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Interview with Clio Gray

ClioGrayAuthorPicI’m absolutely thrilled to be able to interview Clio Gray, award winning author. Clio’s latest novel, The Anatomist’s Dream, was Man Booker nominated and Baileys Prize longlisted:

Abandoned by his parents and with only a pet pig for company, he eventually finds refuge in a traveling carnival, Maulwerf’s Fair of Wonders, as it makes its annual migration across Germany bringing entertainment to a people beset by famine, repression and revolutionary ferment. Philbert finds a caring family in Herman the Fish Man, Lita the Dancing Dwarf, Frau Fettleheim the Fattest Woman in the World, and an assortment of ‘freak show’ artists, magicians and entertainers. But when Philbert meets Kwert Tospirologist and Teller of Signs he is persuaded to undergo examination by the renowned physician and craniometrist Dr Ullendorf, both Kwert and Philbert embark on an altogether darker and more perilous journey that will have far-reaching consequences for a whole nation.

I was extremely fortunate in having Clio as my mentor for my debut novel and I’ve really learned from one of the masters. I don’t want to give anything away with spoilers so suffice to say I absolutely loved The Anatomist’s Dream and got so attached to Kroonk I wanted to go out and adopt a pig. I therefore wanted to know all about Clio’s ability to weave such magical stories and delighted to be able to say there is a sister novel to The Anatomist’s Dream in the works…

Where did you get the inspiration for The Anatomist’s Dream? It’s such a feat of imagination that it takes my breath away.

It’s been through so many incarnations, and is a great example of not giving up on a piece of work. It was first written nearly eighteen years ago and started as an intellectual exercise. I knew I wanted to write, but couldn’t really get going. And then I read a poem by Phineas Fletcher about the body as city state and had a lightbulb moment: I’d go through Gray’s Anatomy, pick out interesting anatomical names and take them apart, explore their etymologies and follow their word stories, and then I’d base a chapter of the novel on each of these separate parts, within the framework of Philbert and the Fair of Wonders. It was a huge outpouring of words and ideas that didn’t seem able to stop themselves, and displayed all the classic signs of the first novel: self-indulgent, rambling, shoving in anything and everything to show how clever you are and how much research you’ve done at the expense of drama and character.  I thought it was great! But it really, really wasn’t.

It was only when I took it out again fifteen years later that it became what it is now, over several rewrites. What’s surprising (to me at least) is that the basic storyline is almost exactly as it was in that first draft (and yes, only one draft – another mistake the new novelist makes, to assume you have perfected a masterpiece without doing any proper editing). What has changed is the telling, the discipline to chuck out all the detritus, no matter you spent weeks on it, and the ability to detect what that detritus is and afford it no mercy. Also, it helps that I’ve stacks of stuff about Fairs, Circuses, Commedia del Arte all bundled up in my head and that I’ve a very visual imagination and loads of time – not having friends, marriage, children

The novel obviously had the same impact I felt on a lot of people. Did you think you’d written something special or did the response surprise you?

During the various rewrites and all the honing and chopping it down by about thirty thousand words (I told you it was a bit of a splurge to begin with!) I had actually come to believe that yes, here was a good book, and an unusual one, and had really enjoyed taking this overwrought prose and applying to it the skills I’ve learned over the last few years. But no, the Man Booker and Baileys came out of the blue and was hugely rewarding.

Did you research a lot for the novel?

I always do a lot of research for my books. I’ve got folders and files and photocopies of book extracts and notes going back thirty years, and a pretty good idea what exactly I’ve got. And I love it! I love going into the details, the history of places and times and snatching some really interesting little facts and weaving them into the story. That’s pretty much The Anatomist’s Dream – a narrative to weave together lots of interesting little facts that I’ve ferreted out over the years.

Do you have a favourite character in the book? I have to say I adored Kroonk and absolutely get how Philbert could become so attached – I would fight tooth and nail to save Kroonk from anyone who wants to do harm!

I have a real fondness for Hermann, a person so humane and kind and yet held apart from other people by what today would be a treatable disease. And I still enjoy thinking of Fatzke and his cats.

What are you working on at the moment? Can you whet our appetites or is it top secret at the moment?

I’m just finishing off the third in the Scottish Mystery Series, all three of which will be brought out by Urbane Publications in 2017. I’ve also just about finished the sister book to Anatomist’s Dream – very similar settings and atmosphere but with completely new characters – and am drafting out a third in the series.

How do you structure your life as a writer. Do you have any eccentric writing habits?

Mostly shaped about the library and dogs. Get up, walk dogs, write for a bit if I’ve got time, go to work, walk dogs, prepare food, write for a bit, have a glass or two of wine, retrieve dinner from oven (sometimes burned to a crisp having ignored the timer because I was too immersed in whatever it was I was writing…) Go to bed, get up, walk dogs… And I do like to be comfortable in PJs and slippers.

What are you reading at the moment? Any favourite authors you’d like to tell us about?

Love PG Wodehouse – he recycles plots and characters to an extent that should make him blush, but his ability to use words to spear an idea home is breathtaking. And he’s very funny.Also James Lee Burke has to be up there. Ignore the alarmingly high rate of psychopaths and drug-addled lunatics – he’s worth reading simply for his brilliant descriptions of time and place, and his pinpointing of characters is astonishing.

I’ve got a few books on the go: a couple of Per Petersson novellas, Alberti’s Afterlives of Animals, Randall Monroe’s What If – serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions, and Palestinian Walks (for the library Book Group)

Any advice for other writers?

Get as much criticism as you can and take it with good grace. Re-read and re-edit as much as you can. Learn the difference between getting words down on a page and getting them in good order. And enjoy it!

And finally, What’s the best question you’ve ever been asked at a reading event or during an interview?

I remember being asked what kind of cheese I would be if I had to choose. I believe I went for Wenslydale, though can’t for the life of me remember why!

Thanks so much Clio for taking the time to tell me about your work and life as an author. I’m really looking forward to your next book…and the next…..

Anatomist's Dream

You can find The Antomist’s Dream on Amazon and you can email her info@cliogray.com

And you can find many more award winning books on Clio’s website http://www.cliogray.com/

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