don't actually spell out what happened, it seems like the reader has a much clearer understanding of what was actually going on.
Yes. They know that they've somehow accomplished it, but they don't know quite how or why. I thought that was kind of good. I thought it was kind of funny that they're both so arrogant about the fact that they've done this thing but they're really baffled as to how it happened.

Do you know where they go next? Or do you not care?
No. I have an idea. Actually, my idea about where Strange and Norrell go next is less defined than my ideas about the world. I think the next books is about where the world goes next.

Is that going to be your next book?
Yes. I'm working on a book that starts a few years after Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell finishes, but focuses on some different characters. I got interested, while writing S&N, in Childermass and Vinculus and the people basically a bit lower down the social scale and less intrigued by the sort of Jane Austen stratum. Which is actually what really happened to Jane Austen. I mean her characters that she's writing about by the end of her career were actually a bit further down the social scale than the ones she started off with in Pride and Prejudice, where at least the heroes are incredibly rich.

As I was reading I was struck by the fact that Stephen Black, Vinculus, the Gentleman with Thistledown Hair and Childermass were really the driving force behind everything that happened.
Strange and Norrell were responding to a lot. Strange and Norrell are the people who do restore magic just by their actions. A lot of the time, I think, the Gentleman with Thistledown Hair is responding to them. Norrell is the one who revives the interest anyway.

I was thinking that Norrell and Strange were pawns of the Gentleman with Thistledown Hair...
I actually think both of those are true. The Gentleman with Thistledown Hair doesn't really get this idea until Norrell summons him. You can argue it both ways. It's a sort of symbiotic thing, the relationship between magicians and fairies, which is that they build up magic. The relationship between the two races has formed English magic. They pull either way.

Any interview with you has to touch upon the 185 footnotes that you have in the book, which are wonderful. They're informative and their entertaining, but they drop you out of the plot because you have to decide whether to keep reading or to stop and read the footnotes.
I didn't consider the reader at all when I was writing this book. The one thing I will say about that is, despite working in publishing and having published these short stories, I was writing this novel for myself. I expected the publisher of this book to leave the footnotes out. So that, in a way, is why I put footnotes in "Tom Brightwind1." I thought this is like a dummy run. Let's see what happens if I write a short story with footnotes. I wrote it and I sent it off and you don't hear from Patrick2, and you don't hear from Patrick, and eventually you hear from Patrick, and he says "Yes, I'm buying it." I think now I'll wait to hear from him about the footnotes. I didn't hear anything, and I didn't hear anything, and eventually he just published it with the footnotes3. When I saw him, I said, "You never said anything about the footnotes." He said, "Oh, I just thought that was the typesetter's problem." So I thought that's good. Bloomsbury never said anything about them either.

Now was Patrick your editor on this?
No. Patrick was the editor on several of the short stories. It was bought by Bloomsbury UK initially. They were keen for their American operation to take the US rights. After a matter of weeks, the American operation did take the rights.

Thematically, all of your short stories have strong ties to the novel, although it seems to me only the first one specifically shares the same setting. Do you see any other ties between the stories and the novel?
I think it is very tempting to me to try to tie everything together. I'm the sort of writer who tries to make everything join up in fact. Some people have pointed out that there seem to be some contradictions if you fit "Tom Brightwind" into the same world as Strange and Norrell. They don't exactly fit. I can see that, but I'm sure there must be a way to make them fit. I think "Mr. Simonelli4" is probably in the same world as Strange and Norrell. In fact, "Mr. Simonelli" is mentioned right at the end.

There is a tremendous amount of hype around the book. One of the things that is repeatedly stated is that a comparison between it and Harry Potter. The only links that I see is that they're about magicians, there's education, and they're really big books. Do you think in the long run that type of hype is going to help or hinder your sales?
I don't really think it's going to do either. You never really find anybody who says "This book is like Harry Potter." What you find is constantly in the press people saying "Other people are saying it is like Harry Potter." That's what I'm finding anyway. It's an interesting way of getting interest from the press. I think as soon as the reader gets the book in their hands they're going to say whether or not it is. I doubt it is. I haven't actually read Harry Potter. I avoided it since I could tell from the first moment somebody spoke about it that it was a phenomenon. And because the person who spoke about it was a colleague at work and she was the last person in the world who I expected to be talking to me about a book about magicians. She was saying how she was reading it to her son and how much she was enjoying it. I just had a sense that it would be better to keep away until I finished this book. I'm starting to read it now, but I'm at the absolute beginning.

The only time in 777 pages that I was dropped from the story was when I came across a minor character named "Moorcock." I read that and remembered that Colin5 did the book-length interview with Michael Moorcock6.
It's a good English name. It's a perfectly good English name.

How much influence have Moorcock, and Neil Gaiman who has been a strong supporter, and other authors who are more established have had on this particular novel, or your writing in general?
I am not well read in contemporary science fiction and fantasy, but then the truth is I'm not very well read in anything. If you work full time and write an 800 page novel, you don't have a huge amount of time for reading. I haven't read any Moorcock that I can think of. I read the comic version of Elric with P. Craig Russell drawings. It was just wonderful, so I think I may have picked up some Moorcockian things from the world at large. Neil Gaiman, on the other hand, yes. Absolutely. I think his idea of Fairie gels with and has influenced my idea of Fairie. But then a lot of the time, writers are pulling stuff and they read the same things in their childhood, so I don't think it's surprising if echoes start to sound off between things. Even though you actually have not read their stuff. One of the biggest influences was A Wizard of Earthsea, which although a completely different kind of world type, it's just the detail she puts in and the way magic is so real. That was something I wanted to do. Also it involves magic being thought of as this rather scholarly thing, magicians being a bit separate from the rest of society, but at the same time magic being very hard to do.

What do you think the attraction of writing in a fantastic setting is?
This is something that is so deep in me, I find it very difficult to analyze. I think it's just this sense of all children want to be able to do magic. All children have a bent in that way. It's just the ability to do things that ordinary people can't do. Flying through the air like Superman, or casting a spell and making things happen is a very basic thing. A lot of the problems magicians face and the problems people face but writ large, huge, enormous. They're on this great operatic scale. Somehow I think reading about people's frustrations and troubles on that scale is cathartic. It's like our difficulties, but it's not like our difficulties. It's like that, but that's the closest I can get to it.

1 Full title: "Tom Brightwind, or, How the Fairy Bridge as Built at Thoresby."

2 Patrick Nielsen Hayden.

3 In Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Starlight 3, Tor 2001.

4 "Mr. Simonelli, or the Fairy Widower," in Black Heart, Ivory Bones, edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, Avon 2000.

5 Colin Greenland is Susanna Clarke's partner.

6 Colin Greenland, Michael Moorcock: Death Is No Obstacle, Savoy 1992

Copyright © 2005 Steven H Silver

Steven H Silver is a four-time Hugo Nominee for Best Fan Writer and the editor of the anthologies Wondrous Beginnings, Magical Beginnings, and Horrible Beginnings (DAW Books, January, February and March, 2003). In addition to maintaining several bibliographies and the Harry Turtledove website, Steven is heavily involved in convention running and publishes the fanzine Argentus.

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