NewnhamWrites … All you need is love
When the world has gone to pot, we all need a little love. Perhaps it’s serendipitous that we have acclaimed novelist, Claire King (NC 1990) talking about her latest book, Everything Love Is, her love of writing and never finding sufficient time to do it; and why she thinks Newnham found her and changed her life.
Claire King grew up in South Yorkshire, studied economics at Newnham College, Cambridge and then spent twenty years working in business before remembering what she wanted to be when she grew up. She spent the last 14 years living in southern France with her family, and has recently relocated to Stroud, Gloucestershire. Her two novels are The Night Rainbow, (Bloomsbury, 2013) and Everything Love Is (Bloomsbury, 2016). Claire also writes short fiction, which has been published online and in print and has been recognised by fancy places such as BBC Radio 4 Opening Lines, New Scientist, The Bristol Short Story Prize, the Sean O’Faolain Short Story Competition and Metazoan. If you’d like to get in touch see www.claire-king.com/contact or on Twitter @ckingwriter
What made you decide to write? What was it about writing that you loved so much?
I have a lot of thoughts and feelings. I don’t know if they are particularly stronger or more numerous than others, but they are strong and numerous. As I child, I was quite angry. I learned that I could express these more articulately – which was sometimes safer – by taking my time to draft and redraft a letter, or an essay, or eventually a poem, or a fiction. I wrote about injustice, hypocrisy and struggle, but I was also driven by humour and really enjoyed writing comedy – funny poems, stories and so on. I’d love to find my way back to that – the ability to make people laugh is rare and extremely valuable. As I grew older I took more and more pleasure in this process for its own sake. I love having the time to make the best possible use of our language for whatever purpose I choose.
When you published your first novel, The Night Rainbow, how did you feel about it going out into the world? Did you feel particularly attached to this book?
A novel is an enormous investment in time and – for me – emotion, so the publication of The Night Rainbow was necessarily a much more weighted experience than publishing a short story, as well as being the realisation of an ambition I had held for many, many years. I felt very proud of the book, it was exactly what I wanted it to be, and I’m still very happy that this was the book that became my first published novel. It has something very authentic about it. And I still think about Pea and Margot with great affection, as though they were real people.
What do you find most challenging about writing? And what do you love most?
It’s an oldie but it’s a goodie – the most challenging thing at this stage in my life is simply finding the time and the space to write: a room of my own. Since we moved back here I do have, for the first time, a physical room of my own to write in, which is a great luxury. Now I just need to get up there more often.
Also, I have to accept that I cannot compartmentalise my time and head-space in real life as I do online. I don’t have fixed, day-job work hours so if the phone rings, even if I’m in the middle of writing a difficult scene, I have to answer the phone and speak to my clients. As the Design Lead for strategy consultancy and design agency, Innovation Arts, that’s my professional responsibility because CEOs and top executives often call me in the only windows of time they have available and it’s always important. I’m also, half the time, the parent responsible for school day mornings and evenings (if you can count 3:05 onwards as the evening), for helping with homework and making sure the right kit is packed, that there are clean socks and something good for supper. That’s not my other life, it IS my life. I manage all my commitments as best I can, and the boundaries are necessarily fuzzy.
What I love most about writing is the ability to take the time to perfect a sentence, the rhythm and the snap and the force of it. To go back to it again and again until it is both pleasurable and powerful. The English language is just a delight to work with.
On the subject – well sort of – of love, tell us about your latest book, Everything Love Is. What inspired you to write this story?
When I first started writing this novel I’d been living in France for ten years or so, and was living a life that I would definitely describe as happy, but also unconventional. I wanted to explore happiness – what it is and the choices we make when we try to find it.
At the time I was also working in and around Toulouse, a wonderful city in a beautiful setting, just north of the Pyrenees, but one which is often a hotbed of protests and cultural clashes. And so Baptiste came to be – a man living on a houseboat on the Canal de Midi and spending his life helping other people find happiness.
Just as the antagonist in a book is not always a character, so there are diverse forces that work against our happiness. Sometimes it is our environment, sometimes our past, and sometimes it is our future.
As I wrote on it became clear that this story couldn’t be told without love being brought into the equation. Love and happiness are often inextricably linked. Not just romantic love, but familial love, and love between friends. So in the end Everything Love Is became a grown up love story, and a meditation on happiness.
What misgivings did you have when writing it?
That’s an interesting question, because it’s not one that is often asked to authors, but I do understand why you would ask for this particular book.
I would say that I took a lot of risks in this book. The primary one being that it covers ground that might be sensitive to many readers. I wanted to handle that delicately and with respect to different peoples’ experiences. This was a particular preoccupation when it was first launched, but having spoken now to readers who would fall into that category I’ve been reassured that those elements have been pitched well.
The other big risk is that the novel asks a lot of the reader. As well as Baptiste, there is a second narrator whose identity is left for the reader to work out. In addition, the timeline is initially quite jumpy. This means that the first few chapters can be pretty disorienting until the reader has worked out what is happening and why. Then everything becomes clear. I looked at different ways of constructing the narrative, but doing it the way I did – complicated both to write and to read – was the most powerful way of telling the story.
I loved your main character, Baptiste Molino and how he’s so fixated on his past, his identity and his roots. The revelation towards the end was both unexpected and heartbreaking. How did you set about creating a character like Baptiste?
Thank you. Baptiste was such an elusive character; he took a long time to bring to life. I wrote a lot of backstory, most of which didn’t end up in the book but was essential to working Baptiste out. The backstory was never written from Baptiste’s viewpoint, but those of the people around him. There was even a backstory for his birth mother, about whom we as readers know almost nothing. It was through this process that Baptiste’s adoptive mother – a quiet but wise character – became one of my favourite characters in the book.
I never intended the book to have a twist as such, more an eventual revelation that comes through getting under the skin of the characters. I wanted readers to see things through Baptiste’s eyes in particular.
How did the first draft differ from the final version? Did it have a different ending, different characters?
The structure of the earliest draft of this novel was very different. It only had Baptiste narrating for a start. And plot-wise, what brought Amandine to Baptiste in the first place was also slightly different. The ending was hard to pin down initially, and that was troublesome as my approach to writing is often to start with the end in mind. In fact it was in searching for the ending that the structure of the story fell into place, and how Chouette’s narration, which becomes more important later in the book, came to be.
You’re very active on social media – particularly on Twitter – but use it without over-sharing. What rules do you have for yourself when using that platform? What pitfalls – if any – have you fallen into, what’s to be avoided?
Twitter is where I talk writing and books. I do use Facebook but it’s for family and close friends only as a general rule. I keep personal things there. And I use LinkedIn for business. This framework helps me keep the online borders crisp between my different spheres, and it avoids duplication. For me, Twitter is a community. I like to chat to like-minded people, and sometimes people who stretch and challenge my thinking, but for me it’s a pleasurable diversion and I’m quick to remove people from my feed if there is too much commercial noise or opinions or behaviour that I find distasteful. So my rules are mostly to listen to and engage with rather than what I say. In terms of what I say, the golden rule is if I wouldn’t stick it up on a poster outside my house then I won’t say it on Twitter.
What are you reading? Who are your influences?
I’ve been reading Sarah Pinborough’s The Death House, on a recommendation. I try to read widely across genres and include a mix of well known/hyped books, unknowns (often word of mouth recommendations), and turn to ‘safe hands’ authors when I need something I know I will enjoy. This year I’ve read quite a few thrillers and a lot of books by authors I know personally via Twitter. I’ve also been enjoying Elena Ferrante’s books, and Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things simply blew me away.
I wouldn’t say my writing is influenced by specific authors; I am influenced by everything I read one way or another. Great writing nourishes me, but it is also good for a writer’s sanity to read published books that are not terribly well written.
After 14 years in France, how was it moving back to England?
The process of moving back has been very long and drawn out. It has taken well over a year and is still ongoing (in terms of unpicking our life in France) and has been very stressful. I basically accepted that 2016 was going to be a year of transformation for me and my family, and have tried to go easy on myself when managing all of this has necessarily eaten up my writing time. What was most important this year was making sure that the change went well for my children and that we could pay all the bills. In that sense it has been a great success and we are all very pleased to have made the move. We felt at home here very quickly indeed and are looking forward to 2017 being a much more settled year.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a new novel. I can’t say much about it now, but it’s set in Yorkshire and covers themes around family, class, and the tiny formative experiences that can become catastrophic later in our lives.
Given your love of reading and writing, why did you choose to study Economics at Cambridge? Why not English Literature?
I don’t think I ended up at Cambridge through choice. I didn’t think, in all honesty, it was a choice that was open to me. I feel that Newnham chose me. I’ll explain (long story!):
When I chose my A Levels, the school timetabling meant that I couldn’t take both Maths and English. I was advised to choose Maths as it was more likely to get me a job. Where (and when) I grew up, careers advice wasn’t about choosing a career, it was about not being on the dole. So I chose Maths, Economics and British Government & Politics. The other two subjects were really because I wanted to understand more about who and what was pulling our strings.
When I first started looking at university prospectuses I was thrown by the amount of choice. I had no clear idea what I wanted to do later, and so picked out courses that looked interesting. I applied for five different subjects at five universities, including Cognitive Science at Sheffield. That probably sounds ridiculous, but I would bet money that there are still very bright kids from backgrounds like mine who don’t have access to information that helps them make choices, or indeed the money to pay a train fare to university open days.
I never believed I’d get a place at Cambridge, I didn’t think it was a door that was open to me, and applied mostly out of belligerence. I was ignorant, of course, but I’d never met anyone who had been to Oxford or Cambridge, never visited those cities. People like me stayed close to home: Sheffield, Manchester or Nottingham. I applied for Maths there because I was good at it and thought it was my best bet. Newnham actually wrote back to me and said, having looked at my application, that they felt I would be better suited to Economics and would I like to apply for that instead? I was astonished that they had taken the time to advise me on my choice.
Tell us about your time at Newnham and one defining memory that you have of the place?
Newnham changed my life, and I don’t say that lightly. It brought me into contact with people from completely different backgrounds, and with very different opinions to my own. I had a transformative three years there. It was also in many ways a retreat for me – an escape from a difficult situation at home. I made friends at Newnham that I have kept and will keep for the rest of my life.
I wasn’t the easiest student, but I did get involved in the college, taking over the bar in my second year and being elected JCR president in my third. I have two defining memories to share. The first was my interview with the lovely Admissions Tutor, Susan Stobbs, who made me feel that I belonged at Newnham. The other was a difficult but positive meeting I had with the very wise Senior Tutor, Joyce Wells in my third year, when I was not seeing eye-to-eye with my Director of Studies. Newnham was extremely supportive from the start of my time there until the end, and I really needed that support. I’m forever grateful.
What springs to mind when you think of the following:
Career woman: Woman