Two months on from his win, James Clarke talks about the impact of winning the Betty Trask Prize, his own writing process, and the inspiration behind his award-winning novel, The Litten Path.
Above: James Clarke (left) with host Jackie Kay at the 2019 Society of Authors' Awards ceremony in June. Photo © Tom Pilston
What was it like winning the Betty Trask Prize and Award this year? How does it feel nearly 2 months on?
To say it was a surprise doesn’t quite cover it. I was standing with the other award winners waiting for one of their names to be read out and the next thing I knew, I was on stage with host Jackie Kay and she was laughing at how shocked I was. She told me to just enjoy it, and I’ve tried to follow her advice since then.
How does winning feel? Writing is such a strange thing to do, a real act of faith. You spend so long on a project, just you alone at a desk, and if you’re anything like me you’ll be constantly asking yourself if what you’re writing is any good, if it will even be published let alone read, and if it is read, will people see any merit in what you’ve done? Will they understand what you were trying to do? Winning a prize like the Betty Trask can put all those doubts to bed and give your confidence and career the most enormous boost. That’s what has happened with me.
The judges described your winning book, The Litten Path, as a ‘fearless portrait of a fearful time, replete with moments of wonder, love, pain, anger and hope.’ What was it about the miners’ strike that motivated you to write a book?
I was born the year the strike ended, so I consider myself to be part of the first post-strike generation. I’ve become an adult in a time of recession, austerity and huge political unrest, and as a writer I wanted to respond to that. Initially I was planning on highlighting how historic the strike was, how the miners’ defeat to the Thatcher government led to the social conditions we all live in today, and I also wanted to explore how awful it must have been for everyday working communities to feel the full force of the state’s steel toe-capped boot as it was brought down on their collective throats.
"Winning a prize like the Betty Trask can put all those doubts to bed and give your confidence and career the most enormous boost."
But as the book progressed, the civic spirit of those communities came to the fore, as did the empowerment of women and what it must have been like for people who didn’t believe in the industrial action in the first place. Telling those stories became a huge motivation. Finally I came to realise how potent a metaphor the natural world can be, how the land can be used as a literary device, a means of escaping not just a situation, be that political or personal, whatever, but an entire sense of self. Because it wasn’t just their jobs and communities that the miners lost, it was their identities. It is what our country shed. Britain’s selfhood changed. The strike and its locations were a very fertile subject for a writer.
Can you tell us about your writing process? Did you come across any challenges when it came to writing or publishing?
I tend to stew on an idea for a very long time. Notes accumulate. Snippets and thoughts, character outlines, sometimes just an evocative word or a fantastic line from a better writer than me. I make sure I have opening and closing scenes when I start my draft – I need something to write towards – but the events in between, I tend to work out once I’ve set sail. I start from chapter one and write linearly, and because I’m pedantic I try to get a chapter as tight as I can before moving on. Although I try not to re-draft because I think the prose can lose its zip, I’m re-reading constantly, tweaking and omitting sentences and adding touches here and there. If a section isn’t working I’ll leave it alone then come back to it when my mind is less foggy and I can comb the tangles out. Even though themes tend to present themselves as I write, I find it helps to have something I want to say from the outset. Once the manuscript is written I edit hard, questioning everything. Believe it or not this is the fun part.
Difficulties. Finding time to write was the main one. My book was completed as part of a Creative Writing MA, meaning I was also busy with the course’s other obligations as well as holding down a full-time office job that I despised. I took the financial hit and quit my job, finding part-time work in a vintage clothes shop, and this gave me the time and headspace I needed to focus on getting the manuscript done. As we all know, getting published can be tough and demoralising. I had a couple of short stories under my belt in journals like Ambit, but I’d never won any competitions, nothing like that; I just had a strong MA and my manuscript. I submitted to around 20 literary agencies asking for representation and had no luck. I tried open submission windows and a couple of unpublished writers’ awards. Again, nothing. I then turned to independent publishing and of the five houses I approached, Salt stuck their necks out and took a chance on me. It was another year of waiting till publication, another year of a menial job, being poor. But during that time I got cracking on my next book, Hollow in the Land, which is due for release next year with Serpents Tail. This life really teaches you the value of patience.
What would you like new writers to know about the publishing process and beyond?
I don’t think there’s much I can say to people who are seriously pursuing writing as a career that they haven’t already thought about, still, my sister got me a notebook for Christmas and she wrote this great Roald Dahl quote inside that I often think about:
A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.
Keep that freedom in mind during the bad times, trust your instincts and don’t rush for publication until the work is ready. Some of my rejections for The Litten Path and certainly for all manner of short stories before and since have been because I was in too much of a hurry to get published and making submissions before they were drum-tight. Approaches to an agent need to be coherent, snappy, passionate and professional. Don’t tear your hair out writing an exhaustive synopsis. Watch out for typos. Don’t let a rejection get to you, or at least try.
What do you hope this award enables you to do, either in your career or life?
I guess that, like anyone, I want to be able to live on my own terms. For now those terms, such as they are, are to make a living from writing – I want to write good fiction full-time and see where it takes me. Winning the Betty Trask has certainly set me in the right direction. Apart from doing wonders for my self-belief, the prize money is enabling me to devote more time to writing book three.
"I want to write good fiction full-time and see where it takes me"
Finally there’s the prestige. Hollow in the Land will get a huge lift when it’s released now that I’m a prize winner, and, if nothing else, I can also count myself in the company of some of my literary heroes, many of whom have won an award or the prize itself in the past. Gwendoline Riley, David Szalay, Adam Foulds, Sarah Hall, Zadie Smith, Jon McGregor. It’s amazing really.
What excites you about fiction at the moment? Or who?
I don’t think there will ever be a time when opening a new book doesn’t excite me. Whether it’s in the moment or ten years from now, that will never change. In no particular order, here are a few contemporary books I’ve really enjoyed: Tony White – Fountain in the Forest; Samantha Schweiblin – Fever Dream; David Keenan – This is Memorial Device; Rachel Kushner – The Mars Room; Claire-Louise Bennet – Pond; Cynan Jones – The Dig; Denis Johnson – Largesse of the Sea Maiden; Tommy Orange – There, There; Elizabeth Strout – My Name is Lucy Barton; Sebastian Barry – Days Without End.
About James Clarke
James Clarke was born in Manchester in 1985 and grew up in the Rossendale Valley, Lancashire. His debut novel The Litten Path was published by Salt and won the 2019 Betty Trask Prize. Hollow in the Land, a novel in stories, will be published by Serpents Tail in April 2020.
About the Betty Trask Prize and Awards
Betty Trask left a bequest to the Society of Authors in 1983 to fund prizes for first novels written by authors under the age of 35 in a traditional or romantic, but not experimental, style. Entries are now open for the 2020 Award, find out more and enter here.