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Susanna Clarke (Photo Copyright : Miriam Berkley)
Photo copyright : Miriam Berkley

The Susanna Clarke interview

As the publication of her much anticipated first novel - Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - approaches, we speak to the Nottingham born author Susanna Clarke.


Who are your 5 favourite authors, and why?

Jane Austen, who got as close to perfection as anyone can.

Alan Moore, who, in the words of Jonathan Ross, causes middle-aged men (and women) to fall to their knees in comic shops, weeping in gratitude.

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 recognizable 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.

Neil Gaiman, who is the most audacious and surprising writer. In the first comic of his I read, he emptied Hell. I was quite shocked. I thought, Are you really allowed to do that? Apparently you are.

Joss Whedon and other assorted writers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Not perfect. The plots often creak. But the dialogue is wonderful and the characterization is almost as good.

Who or what was your biggest influence in deciding to become a writer? What inspired you to write Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell?

Boredom, probably. And a restless, intrusive sort of imagination. I could always imagine more interesting places to be than where I was. And more interesting people than me being there. Eventually this led to making up stories and writing things down.

I always really liked magicians. I’m not even sure why—except that they know things other people don’t and they live in untidy rooms full of strange objects. In C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories there are only two magicians. One is weak and wicked, and the other barely gets two lines of dialogue. But they both fascinated me. One (the weak one) has a tray of magic rings, green and yellow, as shiny and bright as sweets. They’re magic, they’re jewellery and they look like scrummy sweets. What’s not to like?

In Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell I wanted to create the most convincing story of magic and magicians that I could. The closest model was Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea stories. While you’re reading them, magic seems perfectly real. You feel it must exist and it must be just as Le Guin describes.

It seemed to me that you make magic real by making it a little prosaic, a little difficult and disappointing—never quite as glamorous as the other characters imagine. As one of the characters says in Strange & Norrell: "Magic! Do not speak to me of magic! It is just like everything else, full of setbacks and disappointments." That’s a very key statement.

Is there any particular ritual involved in your writing process (favorite pen, lucky charm, south-facing window)?

I can write most places. I particularly like writing on trains. Being between places is quite liberating, and looking out of the window, watching a procession of landscapes and random-ish objects, is very good for stories. I like darkened rooms too, and lamplight, and the sound of rain. On sunny afternoons I’ve been known to draw the curtains, switch on the light and play a CD of rain falling. It creates a sort of quiet, private world which helps writing sometimes.

Were Jonathan Strange, Mr Norrell and the Raven King modelled after any historical figures?

Not really. Their antecedents are mostly literary. Strange has a touch of Byron in him, I suppose, and a little of the eighteenth-century rakes—Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses and so forth. I wanted him to have a little wickedness in him—or the potential for wickedness, at any rate.

The Raven King had an odd genesis. Ursula Le Guin has a magician in the Earthsea trilogy who has no name: the Grey Mage of Plan, whose magic was so dubious, his name was forgotten. And there’s a magician in The Lord of the Rings, right at the very end, who comes out of Mordor to do battle against our heroes, and no one knows his name because he himself has forgotten it. I thought this was rather cool, and when I was developing my magicians, I wanted one without a name. Unfortunately I hadn’t quite understood what would happen if I had a major character without a name. The consequence has been that he has acquired more names than most people: the Raven King, John Uskglass, the Black King, the King of the North and a fairy name that no one can pronounce.

Mr. Norrell is more difficult. The only person I can think of that he might be based on is me. We share the same hobbies: staying at home, surrounded by books and not answering the phone. I think I got him originally from a jigsaw puzzle. It was a really great jigsaw with a picture of a huge library and two or three old gentlemen with eighteenth-century wigs reading books. I carried the image of that library around in my head for years until I knew what to do with it.

How do you feel knowing your book is being touted as the next Harry Potter or Harry Potter for adults?

I don’t take it very seriously. I don’t think there ever could be another Harry Potter—it’s such a unique phenomenon. And I don’t think there could ever be an adult Harry Potter. Harry Potter reaches into children’s imagination and takes them over. It enchants them. It would be wonderful to think that any of my readers might be enchanted in the same way. But 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.

Comparisons with other books are useful as rough guidelines for readers. If you like Harry Potter/Jane Austen/The Quincunx/Instance of the Fingerpost, then maybe you’ll like this—or maybe you won’t. Readers are very sharp people—they’ll know how to take such claims.

How long did it take you to write Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell? How much historical research did you have to do?

It took rather more than ten years, which is a crazy amount of time to spend on anything—except building a cathedral, growing a garden or educating a child.

I did a lot of historical research, obviously, particularly politics and military history, and stuff about London and Venice. I enjoyed the military history much more than I expected. There are many, many eyewitness accounts of battles and campaigning, which make military much more immediate and vital than other kinds of history—you can easily discover what it felt like to be a soldier and what their everyday concerns were. Some of the people I came upon in the research made it into the book as minor characters: the exploring officer, Colquhoun Grant, and the chaplain, Samuel Briscall, for instance. Samuel Briscall was a great character to research. As far as I could tell there’s only ever been one article written about him. It’s about four pages long. I found it, read it—research done! So much easier than Wellington.

Do you have a favourite character?

Strange, Norrell and I are like three people who’ve worked very closely together for a long time: We know each other a little too well and we don’t really want to socialize together. My favourite character is probably Childermass. He’s the one I’d most happily meet at the pub and have a drink with. He was meant to be a villain at the beginning, but I realized that he’s more complex than that. I love that he’s so subversive and independent—but he’s also (I hope) a man of his period. He begins as a servant and, although he’s very bright, he knows he can’t expect much more from life, so he sort of makes do with his position.

What’s next for you? What’s next for Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell?

The next book will be set in the same world and will probably start a few years after Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell finishes. I feel very much at home in the early nineteenth century and am not inclined to leave it. I doubt that the new book will be a sequel in the strictest sense. There are new characters to be introduced, though probably some old friends will appear too. I’d like to move down the social scale a bit. Strange and Norrell were both rich, with pots of money and big estates. Some of the characters in the second book have to struggle a bit harder to keep body and soul together. I expect there’ll be more about John Uskglass, the Raven King, and about how magic develops in England.





last updated: 21/04/06
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Ramsey Campbell
Just read the interview, and I can't resist saying (since it's true) that I only wish the book had been longer, I loved it so much. Still, the promise of a follow-up is just as magical.

James Batten
I lovbed this book so much that from the moment I began to read it every spare moment of my life was consumed by it; fortunately this was quite a short period as I read the book far too quickly.

Protik Prokash Banerji
Reading is the only way I get out, except professionally. Ms. Clarke's interview is, believe it or not, a disappointment. When I was reading the book, I believed that there was, in some niche of English history a fairie/elven king of the North, and I could almost believe the House of Windsor Mountbatten looking over its collective and royal shoulders, shuddering at the breath of a winter chill, apprehending the coming of the King of the North. The feeling that they were merely stewards of the North made it, for me, a history that I had never known. In fact I was browsing to find out more about the historical background of John Uskglass. After I read this interview, and found that the history is just make believe, for a moment I was sad for the end of an alternate history. Then I felt better. One has to admire the consummate skill with which Ms. Clarke evoked a reality that never was, and perhaps will be, only in the mind of loyal readers. I hope that the sequel could be in bookstores by September, and not be another ten years in the making.

Marc Polonsky
I was absolutely completely enchanted by this book, as I've never been enchanted before, and I've been reading fantasy novels on and off for my whole life. I'm 47 years old. Maybe someone should let Ms. Clarke know. I think Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a tour de force of storytelling and fantasy. I've been telling my friends that it's the 8th wonder of the world, quite possibly my favorite novel ever, in a lifetime of voracious reading, perhaps rivalled only by Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov in terms of pure enthrallment.

Simon Crowhurst
The book is full of narrative threads, without getting tangled in them - a great achievement. Reading Strange and Norrell has something of the feeling of walking into a wood - as you get deeper into it, the complexity,darkness and peculiarity increase. A terrific book.

T/Sgt. Lon McDougle - USAF Ret.
An outstanding book, so far, as I haven't finished it yet. Having lead, for the most part of my life, that of a military man, I did enjoy the references. I am also a retired school teacher and enjoy reading a good story.

Adam Blodgett
I think that the nameless magician in the Earthsea trilogy should actually be 'the Grey Mage of Paln' not 'Plan' as it is written there. A.

Graeme Gibb
Magic has truly returned to England!!. Thanks for the article, it was a pleasure to read.

Elizabeth Engle
Years ago, for weeks after reading Dickens's "Old Curiosity Shop" I found myself thinking and speaking in Dickensian mode. Ah, and now, deep into JS&MN, again I find my brain in sync with the cadence of Clark's prose. Is that magic, or what?!

Thomas Gillis
Good article on a great book and author. Thanks

Michiel Bonte
Your site has already helped me several times in doing research for different courses (I follow a master in jouralism - Gent - Belgium). Just wanted to thank you (not only for the variety you offer, but also for the excellent quality of the pieces) Michiel

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