Claire North – Q&A

Today I’m pleased to welcome Claire North to the blog. Claire is the author of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and The Sudden Appearance of Hop and her latest novel, The End of the Day was published by Orbit on 6 April 2017.

Claire kindly answered a few of my questions.

1. Tell us a little about The End of the Day.

The End of the Day is the story of Charlie, the Harbinger of Death.  His job is to travel round the world, meeting people and bringing gifts, on behalf of his boss, Death, rider of the apocalypse.  Sometimes the people Charlie meets are dying; sometimes he’s sent as something of a warning, a heads-up from Death that you might want to change your ways if you want to avoid a more intimate meeting with the boss-man.  Charlie spends a lot of time changing planes in international airports and sleeping at bad hotels, but quite likes the travel and new experiences, even if he is constantly having to submit expenses forms to Death’s office in Milton Keynes.

2. What inspired the book?  

There’s always been this concept in nearly all cultures – Harbinger of Death.  

In ancient myths it was always a dubious eagle that portended disaster; or a sparrow or a black cat.

It seemed like an interesting and fun idea to update this a little to see what would happen if a) everyone knew that Death was a real figure, and just accepted it as a fact of life, within this present world and b) if Death had a human Harbinger.  In this case, a perfectly friendly guy from Birmingham.  This gave space to explore the ideas of life, and death, and knowing what each actually means, the certainty of death as a thing which is coming now, in a new and hopefully groovy way.

3. How much research do you have to undertake when writing your novels? Do you plan all of the story or see where the words take you? 

I’m a bit of a chancer, I suspect.  I mean, I have a very strong sense of where I’m starting and where I’m going – but not much sense of how I’m gonna get there, necessarily.  I’ll make notes, plan a few routes, and try to stick to them, but the reality is my plans rarely survive first contact with the page.  I find character easier than plot a lot of the time, and am quite happy to let what characters do guide the story as it unfolds, within reason.

I do some research, especially into places and cultures – but there’s always a danger of throwing in too much research, or the wrong kind.  By which I mean, if you’re writing an action scene, just because you know that the taxis in Lagos behave a certain way doesn’t mean you should interrupt the narrative to tell people – get on with the story, guys, and use research to add in those dashes of colour that are necessary to create a place, rather than to show off how much time you spent working on it.

Equally, research isn’t necessarily about the broad sweeps.  It’s not ‘In 1939 Hitler invaded Poland’ – it’s ‘it was 1939 and X was showing at the local movie theatre and my toothpaste tasted of banana, and Hitler invaded Poland’, because frankly, that’s life.  Our daily lives are intimately tied up in mundane actions of our bodies and our minds, and sure, we might have a tug of terror that Hitler has invaded Poland, but the concept of big ideas is often harder to relate to than the reality of personal details.  It’s one of the great problems with empathy – it’s easier to empathise with one crying child, than it is to imagine the suffering of millions.  And easier to create a place with a detail about a singing toilet, or a kind of boiled fish, than to explain the climate and history of a cultural norm.

4. Having written a number of novels, including the best selling The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is there anything about the novel writing process that still surprised you?

Hum… surprised… this probably isn’t the greatest answer, but no, not really.  I don’t think this is reflective so much of the years of scribbling, as it is so much that sense that things flow.  Words… flow.  They follow this natural shape of things, there is…

Ugh, not expressing this well.

A good book, when you read it, isn’t words on the page.  You’re not reading sentences and paragraphs.  You’re experiencing a story.  You’re in a place, your mind is sucked in and turned around and you don’t spot the mechanics of how or what, just live inside a story.

And a good book, when you write it, hopefully feels… something like that?  Not mechanics of pen on paper or words on a screen, but a story, a voice and a colour that has an inevitability of its own, that tumbles towards a consequence that maybe even you can’t entirely know but which makes sense, conforms to the language that’s at your fingers.

And maybe that language is different, or new.  My writing style has changed a lot – and also not so much – over the last 19 books, as I’ve changed, and also as I haven’t.  Every book usually does something a little different from the last, because of who I am, and who I’m becoming.  But that’s not surprising, per se.  That’s just… life.  It’s still me telling stories.  

After that, it’s still just publishing, and editing, and that old song.  The industry is changing loads, sure, but that doesn’t necessarily change the words, or make my head spin.

5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all? 

Well… I’m a theatre lighting designer, and I also work a lot of music gigs.  It’s not exactly relaxing, but it is a different part of my brain that I get to use while the writing part ticks away on idle, and more to the point I get out of the house, meet new people and get to play with light.  Beautiful, beautiful light….

I’m also learning a bit of Chinese (badly) and go swimming a fair bit in order to stave off death-by-cake for a few more months.  And I learn a violent martial art, which I find deeply therapeutic.  I also teach a little bit of violence, specifically to women, as there’s still this pissy narrative in our culture that women cower and quake while being taken advantage of, both physically and psychologically, and I haven’t got any time for that crap.

Oh – and I do quite a lot of voluntary work for my local Green Party, ‘cos of how the ice caps are melting and inequality is being actively promoted by government policy and corporate interference in this country, and that also just pisses me right off.

So um.  Yeah.  I’ve got some outlets!  Some more relaxing than others.

6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be? 

Nooooooo!!!  Not just one book!  Please no… this isn’t a fair question.  I mean, there’s a few things that leap to mind but I sorta feel that answering this question accepts the premise and the premise is so cruel as to be basically unnatural.

If I was absolutely forced to answer this, I think I’d cheat, and go for the Chronicles of Amber, by Roger Zelazny.  Technically it’s ten books, but you can get this bound edition that’s all of them together and that’s probably why I’m invoking it now as it’s ten books in one and I think that’s perfectly legit, right?

But basically: you monster.

7. I like to end my Q&A’s with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer? 

‘Cat… Claire… whoever the hell you are….’ (And may I take this moment to be grateful for how you haven’t spent time on the penname question!) ‘…a lot of writers talk incredibly earnestly about their works which are, upon reflection, neither a cure for cancer, nor a left kidney.  They appear to invest huge amounts of energy not merely in making their stories, but then convincing others that what they’ve done is somehow magnificent, worthy and wondrous, even when I’m secretly thinking ‘oh look, another story about magic swords and people with problems.’  So Cat/Claire/Kate/You… tell me, why are writers just so desperate to be respected and admired for everything they do?’

Why I’m glad you asked me that!  If only there’s been a more compact form to that question I imagine it would be asked more often….

So let me ask you: how do you value your life?

Is it money?  Because in this monetary age, we are told that the salary we receive, and the size of car we drive, is a good way of measuring our worth as people.  Unfortunately, writers are often paid very little; you don’t get into scribbling with an eye to buying that Jacuzzi.

So ok, you’re not paid much, but who cares?  You save panda cubs… you help old ladies with cancer… you teach children… you’re a firefighter.  Your job gives you, not merely fulfillment, but a real sense of giving something to this world, and strangers and peers alike praise you for your excellence.

I write stories about stuff blowing up, adventure and death and things.  And yes, I absolutely believe in the power of stories – all stories, everywhere – as a vital part not merely of human civilization, but as a tool for empathy, for growing and learning together as a species united in our emotional language and the complex/simple truths of what it is to be human.  I believe that imagination is our greatest gift, and compassion comes through empathy, and empathy is taught by stories.  Yes.  All this is true.

But by this measure, who’s to say that my stories are more meaningful than his?  Who’s to say that SF/Fantasy is more culturally profound than Romance/Vampire Porn?  There is no objective measure, no magic machine which instantly tells us that yes, this is worth three Dickens and a Voltaire.  

And of course, it’s a bloody stupid game.  It is just a senseless thing to try and measure the value of a book, as every book does something different to every human being who reads them.  But here you are, sat at your desk every day, aware that you’re not actually helping cut the umbilical cord or save puppies, and the question sneaks in… is what I’m doing… you know… good?

Sure it is.  But you’re not quite certain.  So you write a story about the power of stories (well known cultural trope) and that makes you feel alright for a little while.  And then you go out and see some of your mates, and you shuffle awkwardly in your seat and eventually blurt, ‘but I’ve written a book and that’s awesome too, right?’ and then your mates pat you on the shoulder and say yes, yes it is, that’s awesome.

But you still need people to know… to understand… that this is important.  That you matter.  What you do defines you, and it matters.

And before you know it, you sound a wee bit like a wanker.  Because you’re working alone, and you’re a bit scared that someone might not like what you’ve done, and you’re not sure how to measure your value.

Then you start reading your own reviews, and that’s fundamentally a mistake.  Because for every 5* review you read, your heart soars in hope and joy, and you understand that yes, you’re not merely important, you’re awesome.  You are the future!  You are the future, you are the greatest, you are the….

Then you read a 1* review by someone who didn’t like your book because…

… well, lots of different things, the reasons to love and dislike a book are as true and diverse as the great sweep of humanity itself, really….

… maybe you are just some dude, writing alone in a corner.  And you don’t matter after all.

Now, at this juncture it might be worth investing in certain other ideas.

The notion, for example, that if you are living a kind and generous life, one in which you help strangers who fall and friends who cry, then screw it, the rest is window-dressing, and the desperate desire to be ‘valued’ is just a societal imposition by a culture that values fame and wealth above all else.

Or you can invest in professionalism – that you have professionally wrote a story that brings joy and happiness to those who read it, and that this very act, the act of reading and sharing stories, is the most important thing ever, and the rest is noise that is entirely unique to individuals, but not worth generalizing about.

Or you could just live in the present-tense, and rejoice that you’ve got food, and health, and you love your job.  You love writing stories, and someone’s paying for it, and that’s the greatest thing ever.  It’s the greatest thing ever and again, the rest is just society, telling you to get rich and get famous, or die.

But these things are hard.  Especially when you work alone.  They’re hard for everyone.

And most of the time, therefore, you don’t.

You seek approval.

You start to express the idea that what someone else has written is lesser than you.

You hijack conversations to assert your excellence.

You begin to ignore the value and the voices of other peoples.

You in short, become a bit of a twat. And it comes from fear.  

We all have this within us, of course.  All of us, all the time, scrambling around desperately to be rewarded by the world for our actions.  Which is why I like the question to be asked, despite how epic the answer is.

Because writers spend their days trying to unravel the human soul, to find that spark of shared consciousness that speaks to all of us.  And in doing so, we often don’t notice that we’ve tangled ourselves in knots.

In fact, most of the time none of us do, including me.  Which seems like a pity, as it means we spend half the time looking at the world, with our hands over our eyes.

About the book:

Charlie meets everyone – but only once.
You might meet him in a hospital, in a warzone, or at the scene of traffic accident.
Then again, you might meet him at the North Pole – Charlie gets everywhere.
Sometimes he is sent as a courtesy, sometimes as a warning. Either way, this is going to be the most important meeting of your life.

About the author:

Claire North is a pseudonym for British author Catherine Webb. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was her first novel published under the Claire North name, and was one of the fastest-selling new SFF titles of the last ten years. It was selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club, the Radio 2 Book Club and the Waterstones Book Club promotions. Her next novel Touch was published in 2015 to widespread critical acclaim and was described by the Independent as ‘little short of a masterpiece’. Catherine currently works as a theatre lighting designer and is a fan of big cities, urban magic, Thai food and graffiti-spotting. She lives in London. Find her on Twitter as @ClaireNorth42.


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