INTERVIEW by Ellie Rees

NWR Issue 96

Horatio Clare

Horatio Clare agrees to let me interview him on his way to Carmarthen, where he is to give a life-writing class, but this will be a return match. I first interviewed Horatio twenty-two years ago. He was a skinny, scared sixteen year-old who had recently been expelled from Malvern College for smoking pot and was now applying for a place at Atlantic College, in South Wales. Years later he wrote my first, and probably only, mention in a book:

They gave me a thorough going-over in the final interview, demanding I convince them that I would not ‘experiment’ at college. I made them a sincere promise, they accepted it, and when to my amazement and delight they let me in, I kept it. (Truant, Notes from the Slippery Slope)

Now I’m the student and he is the professional; I feel strangely nervous as I wait for him to arrive at my house.

Clare’s first book, Running for the Hills, A Family Story (published in 2006), was an instant success: it was listed for The Guardian’s First Book Award and won The Somerset Maugham prize. He was also nominated for Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year. Clare recreates his childhood, growing up with his mother and brother on an isolated sheep farm in the Black Mountains, and the prose is magical; I loved every single page.

Two more autobiographical books followed: Truant, in 2007, and A Single Swallow in 2009, which were not nearly so well received. On his website, Clare summarises the critical response to Truant as: ‘Telling the true story of a middle class twit, with a silly name, who could not handle his drugs.’ Reviewing A Single Swallow in The Guardian, Mark Cocker referred to Clare as ‘a hopeless dreamer.’

Peter Florence, however, writing in The Daily Telegraph, recently chose The Prince’s Pen, Clare’s fourth book and a first venture into fiction, as one of his books of the year for 2011.

When Horatio does turn up, he’s the one who seems nervous; he talks fluently and confidently but fails to make eye contact. I make us a cup of tea and then embarrass him further as I take some photographs. (They are terrible.) Through most of our talk, he sits sideways to me and addresses his comments to the tape recorder. This might be simple kindness rather than self-consciousness, as I had earlier expressed some doubt about whether it was working properly.

On seeing my copy of Truant on the table he remarks ruefully that I must be the only person to have bought it. In fact I ordered thirty copies for my classes at Atlantic College.

‘My biggest sale,’ he remarks. ‘It’s a tough read. My father loved it, though. Running for the Hills is really a letter to my father, saying, “I don’t get it.” Truant basically says, “It’s not your fault.” The autobiographical elements were probably a mistake but it’s very difficult not to put yourself in such a book. When I wrote A Single Swallow, I didn’t have time to mind-meld with the swallows and it just became a conventional travel narrative, which I slightly regret.’

So is the ‘hopeless dreamer’, the ‘romantic’ who appears in his non-fiction works, the narrator who wants ‘to practise the art of living disgracefully, gracefully’, a work of fiction?

‘It took me a long time to grow up. In a way I grew up very quickly on the mountain. I had the role of the eldest male and my mother’s confidante, and then I got here [Atlantic College]. I didn’t need to help anyone, I had no responsibility, so was able to indulge in a long adolescence in which that was my self-image. But it isn’t completely bullshit; I am affected in a small way, like Shelley, by the west wind. I do feel, very strongly, a connection with nature and language… it’s 50/50.’

This still looks like ‘bullshit’ on the page, but watching him as he speaks, he is sincere. So I ask him if he ever ‘fibs’ about his various escapades. I had been struck by the fact that at the end of both Truant and A Single Swallow, he seems to suffer from some sort of breakdown.

‘I didn’t fib in Swallow. You don’t fib. In Running for the Hills there were scenes I didn’t see but were reported to me; I felt what they were like. I aim to capture the truth. With journalism, you worry about fact; writing, you worry about truth. I make the distinction between truth and fact; it’s a mobile area. I omit stuff, but don’t lie. I don’t lie to the reader. The breakdowns actually happened.’

Truant ends with an impassioned warning to younger readers about the dangers of cannabis, and yet there are several casual references to smoking the odd joint in A Single Swallow. I am struck – as I am in his writing – by his totally honest response.

‘A writer writes better than he lives. If I’m not careful with adventures and stuff, I do get carried away. I guess I have excitable, manic depressive tendencies and if I run up against too much cannabis, I do get carried away. It’s now three to four years – I’ve had no problem – because I have a proper relationship and she’s got a ten-year-old boy and you can’t mess around like that. I’m allowed to smoke cannabis, three to four times a year, but that’s it.’

He then launches into an impassioned argument for the legalization of cannabis:

‘The Dutch method is good, but here if you try to score, you get given skunk, and skunk on the growing brain is a disaster. It’s brutally irresponsible of the government not to do something grown up about it, but the right-wing press won’t let them. It should be legalized at eighteen, no, twenty-one, and then kids could get decent hash that just makes you high and happy. I’m not safe around it: if it’s there I’ll smoke it, I love it.’

He goes on,

‘For me and the friends I write about in Truant, it was a generational thing. We wanted intensity; we wanted to surpass our parents. They’d clearly had an accommodation with it and the 60s were clearly more fun than the 90s; we reached for the stronger stuff. Change the drug was the message of that book.’

Aware that all this is well-trodden ground, I’m about to ask him how he found the transition from prose to fiction in The Prince’s Pen, and the creation of a fictional narrator, but: ‘Clip is me. I’ve never had the experience of entirely creating a character before. I’ve written two unpublishable novels before this one; both bottom drawer jobs, but here I can see Ludo and feel how Clip feels about Ludo. The voice is not mine exactly, but it wouldn’t stop, it was very easy.’

It turns out that Ludo is based on the close friend Clare refers to in both his previous books, the one who he has not seen now, for two years.

We did not travel well together. I was over-excited. My friend became very quiet. Perhaps I had been on the road too long to share it reasonably. We were together but it was as if we saw different worlds. I have nothing but strange memories and questions from those days. I am only half-sure of the memories: perhaps my friend could confirm them but he will not; it will be years before we reminisce about Morocco, if we ever do. (A Single Swallow)

I tell him that I had no idea that Clip was anything other than a fictional character. The narrative voice is very distinctive and sounds nothing like ‘Horatio Clare’. He’s very pleased: ‘That’s good news. I must have got better as a writer. A novelist has to be a ventriloquist, like Le Carré.’ He sees himself as learning to be a novelist as against being a writer.

I had been completely fooled [Spoiler Alert!] when I first read The Prince’s Pen into thinking that the narrator, Clip, was male. It was only the very last page of the book that put me right. Had he intended to fool the reader?

‘No, I just wanted to leave them in doubt. I always knew Clip wasn’t an insider, socially. She was really ugly, awkward, probably fat, unsavoury, the sort of person who does get picked on in Wales, and yet saw everything and was right there and did terrible things. Not pigeonholed, so she/he should be of no sex really. Maybe she’s a gay woman or some sort of hermaphrodite; she’s just not a simple thing, really.’

I ask him, ‘Why did you call her “Katrin” when there’s no “K” in Welsh?’

‘Oh God, maybe I’ve messed that up!’

He comes back to the fact that the relationship between Clip and Ludo mirrors that between himself and the ‘friend’ mentioned in the previous books. I won’t name him, though I know who he is, as Clare is very precise about who is disguised, and who is not.

‘I’ve never written a book that I knew would offend somebody, but on the other hand, a bastard like our neighbor in Running, I changed his name to try and disguise him; then went for him! In other cases someone may read it and then say whether they want their name in. I couldn’t ask (the friend) as he wouldn’t talk to me afterwards. He’s probably – very wisely – decided to distance himself from me. I sympathise with that, but I miss him very much. Some of that went into The Prince’s Pen: it’s about outsiderhood and loss of friendship.’

The book is also about Afghanistan, apparently, and I thought it was about Wales! The Prince’s Pen is one of six ‘reinventions’ of tales from The Mabinogion published by Seren last year. Clare chose the brief tale of Lludd and Llevelys and conjures a Wales of the near future, invaded by a technically superior super-power. Part of the successful defeat of the enemy, led by Ludo and his brother, Levello, involves the conversion of Wales to Islam… it is full of fun and excitement and drenched in Clare’s love of the Welsh countryside.

‘Wales is such a gift for the writer because people say such weird things; everyone is a kind of slightly mad poet. You overhear the most extraordinary things. People perform in a space. Another thing about Wales is its incredible, pristine, spiritual, pagan and pre-Christian power. All this beauty can be less than half a mile from the comedy space in The Red Lion in Penderyn, a space where the old perform and the young listen.’

A lot of this is slightly incoherent. I guess he has moved away from the areas of the book that he has been ‘plugging’ up to now. It’s not thought-through, but he is responding to a comment I made about a particularly beautiful phrase: ‘Now the sound of their voices reached us through the frigid air, hard as ravens’ grievance.’ He becomes more articulate once the question of Islam comes up.

‘I had to find a way of dealing with the two dragons in the original tale and I wanted to write about Afghanistan, without it getting in the way. We all know about ‘our brave boys’ and the IUDs, but we don’t know anything about what it’s like to be a farmer, setting these IUDs; what it’s like being hunted by our superior technology. I wanted the idea of this very threatening, incoming force; how do you make accommodation with it, and the old Welsh myth idea is that you bring them together and show the inherent foolishness and ego in the middle of this great dragon. You give it a drink and it turns into a little pig. And I wanted to create Muslims who do drink and do misbehave and who are yet good in their faith. I know lots. I don’t know the other lot, they only come up on the news, and yet they get all the coverage. So it’s an attempt to say: “nothing frightening here”. Too political perhaps?’

I assume he is referring to my review of the book where I end by suggesting that the original myth is too slight to carry the weight of all the modern allusions.

‘No it was a fair point, you weren’t the only reviewer to say that. I realized I was overloading it, but I didn’t think I was forcing it. I wish Seren had printed the myth at the beginning of the book. It needs the myth first.’

Clare is a strange mix of self-deprecation and romantic posturing, though it must be said he is completely aware of the self-dramatisation and constantly undercuts it in his work. I ask him if he considers himself to be a successful writer.

‘I’m a surviving writer. I went through a stage when I thought I had written my best book with Running for the Hills, and that’s maybe the case. I can live with that but whether I can live from it is another matter. I’m a professional writer; I can go that far. The day-to-day stuff is doing things like tonight – the talk in Carmarthen – and the BBC radio work is very useful. The Telegraph phone me up once or twice a month and ask for a feature that day on something like asparagus or Poets Corner, God bless them, even though they are the enemy. I made so little money last year that the taxman paid me! It can be done, but there’ll never be any school fees.’

One way of saving money is to go to sea. ‘There’s no alcohol, I get free board and lodging, and can go anywhere!’ Clare’s next book, the second in a two-book deal commissioned by Chatto, the publishers of A Single Swallow, is to be about container ships, and travel, and um, men?

‘I emailed Maersk, who are Danish, and the biggest shipping company in the world. Could I come on board as a writer in residence? The deal was, I’d blog and write portraits of their sailors for their publicity. I’m not being paid anything, but I can go where I want, write whatever I want. I grew up reading Alistair MacLean and Erskine Childers, and it’s still there! The ships don’t get lost any more, or go down much any more, but it’s still a man’s world, a mysterious world. That’s my next book.’

And the men?

‘I’m fascinated by men, men in hierarchies are interesting: the way they work and what they won’t accept. A friend said that it must be full of testosterone, but it isn’t. There aren’t any women, so there’s no one to show off to and they all know their rank, so the testosterone is repressed and turned into… competence and gentleness. They’re lovely with each other in a completely unsentimental way. There are lots of nationalities, obviously, but we can sit for twenty minutes over dinner and no one will say a word. I went from Felixtowe to Los Angeles without any arguments, as far as I know.’

So it will be another travel book, like A Single Swallow?

‘I’m going to take myself absolutely out of it; I haven’t done this before. It will be written in the second person as ‘you’, apart from a line every four pages where I ask a question.’ He is now completely vibrant, he makes eye contact and talks excitedly about the structure he hopes to impose on it: ‘It’s a joy: travelling history, sea stories, the true ones are extraordinary feats of seamanship. I will try to bring it alive, not just record the facts; use the present tense, they were there. You want texture. I’ll apply the techniques of fiction to nonfiction. It’s happening in all the arts….’

I didn’t think to ask him what it is to be called, but he recites for me what he already knows will be the first sentence: ‘“When you get home,” the captain said, “they will ask you what it was like, and you will tell them, and they will imagine sunsets and sunrises. But they will never understand, because no one really understands, how vast the oceans are.’”

Clare still has to get to Carmarthen by 6.30pm so I start to wind up the interview. However he doesn’t seem to be in a hurry and asks me if there is anything else. After a while he starts to ask me about my writing and is full of encouragement: ‘Take yourself seriously as an artist. It’s a noble thing. It’s easily parodied, the young do it, but writing is a wonderful thing to do with all “the slings and arrows”. Don’t be ashamed of the endeavour. Dig where the shit is. When you approach the dangerous area, it’s often then that you write lines that will move people you’ve never met. That’s the point of it, to stretch out.’

A couple of years ago, Clare had been listening to Front Row on Radio 4 as the various critics in the studio were shredding Truant. ‘They were tearing lumps out of it. Then I suddenly realized they were talking about a writer. A writer who had written a bad book, and I thought, “I must take this more seriously.’”

After a quick chat with my husband about lifeboats, Horatio Clare is off to Carmarthen to earn £50, but that’s probably not his main motive. I’m really glad we took him at his word, twenty-two years ago.

Ellie Rees is on the Creative Writing MA at Swansea University, and is a former teacher of Horatio Clare at Atlantic College, St Donat’s.


previous interview: Gee Williams
next interview: Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch


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