Susanna Clarke Women’s Prize for Fiction winner: ‘Write about your obsessions and what fascinates you’

·5-min read
 (Dave Benett)
(Dave Benett)

“Write your obsessions. The things you think are absolutely fascinating, even things that don’t seem to go together. If you can make them go together you’ll have something original.”

That’s Susanna Clarke’s advice to aspiring writers. Yesterday, she won the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction for her second novel, Piranesi and when we speak the morning after the ceremony she is still fizzing.

Clarke, 61, had the idea for the book in her twenties. Set in an alternate world it is about a lonely man, Piranesi, who wanders empty halls and courtyards cataloguing them. Bernadine Evaristo, the chairman of the judges called Piranesi “a truly original, unexpected flight of fancy which melds genres and challenges preconceptions about what books should be” and that would have lasting impact, “telling us something profound about what it is to be human.”

“I was reading a lot of Jorge Luis Borges, who writes these exquisite finely-tuned short stories about very strange worlds,” Clarke says. “There’s a story called The Library of Babel, a world which is entirely a library. I found these stories fascinating and wanted to do something similar so I had this idea of a huge house with seas and oceans sloshing through it, but for decades I just couldn’t figure out how you could possibly write this story.”

Piranesi was published 16 years after her debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which sold more than four million copies. Clarke fell ill while promoting the book and was eventually diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. In the “depths” of her illness, she says she could only work one day in a fortnight “which did happen for many years,” and left her “intensely frustrated.” “I had all of these ideas and I wanted to pursue them but my headache and aches and lack of energy wouldn’t let me,” she says. “There came a time when I felt well enough to work consistently and I wanted to return to a project that didn’t require huge research (like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell did). So this seemed like a sensible thing to go for.”

Clarke hopes her win will encourage other women who are living with similar conditions. “When I was ill and not really seeing any way forward for myself, it was a beacon of hope every time I met people who said ‘I had something similar’ but they managed to surmount it, maybe not entirely, but there had been some improvement or they’ve achieved something,” she says. “When you’re in the middle of a chronic illness you do need hope and sometimes it’s quite hard to find.”

She is also hopeful that the number of people now living with long-Covid will lead to change in how we treat conditions like chronic fatigue. “Modern medicine has a difficulty with chronic illnesses. I’m hoping now there’s more of an impetus to investigate. We people who are ill are often quite shy about telling people because you don’t want to look weak or incapacitated or like you can’t cope. I think we just need to be more open about it.”

Writing, when she was able to, proved a form of escapism and Clarke says she realised in some ways she was living vicariously through her character. “The narrator is somebody who goes on these long walks through the halls of the house, he climbs the statues and fishes in the sea, he’s very, very active. I wanted to go on long walks but I couldn’t so he sort of did on my behalf.”

Clarke has always wanted to be a writer but warns becoming a novelist was no easy feat. “Being a writer always seemed like the most wonderful thing you could be - it took me a long time though. It took me a long time to learn how to structure a novel, it isn’t an obvious thing at all, it takes quite a lot of work to get yourself to that point where you understand how to do it. And once you’ve done it once it doesn’t mean you understand how to do the next one so you sort of have to start again.” Who are her biggest writing inspirations? “Charles Dickens, CS Lewis and Ursula Le Guin. There are quite a lot of references in the book, just touches on the Narnia stories which were so important to me as a child. I also love detective fiction so there’s a hint of a detective story woven through it.”

This year’s Women’s Prize longlist attracted controversy for its inclusion of a trans woman, Torrey Peters, who was selected for her debut, Detransition, Baby. The prize’s organisers said: “Anyone who is legally defined as a woman can be entered for the prize by a publisher...The word ‘woman’ equates to a cis woman, or a transgender woman who is legally defined as a woman.” Does Clarke think shortlists today are diverse enough? “Women have incredible imaginations and widely varying experiences and come from all sorts of cultures, there is no sort of writing that women should be doing. The Women’s Prize seems to want to celebrate that. I think the huge range and diversity of the list is absolutely brilliant.”

So what is next - and how will she spend the £30,000 prize money? Following her win, Clarke says she’s in “unknown land.” For now, she’s planning a “not very demanding” holiday with her husband and fellow writer Colin Greenland, she is yet to decide where they will go. “I was just so overjoyed to actually make it here.”

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