Stanger Than Fiction

After 10 years of writing, Susanna Clarke has found overnight success, and perhaps a bit of the old Potter magic, with her debut novel.

September 29, 2004|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - When British writer Susanna Clarke made a stop here on her monthlong, American book tour, she had one sightseeing request: The Library of Congress.

The writer walked through the marble halls and peeked through a window into the lofty Main Reading Room. She peered at a Gutenberg Bible behind glass casing. Her face relaxed when she thumbed through works in the rare books room.

"You must tell me when we need to move along," she said to a Library of Congress staff member while examining one 19th-century volume at a long table. "Because, I could just sit and stay here."

Clarke, a graying 44-year old from Cambridge is the next big thing of the literary world. Her debut novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (Bloomsbury, $27.95) arrived with a crackle of favorable reviews in major papers and (defying gravity) the 782-page, nearly three-pound book has since flown off the shelves.

It was published earlier this month and immediately appeared on The New York Times best-seller list. It made the long list (but not the short list) for the Booker Prize and is already in its eighth printing.

Bloomsbury, Clarke's publisher, is so excit- ed about Jonathan Strange it printed the first 40,000 copies with a limited edition version with a white dust jacket indicating the first run. (Everyone else gets a black-covered copy.) They brought it to market in America first, something unusual for the British publisher.

"I would doubt that there has been a novel of this size and appeal probably since [J.R.R] Tolkien and Lord of the Rings," said Bruce Allen, a contributing editor to Kirkus Reviews, a twice-monthly industry magazine that reviews major books.

Allen raves about the book, but also suggested the time is right for the subject matter. "In perilous times, things like fantasy speak loudly to people. Never underestimate the power of escape literature."

Set in early 19th-century England - as Napoleon's armies devoured continental nations - the book follows as a cantankerous old magician, Mr Norrell, goes to London to restore magic to the land. Jonathan Strange, a younger, more sociable, less cautious but brilliant magician, soon joins Norrell as a pupil.

Together they lobby for magic, but as their powers grow, and as they come to understand magic more fully, they struggle with a force much larger than either of them.

Clarke's book is described as a Harry Potter for adults, a reaction that hasn't surprised Clarke. "When I started hearing about Harry Potter," she said, "I got the sense immediately that it would be enormous. And because of that, I decided not to read it until I'd finished."

Clarke thinks that "a very bright 11-year old" would enjoy her book. The material is appropriate for children, but historic references will be lost on most youngsters (and, probably, many adults). "I read Tolkien when I was 11, and I didn't get everything out of it, but I enjoyed it," she said recently on Diane Rehm's show on public radio.

Clarke originally planned to write newspaper articles - not books. She graduated from St. Hilda's College, Oxford, an all-women's college within Oxford University, with a degree in politics, philosophy and economics. But after graduation, she looked for jobs in publishing instead of journalism. "I thought that books were more permanent," she said.

She worked in low-paying London publishing jobs for eight years before deciding to move to Spain to teach English. There, she fell ill for several months, and re-read favorite fantasy books. And the beginnings of Jonathan Strange came to her.

She'd tried unsuccessful novels in her 20s - but she decided this could be the book worth pursuing.

So at age 34, Clarke moved back with Mom and Dad in England to concentrate on Jonathan Strange full time.

"My parents were a bit worried," she said.

After six months, though, she realized she'd need a day job and found work editing cookbooks in Cambridge. It never occurred to her that it would take a decade to complete the novel.

Writing didn't come easily. "I write the bits that occur to me first, scraps of dialogue, scraps of characters, and then they become dotted about," she said. "I leave gaps, then I go over it."

While working full time, she rose at 5:30 a.m. to begin typing away on her laptop.

As she was starting the book, she met Colin Greenberg who was teaching a writing class she took. They fell in love, and she persuaded him to share a small terraced house with her.

But her work blocked out other activities. "Even when we'd go on holiday we'd go to a cottage on the English country-side, and I'd write everyday. The concept of days off or break was not even considered."

Over time she thought her writing improved, became more sophisticated, and she felt the need to rewrite what she had already written. She planned only five or six chapters in advance (the book has 69 chapters), so she had some false starts.

"There was a period of time at the end where I felt almost trapped by it," she said. "People asked are you afraid to finish?"

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