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A Conversation with Susanna Clarke, Part 2
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
SF Site Interview: A Conversation With Susanna Clarke, Part 1
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Website

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Susanna Clarke, whose short stories have been appearing for the past several years, recently published her first novel, Joanthan Strange and Mr Norrell to massive hype and critical and popular acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. I had the opportunity to sit down to lunch with Susanna Clarke and science fiction author Colin Greenland on a recent visit they made to Chicago.

What non-fiction titles would you recommend to people who wanted to have a better understanding of what you were writing?

On the historical side, Elizabeth Longford, I would think. And a lot of memoirs of the Peninsula and Wellington. On the fairy tale side, I would think anything by Katherine M. Briggs, who was the collector and folklorist in the mid-twentieth century who collected together what was left of the fairy lore on the British Isles.

What characteristics in your writing do you feel separate you from other authors?
I'm less aware of what separates me from other authors and I'm more aware of what ties me in with other authors. I think the only thing I could say would be that I've very much followed my own preferences. For a long time, I've ceased to read what I felt I ought to read and I've just read what I really liked to read. Then I pulled them all together and borrowed shamelessly from all sorts of people to create Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I've put together people as far apart as Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman and G.K. Chesterton and all of these people. I just sucked out the bits I liked and made this ragtag patchwork thing. I don't think this is a unique book. I just feel I've put the combination together in a completely different way.

The book is set in the early 1800s, but so much of it refers back to the Medieval period. Did you find yourself drawn more to that part or was it simply background information that you were making up as you went along and didn't really feel the need to explore it?
I know quite a lot more about the Medieval period of this world than I put in the book. When I first was writing notes for what would eventually become Strange and Norrell, I was writing two tracks, if you like. I was writing the Medieval story and this other story about two other later magicians who became Strange and Norrell. At that point, I hadn't particularly decided upon which I was going to focus. I was writing from both vantages. Then I realized I would go with the rather dramatic story of these two quarrelling magicians, but I needed to fill in the background. That is where the footnotes came. But at the same time, I didn't want that to take over more than it already has.

Do you see yourself expanding any of the footnotes into an actual short story?
I'd rather not answer that definitively. I'm not sure. But I think there are really major stories in the Medieval period that I haven't really touched upon, because I knew they were rather major stories.

Until recently, fantasy films haven't been successful. Suddenly, we have The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter films. Is there something about fantasy which doesn't translate as well to the big screen as, say, science fiction?
It probably was just waiting for CGI, I think. You can do a science fiction film very dramatically. You can suggest a spaceship, like Star Trek, where it is just a cardboard wall. Whereas to really do The Lord of the Rings, it couldn't be done until they could show the orcs, the trolls and the Mines of Moria properly. Now it perhaps can be, which is why we're seeing this big explosion of fantasy films.

Susanna's novel and stories have been fantasy, Colin Greenland tends to write science fiction, how much do you two collaborate or work together.
Colin Greenland: That's easy. Not at all. When I first met Susanna, she was very much her own writer. You probably know we met at a writer's workshop that I was teaching with Geoff Ryman. We were down to arguing about commas and semi-colons when we came to Susanna's. It was "The Ladies of Grace-Adieu" that she brought to that workshop. We soon discovered, Susanna and I between ourselves, that there wasn't very much that I could do for her. She did some very good work for me on my last novel, Finding Helen, which is not a genre novel. She read a draft of that for me and made some very good points. But we're each very used to working quite separately. I think I need more feedback than she does. She knows when she's done.

Susanna Clarke: Colin didn't read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell until it was published, let alone finished. From time to time, I said, "Are you sure you don't want to read it now?"

Colin Greenland: I was her first fan. I didn't want to be in the wings, watching all the strings being drawn. I wanted to be in the front row on the opening night. And I was. And it was wonderful.

Given the amount of hype this novel has received and the push it has gotten in the UK and United States, do you think it will have an effect on your career, Colin?
Colin Greenland: Yes. People now say to me "And what do you do?" This I find very relaxing. I think when I wrote Finding Helen, Susanna was full time in publishing, working on Strange and Norrell every minute she could get. She was supporting me, writing a book that nobody had ever seen. I had no outline, no contract, I just wrote this book. Once I had done that, I shifted over my writing from the genre to literary fiction and from HarperCollins in Britain to Transworld. Suddenly people were watching me and I couldn't pull the same trick again. And now the spotlight's on Susanna. I can go and write in the corner with nobody looking and that's what I shall enjoy.

Susanna Clarke: When people think of a writing couple working together, they think of them working on each other's manuscripts and discussing it. Whereas we work very closely together, but we work very closely on very mundane practical ways. I supported Colin while he was writing his book and he supported me with huge amounts of practical notes. He's supporting me by being here, and carrying bags, and putting cold compresses on my feet. We kind of feel this book in some sense is very much a product of both our efforts. Not Colin's literary efforts, but other efforts.

Colin Greenland: I think I did a couple of words of Latin.

Susanna Clarke: But I checked them with my dad afterwards.

Colin Greenland: Oh, yeah. He's much better at Latin than I.

Susanna Clarke: And then I checked them with a Latin scholar, just to make sure.

Colin Greenland: So they may not be words that are actually in there, it's true.

But you did make an effort?
Colin Greenland: Well, she asks me. I do my best.

So do you have short stories or are you working on the next novel?
Susanna Clarke: There is one very short story which I will be doing for The New York Times next month7, which I haven't started yet. It is interesting, but it is very short. And there is another which is half written, which I would very much like to get back to at some point. But it has been interrupted by the need to finish off the novel. Mostly I'll be working on the next book. Once you've written a novel, then all the pressure is there for the next one.

Colin Greenland: We probably should say The New York Times have an annual Halloween story which they commission from a guest writer.

Susanna Clarke: Or essay.

Colin Greenland: Or essay. But they commission one. Last year it was Philip Pullman, and this year it's Susanna Clarke.

Colin, what do you have on tap?
Colin Greenland: I have a short story that I am very pleased with called "Kings," which is coming out in an anthology called Constellations, published by DAW and edited by Pete Crowther. I think that's next year. And otherwise, I'm working on another which is very late. Strange and Norrell have the effect of commanding some of my attention and delaying some of my life as well as hers. It's all there. It's all in my head. I just have to pay attention to them. Michael Moorcock said to me when we were doing those interviews you mentioned and talking about a story he was writing about which he was very enthusiastic. He told me about it in great detail. He said, "It's a really good story, I'm really very pleased with that story. It's a terrific piece of work. All I've go to do now is write it."

7 "Antickes and Frets" appeared in The New York Times on October 31, 2004.

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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