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‘But I saw her darkness; I felt her loneliness and her obscurity. I will always be able to hear the moans and whistles of her stairwell, her ghost music, the muted and ceaseless piano of her theme tune, and the enduring, resisting stoicism of the men who sing and hum her on.’ (Horatio Clare, Down to the Sea in Ships)
I met Horatio on a bitter Thursday evening at a restaurant in the Business District of Liverpool. Wearing a grey suit, white shirt and green jumper, his attire matched his slightly Bogarst-esque voice, especially if one thinks of To Have and Have Not, an adaptation of a Hemingway story in which Bogart portrays a sailor. Combined with the subtle dishevelment of his general appearance and his charmingly odd socks, he looks like a writer.
He is currently a lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University and the Royal Literary Fund fellow at the University of Liverpool as well as being a writer, splitting teaching and mentoring between two days a week, spending the remaining days in his attic writing and researching. This week is his first at the Indigo Hotel, and I find him in a darkly but tastefully lit hotel bar, a 12 year old Liverpool whisky in his hand. It’s not hard to believe that he used to work in radio – he has a distinctively luxurious tone to his voice, talking in deep, almost Queen’s English. The quotation above is not hard to imagine in his voice – the slow, drawn out phrases exacerbated by the commas are exactly his tone and level of description of that which he finds beautiful. He begins to roll a cigarette with (naturally) American Spirit tobacco, asking me what I’m reading and studying at the moment. It takes me a few tries to remind him that I’m interviewing him, and, with noticeable humility, he answers my first question.
Are you happy with your progression through the literary world?
Happy – I am happy. And with my progress such as it is – I feel I have reached the end of the beginning, and I feel, always, as though I am just starting out, blank page, idea or two, doubt and desire. But I’m hungry. I want to be a better writer, and, because I am ambitious and romantic and a dreamer, I want to be a more successful one – I want to use my time to make work that lasts and matters.
Would you have done anything differently?
Oh loads – my first book, Running for the Hills would have had a different title. I wouldn’t have started on my second, Truant – about drugs, minor crime, misdemeanours and madness – an autobiography of my twenties – until much later, maybe around now. That would have a different title too. So Running would have been In A Gap of Cloud, and Truant would have been A Truant Disposition, and I would have spent more time on A Single Swallow and maybe done the journey again before writing the book. But you only get so many chances to go overland the length of Africa and Europe…and I get very impatient. More care over all my manuscripts is what I would have done differently – but I want a book to be finished.
Why is it that you lean more towards non-fiction, having written both fiction and non-fiction? What do you think that actually says about the relationship between imagination and writing? Do you think that there is a divide between fiction and non-fiction in that respect?
I started with a hybrid form, non-fiction and novel in one, and then the book (Running for the Hills) became memoir. Until I started writing for children, apart from a myth-based novella and some short stories, all written to commission, I have worked in non-fiction. I find it so exciting – other people’s deeds and ideas and hinterlands produce material which is normally much more interesting and urgent than me and my fantasies. And I tend to write with a political purpose, which suits non-fiction much better. And non-fiction means action, travel, adventure, and they are the real engines of my desire to be a writer, I think. All writing is imaginative: I don’t work less hard, creatively, when writing non-fiction than when I am making it up. If you read the great J. M. Coetzee the answer to ‘is there a divide between fiction and non?’ is very clearly answered. No, there is no difference. His autobiography is told in a series of novel-memoirs – Boy, Youth, Summertime. “I stood on the bridge of the Gerd Maersk as the sullen waves swelled and grew and marched towards her,” appears to be non-fiction if I present it in Down to the Sea in Ships – a travel book. But the thinking, shaping and writing of it could all belong to fiction. We tell ourselves stories, selectively, about who we are and what we have done. It’s a creative process, not an objective mechanism. I don’t really see any difference except when I write journalism I deal in fact, and when I write books I deal in imaginative truth. Everything which surrounds them is the same.
What in your life has had most of an effect on your writing?
Probably the culture and generation from which I come: growing up in a house full of books, on a mountain, with a very clever and unusual mother; having parents who prize reading good writing so highly; going to university in the 90s, when there was more time for reading and smoking and falling for people and putting on plays than there is now – I had to do jobs to support myself in second and third year but we had so much more time than many students do now. And then working live-in in a Chelsea pub and then the BBC – the pub taught me something about life and in the radio arts unit I met a fat slice of the greatest writers and artists of our time, and read a lot.
Hemingway had a huge impact on style during the last century with his iceberg principle, especially compared with other modernists. Is there a relationship to be found between revolutions in style and a crossover from fiction to nonfiction?
Oh yes! Excellent question – no one has come up with that in a decade. So in nature writing / travel, which is broadly my genre and one of the most dynamic areas of bookselling for a while now, we are all descendants of Richard Jeffries, Edward Thomas, Ted Hughes – and if you go further back, of Wordsworth and Coleridge. It’s not coincidence that there are complaints about how male it is – though writers like Jay Griffiths and Rebecca Solnit are the best at it, and Helen MacDonald very successful. I think the moment when Edward Thomas turns his prose to poetry, under the influence of Robert Frost, basically by rearranging it on the page, is a big one. Ted Hughes sails his nature poetry very close to prose, as did Lawrence with Snake, for example. If you look at writers like Robert Macfarlane, Jim Perrin, Richard Mabey, me, I guess, the style is fairly similar: clear and allusive, often reaching towards the plain kind of poetry of Edward Thomas and Ted Hughes.
This kind of non-fiction, like travel, descends from the diary form, from Gilbert White. J. A. Baker changes it, when he writes a kind of absent or mystery narrator diary-novel, which would now be sold as non-fiction. So that’s the story of the style, more or less. The revolution is actually in process: Gilbert White wrote about Selborne because he was the vicar there. Baker leaves his house to look for peregrines. But nowadays the writer goes somewhere and does something in order to write about it, and I think that’s the change. Macfarlane has been abseiling into uranium mines for his next one, Underlands. I am about to go on an icebreaker around Finland. It attracts criticism, as though there is something inauthentic about a book about a journey you did in order to write a book. But that’s crap. The writer follows his or her passions or pains and writes about them. Motives beyond that don’t matter: the only question is, is their stuff any good?
Something I find interesting is the concept of writing as the opposite sex, for example Defoe and Moll Flanders, Graham Greene in The End of the Affair or the slightly bizarre Orlando, by Virginia Woolf. Do you think that men and women can do each other justice in writing in the voice of the other?
Definitely. Even a minor writer can pull it off. I still get messages from readers around the world, mostly from women, all about my mum, whose story in Running for the Hills has a resonance for them. The book is about her and often from her point of view: I render her speech and thoughts. Now that was just good portraiture, life-drawing and from memory, not novelistic genius, but it works. There are gulfs in skill between various male writers doing women (isn’t it strange that women writers are seldom questioned about or criticised for their versions of men? Are they just better at it?) but there is no gender bar. We’re not so different in ways that matter, though to be convincing, you have to portray the details, the apparently insignificant. If women are marginally more observant than men, as I suspect, that might explain why they’re marginally better at it.
What sort of authority do writers have in today’s society?
Quietly, I think they have enormous authority. All the authored material on TV, film, radio, internet – take it all away and there wouldn’t be much left but the news and chat shows and consumer shite. WH Smiths is pretty busy but apart from writing all it sells is chocolate. Attendance at literary festivals is through the roof, and across generations. Writing courses are booked solid. The internet may have taken money out of writing but it has heaped a load more power on writers. So – it’s a quiet and diffuse but fairly serious level of authority. But if people are living longer and are better educated naturally the demand for writing grows.
Is there a difference in the position of authority as a writer and as a lecturer?
A lecturer, an academic, writes partly for an academic audience: more specialised and fewer of them, and very well informed on the subject. They are much more likely to influence policy and thereby change the world in measurable ways: most politicians are not deep thinkers – although the best are: Michael Foot, Barack Obama, Alan Johnson – all superb writers. But look at the influence of the Kennedy School of Government on the US, for example: academics, for good and ill, have shaped economic and foreign policy. They invent it. Writers have much wider constituencies, so more popular authority, if you look at numbers attending talks in bookshops and tents up and down the country.
What is the best way of teaching the art of creative writing, if there is a way to teach it?
At John Moores yesterday the amazing Kate Clanchy, who wins prizes for poetry, fiction and non-fiction, explained to some second years how the engine of a plot works. It is a question in the reader’s mind which drives them to turn the pages, which is eventually answered. Such simple, brilliant teaching. She also did a class on dialogue – getting students to write the bits of a conversation that the characters don’t want to say, don’t mean to say, hope the other doesn’t say. It was brilliant. The best way to teach it is to know what you are talking about through practice and conviction, and convey it with passion and imagination. Given they have some talent and do a lot of work, you can teach anyone to write better, to write well.
Have you found a strong relationship between your own isolation and the development of your writing?
You start off writing because in your twenties you are often profoundly lonely, even when in company, I found. And then as demands increase on you you start having to create isolation to write: I gave up a lot of evenings and weekends in London for years to write, when I had a job. There must be a kind of isolation in a writer, because to write is to spend so much time in a private echo chamber with yourself and an imagined reader for company.
There seems to be in popular culture a significant stigma attached to writers: Kafka in his diaries stated “People label themselves with all sorts of adjectives. I can only pronounce myself as ‘nauseatingly miserable beyond repair’.” Is it so that writers are in fact miserable? Is it possible for writers to be entirely contented with life?
Most of the writers I know are extremely fulfilled people. We suffer poverty and depression perhaps disproportionately, but that’s life. On the whole it is a terrific vocation: amazingly privileged, tremendous fun, never boring unless you make it so. I would guess we would score very highly for contentment. Ten writers in a restaurant is a riot, although it is very rare.
Talk to me about romanticism: what does it mean to you? What do you romanticise in the everyday? Do you think that all writers have a certain tendency to romanticise elements of existence?
Reading Richard Holmes’ biographies of Shelley and Colderidge was what made me become a writer, no question. Everything else fed into it, but that was the spark. To believe in the imagination, to be fascinated by and in love with the world unseen, to live with idealism and revolution in your heart and head, to find in beauty truth and promise, to feel beauty and truth and patterns between nature, life and the mind everywhere: that is what romanticism means to me. It doesn’t mean you are off with the fairies all the time. I taught Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy this week. A romantic is a freedom-fighter, too, an insurgent in his or her own country, often, historically. Yes, we romanticise in that we imagine and heighten. But existence, like God, is what you believe it to be: so why not believe in wonder, in great powers within and without ourselves?
What role has love had in affecting your writing?
Ha. Good question. It’s been everything. My love of my family and childhood and Wales produced my first; my love of my friends my second. Love of travel, people and birds produced A Single Swallow and Orison for a Curlew. Down to the Sea in Ships is a kind of love letter to the sea, ships and sailors. And my children’s books are about the subject, explicitly. Jim Perrin paid me the complement of describing me as a celebrant – that is what I am, and why I write – in praise. And of course love has more or less directed all my relationships, all my inner life, and most of the deeds that mattered. So yeah – it’s the answer to me, cheesy as I am.
Do you have any other advice to young writers other than ‘go and write’?
It’s all about the research. So you are a writer because you live like a writer: you do, you act, you feel, you think and you observe like anyone else, but you have a secret purpose, which is to do it all consciously, in the knowledge that living is writing – living and reading are the first half of writing. Then you just, um, do it. The actual routine of typing should come to feel like a combination of composing and listening to music. The difference between the good and the great is the music – is it clear, or beautiful, or original, this music? When it works it is all of them. My namesake Horatio on the battlements of Elsinore: But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad, Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill…
That’s nature writing! And travel writing. And fiction, and straight non-fiction. It does not seem to say anything original, but its music is original, and clear, and so beautiful. It’s fantastic to be in the same business as someone like Will Shakespeare. If you think how busy he was, I know when he wrote. Late at night, and early in the morning, and whenever he could. That’s the way to do it. Shakespeare in Love is a terrific film about what it is like to be a writer, practically a documentary. Like when he comes up with Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter, and Marlowe suggests he try Romeo and Juliet. That’s kind of what it’s like!
And with that, Horatio Clare laughs. He finishes his coffee and stands. Smoking outside he describes his upcoming trip to Finland for his next book, Icebreaker, and then asks about my writing. Talking to him gives me the feeling of wanting to try more of this writing ‘game’, as he calls it, for myself. Research, writing and music: Clare makes it sound fun, and significant. I am doubly glad I switched from Law to English, I think, as I leave. Talking to him gives confidence to someone starting on the very early beginnings of her writing life. I cannot believe his career would have seemed more or less unlikely to him when he started out, even if that was in the relatively charmed decade of the 90s.
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