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Susanna Clarke on the Art of Writing

Posted on 15th September 2020 by Anna Orhanen
This autumn the award-winning author of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell returns with a much-awaited new novel Piranesi — a darkly fantastical tale of a House like no other and its enigmatic inhabitants. 
In this exclusive piece, Clarke discusses the way she collaborates with her characters in birthing a story and offers brilliant cues on how to approach the craft and fuel your imagination by sharing three rules she follows in her own writing process.

Find the right characters to tell the story 

I don’t really have any sort of reader in mind when writing. The thing is not to write for an imagined person or a real person, the thing is to get the story right (or as right as you can); to find the right characters to serve the purposes of the story; and conversely to find the right story that the characters can tell. That is the thing I am always trying to get right, the story. The story is the plot, yes, but it’s also the events and the characters and the unique atmosphere — the unique taste of that story alone.

In both novels I’ve written there’s been one character who has turned up and said to me, ‘It’s OK. Relax. I’ve got this.’ In Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell it was Childermass. Whenever he appeared in a scene I felt like he pulled up a chair for me to sit down, made me a cup of tea, and told me he would handle everything. And then he pretty much wrote the scene for me. I loved Childermass. (I still do.) In Piranesi there was a character a little bit like that, but he was a very different person from Childermass and I didn’t exactly love him. It was the Prophet. When the Prophet appeared he waved me airily aside and then just wrote his own dialogue. I had to type really fast to keep up. And when he had finished, he looked round and smiled, like he was saying, ‘That’s the way it’s done.’ And then he strutted off.

 

Precision is everything – but backstory can vary

Precision is something that Piranesi names as important in writing, and I would certainly agree with that. In choosing words, in descriptions — whether descriptions of places or people or emotions — you want to be as specific as you’re able.

In creating a piece of fiction I might start with an image and the image itself can be something quite small. C. S. Lewis said that all of the Narnia books began with the image of a faun in a snowy wood, carrying parcels. Or I might start with a character about which I know very little, just one or two things (for instance that, as a child, he got lost in some Roman ruins). The important thing is that the idea, whatever it is, has roots, that it goes deep down into the imagination, into the unconscious. Because if it has roots, then it will, with a bit of watering and careful pruning, grow into something quite interesting.

As to how much backstory I give each character, it varies wildly. For some characters I know pretty much the same as the reader knows and no more. I think this is probably true of Piranesi — he grew up out of the writing and before my eyes — I had had all sorts of wrong ideas about him earlier on. I learnt about him by writing him. 

For some of the other characters in the book I know a bit more. But this is mostly because I didn’t realise until quite late on that the story had to be all from Piranesi’s point of view or it wouldn’t work. So some of what I’d intended to write about the other characters ceased to be relevant at that point.

I have an idea which of the Dead is which. So I tend to think ‘Oh, that’s so-and-so,’ whenever Piranesi mentions them. I couldn’t think how this information could ever be discovered by anyone so it couldn’t really go in the book.

You don’t stop thinking about the characters. I have ideas for things Piranesi might say or think, and then I realise that the book is actually printed now, so it’s a bit late.

Piranesi is interested in perfumes and describes them in his precise way. So at one point I sat down and worked out what perfume all the characters wear, including Matthew Rose Sorensen. I have a list. Some of the perfumes are real and some I made up. At the time this seemed like the Most Important Thing To Know. Which seems a bit insane now.

Discover a writing process that works 

I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and my energy is badly affected. So I’ve learnt that a very good way to write is to use a Pomodoro or time-boxing system. I use it for other things as well as writing. You set a timer and you work for 25 minutes and then you have a short break. Then you work for another 25 minutes. The work period is called a ‘Pomodoro’ (Italian for tomato), because the guy who invented the system, Francesco Cirillo, first timed his work periods with a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato. I found it helped me make best use of my limited energy, but perhaps even more than that it also helps get rid of self-imposed pressure and guilt. You can forget about writing a whole novel; you just have to write for 25 minutes. You can forget about all the novels you haven’t written and your complicated emotions about them; you just have to write for 25 minutes.

I write in cafés. Why do writers like cafés so much? Because there’s coffee and croissants and toast. People bring them to you. There’s usually a little bit of background noise which can be helpful (though conversely I also like quiet, empty, early morning cafés.) You’re surrounded by people working, making coffee, tidying up, working on laptops. I like the proximity of people doing their work, of people enjoying working. (I like fiction about people doing their jobs for the same reason — I like procedural detective novels and legal dramas.) I like working in cafés when it’s raining. I love the sound of rain. Working in a café when it’s raining outside is my ideal. I also have apps of café sounds and rain sounds on my laptop. These are useful when I’m at home, but sometimes when I’m in a café and it is actually raining, I’ll still play extra café sounds and extra rain sounds through my headphones. Because you can never have enough.

I also listen to music. In the latter stages of writing I made three Piranesi playlists, to be a sort of soundtrack. I listened to them over and over again as I finished the book. These are the three pieces of music from those playlists which ‘mean’ Piranesi to me.

O Beata Infantia Alio Modo by Hildegard of Bingen, interpreted and performed by Stevie Wishart and Sinfonye and Guy Sigsworth. I just have to hear the opening note (it is a bell-like sound) and the Halls of the House rise up around me.

Zuuenz also by Hildegarde of Bingen, also interpreted and performed by Stevie Wishart and Sinfonye and Guy Sigsworth. ‘Zuuenz’ is a word which means ‘saint’ in a language that Hildegard made up, for what purpose no one knows.

Wave by David Sylvian. Piranesi is the second novel I have written to Wave (the first was never finished and don’t ask me what it was about because I don’t think I could say). I called one of the sections of Piranesi ‘Wave’ after this track. The song describes an emotion I cannot name.

 

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