ELTHAMREAD 2021 AUTHOR INTERVIEW
Wendy Moore talks to…
Clare Chambers, author of this year’s Elthamread Small Pleasures, discusses her novel with Wendy Moore…
Wendy: You’ve had phenomenally good feedback about Small Pleasures with praise from writers including David Nicholls and Lucy Mangan as well as lots of enthusiasm from general readers. Have you been surprised by the success?
Clare: Surprised doesn’t quite cover it. I’d been unpublished for ten years, my previous novel had been turned down and I was convinced I would never be published again, so I continue to be amazed and grateful for its success. I feel as though I’ve had an entire career’s worth of attention in one year.
Wendy: What has that success meant? Are you very busy doing events? Any plans for a film?
Clare: Events mostly moved online in the year since publication so I have become an old hand at Zoom festivals. It’s much nicer to meet readers in real life, and hopefully those days will return. The book has been optioned for TV but I am advised not to get excited as most optioned projects never get off the ground. Nevertheless I am privately excited.
Wendy: Why do you think a novel set in the south-east London suburbs in the 1950s has resonated with people now?
Clare: I think it is something to do with nostalgia for (apparently) simpler times. Lockdown life was not dissimilar from suburban 50s life in many ways – everyone back in their hutches after dark, shops closed, streets quiet. And I think the thrifty ‘make do and mend’ mindset is having something of an overdue revival as we contemplate our exhausted planet?
Wendy: You based the novel on the true story of a competition run by a Sunday newspaper to find a ‘virgin birth’ in the 1950s. What interested you about that story?
Clare: I liked the element of mystery, and the opportunity it gave me to examine women’s chances and choices during that period. The real ‘miracle’ at the heart of the story isn’t the virgin birth, but the transformation of the journalist, Jean, whose life is turned upside down by her investigation.
Wendy: Why did you choose to shift the action from central London to Sidcup and switch the national paper for a local one
Clare: I’ve lived in SE London for most of my life – in Croydon, Norwood and Bromley and I wanted to set the story in the suburbs. It’s an area that is underrepresented in fiction and subject to a certain amount of condescension. I didn’t want my character to be a successful, high-flying Fleet Street reporter; the story I wanted to tell was about limited lives and frustrated potential so it had to be a local paper, and a smaller canvas.
Wendy: Was it difficult to fictionalize the story?
Clare: The facts of the virgin birth story were just a springboard – I kept to the details of the medical tests that mother and child were subjected to, but the characters and their fates are pure invention. Once I had plotted my story and envisaged my characters and their individual histories, the writing flowed relatively smoothly.
Wendy: The main character, Jean Swinney, a lonely and bored woman approaching 40 who lives with her mother, seems on the surface a strange choice – she’s unglamorous and her life uneventful. Why did you opt for her?
Clare: It’s always easier to identify with an underdog than with someone powerful and successful. We feel their disappointments and triumphs as if they’re our own. The lives of ordinary people are in any case full of wonders.
Wendy: She becomes entangled with the Tilbury family which involves her in difficult choices between her personal happiness and doing the right thing – potentially scandalous decisions for the 1950s. Are they still relevant dilemmas today?
Clare: The book addresses the conflict between duty and personal fulfilment and asks what level of self-sacrifice the individual should have to weather for the greater good of society. Most of the characters have to wrestle with this to some degree. I think we put a slightly higher premium on personal fulfilment today, and are less inclined to judge those who pursue it, but those issues are still relevant.
Wendy: Are you working on a new novel? Can you give us any clues?
Clare: I am only at the planning stage – it would jinx it to say any more.
Clare Chambers will be speaking about Small Pleasures on Tuesday 26 October at 7pm.
Full details of how to take part will be announced shortly.
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