Interview with Susanna Clarke (2007)

Updated: I’ve just re-published/refreshed my initial look at the Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell BBC television series, originally from 2015.

This is an interview I conducted through email with Susanna Clarke, the multi-award winning author of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

Hello and a Happy New Year to all Friends of English Magic. 2006 was in many ways a great year for Colin and me. We got to spend lots of time in Derbyshire where we can see fields and stone and English grey-and-greenness in every direction. But it was also a bit frustrating. I’ve been dogged by ill-health for two years now and it’s holding up progress on any new work rather seriously. I’m fortunate that everyone (publishers and agents) is very understanding, very supportive. And I’m ultra-fortunate in having Colin to take care of me so cheerfully.

2007 is already off to a better start. Over the New Year I finished a new short story for BBC Radio to be broadcast later on in the year.

A big, heartfelt thanks to Martyn, as always, for organising all this, and a sincere thanks to everyone who asked a question. I hope the answers go some way to satisfying the questioners. They’re certainly very illuminating for me — they make me realise what I know about this world, what I don’t know, what I need to find out and sometimes what I’m better off not knowing.

Susanna Clarke

And now, the questions along with their answers:

You mentioned some of the strange things in Starecross Hall during Mr. Segundus’ first visit to the place. Is there something special about Starecross or the objects inside it that we don’t know about?

Not so much. I haven’t reckoned on Starecross having any further significance in Strange and Norrell’s world, but then again who knows? The objects inside Starecross reflect the sort of collections you can still see in some English country houses — stuffed animals and birds, satirical prints, keys, coins, Roman and Greek antiquities. I exaggerated the oddity of Starecross’s collections to make it intriguing for the reader. I didn’t manage to get in everything I wanted. I wanted some pictures of dinosaurs fighting, but it turned out that dinosaurs weren’t known until a bit later in the century.

Starecross the village was loosely based on Wycoller, a village on the Lancashire/Yorkshire border. I say “loosely” as I’ve never actually been there; I’ve just seen photos. A month or so ago, I met a neighbour who was asking me about Strange and Norrell and he wanted to know if Starecross was based on anywhere and if so, was it Wycoller? I thought he was very clever. Anyway he’s lent me a brilliant book about Wycoller. Apparently the family who lived at the Hall were indeed a bit eccentric. In the eighteenth century one of the squires loved hunting and sports. When he got too old to go hunting he grew passionate about cockfighting and had the cockfights in his drawing-room. When he got older and more infirm he had them in his bedroom and watched them from his bed. And when he finally got too old to turn his head, he had mirrors placed around the fights so he could follow them. I wish I’d known all this before, because that would have been great to put in the story.

In Tom Brightwind, you mention that there are many Tom and David stories; in Mr Simonelli, who is named in JS&MN as one of the human kings in Faerie, the hero fantasizes about what kind of a king he would be. Do you have plans to write more about the adventures of any of these characters in the future?

I’m not sure about writing more Tom and David stories, though I wouldn’t rule it out. In my mind those stories were all of a particular type: Tom being a rogue and riding rough-shod over everyone; David being decent and kind-hearted and kidding himself that he’s managed to teach Tom a moral lesson, when in truth he hasn’t done anything of the sort. Tom might well turn up again, but I couldn’t promise that he’d be recognizable as the person from the Tom and David stories (where David is a sort of civilizing influence however faint). Tom is ancient and has been very wild and dangerous for millennia. And he wouldn’t always have been called Tom, which is originally a Hebrew name and therefore only adopted by fairies once they’d come into contact with Christianity.

As for David, I suspect the next person to turn up called David Montefiore won’t be that David Montefiore, but a different one.

Oh, and I’d definitely like to write more about Mr Simonelli. I’m very attached to Mr Simonelli, exasperating as he is. Clearly he’s a person interesting things happen to.

You’ve said that you know the Raven King’s medieval history well. Do you intend to tell more of that story in future? Directly or indirectly?

As long I’m writing about Strange and Norrell’s world there will always be more information about John Uskglass coming through. As to whether I ever tell his story directly, I’ve no idea. There’s other stuff I need to write first.

How is Childermass?

He’s pretty good, thanks for asking. He’s always very busy. At this time of year I picture him riding along a lonely, foggy road, his hair and hat clogged with beads of moisture, pursuing some impenetrable project; thinking hard, putting pieces of a puzzle together; then stopping at an inn and drinking hot spiced ale by the fireside. He likes to be solitary, but he fits in with rural labouring people and urban working classes — the people Strange and Norrell never spoke to. He gets a lot of information that way.

I know you have been asked if you have a favourite character in JS&MN .. do you have a favourite character, or one you particularly identify with from among the many in the “Ladies of Grace Adieu” collection?

I do like Fanny in “Mrs Mabb””. She seems very real to me — a person who’s impossible to live with because she’s so aggravating, but who actually has a very good heart. She seems to me particularly Austenish, probably because she’s always talking, never listening and Austen was good at characters like that.

Which part of the book (tLoGA) was the most fun to write, which gave you the most satisfaction when you’d finally got it right, and, with hindsight, is there any part that you feel dissatisfied with, and why?

“The Charcoal Burner” was the most fun to write. It was fun to write the saints. Two of them were quite sweet, but the third was rather sarcastic: not how people imagine saints at all. I started it while I was writing the last few chapters of S&N, but I couldn’t work out how it was going to go, so I left it as a brief mention in a conversation between Mr Lascelles and Mr Norrell (and a footnote). Later I came back and did the research on British/Irish saints and Cumbrian churches. Then it wrote itself quite quickly. The most satisfying was the title story, “The Ladies of Grace Adieu” itself. It was the first story I’d written since I was a child, and I didn’t know if I could actually do it. When I finished it I was quite pleased with myself.

“Mr Simonelli” is in many ways my favourite story of all, but it’s set in Derbyshire and has one little section where a local woman speaks. Now that I’ve lived a year in Derbyshire myself I can see that the rhythms of her speech are quite wrong. That’s dissatisfying. If I could write that part again I’d like to try to do justice to the way Derbyshire people really do speak.

You seem to specifically emphasize English magic throughout JS&MN. It is rarely, as I recall, just magic that is returning — it is English magic. Is English magic very different from that of other places? Did other nations lose their magic as England did, and if so, is it coming back? Can you do English magic if you aren’t in England, or is it tied to the land?

This is an important question and I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t give it a lot of thought until I was nearing the end of writing Strange and Norrell.

Yes, you can do English magic if you aren’t in England. We know this because Strange does magic in Portugal, Spain, Italy and Belgium (and for an hour or so in America). Nevertheless English magic is tied to the land. Let me see if I can explain this apparent contradiction. Human magic is borrowed from fairies — and fairies don’t think of magic as we do, as if it were something special. From their point of view it’s just part of normal life. If a fairy wants something he asks his friends — the Wind, the Rain, the Hills and the Stars etc. — to help him get it. English magicians developed magic — made it less fundamental, less natural, but ultimately they were drawing on the goodwill of the English Wind, the English Rain, the English Hills and those Stars that you can see from the Sussex Wolds or Birmingham or Carlisle. So English magic was like a conversation between the magicians and England.

The reason English magic is particularly strong is because of John Uskglass, a child stolen from England and taken to Faerie, where he learnt fairy magic and gained a fairy kingdom, before returning to England to gain an English kingdom. He then taught his magic to other humans. This wasn’t so much because he was a generous sort of person — he’s not usually. It was more because he had two sorts of subjects — fairies and humans — and he saw that he needed to get them to bond, to become one people. Getting them to do magic together was a clever way to do this.

On the other hand, how English is English magic? As we’ve seen it comes from fairies. And John Uskglass didn’t think of himself as English — not at first anyway. He claimed to be Norman, which (if it were true) meant that his grandfather would have come over from Normandy with William the Conqueror. And in the 19th century Jonathan Strange’s mother was Scottish.

At the end of JS&MN there’s a footnote about a Scottish magician and Scottish magic. And Jennifer-Oksana’s is an Introduction to The Books of Caribbean Magic (2nd Edition): a fun piece of fan fiction crossing JS&MN with Pirates of the Caribbean. Other countries do have their own magics — I can’t see why they wouldn’t. On the whole I suspect English magic has the edge because of Uskglass.

How do you inject humour into your stories? Is it by a magpie method of collecting bits of funny ideas from day to day? Or is it some other more deliberate way?

Hmm, never thought much about this. The humour grows out of the characters, I suppose.

Or maybe it’s like this. I don’t read widely or watch a wide variety of television, but when I like something I tend to get to know it very well very quickly. I get a bit obsessed. Most of the funny television I watch is American — Buffy, Firefly, The Simpsons, Futurama, Family Guy (so naughty) and above all King of the Hill. I adore Hank Hill. (“I’m not some redneck and I’m not a Hollywood jerk. I’m complicated.”) Most of the funny books I read are English — like P.G. Wodehouse, Charles Dickens and Terry Pratchett. I like Pratchett’s philosophical jokes more than the slapstick bits about sausages and odours.

I think what happens is that I read or watch these things and I learn them pretty well and then perhaps I subconsciously reproduce that sort of humour when I write.

Any news from New Line on the JS&MN movie?

Ah well, movies grow slowly. We’re still at the script stage working to get it right. Whenever there’s a draft ready I get to read it and add my insights — which the producers and scriptwriter may or may not attend to, just as they like. Of course I always hope they will. But I must say it’s fascinating to watch your own characters through the lens of another writer’s mind.

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