Richard and Judy ask Claire North

Richard and Judy ask Claire North

Such a clever idea, this. What inspired it?

I used to write books as Catherine Webb – my real name. That was when I was still quite young and writing young adult books. Then I grew a little older (if 21 is “old”) and started writing a different style of books, and to distinguish them from my previous works I became Kate Griffin. Now I’m writing books like Harry August and again, the style is very different from what I wrote before. It’s tempting, when you read a book by an author who’s been writing for a while, to compare them to everything the writer’s done before and get distracted – not necessarily by the story, but by who the writer is. We wanted to avoid that with Harry August – start with a clean slate, so that people could read the book as a thing separate from everything I’ve done before. It’s kind of a privilege for a writer, really, having a pseudonym – if you don’t know that much about the writer, then only the book remains!

Where did the inspiration for the story come from?

It started out as a short story – a quick character study, really. I work as a theatre lighting designer when I’m not writing books, and as part of my training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, I was sent on secondment to the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. It was an amazing experience – but also a frightening one. I was in a strange town, working in a frantic environment and I knew no one. There’s only so much to do, and as a student far from home I was a bit isolated, so I decided to write between shifts to keep myself occupied. I can’t tell you precisely why this particular story popped into my head, but I can tell you that the overwhelming compulsion to go and write it hit me one day in between shifts at the Courtyard Theatre. I was standing on the High Street in Stratford-upon-Avon wondering what to do with myself for my four hours of freedom. I can remember how hot the day was, where I was standing – supermarket to my left and bustling tourists all around – but why the idea hit in that moment I’m still not sure. All the fatigue, fear, stress and – let’s not kid ourselves – loneliness I was experiencing at the time no doubt led to the notion of Harry August surfacing in my head, though the full scale of the story only became apparent a few days later when I hit 10,000 words and realised I was, accidentally, writing a novel.

How did you manage to keep the endless paradoxes that threaten such plotlines at bay?

A couple of things. Firstly, I kept a lot of notes. I had a spreadsheet in which I tracked the age of my characters and major events in their lives, if only to keep the maths under control. Secondly, I talked it through with a very good friend, seeing if she could poke holes in any of the logic – having someone to bounce ideas off counts for a lot. Finally, I let my characters actually address the paradoxes themselves. Harry August discusses the dangers of the paradoxes, and the problems his own existence presents, in the book, and a great deal of the story is concerned with him trying to solve the mysteries of his life for himself. In that way, the paradox of his life isn’t actually a narrative problem – rather it’s a great narrative question that the characters themselves are driven to solve.

Do you fear death?

Yes – with caveats. I do not fear an afterlife. Sure, I fear the unknown – who doesn’t? But I haven’t been raised with any theological apparatus in that regard, and if it turns out that there is a life after this one I doubt that fearing it will change anything. In that sense, I don’t fear death – to me, it’s just a full stop. What I fear, therefore, is dying more than death. I fear leaving my loved ones behind; I fear my death causing grief and pain to others, particularly my family. I fear a painful death, or a slow or debilitating death. I resent the idea of dying before my time – there is so much to see, so much to do, a whole world that I want to explore and life I want 00rjFirst Fifteen R&J B 03/07/2014 12:26 Page 413 to live – so perhaps it would be safer to say that I fear a cessation of life more than I fear death itself. My fears do not keep me from living or seeking out new things, merely from jumping off high things or trying to death-stare cement lorries into stopping on a motorway. Fearing death is perfectly normal. So, I suspect, is not thinking about it too much.