Featured Interview With Cliff James
Tell us a little about yourself. Where were you raised? Where do you live now?
I was born in Beckenham – a town in Kent that has been absorbed into the suburbs of Greater London. When I think of that place now, I think of concrete, flying ants, racist graffiti, red-brick terraced houses that were build between the wars, streets named after trees but containing no trees, the plastic dinosaurs at Crystal Palace Park, streetlights, gas works, and still more concrete.
We moved to East Sussex when I was nine, to a rural, wooded part of the county known as The Weald. It was a perfect contrast with what I’d known before. It was isolated and isolating, but also a liberation from the concrete suburbia. To the younger me, the countryside was overwhelming. The forests felt old and haunted by older gods. The Weald has a way of making you feel watched, even when your on your own. Especially when your on your own. Especially during the unbelievably dark nights.
That place, the Weald and the surrounding South Downs, are a key setting in my novel, Of Bodies Changed. It is the place where the two main characters, Chris and Jackie, grow up, imprisoned in their father’s house. Like these characters, I came to believe in the ghosts and the gods of that landscape.
Since leaving Sussex (and its ghosts) behind, I’ve lived all over England: in Lewes, Cambridge, Ely, Sunderland, Brighton, Liverpool and now West Yorkshire. As an adult, I’ve never stayed in one place for more than two or three years. There are always more places to know. Yorkshire has some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the country, and I can’t imagine leaving here for some time. This is Bronte country, after all: the Bronte parsonage at Haworth is not far from where I live, and I now know why the Yorkshire landscape features so heavily in their writings.
At what age did you realize your fascination with books? When did you start writing?
I was always reading as a child, especially after moving to Sussex. I was an outsider at school, perhaps because I had come from outside the county at an age when such things mattered. Reading provided alternative worlds, different worlds, often better worlds. I loved reading mythologies, and – being half-Irish – I was obsessed with Celtic myths and fairytales, with Lyonesse and Avalon. I believed in the other worlds that lie just on the other side of our perception and sometimes collide with ours.
It wasn’t until my mid-teens that I decided to be a writer. From the tales I was reading, I became aware that poets held a special role in Celtic society. They were historians, counsellors and high priests. It was believed that they could cross over to the spirit worlds. They were the only ones allowed to criticise kings and satirise the powerful and, because of their sacred role, they were free to say what they liked without reprisal.
So, I threw myself into writing poetry and, for several years, produced some of the most clichéd, angst-ridden, trite, teenage verse imaginable. Piles and piles of the stuff. Maybe it is an initiation process that some writers have to go through. I don’t doubt that writing something, anything, every day is good practice, but – honestly – those early poems still make me sweat with embarrassment.
On my 15th birthday, I was given a copy of John Fowles’ The Magus by the mother of my best friend. It was that book that changed everything. It was the most adult book I had ever read at that age, and certainly the most beautiful. I had never been so captivated by a story before. I was in awe of the language. After reading it, I made a conscious decision to try and write the most beautiful sentence that I could in the English language. I may never succeed, but it will always be my quest. Since then, I have never wanted to be anything else other than a writer.
Who are your favorite authors to read? What is your favorite genre to read. Who Inspires you in your writings?
Obviously, John Fowles is a great inspiration – although I have to confess I still haven’t read all of his books. I was besotted by The Magus, but less impressed with The French Lieutenant’s Woman. My relationship with favourite authors is complicated. I tend to put them on pedestals, believing they can do no wrong and that everything they produce will be as perfect as their first work I read. I never want that honeymoon to end. So, when I was less impressed with French Lieutenant’s Woman, I didn’t know whether to read any more of Fowles’ books. What if I am disappointed again? What if I was wrong to put him on a pedestal? It’s a tricky relationship…
The genre I admire the most is Magical Realism. Fairy tales and myths have always been important in human history and prehistory; they enable us to look at and analyse the society in which we live as from a distance, from an oblique angle. It’s often impossible for us to objectively see the culture in which we live because we are immersed in it, saturated by it. Certain beliefs and behaviours seem ‘natural’ or ‘common sense’ to us purely because we are born into and submerged in a society where such things are commonplace. In a couple of hundred years time, people will undoubtedly look back and question some of the things we unthinkingly accept now.
What Magical Realism often does is to present a world that is almost identical to our own, but which is ruptured or disturbed by something ‘unnatural’, fantastical, mythological – things that are contrary to ‘common sense’. The familiar is de-familiarised and, in the process, we are given a glimpse of our society as an outsider, our viewing-seat is shifted. We are given the gift of time and/or distance to critique ideologies that we would otherwise be oblivious to. In Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, an orange ‘demon’ appears to talk with the protagonist in an otherwise realistic novel. Angela Carter’s excellent Nights At the Circus and The Bloody Chamber, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses, and Joanne Harris’s Chocolate – all of these brilliant Magical Realist novels present a familiar world that is made unfamiliar by the introduction of something fantastical. Magical Realism offers us the rare opportunity to critique our own society as an outsider.
Science Fiction often has this quality too, hence two of my favourite reads of all time are Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Marge Piercy’s Woman On The Edge Of Time.
Tell us a little about your latest book?
I wrote the first draft of Of Bodies Changed 14 years ago. It’s a modern retelling of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The book begins and ends in the form of a diary written by the narrator, Jackie Mavrocordatos. Her diary entries follow the same dates that I was writing the novel.
I was working part-time at the time, which gave me the opportunity to have a structured writing schedule. I would write throughout the night, from 6pm until about 6am, and then get a few hours sleep before going to my part-time job in the afternoon. That was my life for six months. When it was finished, I tried to get it published. An agent told me that you should never send your manuscript to more than one publisher a time; they don’t like that. So I would submit it to one publisher, receive a rejection and get depressed. After a year, I’d get over the disappointment and send it off to another one, only to receive another rejection. I re-edited and re-wrote the novel between each rejection, and significantly changed the plot.
The ending is completely different now – but I can’t say anything more about that without giving it all away.
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