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In Conversation With 2021 Women’s Prize For Fiction Winner Susanna Clarke, Author Of ‘Piranesi’

Susanna Clarke’s debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was a literary phenomenon. Shortlisted for the 2004 Booker Prize, its success caught the attention of the BBC for a BAFTA-nominated miniseries in 2015. Sixteen years later when she returned with her long-awaited follow-up, Piranesi, we knew we couldn’t wait to see where the pages inside took us.

On the back of winning the 2021 Women’s Prize For Fiction, we sat down with the celebrated author to talk about creative processes, the influential impact books can have on us and how we can benefit from connecting more with the world around us – which Clarke hopes is something people will take away from Piranesi. As well as conjuring up a beautiful, melancholy setting we can get lost in, she creates a character who is pure, uplifting and inspiring. This is an author who understands the power of fiction, its characters and how stories can truly transport us elsewhere.

You’ve just won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021 - congratulations! How did that feel?

It was extraordinary but I was shocked. When I was told I was on the longlist I thought it was lovely but I thought I’ll never be on the shortlist, so winning was just amazing. It’s extraordinary to suddenly find yourself at the centre of something so unexpected. The awards were a beautiful evening.

“It’s extraordinary to suddenly find yourself at the centre of something so unexpected.”

First off, can you give us an overview of Piranesi for those who haven’t read it yet?

I usually start by saying it’s about a man who lives in a house in which an ocean is imprisoned. His house is immense. It is possibly infinite, although the narrator has no way of really judging whether or not it actually is. He spends his life wandering this house, which is an arrangement of large holes, vestibules and staircases. The walls are all lined with statues, none of which are the same. He leads quite a hard life because he has to source his own food but he still finds it full of beauty and meaning. He doesn’t know of any other world.

How would you sum up Piranesi’s character in a few words?

He’s happy. He’s curious and he is madly enthusiastic about finding out about his world. He does so in a scholarly way and constantly wants to know more, finding it all wonderful.

What inspired the novel and its main character?

When I was in my 20s I read some short stories by an Argentinian writer called Jorge Luis Borges, who focused on amazing worlds and strange philosophical ideas. One was about a world which is nothing but a library and the whole world is alive. I was inspired and I wrote a few pages about a huge house with emotion inside it, and two men, one of whom understood how to navigate the house safely and not get caught in the tide. The other didn’t understand the house anywhere near as well and had to interrogate the first person to find out what was going on. For years I had no idea what to do with this idea but I kept coming back to it. It took a long time to get it right.

How would you sum up Piranesi’s character in a few words?

He’s happy. He’s curious and he is madly enthusiastic about finding out about his world. He does so in a scholarly way and constantly wants to know more, finding it all wonderful.

He's got a very upbeat and optimistic tone to the way he thinks and narrates. You get a feel for that instantly through the way you write from his point of view...

It’s interesting because when I started to write it seriously, my first idea was to present a person who was angry at the situation that he found himself in – but it just didn’t work. It just didn’t come together. It’s only when I realised no, he actually loved being there and he’s happy, only then did it all start to come together. This surprised me as much as anyone else.

Can you describe your inspiration for the setting of ‘The House’? And have you always been interested in settings that feel like other worlds?

When I was a child, I read The Chronicles of Narnia and I just loved the idea of that world. I would have absolutely loved to have gone there. And later I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s trilogy which again, is a world which is a sort of archipelago of island and sea, which I found fascinating. I think I just always wanted to be somewhere else really. So any world that you could get to by reading always drew me in.

Did the idea of ‘The House’ or its characters come first?

I think the idea of The House and the two main characters all came together at once. It was a setting that needed someone to explore it and the people needed a reason to explore it, or you’re not going to get very far or learn much from the narrative.

The second character ‘the Other’ is obsessed with uncovering ‘a Great and Secret Knowledge’ throughout the book. What inspired this? Can you tell us a little more?

In both of the books I have written, there’s been a contrast between magic and knowledge. Knowledge or magic can give you power over other people or help you acquire something for yourself – and that’s the sort of magic that ‘the Other’ is interested in. Then there’s the magic or knowledge which is really about making a connection with the world and experiencing life in a richer, fuller way. That’s the way Piranesi sees it. He’s just trying to understand the world and appreciate it, so they’re on opposite ends of the spectrum.

The statues throughout the house bring Piranesi’s character great comfort. Can you talk to us about the inspiration here and their relevance?

I only found out quite late on when I was writing how important they were. I suddenly realised, of course, these statues mattered and they were all going to be different. I wanted The House to have this dreamlike feel, like a place that you’ve never thought of before but at the same time, like a dream that is quite familiar.

I think a lot of people have dreams of wandering through an endless house, through corridors and rooms and so on. I didn’t want these statues to have a fixed meaning because I wanted them to be like images within a dream, where the reader can decide for themselves what they mean.

“I didn’t want these statues to have a fixed meaning because I wanted them to be like images within a dream, where the reader can decide for themselves what they mean.”

Were you inspired by the work of the artist Giovanni Piranesi and if so, how?

Yes, although I found out quite late on what the narrator’s name was going to be. It was a later acquisition but I’ve loved the work of the Italian artists for years. Lots of the artwork has this atmosphere of beauty but it’s sort of a melancholy beauty, which fascinates me. Giovanni Piranesi’s imaginary prisons (which are probably his most famous work) cause mixed reactions but some people find them grand and beautiful. Once I plugged into that, it seemed obvious what to name the narrator.

I imagine combining a dark mood with something beautiful is quite hard to do in creative writing, yet you do it so well. It feels natural. The house was something I found slightly unnerving as a reader about but also something beautiful I wanted to be part of. Was that the aim when writing?

Thank you. Yes, I think combining a melancholy mood with beauty can make something linger for longer in the mind. It’s an atmosphere people can really latch on to.

Which books have influenced you most personally throughout your life?

As a child, I loved the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. I think in a way the books that stay with you for the longest are the books you read as a child. I tend to go back to those. I also love Edith Nesbit who wrote The Railway Children but she also wrote some magical books like The Five Children and It, as well as The Phoenix and the Carpet. Also books by GK Chesterton, who had a very distinct way of writing descriptively and making ordinary things seem fantastic. He would make London in the early 20th Century sound like a fairyland.

Do you think books from our childhood stay with us more because you rely on your early imagination to visualise what you are reading, and it’s your first experiences in doing so?

Yes, I think you enter those books in a much more complete way. When you’re a child you’re not thinking, “is this a good book or not?” You let it take you over and that’s why I think it can be a deeper reading experience.

“I think in a way the books that stay with you for the longest are the books you read as a child.”

What else have you been reading lately?

I’m reading Patricia Lockwood’s book No One Is Talking About This, which I’m finding extraordinary. Reading her writing is like when you visit an art gallery and then when you come out, you see the whole world in the style of that artist for a while. It’s amazing. I’m also reading an old detective novel by Margery Allingham called Police At The Funeral. I love detective stories.

When did you first realise you wanted to write, was it at a young age?

As a child I loved books and reading. We moved around every four years or so and I spent a lot of time being the new person. Books were a place I could escape to. My parents both admired writers too. My father was a historian and a theologian and my mother had studied English at Oxford, so I think it was almost inevitable that I would want to become a writer. However it wasn’t until my teenage years and early twenties that I started trying to write. I think I always wanted to but I didn’t think I could do it in a serious way.

People often seem to start off as avid readers don’t they, then their creativity and imagination builds from reading a range of literature. Do you have any advice for those struggling more with creativity or writing?

My advice is always just to concentrate on what’s best for you – don’t worry about what other people are doing. Write about the things you are drawn to; whether it’s something you know well or don’t know well, it doesn’t matter. If you feel a strong pull towards it, write about it.

“Write about the things you are drawn to. Whether it’s something you know well or don’t know well, it doesn’t matter. If you feel a strong pull towards it, write about it.”

What do you want readers to take away from Piranesi?

Great question, I almost don’t want to give an answer. The pleasure of reading is that we always take away something different, depending on who we are. I wanted to create a unique character in Piranesi to teach us that what is valuable about his life in the house is his connection to the world around him. I think that’s something we’ve lost a little bit in this day and age and a loving relationship with the world around us is something we would benefit from regaining. Yet I want people to find different things in him, the story and the setting.

Thank you so much for sharing your writing process with us and for creating the world of Piranesi. The book is so different to anything I’ve read before and his character feels pure and uplifting in a way that was refreshing to explore - and actually it was just what I needed at the time.

My pleasure, that’s really wonderful to hear. I have to admit when I finished the book and it went to the publishers – when Piranesi went off into the world – I really missed him. He was an amazing character to be with and a great companion for me. So that means a lot.

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