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'My little house at the end of the garden'



These are some of the questions that readers often ask Clare. If you have any questions follow her on Twitter and she will get back to you as soon as she can.


What book should everyone read before they’re 21?


While I think there are definitely books you can read too early (I was put off Dickens for years by the attempt aged 12 to struggle through David Copperfield) I also think that there are novels that, if you read them young, become a part of who you are and change the way you look at the world forever. I can think of several that affected me profoundly but, forced to choose only one, I would probably have to settle for To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. In a society that congratulates itself upon its multi-culturalism but is increasingly fearful of Islamic extremism, it is salutary to be reminded of the racial prejudice and hatred that pervaded small town communities in America’s Deep South only a few decades ago. The novel is touching, startling and often extremely funny. It is also deceptively simple. It is a novel to be read when one is not much older that the book’s eight-year-old protagonist, Scout, when, like her, the world seems both familiar and extraordinary, and then read again when one nears the age of her father, the wonderful Atticus Finch.



What is your favourite classic novel?


This is an impossible question, like being asked your favourite food. Every time you settle on one thing, all you can do is think of the others you are rejecting and you have to go back and start all over again! I suppose all you can do in that situation is to pick what you are having for dinner today and hope that you’ll be asked again tomorrow. So today I choose Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Emma Bovary is an unforgettable character – steeped in sentimental romance novels, she imagines herself a great romantic heroine and suffers great agonies at the quotidian smallness of her life. But despite her silliness, her selfishness, her wilful extravagance, one cannot help but be drawn to her. One knows from the outset of the novel that it cannot end well for Emma, because she knows nothing about true love and less than nothing about her own true self, and yet it is agonising to watch her downfall because, despite everything, she refuses to stop hoping for happiness and again and again exposes herself and those close to her to ruin in pursuit of her impossible fantasies. There is not a word in this novel out of place. Flaubert once famously claimed that ‘writing this book I am like a man playing the piano with lead balls attached to his knuckles’. His wonderful novel shows not the least sign of it.



What are your favourite historical novels?


I was slow to enjoy historical fiction and I think I rather ducked away from it when I was younger, believing it to be either dry and dreary, or all histrionic high drama and heaving bosoms. The first historical novel that truly blew me away was Hilary Mantel’s extraordinary A Place of Greater Safety, an exploration of the bloody French Revolution of 1789. Mantel’s three protagonists are Danton, Robespierre, and Desmoulins, the three real-life men at the heart of the Revolution, but, though she bases the novel on meticulous research, she freely extrapolates from what is known of the three men’s personalities and relationships with each other to construct their pasts and create a novel of dizzying intelligence and complexity. I understood from Mantel that great historical fiction does not use the past for its colourful costumes and settings but to elevate contemporary themes out of the personal and private realm – against an unfamiliar backdrop they gain greater clarity and depth. There are too many wonderful historical novels to list here but some of my favourites include Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Restoration by Rose Tremain, Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, Waterland by Graham Swift, The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields and, of course, the granddaddy of all historical novels, Tolstoy’s War and Peace.



Which protagonist did you most identify with as a child?


I have never quite understood the idea of identification with characters in books. The novels I love, and that includes those I loved as a child, were those in which one forgets oneself entirely, in which the characters, for better or worse, are ineffably themselves. Having said that, I nursed a huge admiration for the sour and disagreeable Mary Lennox in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, who was brave enough to be perfectly monstrous when she felt like it and didn’t care at all if people didn’t like her. She had a steely wilfulness that I longed to possess, being far too anxious about the approval of others.



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?


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.



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.

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