Continuing my series of questions about creativity and process with writers, choreographers, poets, directors, sculptors, theatre practitioners, novelists, burlesque performers and other artists…. Novelist Clare George takes the helm. I first met Clare in Exeter some years ago when she was writer in residence, co-ordinating a large project supporting and guiding writers. I’m delighted to introduce her response to 20 Questions…
Clare George is the author of two novels, The Cloud Chamber (Sceptre, 2003) and The Evangelist (Sceptre, 2005). Having completed a Masters in Creative Writing at University of East Anglia, she had a short story, Snapshot, broadcast on Radio 4 in 2006. She taught creative writing at City University London from 2007 to 2009, and was Writer in Residence at Exeter University from 2009 to 2011, where she led an outreach programme for writers across the South West exploring visions of the future. She is currently working on a third novel.
What first drew you to your particular practice (art/acting/writing, etc)?
- When I was a pre-schooler we lived in a small village where a library van visited once a week. It was the most magical place. The first story I remember making up, long before I was able to write it down, was about a girl who went into the library van and opened the most beautiful and exciting book in the world. It came to life around her. That’s still why I write.
What was your big breakthrough?
- Getting an agent. The first book I sent her wasn’t published, and neither was the next one, but the third was, and the fourth, and she’s still my agent now.
What is the most challenging aspect of your work/process?
- Starting a novel. So much material is needed, and it takes so many false starts: in the case of my most recent novel, Things I’ll Never Tell You, about twelve years’ worth.
Is there a piece of art, or a book, or a play, which changed you?
- Go Dog Go by P D Eastman, which was my favourite book in that library van.
- Content is everything. Form is everything. The best times writing are when they stretch one another. But in fiction there’s also story, which crosses the boundary between the two and is more mysterious than either. A story that gives and denies, enlarging our wants and our expectations, is a devastating thing.
How do you know when a project is finished?
- At the point when my improvements start making it worse.
Do you read your reviews?
- Damn, yes! I think the writer who doesn’t read his/her reviews is an admirable creature from a slightly different species to my own.
What advice would you give a young writer/practitioner?
- Read, read, read, read, read. But only for fun. And get out more.
What work of art would you most like to own?
- Newton by Eduardo Paolozzi, outside the British Library. Luckily, I do own it, sort of.
What’s the biggest myth about writing/the creative process?
- The attitudes I most dislike are the exclusive ones, such as that a writer needs to be a particular type of person, or that ‘literary’ works are intrinsically superior to those written within a genre.
- I’m trying to get started on a novel about a telepath. It started out as an exercise I set myself in using free indirect style after writing the last two novels in the first person, and has gone on to become an exploration of how dysfunctional it is to be constantly trying to examine people from the inside, which I find can get in the way of actual living.
What is the piece of art/novel/collection/ you wish you’d created?
- Ode to the West Wind, by Percy Bysshe Shelley. I’m a Romantic.
What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?
- I wish I’d had a Kindle, so that I didn’t have to be confined to British tastes in books. I got reader’s block for a long time.
What’s your greatest ambition?
- To become a better writer and enjoy myself while trying.
How do you tackle lack of confidence, doubt, or insecurity?
- I think patience is the answer. I’m not very patient.
What is the worst thing anyone said/wrote about your work?
- People are entitled to their own opinions. But one review of The Evangelist pointed out that I’d used the wrong terminology when my narrator talked about someone ‘getting a hat trick’ instead of ‘taking a hat trick’ (or the other way around). Getting it wrong was a betrayal of my cricket-loving narrator.
And the best thing?
- A review of The Evangelist in The Independent on Sunday: ‘Few authors possess a grain of Clare George’s intelligence, even fewer manage to splice a regularly amusing, often moving narrative with ideas of the range exhibited here.’ I quote it whenever possible. Especially on the school run.
If you were to create a conceit or metaphor about the creative process, what would it be?
- It’s like drugs. The side-effects are horrible but the highs are irresistible. You can give up but you will never be free.
What is your philosophy or life motto?
- Try really hard. Try not to try so hard.
What is the single most important thing you’ve learned about the creative life?
- I’m not sure there’s much of a distinction between the creative life and other types of life. I find that I have at least as much in common with those pursuing other disciplines for their own sake, such as science or sport or even business.
What is the answer to the question I should have – but didn’t – ask?
- What is actually happening to our brains when we consume stories? I don’t have the answer, but it would be great if there was someone out there working on it because I WANT TO KNOW.
Further information about Clare and her books at: