Reviews/Interviews – Clio Gray

Clio Gray

Clio Gray – Solander, Vol. 11, November 2007


Lucinda Byatt talks to Clio Gray about her work

Clio Gray came to the attention of many readers when she won a prestigious national short story award in 2006 with a haunting work entitled I Should Have Listened Harder. She was brought up in Yorkshire and Devon, but has lived for the last fifteen years in Easter Ross, Scotland, where she combines writing with her career as a librarian. I began by asking about her development as a writer. 

Clio Gray:  Before winning the Scotsman/Orange Short Story Award 2006, I had written many other short stories, although I had started out by writing novels – four, to be precise. Completely unpublishable, thank God, because looking back on them now, there is so much more I could have done with them, and had they actually been published by some bizarre stroke of fate, I would be embarrassed now to put my name to them.

It was my sister who told me to stop writing novels that would never get any further than my study, and start entering short story competitions. It was the best piece of advice I have ever been given and I spent the next two years writing short stories and entering competitions. I was severely short of money, so in a bad month I could only afford to spend £15 on entering them, but £20 in a good one.

Writing short stories is a tremendously disciplined way to write: you learn to cut out all those verbose descriptions and they force you into forming the framework of your story, having a beginning and an end that are satisfying for both yourself and any potential reader. Up until that point, I realised I had been writing for myself and myself only.

The first competition I won was the Killie Prize, and although I was invited to the presentation ceremony, I had so little expectation of winning that when they called out my name I nearly fell off my chair. After that, it was such a boost, I more or less invested the winning prize money into entering more and more competitions (I’ve got a list on them on the website :, if anyone is remotely interested.)

And then came the Harry Bowling Prize run by the MBA Literary Agency in London, and by Headline, which invited people to enter the first 5,000 words of a novel, which I did. And, just as astonishingly, won. Hence the dedication “To Harry” in my first novel Guardians of the Key.

Both novels Guardians of the Key and its sequel The Roaring of the Labyrinth are set in the early 19th century. Why did you choose to write historical fiction?

The first two novels I wrote were contemporary, but it didn’t take long for me to realise that I just wasn’t comfortable there. Everything I have written since, both short stories and novels, has always been set in some type of historical past. I’m not sure exactly why this is, only that I feel much more at ease in a place where everything moves slower than it does now, where weather and seasons have a more direct effect on people’s behaviour than do mobile phones and supermarkets. It is also because I have mostly based stories on a myriad other odd or little known, often serendipitous, facts, and these are usually historical to some degree or other.

It has to be said that when I entered the Harry Bowling Competition, the only stricture on the entry was that it be set in London, and having lived there briefly, I never wanted to go there again. So to get out of all the turmoil of modern living that setting a book there would imply, I deliberately chose a past setting, when London City itself was small, but the outlying sprawl of villages and towns that nominally made up London town, gave ample scope for the places and people I was at ease writing about.

As far as Lucca goes, I was reading a book about The Portion of Holy Blood which Henry III held in such huge esteem, although even his contemporary chroniclers knew it to be almost certainly bogus in origin, and the name Lucca came up. So I did a bit of research on Lucca, found out about the Volto Santo, and went from there. It tied in, just by chance, with a book I had picked up in a second-hand bookshop about ecclesiastical embroidery, which cited one Mabel as having been employed by the royal court of Henry III for a documented 17 years. All very circumstantial, but enough to build a plot on!

You have a wonderful gift for characterisation and for choosing memorable names for your characters. It reminds me of Mervyn Peake’s Titus trilogy (the Prunesquallors, Steerpike and so on), or even Dickens. Memorable names are obviously important for the reader, so where do you find inspiration?

I have always had a fascination for names and words and where they come from. I keep a little book of names that I have come across in my reading, and you are right to cite Mervyn Peake and Dickens – both are so astute with their use of nominatives, and I wanted to be so too.

When I am writing, the name of the character is very important to getting that character right. Often I have started off with one name and got stuck with that character and what he/she would do or say, but once I have changed the name to something which feels right, everything begins to flow again. Thus Whilbert Nathaniel Stroop began life as Whigbert Stroop, which didn’t quite work; and Medan Skimmington Bellpenny began life as mere Medan McAllister. Medan I had always liked, with its Icelandic links, and I had the name Bellpenny ready to go – it means someone who pays a few coins when they are buried to have a cord put in their coffin so that they can ring a bell up top if they find themselves unfortunately buried alive – a very Victorian/Edgar A. Poe concern. Skimmington is a word derived from a man who is a miser. And it sounds right, goes well with the character as he developed, and although not explaining him, chimes well with the man that he became.

If I am stuck for a name but know how I want that person to be, I will, rather sadly, go first to my little book, and if I can find nothing there, will scour dictionaries, including foreign ones, for the root word upon which I should base a name. So in The Envoy of the Black Pine (of which more later) I have a character who is Spanish in origin and who loves working with wood, so his name became Oravo Tallister Swan, the middle bit coming from the Spanish meaning “woodworker”. Once I had got that right, the character came out all on its own.

Your 2006 winning short story is set in Russia, in particular Lake Baikal and the lead mines of Siberia. Ukraine is the background to the Roaring of the Labyrinth. Do you have a particular interest in Russian history and culture?

Many of my stories and novels are set in places other than England, where I was born, or Scotland, where I live, although I am not a traveller. I did go to many countries in Europe in my youth. I have a bit of a phobia about travelling anywhere, do not enjoy planes/trains/long journeys, and do not like to be anywhere where I am not able to communicate freely, and cannot speak the language, and certainly do not expect everyone else to speak English for my benefit. I still find it slightly shocking that a broad-accented person from Huddersfield, for example, will have serious difficulty understanding a Glaswegian, let alone a dedicated Devonian. Who needs to go further? Basically, I am a home dog, and don’t like to be away from my house or books for more than a week, which I know is odd for someone who never writes about home.

But I read, and there is so much to be said about that.

About the Russian thing – there is much there in the attitude that I feel naturally akin to: the vodka, the pessimism, the cynicism and the fatalism. Solokov’s On the Don trilogy is particularly memorable, as is the short novel by Sorokin called The Queue, which is just a series of dialogues people have while they are waiting in a queue for bread/shoes/butter, and mostly not getting there at all. As for Odessa, I read a book, ostensibly about Catherine the Great and Potemkin, and it was a throwaway comment about Odessa being built out of the catacombs below the cliffs that sparked my interest.

 Although you write historical thrillers, there is a fantastical side to your writing that is particularly appealing. It is evident in your latest book which centres on Astonishment Hall, itself filled with weird displays and exhibits.

I have a huge fascination for libraries and weird collections, and have visited a few in my time. I’ve visited medical libraries and attendant anatomical museums, which are now probably very un-pc, but which shouldn’t be. Full points to the mad German Gunther and his plastination techniques for bringing back comparative human anatomy to the public. We are only animals, and the sooner we accept it, the better.

As for libraries, I love them, and have worked in them for twenty years, and think everything about them should be promoted and preserved, especially the books, whose dominance is sadly being overrun by a bureaucratic tendency to the cheaper world of the internet. Of course the internet has its place, especially for reference works, and of course I have used it, but nothing compares to a book held in the hand.

I was born a librarian, and used to make maps and notes and devise games of everything I came across, and have my own library of cuttings and excerpts from just about every book I have ever read (yes, I’m Whilbert Stroop) and everything I have now is data-based and cross-referenced – so much quicker than when I compiled indexes by hand, so obviously I’m not a complete technophobe! I am an omnivorous, cross-genre reader, and although I have read and still read historical fiction, I don’t seek it out in particular. I do read a lot of history books, and like nothing more than trawling through second-hand bookshops for outdated manuals on crafts, agriculture, medicine, cookery, army life and so on that I can draw on for interesting bits and bobs for use in the next book, or possibly in a few short stories. I always have several books on the go, depending on what mood I’m in. Inevitably I keep a database of every book I get from the library and I always augment each entry with comments to remind me about content and plot, whether I liked it or not.

Death is very present throughout your work and both your novels contain episodes of extreme violence. Can you say more about this and of the contrasts it creates in your stories.

Oh dear, I’m not sure about this. I’ve had a few hard smooches with death, like almost stepping off a cliff in a heavy sea mist, or being attacked by the odd mad taxi driver, or getting caught in an undertow that tried to suck me out to sea. Most people have had such experiences, or have known people who have had them. We hate death, and yet we can’t help but have a morbid fascination with it. I want to see what a rabbit looks like when it has been pulled inside out (and yes, I’ve done that many times;) I like to know the ins and outs of bizarre medical syndromes, the sorts of things that led to carnival freak shows, about which I have written in another book. It’s all part of our difficult relationship with mortality, mostly because we choose, as humans in our hubris, to try to imagine we’re different from everything else on the planet, to explain, deny or ignore our impending doom, when if we thought about it properly, we would know that not only is death inevitable, but that we as individuals are ultimately insignificant, and that at some point, time is going to roll over on itself and wipe out the entire existence of the universe. Very cheery – and in a way it is! It makes all the struggles of life far less meaningful, and is a way of telling us to get over ourselves, and stop worrying about some stupid bill or the fact that you might be a couple of minutes late for work because the dog wouldn’t get back in the car after your walk. No man said it better than Tom Lehrer when he spoke about sliding down the razorblade of life…

What advice would you offer aspiring short story or novel writers?

There are a few things I wish I had realised when I first started writing – namely that it always takes ages to get anywhere, but never to despair! Short stories are an excellent route to go – to get them right requires discipline and a willingness to be unprecious about your work: chuck out what doesn’t belong, hone it right down, never use ten words when five will do. I would also strongly advise people to review their work – if you’ve written a novel, leave it lying for a couple of months at minimum and then go back to it. It is astonishing how much clearer the overview is from a distance, and how many of the mistakes/good points will suddenly leap out at you. Woods and trees come to mind. Try and get advice from a completely unbiased source – friends and family will undoubtedly be supportive, but may not tell you what you need to hear. Find someone who reads a lot, or maybe writes themselves, and ask them to give you an honest opinion, good or bad. It can only make whatever you are working on stronger in the end.

Lastly, it would be fascinating to know whether you’re working on another Whilbert Stroop mystery?

A third Stroop novel is away with the editors at the moment. It is called The Envoy of the Black Pine and will be published some time in 2008. This one starts with a catastrophic flood in the valleys of Upper and Little Slaughter near Painswick, in the vicinity of Stroud, and ends in the Islands of the Estonian Bay, specifically Hiiumaa. Throw in a bit of animal mutilation, piracy, the history of printing, and the inevitable murders, and Stroop and adopted family are off on yet another adventure.

I also have a selection of short stories out, Types of Everlasting Rest, published by Two Ravens Press, and we are also trying to place a non-Stroop novel, The Anatomist’s Dream, set in the German Provinces around 1848, which involves a boy with a misshapen head and the carnival freak show he travels with, and how he becomes involved with the darker, more bloodier political uprisings of those times.

© Lucinda Byatt

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