Claire North has received huge accolades for her first two novels under that name — I say that name as it is an open secret that it is a pseudonym for Catherine Webb aka Kate Griffin — her third novel The Sudden Appearance of Hope was just released in paperback and her fourth novel The End of the Day is out this April. So no time like the present to have her over on A Fantastical Librarian for an Author Query. I very much enjoyed this interview and Claire’s answer for how she shelves her books is one of my favourite ones I’ve received yet. My next goal is my own book nook! I hope you enjoy the interview just as much as I did. And look for reviews of Claire’s books here on the blog in the near future.
Let’s start with the basics. Who is Claire North?
Imagine I opened with something far more suave there. Claire North is absolutely my most literary persona, with a statistically far higher percentage of contemplation of the nature of existence than any of my other two writing gigs – Kate Griffin and Catherine Webb (me!) – and thus I probably should have answered that question in a somewhat more mature way.
But yeah. She’s me.
I imagine at this point a whole discourse on the nature of my identity would become pertinent, but given that Claire North is a pseudonym, I feel perfectly empowered to make stuff up about her with abandon, based on her writing style and current literary output. In fact, the world reliably informs me that Claire North is at least 50 years old, male and probably David Mitchell, the last of which I’m totally down with. I suspect she likes mushrooms, which I do not. She’s obviously effortlessly fluent, charismatic and educated, in a way which I frankly resent. I imagine she speaks French. I do not. It’s a complicated relationship.
Me – I’m 30, a Londoner, have several pseudonyms in the notebook and a tendency to cause chaos wherever I go. As I write this, I’m eight days into a month without chocolate to raise money for the British Heart Foundation, and still have cravings. As Catherine Webb, I used to write young adult books. As Kate Griffin I write urban fantasy. Claire North writes… well, I still think of it as SF/Fantasy, but I’m informed it is literature. I’m not sure what literature is. Claire North probably knows, but damn her, she isn’t telling. All of us write stories we love, for fun, and are astonished and grateful when someone pays us.
How would you introduce people to Hope Arden?
She’s one of the best thieves in the world. She is the queen of taster classes. She has no friends, no colleagues, no home. She is great at making a good first impression. If she doesn’t make a good first impression, she’ll go away, wait a bit, then try again until she gets it right.
She is forgotten by everyone she meets.
She can’t measure herself by the standards of the rest of the world. No job will ever promote her; no one will ever sell her a house, no doctor will ever follow up on an appointment. The cultural tools we all casually use to define ourselves – job, hobby, social life – are meaningless to her. All she has is travel, knowledge and a desire to prove to herself that she matters, which is the hardest thing for anyone to do.
How does A Sudden Appearance of Hope fit in the evolution of your work? Both your previous books, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and Touch deal with identity and memory, and Hope certainly has memory, or perhaps rather remembrance, at its core. Is there an identity component present as well?
Yeah… upon reflection, the identity component is definitely a thing. It’s not a thing that I consciously chose to write about when I sat down at the keyboard a few years ago. But who you are, and things that bug you, will always emerge, and I suspect through those books I was going through personal changes which seeped onto the page despite my happy impression that I was writing about thieves, guns and spies.
Knowing this hopefully won’t change what I write in the future, however. The story should always come first, and who you are will slip in regardless; one of the joyful things about being concerned with identity is that we all are, all of the time, pretty much forever, and thus we can all unconsciously find something in such thoughts which is unique and true to ourselves, regardless of the text on the page. The books may accidentally have featured some of me contemplating my own backside and what it means to be a person, whole and confident in the shadow you cast, making choices that are correct to your own inner compass. Thankfully we all of us worry about the shape of our internal soul, and see the world through that prism, so touch wood readers will find something that speaks to that fundamental piece of humanity, more than any personal gripes of mine.
The book is not just SFF, it is also a thriller. How do you plot out the pacing necessary to keep up the suspense? Do you know what the climax should be and plan backwards or do you write as you go and do a ton of revising to make everything fit?
I do a fair bit of planning, but don’t ever feel the need to stick to it. I’m not big on constant revisions. I’ll do ‘em loads, but I’m very much a start at the beginning, get to the end and see where you’re at kinda writer, rather than someone who edits as I go or relies on edits to get me out of a fix. I’ll usually have a sense of the end, and sounds and images that fit in between, but if stuff emerges in the writing process which is more interesting than what I initially expected, I have no issues with just going with it and seeing what happens. These things are often more true to the voice of the character, than my trying to bulldoze the text that has already emerged into some pre-planned shape. That way I’m kept on my toes too, and hopefully will enjoy writing even more.
What is your favourite thing about Hope’s character? Do you ever fantasise about having her “power” of not being remembered?
Like a lot of powers, it’s a groovy notion until you realize it doesn’t have an off-switch. Having the power to be forgotten is great in conception, but to live with it would be almost unbearable – as Hope sometimes finds. It’s the same with most of these concepts – being invisible would be great unless you were stuck there, being immortal is fantastic until you realize that you’ll have to watch those you love die, and so on.
These things aren’t ever really about the power – they’re about how it redefines human. To be forgotten is to be apart from the most fundamental of human relationships – friends, family, work, home, loved ones, social interactions of any meaning whatsoever. By exploring what it means to be forgotten, you get to take a totally new look at what it means to be remembered as well.
I have to confess, I’ve bought both previous books, which now live in my TBR-bookcase, and I have a review copy of A Sudden Appearance of Hope. Which one do you suggest I start with? Do you think reading them as they were published is the best way to go or do you always think your latest work is the best and thus the one readers should start with?
Hum…. the latest book is always a good indication of where my brain is at now, but that’s not necessarily a recommendation. I’d say start with Harry August, as it was where the Claire North thing kicked off, and move forward. Don’t forget the Gameshouse, which were three novellas published as e-book/audiobook between Touch and Hope!
Or go crazy. Go right back to Mirror Dreams, and see what happened between the ages of 14-30. I’ve never done it, and don’t want to know, but have a feeling that you can more or less chart my entire development as both a writer and a human being for the last 16 years in paper form through my published work. Horrifically.
Or don’t! I once got 8/10 on a quiz on one of my own novels (a Horatio Lyle Adventure, I think) and don’t feel in a hurry to re-live those glory days.
I think the best would be: read what appeals to you the most, first! Writers should always write what they love, and readers should always read the thing that excites them, so they always come to associate excitement with paper and ink, and through habitual exposure to this joy come to find ever greater joys in the infinity that is the written word. Boom.
What’s next for you? Any appearances or conventions planned?
There’s rumours of stuff in the pipeline, both in and out of London – but nothing officially confirmed yet, except on April 4th when I’ll be reading the silliest short story I’ve ever written at Unsung Live. However that event is about the joy of all things reading and writing, and many talented writers are gonna be there, so I can’t really say it’s about me and my ego; I’m just bringing both of those along anyway.
Is there something else you’re passionate about other than writing and books?
… I’m trained as a lighting designer, and I work both in theatre and on a lot of gigs. Mostly at the moment it’s gigs, which is fun, but I’m also taking a bit of a breather to consider my life choices, as theatre is incredible and exciting and amazing… and also stressful, under-paid and often abusive of its technicians, especially when 3% of the Association of Lighting Designers is female. I love light, I love theatre… there are moments when light emerges from darkness, when it’s almost a physical thing in the air, that I find myself catching my breath at the beauty and power of it… but I also love books and sleep, and right now you catch me trying to work out the best way to balance these things.
I’m also kinda furious about the environment, education and social justice. It does seem, if you don’t mind a moment of political ranting, that we’re buggered. Our government has embarked on a mad project that will dis-empower and dis-enfranchise the majority in favour of the richest 1%, as well as the easy targets of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society while telling them that it’s good for them and not to kick up a fuss; our media is unspeakably bad, our levels of discourse and debate in the country have sunk to astounding lows, and the world is slow-frying while we bicker about whether people with different skin pigmentation are somehow less human. The more I read, the more I get involved, the more I find myself waking in the night in a cold sweat. The world has become a polarized mess, in which we treat each other as either a) unrealistic wusses moaning or b) idiots and bigots. None of these characterizations are true, and yet it’s all you would believe, to look at the world at the moment, and while this lasts we will never be able to reach the consensus as a species that is so urgently needed to prevent an environmental and cultural catastrophe that will haunt humanity for centuries to come.
That’s a bit of a thing.
I’m also training to be a junior instructor in a joyfully violent and fun martial art, I quite like swimming though breaststroke is my nemesis, and I’m trying to learn a bit of Chinese.
… this could all make it sound like there’s a lot going on. I should add that I’ve got a lot of very broad, but very thin interests. I can bluff about most things for about 10 seconds, but the second you ask me to delve, I got nothing. The world is fascinating and wonderful; my interest is true and deep, but that’s not the same as being good at any of this.
As a book reviewer, I’m all about the book enabling; I can’t help but want to make people read all the good books out there. But I can always use help. What are your top recommendations of books we should look out for in the coming months?
I always worry about this question. As a scribbler I’m totally with you – I feel an urgent need to go trumpetting all the awesomeness yet to come. But I am a scribbler, not a publisher, which means the only secret insights I have into what’s about to be released come from publishers sending me books that I might enjoy to blurb for, and to be honest… unless I adore the book outright, I’m a very picky blurb-giver. I also don’t hang out with other writers much – there’s a few I love for both company as well as their prose, and am always happy to sing the praises of Kim Curran, Mike Carey, Nick Harkaway, Sarah Lotz, Adam Roberts, as well as point you towards the Djinn Falls in Love, a short story anthology edited by Jared Shurin and Mahvesh Murad which is released… well… tomorrow… and should be amazing.
But I don’t necessarily know anything more than you do about what’s awesome that’s about to emerge! Like you, I’m constantly checking the ‘New Releases’ section of my local library, or prowling into the bookshop with my birthday book tokens, looking out for the writers I love and hopping impatiently when they haven’t produced something new.
Good news, though: even if you don’t know what’s out next month, I guarantee you there’s still tens of thousands of books already out there which can keep you occupied….
Or you could read my next one in April – The End of the Day. That’s an option too. But quaintly less exciting than a proper answer would have been.
Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?
Oh the shelving… I get excited about this sorta thing….
So firstly, there’s a book nook. This was built into a random corner of the flat that just doesn’t make any sense, a little protrusion that’s too small to be a room but too large and prominent to just shove crap into. As a result the partner (a carpenter) built some specially designed shelves which now contain all his stuff, and my fact books, arranged by subject matter. (History – languages – science – London etc..)
Then there’s proper bookshelves in the office/study/everything else room. These were also built on site after months of agonizing about the best way to do it. Despite having some construction training, my partner didn’t let me do anything except sand the bits that no one would see, but they’re still very beautiful, and contain all my fiction books, and a secret stash of author copies buried right at the bottom where no one can see them.
The fiction books are organized by awesome. At centre, eye-height, are the books that I love and value most and want to look at on a regular basis so I can feel better about the universe. This is Roger Zelazny, Terry Pratchett, Ruth Ozeki, Ursula le Guin sort of territory, although obviously the writers who have long series (such as Pratchett’s Discworld) are clumped together – with a caveat that Discworld is organized by character arcs (Rincewind, Vimes, Death etc.) rather than by order in which they were written.
From this beating heart of awesome the shelves then sorta cascade outwards into different themes of excellence. So heading left and up to the top shelf, there’s all the graphic novels and comics, as they need the height that you don’t get on other shelves – Sandman by Neil Gaiman, Lucifer and Unwritten by Mike Carey, travelogues by Guy Delisle and a beloved collection of Garfield. Next to them, again largely for height purposes, are all the plays and mythological reference books – the Odyssey, King Arthur, encyclopedia of world mythology etc..
Spinning down from these you get series that are still groovy (Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, Simon Morden’s Metrocity, Anne Leckie, N.K.Jemsin, David Hutchinson etc.) with a strong theme of SF/Fantasy, before dropping down into the stand-alone novels that I love, such as Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne or Poison City by Paul Crilley. Skimming along the bottom shelves you then get the random stuff that isn’t really one thing or another, before striking a sudden wall of crime and whatever ‘literary’ is (I still don’t know), rising up above a crest of travel guides that didn’t really fit on the fact shelves, and finishing in the afore-mentioned secret stash of author copies that we don’t really talk about, ‘cos it’s a bit embarrassing to have your own books hanging around.
There’s also a collection of Asterix and Tintin comics in the toilet. This isn’t a dishonourable thing; Asterix is a beloved text.
Bio: Claire North is the pen name for the Carnegie-nominated Catherine Webb. Her novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club, the Waterstones Book Club and the Radio 2 Book Club. 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.