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Welcome to The books that shaped me - a Good Housekeeping series in which authors talk us through the reads that stand out for them. This week, we're hearing from Susanna Clarke, who recently won the Women's Prize for Fiction 2021 with her novel, Piranesi. Susanna is the author of two other books, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories.
What impact have books have had on you as a person and an author?
Like a lot of bookish children I was always happier inside a story than I was in the real world. I was particularly fond of historical novels and spent a lot of my childhood in the medieval period. It never bothered me whether the main character in the book was female or male, I identifed with them regardless. I feel sure that books have moulded me and taught me all kinds of things — though these thing are so much a part of me now that it’s difficult to stand back and identify them. I think there is a great value in the way fiction allows you to become other people for a while, to see the world from their point of view. That must help us understand each other — even if only a little.
I build my fiction on the foundation of other stories I’ve read. Very often these are stories I’ve read long ago. Sometimes I don’t even need to remember them consciously. After I had finished writing Piranesi I reread The House of Asterion, a short story by Jorge Luis Borges about a labyrinth. I had vague memories of it and considered it one of the stories which had influenced Piranesi. I was astonished by all the parallels between the two, by details in the Borges’s story of which I’d no memory, but which resurfaced in Piranesi.
The childhood book that’s stayed with you...
My favourite books as a child were probably the Chronicles of Narnia by C S Lewis. It’s hard to choose one above the others — and it would depend on the day you asked me — but today I’m going to say Prince Caspian. There’s a lovely bit where Lucy (my favourite character) wanders in a wood at night in the moonlight. She is certain that the trees are going to wake up and speak to her, but they don’t quite and she has to wait. (They do later on.) Obviously C S Lewis is a Christian writer, but I think this is a passage that would appeal to a modern pagan. Lewis had a little pagan in him, as do I; I don’t find the two things to be contradictory.
I’ve always liked the idea that trees were in some sense people and when I was a child I half believed it. I loved being among trees. Then I stopped believing it — because, you know, you are supposed to try to be grown up and rational. But now that I am over 60 I’ve decided I can believe whatever I like. So I’m coming out as someone who believes that trees are people. My husband claims this is nonsense, but when we walk down the lane near our house if I don’t speak to the little cherry tree growing by the sycamore and offer it our good wishes, he sorts of shepherds me towards it and encourages me to talk.
Your favourite book of all time ...
My favourite book is Emma by Jane Austen. I have no idea how many times I’ve read it. I love it so much that I gave Emma’s name — Emma Woodhouse — to the two female characters in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (or I very nearly did): Lady Pole’s Christian name is Emma, and Arabella Strange’s maiden name is Woodhope.
Emma is about a young woman who thinks she knows the secrets of everyone’s hearts and then it turns out she doesn’t even know the secrets of her own. Many of the characters are kindly with an ordinary, everyday, human-sized kindness that isn’t particularly dramatic, but which brightens the other character’s lives. (Once an academic dared to suggest in his blog that Mr Woodhouse, Emma’s father, was a bad man and a bad father; I immediately wrote an essay in the comments, explaining in great detail Why This Was Not True.)
Yet in some ways the fact that I’ve been reading this book ever since I was a teenager, means that it’s a bit opaque to me. I don’t read it like I would read other books. In fact I don’t really read it at all; I just go and live in it for a while.
The book you wish you’d written...
The book I wish I’d written is G K Chesterton’s The Man who was Thursday. It’s set in the late Victorian period and it’s about a poet who infiltrates the Council of Anarchists — anarchists being the terrorists of their day, the ones who hoped to overthrow society. That makes it sound like an adventure story — which it is, but it is also dreamlike, at times to the point of feverishness. It is subtitled ‘A Nightmare’ and there are many frightening moments — but the nightmare keeps dissolving into cheerfulness, companionship and beauty, which is not quite what you expect of a nightmare, and the other way round from a lot of books. It is unlike anything else.
I have always loved Chesterton’s descriptions; he specialised in making the most ordinary objects or scenes suddenly seem dramatic, even fantastic. (Which is something I like to try and do.) London, when he describes it, sounds like fairyland.
I should add that, despite having read The Man who was Thursday many times, I have yet to understand it.
The book you wish everyone would read...
I’m not keen on the idea that there is a book that everyone should read. I think different books speak to different people. The book that chimes with my heart won’t necessarily chime with yours — and vice versa. We forge our own individual paths in reading, as in other things. This is a good thing. It’s one of the ways in which literature keeps growing and expanding and opening up.
The book that got you through a hard time...
When my brother died it was very sudden. He had had an operation to ease his epilepsy — and the operation had apparently been successful, but then he had a bad fit and he died. I got a phone call early one morning. I had bought Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass, which had just come out. Over the next few days I kept opening the book and reading for hours and hours at a time. Grief was like being underwater and reading was a huge relief, like coming up for air. I cannot remember a single thing that happened in the book. (I assume there must have been an amber spyglass of some sort?) I only remember that it took me out of myself and that I am grateful to the book and to Philip Pullman for getting me through.
The book that uplifts you...
Three kinds of joyful book: one to make me laugh; one to comfort me; one to transport me. The one to make me laugh would be one of P G Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories. The one to fold around me like a warm, comfortable blanket would be one of the Cadfael stories by Ellis Peter (I still love the medieval era).
The one that nudges me to a new understanding of reality would be Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich. She was the first woman to write a book in English. She was alive at the time of the Black Death. She was an anchoress — which meant being walled up in a church. This was her own choice; she was clearly not one to make things easy for herself. Her message is that reality is centred on love. This was a radical message in the fourteenth century and, to my mind, it still is.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke is available to buy now
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