Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Susanna Clarke's Magic Book

"I wanted to write about magicians,'' Susanna Clarke said as we climbed a high moor in Derbyshire. ''I really like magicians,'' she went on, with a wry, apologetic dignity, as if it were an affliction she was born with. ''But there was no reason to suppose anyone else would.''

It was a cool, gray evening, and Clarke's luminous silver hair was still damp from a sudden rain that had come and passed. Her partner, the science-fiction and fantasy novelist and critic Colin Greenland, had gotten far ahead of us. They have been vacationing here for six years, hiking these steep hills and wooded cloughs in the very south of the north of England. They are both beer enthusiasts and punctuate their ramblings with long digressions in local pubs. Normally they live together in Cambridge, where Clarke worked as a cookbook editor for many years. But now she wore the comfortable clothes and comfortable air of someone who has left her day job forever. Because after 10 years, she has finally finished her novel, ''Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell,'' and it will be published this September.

It follows the friendship of two gentleman sorcerers in London in the early 19th century: the bookish Mr. Norrell and his pupil, the dilettante Jonathan Strange, who come to the aid of England in the Napoleonic Wars by, for example, moving Brussels to America. And it is about a third magician, the Raven King, a human brought up by fairies who came to rule Northern England through much of the Middle Ages before suddenly disappearing, taking magic away from England and closing the fairy roads behind him.

The novel is being compared with abandon in the press to the ''Harry Potter'' books, but it is not for children, unless they are children who really, really love footnotes. It is nearly 800 pages long, but in some ways that number feels arbitrary, as if the novel consisted of just those pages Clarke chose to show, and that she might have easily chosen another 800 from those she kept in reserve. She has lived in the world of the novel for more than a decade after all, carefully charting the false history of English magic and documenting it with citations from a fastidiously false bibliography. What did not make it into the main story is alluded to in copious notes that make up sort of a second novel at the bottom of its pages (when they do not take over the pages altogether).

Clarke is equally meticulous in the research she has not made up, which has produced an observant and often very funny comment on the stiff mores of regency England: when Mr. Norrell comes to restore magic to England and becomes a reluctant celebrity, it is not so much that London is enthralled with magic as it is enthralled with the same old spells -- the lure of notoriety, the cultivation of social status.

In short, it is a patient, grown-up novel of dueling wizards. As much as this spells crowd-pleaser to me, I would have considered this something for a niche crowd. But Bloomsbury is betting I am wrong, publishing some 250,000 hardcover copies simultaneously in the United States, Britain and Germany, with 17 foreign publishers currently finishing their translations.

''What happened when I was writing 'Strange & Norrell,''' Clarke said on the moor, ''was the world kind of changed in my favor.''

When Clarke's first story was published, she almost didn't know about it. In 1993, she had just turned 33 and had returned to England after a stint teaching English in Italy and Spain with a mind to write a novel about magicians. And being a serious, responsible person, she signed up for a five-day residential course in writing fantasy and science fiction. The co-instructor, Colin Greenland, was a renowned critic and champion of the genre who had long argued that it be taken seriously as literature, which Clarke appreciated. She also liked that in his novel ''Harm's Way,'' he had written about satellites made of wrought iron and so might have a feel for what she was doing.

But he wanted all the students to submit short stories before the course began, ''which annoyed me,'' she said when they picked me up at the train station, apparently unconcerned about offending Greenland. ''I wasn't working on short stories. I was working on a novel.''

At the time, she wrote, and still does, in fragments: bits of dialogue and sketches of scenes that come to her as if they were overheard. (Sometimes she will be sitting in a pub and start scribbling in notebooks as Greenland waits.) Even by then she had amassed ''great bundles'' of material.

But being diligent, she didn't complain. So she culled from the bundles something resembling a short story, and she called it ''The Ladies of Grace Adieu.'' It was about three otherwise respectable women who secretly practiced magic -- including the governess, Miss Tobias, who was ''too tall, too fond of books, too grave and -- a curious thing -- never smiled unless there was some thing to smile at'' -- and are discovered by the famous magician of London Jonathan Strange.

Greenland liked the story so much that he sent part of it to his friend Neil Gaiman, the fantasy novelist and comic-book writer. Greenland helped Gaiman publish his first short story many years before, and now he wanted to share another exciting new writer with the world. He didn't tell Clarke. He was afraid that she might have stopped him, because Gaiman was one of her favorite writers.

''It was terrifying from my point of view to read this first short story that had so much assurance,'' Gaiman recalled. ''It was like watching someone sit down to play the piano for the first time and she plays a sonata.''

But Clarke's life had prepared her for her work. Reared by Methodist ministers, she grew up moving from congregation to congregation, from Glasgow to Staffordshire to Yorkshire to Nottinghamshire. And because she was not really of any particular place, she chose one: the wilder landscape and poverty-born practicality of the north, which she preferred to the cosmopolitan southern cities, where, she recalled, when she went to Oxford to study philosophy, politics and economics, some people actually owned two pairs of boots.

She read the historical fiction of Rosemary Sutcliff and the fantasies of Ursula Le Guin and Alan Garner and especially came to love Jane Austen. In secondary school, the headmaster asked her what she wanted to do, and she told him she wanted to be a writer. ''Apparently that was not what he meant,'' she said. ''He meant, What do you want to do in the next three minutes?''

By the time she reached Greenland's class, she had worked in publishing and written most of two novels, one about angels who visit Liverpool wearing black suits and white shoes (it was the New Romantic period of the 80's, she explained sheepishly) and the other a detective novel. And she had long been dreaming of the arrogant young magician who would first appear as Jonathan Strange in ''The Ladies of Grace Adieu.''

After Gaiman received the story, he showed it to his friend Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who in the mid-90's was assembling a highly anticipated anthology of new science fiction and fantasy called ''Starlight 1.'' Clarke did not hear about any of this until she came home one day and heard Hayden's voice on her machine, offering to publish her.

Clarke called back and said she would consider it. She was concerned that it might hinder her main goal: the novel, which she had started in earnest just before enrolling in Greenland's class. Finally, ''I made poor Patrick Nielsen Hayden write this letter saying that if I did want to put this story in the novel, I could.'' Then she agreed.

In the anthology's contributors' notes, Clarke wrote that she ''spends most of her time editing cookbooks and watching people take photographs of food.'' In fact, she had joined in ''Starlight 1'' a group of accomplished science-fiction and fantasy writers (including one Nebula award winner and one woman who had written more than 170 books) and, as well, a larger community of magician lovers: the passionate, prolific, happily weird and somewhat self-contained otherworld of ''the genre.''

She contributed to several other anthologies, including ''Starlight 2'' and ''Starlight 3,'' and was discussed and praised on Internet bulletin boards devoted to fantasy fiction in general and fairy-tale fiction specifically. She fell in love with Greenland and coaxed him up to Cambridge from London, where he had been living for years in a house known for having no heating and being a sort of colony for science-fiction writers. And she went back to working on her novel.

This is a happy ending for a fantasy writer, I would think. But it wasn't to be her ending.

he two most successful commercial franchises that have come into the book and entertainment worlds over the last five years are 'Harry Potter' and 'Lord of the Rings,''' the literary agent Simon Lipskar said. ''Anyone who's going to be honest about that is going to see a marketplace that's rewarding fantasy.''

Fantasy has not, of course, been absent from literary fiction, but it has been admitted to the mainstream generally only when pedigreed (Martin Amis's ''Time's Arrow''), political (Margaret Atwood's ''Handmaid's Tale'') or exotic (which is to say, Latin American). Fantasy and science fiction as a capital G genre, meanwhile, has largely been shelved separately from the rest of the culture, in part because of the genre's mania for self-classification into ever-narrower niches (high fantasy versus alternate history, hard science fiction versus space opera, cyberpunk versus steampunk) and in part because of pure snobbery.

Still, it is hard to deny a sense that the boundaries between genre and literary fiction are slipping. Gaiman's ''American Gods,'' in which an ex-con joins the Norse god Odin on a road trip, was marketed as a mainstream thriller. Philip Roth is just about to publish his alternate history novel, ''The Plot Against America.'' And Kelly Link's self-published ''Stranger Things Happen,'' with its ghosts and giant dogs and men with tin noses, was named among the best books of the year by Salon at the end of 2001.

Around this time, Susanna Clarke had begun to despair. She had been working on the book for several years, and, as she wrote to me, ''Colin and I agreed the time was right to find an agent when the whole burden of carrying this huge unfinished book became too heavy for just the two of us.''

Giles Gordon took her on and in early 2003 sold the still unfinished manuscript to Bloomsbury, which quickly snapped up world rights based largely on a reader's report that Bloomsbury would later circulate at the London Book Fair and that began, ''This book so captivated and riveted me that I'm charging half the full fee.''

When Bloomsbury acquired the rights to publish ''Harry Potter,'' its division in the United States did not yet exist, so the American market -- and the fortune it generated -- went to Scholastic instead. Clarke's book will be the first novel Bloomsbury will publish in a coordinated worldwide campaign across its three branches in Britain, the United States and Germany.

Clarke's acquiring editors in Britain and America weren't particular fans of magic. As Karen Rinaldi, publisher at Bloomsbury U.S.A., said, ''You just read it and say, 'Damn, it's great, it's long, it's fantasy and I'm going to publish it.'''

A fantasy novel used to be able to rely on perhaps 7,500 dedicated hardcover readers. Nearly that many advanced readers' copies have been circulated already, a select number of them wrapped in paper and sealed in wax with an image of a raven. They have been selling for more than $100 on eBay in England, a fact noted with some awed amusement by Greenland.

This sort of push by a publisher is not so unusual for a big first novel. But it is curious for a big first novel about dueling magicians that is uncompromisingly literary without being shy about taking the genre seriously. And her novel is being published with none of the fantasy trappings, none of the comforting camouflage that it is for children. It is being published, well, like a regular book.

''We are now in the conditions that a lot of us spent the 80's working for and demanding,'' Greenland said, ''which is a very large crossover between adult and children's fiction, genre and mainstream fiction.''

On the other hand, he said, there is some apprehension as well. As Kelly Link said of Clarke's success: ''It makes me very, very glad, and also a bit worried. It's too close to my idea of the way things ought to be.''

Greenland told me, ''Somebody actually said on a Web site, 'I hope this novel lives up to all the hype, because if not, it's going to be a big setback for all fantastic historical crossover writers.'''

He raised his eyebrows, waiting for me to complete the joke. ''Both of them?''

You learn a lot of things when you are writing a book for 10 years. At a pub called the Three Stags' Heads, Clarke easily switched between conversations on ''The X-Files'' and Wellington's cavalry. When we were shown the preserved cat that was said to have been found in the pub's wall, where it had been bricked in generations before to ward off evil spirits, Clarke pointed out that in East Anglia, it would have been far more likely to find a horse's head: ''Horse magic had much more of a hold there.''

Later, she said, ''One way of grounding the magic is by putting in lots of stuff about street lamps, carriages and how difficult it is to get good servants.'' So her apartment is challenged by bookcases full of soldiers' accounts of Waterloo, the social anthropology of George Ewart Evans and dozens of slim books on such subjects as styles of visiting cards and mausoleums.

''I love books about very small things,'' she said. When a certain character draws a knife from a well-laid table near the end of the novel and holds it to a man's throat, ''I had to restrain myself from buying a book on 19th-century fruit knives.''

This makes Clarke a great person to share a pint with. She can also be disarming in her candor and her kindness, evidenced by the fact that she invited me on vacation with her and Greenland and constantly inquired as to my ability to keep up with them on the moors and gave me a hot water bottle at night.

Sometimes when I talked about her writing, though, her face grew calm as stone, and I felt like a very unsmiled-at thing. And when I complimented her on how plausibly she had conjured the idea that England was ruled for hundreds of years by a mysterious vanished magician king, her reaction made me wonder if I had read the wrong book, and she looked concerned, as though she were trying to come up with a polite way of telling me that that was true. Later she told me that she was gauging my reaction against her intent: to wrap the surreal in the mundane. But I also knew she had written the book alone, over countless early mornings before going to work. And while I did not get the impression that she didn't appreciate praise, it did seem that she was one of those rare writers who no longer required it.

After our beer at the Stags', we walked through a deep valley, called, appropriately, Ravensdale, that was full of shadow and sharp-smelling wild garlic and had a tiny hamlet at the bottom that seemed almost to be abandoned. In a few weeks, Clarke would go to Chicago for BookExpo America, the big annual trade show. It would be only the second time she had been to America, and perhaps because Greenland was once again far ahead of us, she explained that the only thing she was ambivalent about was being there without the person who knows her best in the world.

Otherwise, she seemed eerily prepared for her moment. I asked her how she felt when it became clear that this was to be a worldwide publishing event. At first it was surprising, she said, ''but when you hear that they've sold Sweden, and then you hear that they've sold Finland, suddenly you say, 'What about Norway!'''

Now Clarke told us we would climb to the top, and the three of us attacked the valley's steep side. I was frankly shocked by the effort: it felt like walking up a mossy, earthy wall. Greenland also seemed overwhelmed, falling back with me as Clarke moved indomitably upward. Finally we reached the sunny top. Greenland and I each took a puff off my asthma inhaler, and Clarke said, ''I am very proud of you both.''

Earlier, Greenland told me that he felt he had accomplished two things in life: discovering Neil Gaiman and discovering Susanna Clarke. To which Clarke scoffed, ''You discovered both of us by the difficult process of having us put our work in front of you and saying, 'Read this.'''

''My job here was to open two envelopes and read the contents,'' he said. ''And I did it.''

I then asked Clarke whether she ever thought of herself as fantasy's flag bearer, sent out by Greenland and Gaiman and all those others to conquer the mainstream.

''No,'' she said, laughing. ''And I'll thank you not to suggest it.''

In the fall, she will undertake a punishing tour of the United States and Canada and then Germany, and then return to the United States. But at this moment, she was relaxing, reading about Egypt, its gods and antiquities, and pondering her next book, which will be set in the same world as ''Strange & Norell'' and will need to be written in much less time than a decade. ''I have a bit of a problem now that the fairy roads are all open,'' she confessed. ''What do I do with them?''

Back at the top of Ravensdale, we climbed over another wall and set out over another field. The farmers here are charged with keeping a public path clear for hikers, and in front of us, diagonally across the sun-battered field, was a great luminous green stripe of turf. Greenland and I were hesitating before the path. But now Clarke was ahead of us, and we followed her.

John Hodgman is a contributing writer for the magazine.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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