Interview by Rupert Dastur
Hi Clare, thank you for speaking to us. To start off, perhaps you could tell us when you began writing and at what point you knew it was going to be a life-long pursuit?
As soon as I could read, I was writing. So when I was reading Enid Blyton, my stories were all about adventures on remote islands, and when I progressed to Biggles, everything I wrote was about the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War (I was quite knowledgeable about all that once). It took a bit of time – I had to grow up – before I stopped being derivative!
Did you grow up in a household full of books?
Yes. My mother was a reader. I think she belonged to a book club, as many of the books had similar covers. We used to go to the library once a week, so there was always plenty to read. My favourite presents were always books.
And did you have the support of family and friends when they discovered you wanted to be a writer?
I didn’t discuss it with anyone – I was always quite secretive. I would have been embarrassed to admit that I thought there was any possibility of being published. It felt rather arrogant.
In an interview with another author conducted by TSS, one writer mentioned that until the physical, published book is on someone’s hand, it can be difficult to be taken seriously, with people treating the craft as no more than a hobby. Does that chime with you at all?
I didn’t expect anyone to take me seriously, which is why I didn’t discuss it. It seems a little premature to assume you’re going to be successful until it actually happens.
Did you start off writing short stories and if so, at what point did you make the jump? Was it difficult?
Yes, I did start with short stories, about one a week, but quickly realised that a novel would be equivalent in length to about twenty or thirty stories. So I decided I might as well get on with it. The hardest thing when writing my first novel was developing a strong narrative drive. You write a big scene and then struggle to continue the story. I didn’t have a plan – I let it go where it wanted to go, but I can remember a few moments where I wasn’t at all sure what would happen next.
What, aside from length, are the greatest differences between long and short fiction?
I’m not a natural short story writer or reader – I’ve always preferred novels. In fact, I’m reluctant to commit a good idea to a short story, as I would prefer to weave it into a novel. This probably distinguishes me from true short stories writers, who are generous with their ideas. I much prefer the complexity of a novel, which is a combination of many plot strands, and enjoy the intellectual exercise of bringing it all into shape. I also like the opportunity to explore characters in greater depth. When I read short stories, I’m always disappointed to finishes, just at the point when I’m becoming committed to a character.
Aside from writing, you’re also a music teacher, tutor, and mother. Was it and is it difficult to find time to write? Do you have a writing routine?
It was always difficult to find time, and frequently I could only manage a couple of hours a week. So once I found the time, I had to be really disciplined. I now work at school for the afternoons and write in the mornings. I have a special room set aside in my house, even though I live alone now, and I keep to a routine. I have spent too many years grabbing every available minute. I couldn’t bring myself to waste time now.
Writers talk a great deal about rejection and the necessity of a thick skin. Your first four novels gained little traction with the publishers, but your fifth (Astonishing Splashes of Colour) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. What can you tell us about the highs and lows of the writing life?
It’s pointless being too sensitive. I always expected rejection, so it was very exciting if anything was accepted. I have folders full of rejection letters for all my earlier novels. I sent out Astonishing Splashes to thirty-three agents, with very little response. One asked me to go and see her, seemed very enthusiastic, then held on to it for six months without doing anything. That was a low point. Sadly, the volume of submissions these days is so enormous that it’s inevitable that there are going to be long delays. It was many years before I found a publisher. Obviously, the high point was being shortlisted for the Booker!
What do you do on days where inspiration and motivation have decided to take a long weekend abroad?
After so many years with so little spare time, I don’t really allow myself to not write. If I’m stuck, I sit there anyway, start typing, knowing much of it is rubbish, and usually find that things eventually come together and start to flow. And if it not, at least there’ll be something there to work on tomorrow.
In an interview with Wordery, you mention that much of your time is spent editing. What’s your process, how many drafts do you tend to go through, and do you have any useful tricks that might help aspiring writers?
I do a rough draft of a chapter to get a sense of where the story is going, which I wouldn’t want anyone to see, then rewrite it. I go through every word meticulously, changing, deleting, moving around. It’s hard to say how many times I go over it – probably a minimum of five – but I continue to find sections that don’t quite work, sentences that aren’t smooth enough. This continual re-reading and correcting is essential for polished writing. You just can’t rush it – well, you can, but not if you want to produce something literary. I do this with every chapter, thinking about what’s gone before, gradually getting a clearer picture of where I’m going and what changes will be needed later. I rarely go backwards until I’ve reached the end, when I read it through in one go and start all over again. It will always be necessary to move scenes around, improve details to make it believable. I look for repetitions – phrases, metaphors, explanations, unusual words. It’s a very rigorous process and I don’t think there are any tricks. It’s very, very time-consuming, but essential.
In various interviews and articles, you’ve mentioned an interest in unusual people and places. What draws you to these fringes?
I write to understand, so I’m interested in people and places that step away from the mundane. There are far too many books that don’t have enough sparkle. I’m easily bored by predictability, so I need to be excited. Great books draw your attention to something you didn’t know, help you understand, and guide you to a new perspective. That’s what I aim to do.
- Why is fiction writing important to you, and why do you think it’s important to society at large?
I believe very strongly in the power of fiction and deep intellectual thought. Everyone should learn to think more. If you read a powerful work of fiction, you gain greater insight into people and their motivations. If society as a whole read more fiction, they might be more understanding of each other, more tolerant. And people need stories to help them make sense of their own lives.
Are you able to reveal anything about your next project, or is it being kept closely under wraps?
I’m coming to the end of my next novel, but it will require a lot of work yet, so I’d prefer not to discuss it.
Lastly, if you were to go back and start all over again, what would you do differently?
Nothing really. It might have been nice to have earlier success, at a time when the book trade was more varied and profitable. But I had to grow into it. I’m a much wiser person now than I was at twenty-five, so my writing is better. I’m not particularly interested in what might have been. I have always dealt with whatever situation I was in and got on with it.
Clare Morrall is an acclaimed writer who achieved success with her first published novel, Astonishing Splashes of Colour, which reached the shortlist for the 2003 Booker Prize. She has since published a further four novels. Clare’s work has been translated into German, Spanish, Italian, French, Polish, Croatian, Russian, Dutch and Greek. When the Floods Came is Clare’s most recent book and writing the short story ‘The Lights’ gave Morrall the confidence and inspiration to tackle this post-apocalyptic world, set about 50 years from now.
Clare’s short story ‘The Lights’ was published by TSS on our Short Fiction Page. You can read the piece here.
Rupert Dastur is a writer, editor, and founding director of TSS Publishing. He studied English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge and is Associate Editor at The Word Factory, a leading short story organisation based in London. He’s also Events Coordinator for the Society of Young Publishers (London) and Curator for WritingCompetitions.org. His own work has appeared in a number of places online and in print and he is currently working on his first novel.
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